When life gives you lemons, go to one. Or at least, that’s what the saying should be in Arizona.
Mount Lemmon, just north of Tucson, is about 150 miles from central Phoenix. Luscious pine trees, boulders and pure sunshine greet visitors as they head up Catalina Highway toward the 9,157-foot peak, the highest in the Santa Catalina Mountains. It’s like a little glimpse of the Rocky Mountains, except 10 hours closer.
You won’t run out of things to do on Mount Lemmon. Hike up one of the Marshall Gulch trails at the top. Stop at the Cookie Cabin or the Sawmill Run Restaurant for homemade cookies or a fresh bowl of chili. Find a spot for a picnic — you can hide away in the meadows or grab a table with a mountain view.
The best part?
Mount Lemmon is much cooler than Phoenix, with an average summer temperature of 75 degrees. You can’t beat that. Just be sure to check for fire restrictions and forest closures if you’re heading there during summer wildfire season.
Here are the best things to do on Mount Lemmon in the summer. Take it from a Tucson local.
5 Mount Lemmon hiking trails
Aspen and Marshall Gulch trails: This loop hike is ideal for an active afternoon stroll. The route, which covers about 3.7 miles, takes you through a meadow of wildflowers and gives you mountain views. For a shorter hike, take the 2.6-mile out-and-back Marshall Gulch Trail.
How to get there: Drive up Catalina Highway approximately 26 miles. You’ll pass through Summerhaven and the trailhead and picnic area are at the end of the road.
Bug Springs Trail: The secret to being successful on this steep hike is simple: Go early. The 9.5-mile out-and-back trail — heavily trafficked by mountain bikers and hikers alike — starts on the lower end of the mountain, so it’s essential to start before the heat hits. Taking hikers through a variety of terrain, the trail dips in and out of the pines and also features hoodoos — massive rock formations — scattered along the mountain.
How to get there: The trailhead is 12.2 miles up Catalina Highway. Look for the signs marking the start of the trail.
Butterfly Trail: If you’re looking for an all-day hike, this 11.5-mile round-trip trek is for you. Rated moderate by AllTrails, the Butterfly Trail takes you through alpine forest to Mount Bigelow, offering spectacular views of the back side of Mount Lemmon. If you look close enough, you might see some wreckage from an F-86 SABERjet that crashed in 1957. Veer onto an unofficial trail that breaks off at 2.6 miles in to find the site.
How to get there: The trailhead is 19 miles up Catalina Highway on the right side of the road.
Aspen Draw Trail: Starting at Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, this 1.7-mile winding trail climbs 843 feet to the top of the mountain. The hike takes you into a scene from an old fairy tale, as big old pine trees snake up the mountain. The best part? This hike is fully shaded. Once at the top, you can either head back down the trail or walk along the road back to return.
How to get there: The trail starts at the base of Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, about 19 miles up Catalina Highway.
Unforgettable Arizona hikes: 3 trails you’ll remember long after the walk is over
Best Mount Lemmon scenic views
Windy Point Vista: This viewpoint sits at nearly 7,000 feet, making it the best stop to see Tucson and the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. The boulders are plentiful (you might witness a couple getting engaged on one; it’s a classic spot for that milestone), and you can go any time of day. I recommend sunrise.
If you’re looking for more photo spots, there are vistas all the way up the mountain. San Pedro Vista, Sycamore Canyon Vista and Aspen Vista are just a few.
How to get there: Windy Point Vista is 18 miles up Catalina Highway. There’s a sign on the right for parking.
Mount Lemmon Sky Ride: It’s a ski lift in winter and a ride through the pines in summer. This 30-minute ride is a relaxing way to enjoy mountain views. If you’re hungry, a little shop with homemade fudge awaits at the bottom.
Details: 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays; 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. $15; $12 for youths, military and age 65 and older; $10 for age 12 and younger. 10300 E. Ski Run Road, Mount Lemmon. 520-576-1321, https://www.skithelemmon.com.
Mount Lemmon restaurants
The Cookie Cabin: These cookies might be bigger than your face. And they’re worth every bite. From classics like oatmeal raisin to chocolate chip to the seven-flavor sampler cookie, there’s a treat for everyone in this little log cabin. You can enjoy the cookies while sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch
Details: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. 12781 N. Sabino Canyon Park, Mount Lemmon. 520-576-1010, https://www.facebook.com/cookiecabin.
Sawmill Run Restaurant: Head here for American comfort food. Pizza, burgers and craft sandwiches all have a spot on the menu. If you’re not too full, try one of the homemade pies.
Details: 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Fridays, 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturdays, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays, closed Mondays and Tuesdays. 12976 N. Sabino Canyon Park, Mount Lemmon. 520-576-9147, https://www.sawmillrun.com.
Iron Door: Once you’re done with the sky ride, head to the Iron Door restaurant in the heart of Mount Lemmon Ski Valley. The restaurant serves bistro-style sandwiches and fresh coffee.
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays; 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 10300 E. Ski Run Road, Mount Lemmon. 520-576-1321, https://www.skithelemmon.com/menu.
Where to stay on Mount Lemmon
There’s just one hotel on the mountain. Other options include camping and Airbnb/VRBO rentals.
Mount Lemmon Hotel: Located in the heart Summerhaven, each “hotel room” is a cabin with a full kitchen, bathroom, queen-size bed and sofa sleeper.
Details: 12925 N. Sabino Canyon Trail, Mount Lemmon. $144-$149 per night. 520-277-2478, https://mtlemmonhotel.com.
Mount Lemmon campgrounds
There are eight campgrounds on Mount Lemmon with options for tents, RVs and groups. Here’s a look at three of them. You can find a full list of campgrounds at https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/coronado/home.
Rose Canyon Lake Campground and Picnic Area: If you’re looking for a campsite with an oasis, this campground is for you. Several campsites and picnic areas are within walking distance of Rose Canyon Lake, making it an ideal spot if you want to fish or cool off. Each of the 73 campsites has a picnic table, grill, fire pit and bear box. Campsites can be reserved.
How to get there: 18 miles up the mountain, there will be a sign to turn left.
Details: $24 per site per night. 520-576- 3091, https://www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/232284.
Spencer Canyon Campground: Located close to Summerhaven, this campground might just offer the best views of Tucson. It faces both the city and the Santa Cruz Valley, giving a panoramic view through the less forested area. There are 66 campsites — all are first-come, first-served — complete with picnic tables, barbecues, bear boxes and fire pits.
How to get there: 21.5 miles up Catalina Highway.
Details: $22-$36 per site per night. 520-576-1492, https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/coronado/recarea/?recid=25710.
Whitetail Campground: Located at 8,000 feet of elevation, this group camping area has five sites, which must be reserved. Sites can accommodate 40 to 90 people and have drinking water, electricity, trash cans and vault toilets.
How to get there: At mile marker 20 of Catalina Highway, turn left on Whitetail Road.
Details: $120-$160 per site per night. 520-576-9198, https://www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/234564?tab=info.
Camping in Arizona? Reserve your campsite as soon as possible. Here’s why.
How long does it take to drive up Mount Lemmon?
Catalina Highway is 27 miles long. Expect to spend at least 40 minutes making the drive, and that’s without any stops to hike or sightsee. The road is winding and has sharp twists. Several vista points have pull-out spots for parking and crosswalks for pedestrians, so drive slowly and carefully.
How to get to Mount Lemmon from Phoenix
From central Phoenix, take Interstate 10 east toward Tucson. Get off at Grant Road (Exit 256). Turn left and follow Grant Road for 8.5 miles, then turn left onto Tanque Verde Road. Go 3.2 miles and turn left onto Catalina Highway.
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