As we enter the dog days of summer, I can’t think of a better idea than a day trip to Mount Lemmon! The drive is an experience in itself and there’s plenty to explore in the mountaintop town, Summerhaven, or on the various hiking trails. Not to mention that in just an hour’s drive from Tucson you’ll rise to over 9,000 feet in elevation and enjoy significantly cooler temperatures.
The drive from Tucson to Mount Lemmon has been said by many to be one of the most scenic drives in Arizona. According to the University of Arizona College of Science, “In climate terms, it is like driving from Mexico to Canada in an hour.”. How cool is that?! Also provided by the University of Arizona is an educational audio tour that you can listen to on the drive up that covers Sky Islands, rocks, life zones, water, forest and fire– all corresponding with your drive! The audio tour app can be downloaded as a free app on Apple and Android devices.
Driving to Mount Lemmon from Tucson is relatively easy. From Grant Rd. in Tucson, you take a left on Tanque Verde Rd., followed by a left onto Catalina Highway and drive till you end up in Summerhaven! The speed limit is 35 mph most of the way up the mountain, due to the curvy roadways and quick rise in elevation. Keep an eye out for pull offs along the way to stop and check out the view.
Our recommendation is to make a stop at Windy Point Vista, about halfway up. There are plenty of parking spots, a rest stop with bathrooms, and a rocky vista that you can explore and take in the expansive views (sometimes even catching a glimpse of adventurous rock climbers).
First and foremost, here’s a pro-tip for your visit to Summerhaven: Many of the local shops do not have public bathrooms, so if you’d like to use a well maintained, indoor bathroom, there’s one at the Community Center on your right just as you enter the town. Stop here for a quick pit stop before taking in the town!
Summerhaven is a small town with one main road, dotted with some fun shops and restaurants on either side. We sometimes park just as we enter the town and walk from there. There are marked parking spots as you enter the town and as you go further back on the road there are less marked spots but some availability for roadside parking (be sure to follow road signs to avoid being fined). You’ll notice the temperature is significantly cooler than the desert. We’ve been up many times and have found it to be around 15-20º cooler! Be aware that Mount Lemmon gets more rain than Tucson during monsoon season (June-September) and the temperature can drop even lower during a rain storm.
Our first stop was the General Store. Here you can check out the array of souvenirs, camp supplies and groceries, and an impressive spread of fudge. There is parking available here but no public restrooms!
Next stop, Marshall Gulch at the end of the road for a family picnic. Our family was visiting from out of state, so we decided to pack a picnic lunch so we could all enjoy nature for a bit. There are a few small parking areas in this recreational area but they can fill up fast, so you sometimes have to park further down the road and hike in. Luckily we came on a weekday and found a spot right away!
The kids played with bubbles while we found a picnic table and set up our spot. It was so nice to relax under the big trees and watch the small wildlife as we enjoyed our lunch. There are some great trails in the area here as well, with Marshall Gulch #3 being a nice, moderate hike for families.
And now for dessert, The Cookie Cabin. Pizza and Giant Cookies are what’s on the menu here and be forewarned that a “scoop” of ice cream is a very generous dollop on top of your giant cookie! What a nice treat to get us energized and ready to hike.
We got back in the car to drive a bit further up the mountain to a kid-friendly hike. Just outside of Summerhaven you turn left onto Ski Valley Rd. In a few miles you’ll pass the ski resort (a fun place to stop and take a ride on the ski lift) and keep climbing to the tallest driveable spot on Mount Lemmon. There’s an overlook where you can stop and take some pictures or continue to the end of the road to find trailheads to hike. Be sure to pay attention to where you park and check whether it’s a fee area. We hiked the Meadow Trail, an easy trail to take kids on. Think big trees and clearly marked, wide, pathways. A great trail for all!
We packed a lot into one day on Mount Lemmon and there was still more we could’ve seen. Take a trip up and explore for yourselves. We’re sure you won’t regret it.