To the Top of Mt. Lemmon

Beginning Ascent of Mt. Lemmon - Tucson in Background

City of Tucson in Background © 2011 Bo Mackison

Another one of my challenges was checked off the list yesterday–a drive to the top of Mt Lemmon in the heart of Tucson. At 9,157 feet high, it is the tallest mountain surrounding Tucson. It also offers a totally different climate experience compared to Tucson. Tuscon gets 15″ or less of precipitation annually; Mt. Lemmon gets 180″ of snow.

I began the ascent of the mountain in the Sonoran Desert habitat and as I climbed out of the foothills of Tucson, I passed habitats ranging from desert to aspen forest, an experience one duplicates by traveling from the US/Mexico border to the US/Canada border. And I did it driving on the Catalina Highway, ascending over 7ooo’ while driving about an hour.

Molina Canyon Vista - Mt. Lemmon

Molina Canyon Vista © 2011 Bo Mackison

The drive begins in the desert, then climbs into an area that has pinon and juniper trees, eventually reaching fir trees, and finally, at the top, there is an aspen forest. The road is now designated as the Sky Island Parkway, part of the US Scenic Highway system and is in the National Coronado Forest.

There are dozens of trails that criss-cross the mountain, many picnic areas, several campgrounds, even a lake for the fisherman in the group. If you are there when there is a good snow base, there is skiing at Ski Valley.

Hoodoos on Mt. Lemmon

Hoodoos on Mt. Lemmon © 2011 Bo Mackison

Mt Lemmon is one of the Sky Islands, regions of isolated, forested mountains surrounded by seas of grassland found mostly in southern Arizona, New Mexico, and northern Sonora, Mexico. These series of mountains, 40 in total, are unparalleled for their biological diversity, as they combine four different geographic zones in each sky mountain area.

The Sonoran Desert’s most eastern range ends in these mountains; the Chihuahuan Deserts most western range does likewise. The Rocky Mountain geological zone extends this far to the south; The Sierra Madran zone extends this far to the North. Four geographic zones intersect in the land of sky mountains.

84˚ in Tucson, 52˚ on Mt. Lemmon

84˚ in Tucson, 52˚ on Mt. Lemmon © 2011 Bo Mackison

I left the  city of Tucson and it was 84˚ and sunny. An hour later, I reached the town of Summerhaven near the summit of Mt Lemmon and it was 52˚F and cloudy. After driving another hour,  descending the mountain, it was 86˚ F and mostly sunny.

Bear Crossing

Bear Crossing © 2011 Bo Mackison

Oh, there were warning signs for bear crossings, but I didn’t see any bear. There were lots of humans hiking the trails, a few deer watching from the forest, some folks I spoke to as we photographed the scenery from a pullout swore they saw a bobcat or an ocelot, but their eyes must have been younger than mine for I saw nothing.

It was a lovely drive, I successfully fulfilled my mountain drive challenge, and I discovered another sky island–this one in the middle of a city.

I love sky islands — I have hiked several including Chiricahua National Monument in southeastern Arizona, Patagonia in southern Arizona,  and Madera Canyon south of Tucson.

They are magical places, a chance to see many habitats, and the plants and creatures that live in those habitats, in a day’s vertical drive. Places worth protecting.


Bo Mackison is a photographer and owner of Seeded Earth Studio LLC. She is living in Tucson for two months, exhibiting her photography in art shows, taking photographs, and blogging about photography, art fairs, and living life “solo.”  And I discovered that I love sky islands.

About Bo Mackison

I'm a photographer, book-artist, traveler, naturalist, and creator of the Contemplative Creatives Journey, An Online Workshop and Community and Desert Wisdom Cards and Workshops. Though often not well known, I find the desert a welcoming place - a healing space. Its mysteries and gifts transformed me several years ago. Since that first encounter, I return again and again to fill my well in what most people think of as a desolate region. I'd love to share my desert discoveries and wisdom with you. Please subscribe to receive my five part mini email course The Gifts of the Desert. It's my gift to you.


  1. Pretty awesome adventure. I’m amazed with the diversity of habitat, but when I saw the snow I kept thinking “Aren’t you in AZ to get out of the snow?” Great adventure and photos.

    • Bo Mackison says:

      I just saw the snow on the side of the road, took a photo, and left really fast. I AM here to get out of the snow. And it’s working–except on top of Mt. Lemmon.

  2. I loved that mountain when we lived in Arizona and visited often. I wonder if the old dirt road on the back side is still there, starting up at Oracle. I spend many wonderful days bow hunting in January for Javelina off that road as well as the Coue’s deer in the fall.

    • Bo Mackison says:

      Yep, the dirt road is still open, though warnings about primitive conditions and use of four wheel drive vehicles kept me from checking it out!

  3. This is vastly interesting, Bo. I’m not familiar with Sky Islands but aim to do some research thanks to your links. What I am familiar with is the quick extreme changes in habitats in Arizona. When hubs and I drove from Phoenix to Flagstaff and all around I would practically squeal every time we drove around the bend. Hubs would say “if you like this you’re gonna love the next “bend in the road!” Okay….off to look up Sky Islands! Why, I think I’m a fan, too!

    • Bo Mackison says:

      I’ve been doing some research on sky islands, and I intend to see a few more before I leave southeastern AZ. I think they are extremely fascinating.

  4. Preston says:

    I enjoyed your story and photos of this mountain. I remember seeing Mt. Lemon everyday from the front window of our house in Tucson as the squirrel cage fan ran in the background keeping our house cool. Our yard was mostly gravel. I remember folks having painted gravel in their yards. What a trip down memory lane.

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