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Driving the Sky Island Byway
By: Zdenko Kahlina
Up to Mount Lemmon along the Catalina Highway
On my first day in the Tucson area, I drove up to Mount Lemmon along the Catalina Highway. It was a typical beautiful sunny day in the desert, with temperatures around 85 Fahrenheit (around +30 Celsius), quite a change for me after leaving Edmonton only few hours ago with temperatures around zero degrees.
A trip up the spiraling Sky Island Byway, or Catalina Highway through the Santa Catalina Mountains to the tiny hamlet of Summerhaven is a fascinating, scenic journey and an object lesson in renewal. Mt Lemmon Scenic Byway is the only paved road that leads to the upper reaches of Mt. Lemmon and the Santa Catalina Range. It is one of the most scenic drives in southeast Arizona. It provides access to a fascinating land of great vistas, outlandish rocks capes, cool mountain forests and deep canyons spilling out onto broad deserts.
Mt Lemmon Scenic Byway
Typical desert scenic
Catalina Highway spans the 40 mile distance from the Sonoran desert floor in Tucson to the village of Summerhaven, near the top of Mount Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. The Catalina Highway is also known as the General Hitchcock Highway in honor of Taft administration Postmaster General Frank Harris Hitchcock who served from 1909 to 1913 and was instrumental in bringing together the elements necessary to construct this piece of highway. This highway is traveled by over 1 million visitors each year.
Babad Do’ag, the first signed vista point, is on the right at Mile 2.6. The Tohono O’odham name means “Frog Mountain,” which the Santa Catalinas resemble when viewed from the south. All of Tucson Valley lies at your feet from this 3,450-foot perch. This was the moment when I pulled my camera out of the bag.
View on Tucson from the first signed vista point
Zdenko with Saguaro cactus
The highway climbs north between the rugged cliffs of Molino Canyon to Molino Canyon Vista on your right at Mile 4.3. Two short trails, one paved for wheelchair access, lead to viewpoints of the canyon; the seasonal creek below cascades into pools. Look for the transformation of plants as the Sonoran Desert begins to give way to oaks and grasslands.
The Molino Canyon Overlook is a freebie, and the tumbling waterfall near the parking lot is stop-worthy. You’ll find two short, well-marked trails; one is wheelchair-accessible and both have signs that describe the plants and wildlife. The immense cliffs and the sound of rushing water are a hint of what lies ahead.
I stopped at the ranger station just past Molino Canyon Overlook to purchase a $5 Coronado National Forest recreation pass that allows me to legally stop along the way. There’s no charge for non-stop drives to Summerhaven or Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, but how could you not stop?
The drive on the two-lane highway can take a mere hour, but chances are you’ll want to take longer. For along every mile of this 27-mile, aptly named Sky Island Scenic Byway, are breathtaking vistas that beg for a stop.
Prison Camp Road, on the left at Mile 7.4, leads to Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site. Either picnicking or camping costs $10/vehicle, but you need to bring drinking water. A trailhead on the left just inside the gate and another at the end of the road, one-third mile in, give access to the Arizona Trail and a variety of hiking destinations. Horse corrals are at the end of the road. You’ll see foundations and other remnants of the prison camp established in 1930s; prisoners built much of the Catalina Highway, a task that took 18 years to complete. The camp later housed juvenile offenders until it closed and the buildings were razed in the mid 1970s. Interpretive signs tell the story of the camp and its people. The present name honors Gordon Hirabayashi, who challenged the constitutionality of internment and curfew imposed on Japanese-Americans during World War II; the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, but he lost and had to serve a sentence here.
The roadway rises from about 3,000’ above sea level to approximately 9,100’ at the top. Work was begun on the roadway in 1933 using prison workers housed in a federal prison camp located at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains for the purpose. It was finally completed in 1950. It is the only paved highway to the upper reaches of the Santa Catalina Mountains. It was designated as one of America’s National Scenic Byways and named the “Sky Island Scenic Byway” on April 28, 1995. Recent improvements following the Aspen Fire in 2003 have made the trip an easy “Sunday Drive” for residents of Tucson seeking to escape the summer heat of the desert.
The whole upper summit areas of Mt. Lemmon have been ravaged by two massive fires in the most recent history: the Bullock Fire of 2002 and the Aspen Fire of 2003. The Aspen Fire completely burned through the town of Summerhaven, and got to within literally feet of both the ski area and the observatory. Most of the trails have been closed since 2003 and were reopened again in late July, 2004. The whole town has been rebuilt.
The Marshall Gulch Trail is a popular route to the top. At just over 6 miles round trip and about 1,700 feet of gain, it offers a good half-day hiking option for those who don’t have the time for the 19-mile, 7,000-foot route from the bottom, or the interest in driving the road to near the very top.
As I drove up the mountain, every turn seems to reveal something new. In some places that may be a community of trees, shrubs, and wildflowers different from the one just around the previous curve. In others, it may be a new gallery of natural rock sculptures even more impossibly perched than the last, or a broader panorama that stretches in an entirely different direction than the one that caused me to stop and snap a photo just a few moments before.
Some serious climbers
There are turnouts at scenic overlooks and several campgrounds and picnic areas before I reached the small village of Summerhaven. Dozens of hiking trails offer access to the mountain’s backcountry canyons and ridges. The road up the mountain is paved and suitable for most vehicles. Very large motor homes, trailers over 22′ and buses may have trouble negotiating steep grades and sharp turns.
There are plenty of parking spots and restrooms. If you’re nimble, walk out onto the rounded boulders. From your 6,600-foot perch, you’ll see riparian canyons and sawtooth mountains starkly contrasted by the urban sprawl below. Ocotillo and cactus mix among juniper and piñon pines. It’s a photographer’s paradise and I took more than 200 pictures in just over two hours…
About five miles past Molino Basin I enter Bear Canyon, the only “flat” portion of the ride (it’s deceptive after the steep approach). The vegetation changes once again, with dense trees crowding the sides of the road. The temperature finally changes as well. Cold air from the top of the mountain settles overnight in the canyon bottom. From here, the road climbs 1,500 feet in the next two miles.
In under an hour, this scenic drive from Tucson leaves the saguaro cacti, mesquite trees, and cholla plants of the Sonoran Desert, passes through stands of oak, juniper, and pinyon pine, enters pine forests at about 7,000 feet, then fir and aspen on the cooler, north-facing slopes above 8,000 feet. With some humor the trip has sometimes been referred to as a drive from Mexico to Canada in less than an hour.
Here you’ll find plants and animals and geology that exhibit some of the most wide-ranging natural diversity to be found in any area of comparable size in the continental United States.
The beautiful, curving road is a favorite drive for tourists, for locals escaping summer’s heat, and for motorcyclists. Being a cyclist myself, I noticed this road is also very popular among lots of cyclists. The 25-mile climb, with a steady ascent but not terribly steep, is a great cycling route that takes them out of the heat and into the cool mountain air. I wish I had taken my bike with me…
Pizza place with the outside patio and cabins for rent
Mt. Lemmon General Store
The highway has been improved recently. Following this improvement the speed limit was reduced to 35 MPH (56 km/h) for most of the road up the mountain.
To me this was the time well spent!
This was the end of the road
On top of Arizona…
Have a good and healthy season.
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