Mount Lemmon Drive, near Tucson

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As you make your way across Tucson on Speedway Boulevard, watch for Tanque Verde Road.  Take it north to Catalina Highway, which will eventually turn into Mount Lemmon Highway.  After a few uneventful, flat miles, the road begins its climb from saguaro to snow.

In order to travel up Mount Lemmon, you must do one of two things: pay $5 at the toll booth near the bottom of the mountain, or promise you won’t stop on any public lands.  If you choose the latter, you risk receiving a ticket if you stop to hike a trail or enjoy an overlook.   You can, however, stop at Ski Valley or at the businesses in the community of Summerhaven.  For a complete explanation of the fees, click here.

There are plenty of places where the road hugs the side of the mountain, with not much more than a guardrail keeping you safe.  During my visit, crews were re-paving and improving the road, and in the process, stopped traffic for as long as 10 minutes (which should help explain the above picture!)

I believe the best reason to drive up Mount Lemmon (besides the drive itself) is to hike a trail.  However, I didn’t plan ahead like I should have, nor did I have enough time to venture out on an unknown path.  There are plenty of trailheads along the road, so if hiking is your thing, do some research at the excellent hikearizona.com website before you go.

Ski Valley Lifts

At the top of Mt. Lemmon you’ll find Ski Valley.  That’s right, a resort with “valley” in its name, that’s located at the top of a mountain.  It makes a little more sense when you see it, since the lifts take you up out of a narrow valley, that’s high in the hills.

Ski Valley stays open throughout the summer, operating a gift shop, ice cream parlor, and best of all, the chair lift.  Even when there’s no snow, you can still ride to the top.

Almost there!

I’m torn on whether to recommend you take the lift.  As you can see, the view is less than spectacular.  Sure, you’re up high, but smog and haze in the valley below can make for a less than breathtaking view.  And, many of the trees at the top have been scorched by a forest fire.  There’s no real viewpoint, so you’re left to just wonder around.

Here’s another reason I’m hesitant to recommend the chair lift ride: its price.  A single adult is $9, families ride for $20.  Add to that the warning the clerk gave me when I purchased my ticket: “You’re not allowed to walk around at the top, you have to get right back on”.  It turns out, at least on that day, that wasn’t true.  The guy operating the ride at the top didn’t care what I did.  But, if they had enforced that policy, it would have been a big disappointment.

After roaming around the top of the hill for a few minutes, I took the ride back down.  The views are better as you descend the mountainside.

Another view of the tall pine trees that grow at this altitude, roughly 9,000 feet.

Once you’re ready to drop back down into the desert, take Mount Lemmon Drive back the way you came.  You can access the eastern division of Saguaro National Park (where you will, no doubt, find more cactus), or hook back up with Interstate 10, and head east.  To save time, I chose to get out of Tucson, and head on down the road.

Note: This trip was first published in 2005.

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