It’s called Babad Do’ag in O’odham native language and often referred to as part of the Sky Islands, but whatever the name, Mount Lemmon and its surroundings are a paradise of outdoor adventures. In summer, winter, spring and fall, the mountain hosts hikers, backpackers, skiers, cyclists and nature enthusiasts looking for mountain air and gorgeous vistas.
Towering over the northeast edge of Tucson, Mount Lemmon rises to 9,157 feet—6,500 feet above the city of Tucson. And along an easy hour-long drive up the Catalina Highway/Sky Island Scenic Byway, vegetation transforms from saguaro, palo verde and cholla, to a forest of oak and juniper trees, piñon and ponderosa pines, and then again to fir and aspen.
Near the very top is Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley, the southernmost ski area in the United States. Skiers and snowboarders flock to the slopes when there’s snow, but the chairlift is a popular attraction no matter the season, says Graham Davies, Ski Valley’s general manager.
“We’re 32 miles from the base, and riding a chairlift is 100 percent different than anything you’ll do in Tucson,” Davies says. “We run it every day we’re open and there’s always people on it. There are miles and miles and miles of view. At the top you can see all of southern Arizona, from Tucson down to the Santa Ritas [mountain range].”
For hikers, the mountains offer more than 150 miles of hiking trails of nearly unmatched variety, from Catalina State Park and the Pusch Ridge Wilderness on the western and southern edges to the peaks of Mount Lemmon and Mount Bigelow.
Kris LaFleur started hiking on Mount Lemmon as a kid and has been going up on his own for more than 20 years, enjoying quicker day hikes and longer camping and backpacking trips. He lists the Box Spring Trail (5.5 miles, starting from the Box Camp Trailhead) and Aspen Trail (8.6 miles, starting from the Marshall Gulch Trailhead) among his favorites. And for a longer, more rugged journey, LaFleur prefers the Wilderness of Rock Trail with its picturesque rock formations.
“The short hikes and longer trails make it a great, diverse place to get away,” LaFleur says. “For me, it’s a great recharge. In the middle of June when it’s 105 [degrees], I can get in my car and from my front door be at 8,000 feet within an hour, next to a stream in the mixed pine and oak forest. It’s such a unique thing to have a mountain range like this so close to a desert city.”
Two-wheeled adventurers also have an array of options on Mount Lemmon. World-class cyclists use the elevation increase of Catalina Highway for training, and mountain bike enthusiasts enjoy the rugged trails.
Stephen Jordan has done it all, from driving his bike up to ride a quick trail or embarking on the 10-hour, 130-mile round-trip ride from his house through Redington Pass and up the rough, steep Oracle Control Road on the backside of the mountain.
“I’ve ridden pretty much every trail up there over the last 22 years,” says Jordan, who enjoys both mountain and road cycling. “You can spend an entire day up there and be completely happy. It’s a beautiful thing to have.”