Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Mt. Lemmon: From Mexico to Canada in Two Hours

The Santa Catalina Mountains lie just a few miles north of Cactus Country RV Resort in Tucson. The Catalinas, one of southern Arizona's "sky islands", rise sharply from the desert floor to pine-covered mountaintops. Ed and I drove to the summit of Mt. Lemmon, the tallest peak at over 9000 ft. The Sky Island Scenic Byway twists and turns up the mountain for 27.6 miles. Along the way, the vegetation changes from lowland desert with saguaro cacti, to high desert scrub, to forests with pine, fir and spruce trees. The effect is the same as driving from Mexico to Canada - all due to the change in elevation!

Mt. Lemmon is part of the Coronado National Forest. The $5.00 toll collected by park rangers helps fund improvements such as scenic overlooks, picnic areas, and campgrounds. The first scenic overlook afforded us views of Houghton Rd. (the road we took from Cactus Country - long and straight all the way.) We are still at the elevation of lowland desert, within the first couple of miles of the road before the toll station where the official mileage count begins.

The Babad Do'ag Vista (Tohono O'odham for Frog Mountain) presented a panoramic valley view of Tucson. The name "Tucson" comes from another Native American word meaning "at the foot of the black mountain."

At Thimble Peak Vista, around 5000 ft. elevation, we have left the lowland desert and reached the relatively barren high desert - arid and scrubby. Tucson lies just behind the Peak.

At Windy Point Vista, at Mile 14, just a little more than halfway to the summit, we found traces of the white stuff - what's that called? - it's a four-letter word - oh yes, S-N-O-W!

I preferred this view to the south-west from Windy Point Vista. Awesome!

This view of the San Pedro River Valley (to the north-east from Mt. Lemmon) was taken just a few miles up the road. Notice the evergreen trees. Completely different scenery, isn't it?

On this morning, it was around seventy degrees when we set out from Cactus Country. As crazy as it sounds, we ate lunch at the Loma Linda Picnic Area surrounded by more of that icky white stuff!

The temps were in the low sixties at this approx. 7400 ft-. elevation but there was still enough snow that this family made a couple of snowmen.

Just visiting snow isn't so bad. So we pressed on to the village of Summerhaven at 7,840 ft. elevation. I chatted with Debbie, the owner of The Living Rainbow gift shop.

Debbie has lived in Summerhaven for over twenty years. In 2003, forest fire ravaged 80% of the village. Debbie lost her home and her shop but has rebuilt both. I love her tag line - "You can't sink a rainbow". What a great spirit she has. Her shop is well worth a visit. I told her that this is where living in an RV has its drawbacks - no room for souvenirs other than pictures.

Just beyond Summerhaven is the turnoff for Ski Valley. Skiers and snowboarders were enjoying the day in their own way - foreign to me but a boon for Tucsonians who love snowsports.

Finally, the view from the summit of Mt. Lemmon - no hiking necessary!

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