Conquering the Catalinas

From our home in Marana, near Tucson, we have a view of Mt. Lemmon, the highest point in the Catalina Mountains – over 9,000 feet. Since we moved here nearly three years ago, we have talked of driving up to Summerhaven, a small town near the summit. Andrea and I started the assent once a couple of years ago, but part way up we both became a little shaky about the curving roads with seemingly steep drop offs. We didn’t realize at the time, but the area where we chickened out was in fact the “scariest” stretch of the whole twenty-five mile route to the top.

However, his year, during the last week in May, my daughter, Tori Lou, arrived from Madison for a visit and she convinced me that it was time to finally face the challenge. So off we went, with Tori Lou behind the wheel.

It was just as she said.
Not scary at all. But, very beautiful.


Tori Lou taking a stretch at one of the many roadside vistas along the way.

She has driven up Mt. Lemmon a number of times, alone and with friends, and has always said it is not a scary experience. Considering she is an accomplished snowboarder, skateboarder, and rock climber, who years ago drove through the Rocky Mountains while still on her learner’s permit, I wasn’t sure if her definition of “scary” was the same as mine. The highway is wide, the guard rails sturdy, and the views phenomenal. Because of the dramatic change in elevation, by thousands of feet, the terrain and vegetation totally changes The temperature drops about twenty degrees. From the bottom to top the drive is a winding twenty-five miles. They say it’s like driving from Mexico to Canada in just over an hour. The view of Mt. Lemmon from our house below makes the mountain appear as just a giant, desolate, pile of rock.

But, in reality, it is a very special place, with tall trees, ferns, street signs, power lines, houses, people, dogs, and even a couple of shops where you can buy souvenirs. Tori Lou bought a sticker for her backpack. I bought a Snickers bar and ate it during the first several miles of our descent, before we reached the “melt line.” As we mentioned, it is always quite a bit  colder on Mt. Lemmon than in the city below. The mountain can get up to two hundred inches of snow in the winter.

Summerhaven is home to the southernmost ski area in the United States. In a good season it remains open for a few weeks, off and on, during January through March.

Often, chains are required on your car after a snowfall to make the drive up Mt. Lemmon. I won’t be going up there in the winter. It looks terrific from down below with its snow covered peak.

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