Hiking Hotspot: The High Altitude Trails of Mt. Lemmon
Located at an altitude of over 7000 ft in the cool pines of the Coronado National Forest, and thus, typically about 20 degrees cooler than Tucson, Mt. Lemmon is your best bet when it comes to escaping the brutal 100+ degree summer weather. When the temps soar into the dreaded triple digit numbers (which happens quite frequently during the summer season), your best bet for nearby outdoor fun is beautiful Mt Lemmon, the highest point in the Santa Catalina Mountains with an elevation of 9159 feet.
While Flagstaff in the northern portion of the state is the more popular cool escape, Mt Lemmon is much closer at just over an hour compared to 4, and thus, is not only an easier drive, but also tends to stay a bit quieter.
While 80+ degrees may not seem that cool, it really does feel like a drastic difference when coming from a very hot & sunny climate like Tucson. In fact, most Tucson trails are downright dangerous during the summer and all too often unprepared hikers die of heat exhaustion and/or dehydration. There are a number of trails on Mt Lemmon, ranging from easy nature walks to all day adventures. Relaxing views of pines and aspens, along with the fresh natural scent of pine in the air, creates a drastically different setting than that which you would experience on the trails in and around Tucson.
The Meadow Trail is the easiest of the Mt. Lemmon trails at just under 2 miles RT and relatively flat minus a short semi challenging steep hill near the end. The views are pretty scenic considering the short distance, and include gorgeous vistas of the mountains and beautiful ponderosa pines. Unfortunately, a bit of the trail shows signs of past wildlife fire damage (The massive Aspen Fire of ’93 severely damaged much of the area), although on a whole the scenery is beautiful. Not as nice as Flagstaff, but again the closest option to Tucson. On a side note, improved trail markage would definitely be helpful for new visitors!
The Marshall Gulch trail is a bit more challenging and also more popular. Parking is quite hard to find, so unless you get up here really early, you may have to walk a bit along the road to get to the actual trail. A diverse variety of trees, predominately ponderosa pines, make this trail a great choice for anyone sick of the barren desert hikes. Most hikers will combine the Marshall Gulch with the Aspen trail, especially during the fall season as the Aspen trail’s gorgeous foliage creates a great fall setting definitely not found along any of Tucson’s trails. The entire loop is just under 4 miles or you can simply turn around whenever you tire out for a quicker out-and-back trek.
Mount Lemmon is also known for being the closest place to Tucson where you can do a little bit of leaf peeping. In my opinion, it really is not worth the drive. If you want to see fall color in Arizona, you are better off driving the extra 2 hours up to Flagstaff, which offers some of the most impressive leaf peeping in the country. Nevertheless,if you are a Tucson local looking for any type of fall ambiance nearby, the Aspen Trail #93 (begins at the Marshall Gulch picnic area), the road near the Bear Wallow campground (milepost 22 on the Scenic Byway), Turkey Run Road (near the community center), and the Aspen Draw trail (accessible via Turkey Run Rd.) all tend to get at least a little bit of foliage around the last 2 weeks of October.
Here are a few views of the foliage from the 2017 season from the various locations mentioned above. Again not the best, but OK if you are looking for a quick daytrip from Tucson.
One of the best parts about going up to Mt. Lemmon is the scenic 30 mile drive up Mt. Lemmon Highway, a picturesque windy road which travels through various terrain as the elevation rises, ranging from Saguaro in the lower elevation to towering pine trees as you arrive near the top. It’s a really incredible drive for anyone not from Arizona as you get to see the vegetation change from the cacti of the Sonoran desert to the beautiful high altitude pine forests. Along, the way you will find various scenic overlooks, a lake, and an abundance of hiking trails. Also known as the Catalina Highway Scenic Drive, this beautiful paved road is amongst the most gorgeous in the Southwest.
A few of the great views you will take in along the way, although of course it is much more stunning in person!
Combine any Mt Lemmon area hike with a nice picnic or patio lunch at the Iron Door restaurant, enjoy a picturesque chairlift ride, and you have a pretty nice little summer escape from the heat of the desert!
As there is no official address for any of the trails, I recommend stopping in the Mt Lemmon General Store for community center for general directions to whatever trail you are interested in hiking. At the general store, you can also pick up a few hiking essentials as well as a map detailing all the trails in the area. Simply put the following address into your GPS: 12856 N Sabino Canyon Pkwy Mount Lemmon, AZ 85619. Note: the trails at Mount Lemmon are sadly poorly marked. Hopefully, the rangers will step up their game in the future and provide more easily accessible trails which are easier to follow.