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The Mountains of Tucson

Tucson is a city of mountains, ringed in on all sides by ragged peaks, some close, some in the near distance. In the north, the Front Range of the Santa Catalina Mountains looms over the Catalina Foothills neighborhoods.  The Rincon Mountains massively describe the east edge of town. To the south the sentinel of Mount Wrightson "Old Baldy" identifies the Santa Rita Mountains. The stark Tucson Mountains spill almost into the downtown business district.

It is easy to find yourself constantly looking at the mountains through a filter of residential streets, or highway traffic, and miss their true majesty. Below are a few favorite mountain places to view and visit. I hope you will be encouraged to get out and find your own special spots.

Santa Catalina Mountains

The Santa Catalina Mountains get the most coverage because they are the closest and offer the most variety and easiest access. They encompass over 200 square miles, including an incredible variety of vegetation ranging from saguaros in the foothills to towering Douglas fir on the cool north slopes of 9,157-foot Mount Lemmon.

The Front Range includes that section of the Catalinas seen to the north of most of Tucson.  It can best be visualized as a great ridge running east and west, anchored on the west by Pusch Ridge near Oro Valley and extending east to Sabino Canyon. Behind, lays another and bigger "ridge" which the Catalina Highway follows as it winds its way to the top of the range at Mount Lemmon.

Mount Kimball at 7,255-feet is the focal point for the dramatic formations that catch the morning and evening light above Finger Rock Canyon near the north end of Alvernon Way. Prominent Point, Finger Rock, Finger Rock Guard and the Thumb are some of these formations. Rosewood Point just down and to the left is named for the rosy light it catches in the sunset.

The Mount Lemmon Highway, located in the northeast area of town, is also called the Catalina Highway or the General Hitchcock Highway. It is one of the most dramatic roads anywhere as it winds upward, clinging to narrow canyons and traversing knife-edge ridges of fantastic granite spires. Finally, it cruises through dense Ponderosa pine forests and ends at a ski area, which gets a hundred inches or more of snow over a winter season. Along the way, scenic wonders make it difficult to keep your eyes on the road, with the result that this is the most dangerous stretch of road in Pima County.

The Summit Crags are a group of huge granite outcroppings near the top of Mount Lemmon. They offer a way to get out of the pine forest to enjoy the view of the mountains and the valley below. For many years the Forest Service has made use of their position as a location for the fire lookout cabin on the top of Lemmon Rock. It is a pleasant place to visit and is easier to get to than the other summit crags, Rappel Rock, The Ravens or The Fortress.  Also, during the spring, Lemmon Lookout may be the only Summit Crag open to visitors as the others may be closed to hikers and climbers to protect the nesting peregrine falcons.

To get to Mount Lemmon, take Grant or Speedway east to Tanque Verde.  Continue on Tanque Verde to the Catalina Highway sign, then go left and follow the road for 30 miles as it winds up the mountain. Fill up with gas before you go, as there is no gas at the top of Mount Lemmon.

There are several good picnic areas along the road that have rest rooms and drinking water. Camping is available at Rose Canyon Lake, General Hitchcock and Molino Basin.  There are a couple of small lodge/bed & breakfast type places to stay at Summerhaven, the village at the top. Also, there are several really good places to eat at the top.  A favorite is the chili at the
Iron Door Restaurant located at the ski valley.

The best time of the year to visit Mount Lemmon depends on where you are on the mountain. The top will always be a lot cooler. The lower canyons will be too hot in the summer except for the early morning. Sometimes in winter, chains or four-wheel drive will be required above the point where the road is covered with snow or ice.  The best time of day to visit depends on the time of year and where you are on the mountain. Above Molino Basin, it will stay cool until midday in the winter.

For more information, you may contact the Santa Catalina Ranger District's office at (602) 749-8700.

Rincon Mountains

The massive Rincon Mountains are very different than the Santa Catalinas.  They are not as rugged and access is much more restricted. There is no road running to the top. Getting deep into its canyons requires a very long hike. Nonetheless they provide some wonderful moody views, especially in the winter when the big Pacific storms pass through Southern Arizona.

Santa Rita Mountains

This range is definitely worth the drive to explore. There is a road which goes up Madera
Canyon to the 5,400-foot level, and there are two trails (one easy and one steep) to the top of
9,543 foot Mount Wrightson. The birding in Madera Canyon is world-class with species that are not seen elsewhere in the United States.

Tucson Mountains

These mountains probably look like the real "Old West" to you. That may be because you grew up seeing the Tucson Mountains as a backdrop in western movies that were filmed at Old Tucson, the movie location on the west side of the range.  From Rio Lobo with John Wayne to Young Guns with today's hot young starts, many miles of film have been shot featuring the saguaros and ragged peaks of the Tucson Mountains, with good and bad guys fighting it out in the corrals, streets, and buildings of bygone days.

There are excellent walking trails in the Tucson Mountains and the jagged rock formations make fitting backdrops to the wild cactus displays. This is the warmest place to set the mountains in the winter, but also the hottest in summer.

"A" Mountain is the conical little mountain that overlooks downtown Tucson.  There is a road leading to the top and the views of the valley are excellent. The big "A" is painted white each year by freshmen from the University of Arizona. It is also occasionally surreptitiously painted ASU Sundevil colors of maroon and gold before the big intrastate football game.  St. Patty has also been known to cause the "A" to appear green in March.


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