One of the most visited mountains in Arizona, with a very scenic paved road leading nearly to the summit.
Drive: Moderate Hike: Easy Navigation: Easy.
If approaching Tucson from the east on Interstate 10 take exit 275, Houghton road, and proceed north about 15 miles to the Catalina Highway. Turn right here and drive up the mountain. If coming from the north of Tucson take exit 256, Grant road, and head east about 9 miles to the Tanque Verde road intersection. Turn left, and continue east about 3 miles to the Catalina Highway, where you will turn left.
A tool booth is reached near the bottom of the highway, with a $5 (2001) daily fee charged for National Forest use. The winding and narrow Catalina Highway has many great overlooks on the way to the summit, with Windy Point being perhaps the nicest. This is a popular rock climbing area. Palisades Ranger station is then passed, and just before reaching the hamlet of Summerhaven you will turn right and head for the Ski Area.
The road is gated just past the Ski Area, and this gate is closed when conditions are icy past here. If the gate is closed you will have to walk about a 1.5 miles, with a 700' vertical gain, to reach the usual summit parking lot. Snow can occur roughly from November through April, and during storms and the following day or two the highway can be closed at the base, or only open to vehicles with chains or 4wd.
From the summit parking lot pass a locked gate, and continue up the road a short distance to the locked fence that surrounds the observatory complex. The purist will note that the ground to the north is higher, and will follow a use path a few hundred yards north along the fence. Right where the fence turns west a small concrete slab is seen just outside the fence, and the highest ground outside the fence is reached. Just to the south of here, inside the fence, the ground may rise a wee bit higher, though lower than your head. The ultra purist will wait until someone is seen inside the fence (can be a very long wait), and ask permission to stroll around the inside, which is sometimes granted.
The flat summit and pine trees restrict views, but by wandering around the summit, and taking advantage of pullouts on the drive up, it is possible to view many distant ranges throughout southern Arizona.
This is one of the easier AZ county tops to visit from Tucson or Phoenix, and highpointers have taken advantage of a long layover by adding a quickie. Those with more time available can consider taking a hike to the nearby Pinal county HP. The Lemmon Rock fire lookout just south of the summit is also a nice side trip, and in the fall a hike up Marshall Gulch, with a possible loop around Marshall Peak, gives desert denizens a nice look at colorful Maple and Aspen leaves in place the usual sun-scorched cactus.
Mountain buffs will note that Lemmon rises 5,000'+ over the terrain in every direction, the third best mountain in AZ in this respect. It was climbed in June 1882 by Dr. John Lemmon and his bride Sara on a trip to study plants. They were guided by Emerson Stratton, who named the peak in Sara's honor, as the first white woman to ascend the peak.
The Catalina Highway was built during the years 1933 to 1950 by prison labor. Nearly 8000 prisoners worked on it at one time or another. A rough dirt truck/4wd road leads from Summerhaven down to Oracle on the north side of the Catalinas. It was designated the Control road after completion in 1920, as it was quite narrow, and control points at the top and bottom were used to regulate the one way traffic.
Spectacular Baboquivari Peak is a mini Matterhorn that is a sacred peak for the Tohono O’odham Indians. This 7,734’ spire was not climbed until 1898, with the aid of a grappling hook. Arizona’s Mountains by Bob and Dotty Martin describes a technical route to the top from the east side. Another noted summit in Pima County is Mica Mountain, the rounded high point of the Rincon Mountains. This mountain reaches 8,664’ elevation, and drops over 4,500’ in every direction. A long hike leads to the top from the end of Speedway Boulevard. Mica is the high point of the Saguaro National Park, and permits are required for backpackers who camp overnight within the Park. Those with 4wd vehicles can access a shorter route south of the Redington Pass Road.
Paradise Found, Kathy Alexander, 1991, Skunkworks Productions, 115 pages, has nice historical and human interest stories about the Santa Catalina mountains. The Santa Catalina Mountains, A guide to the Trails and Routes, by Pete Cowgill and Eber Glendening, 4th edition, 216 pages.