The Santa Catalina Mountains, often called simply the Catalinas, are a mountain range in the Coronado National Forest and located northeast of Tucson. Crowned by Mt. Lemmon at an elevation of 9,157 ft (2,791 m), the range is a 'sky island', which has a very different climate from that of the valley and surrounding desert. This climatic difference makes it a popular tourist destination for those in the Phoenix and Tucson areas, particularly in the summer months.
The Catalinas are the home of Ski Valley, the location of the small town of Summerhaven, and the site of an astronomical observatory.
- 1 Santa Catalina Ranger District Office, 5700 N Sabino Canyon Rd, ☏ (Santa Catalina Ranger District). Sells the Coronado Recreation Pass, and offers maps and trail information.
Flora and fauna
On average the climate at the summit is at least twenty degrees cooler than it is at the base. Please note that this means ample amounts of snow can, and do, fall on the mountain during the winter months.
The only way to really reach the mountain is on the Catalina Highway that begins in Tucson. During the winter months it is advisable to use vehicles that have four wheel drive and/ or snow chains as the road can become very slippery.
Fees and permits
Visitors are required to purchase a Coronado Recreation Pass ($5/day, $20/year), which also is good for use in Sabino Canyon and in Madera Canyon (listed in South Central Arizona).
The town of Summerhaven, which has a year-round population of 100 that swells up during the summer months. Most of the town is being completely rebuilt after the 2003 Aspen Fire destroyed most of it.
- 1 Pusch Ridge Wilderness Area, ☏ . Best in the spring. This is a good area for wildlife viewing. A number of scenic and challenging trails can be accessed here from the north side of Tucson, as well as from Catalina Highway and Catalina State Park near Oracle. No mountain bikes, horses, or dogs permitted.
- 2 Sabino Canyon, 5900 N Sabino Canyon Rd (main entrance), ☏ , email@example.com. 8AM-4:30PM (visitor center). A spectacular desert canyon cut into the south side of the Santa Catalina Mountains, this area is justifiably popular with both locals and visitors and is the starting point for a number of hiking trails. Half-hourly trams operated by Sabino Canyon Tours ($8/$4 adults/children) can take visitors nine stops up into the canyon; a separate tram ($3/$1 adults/children) will take you into Bear Canyon and to the trailhead of the popular Seven Falls Trail. Free trail maps are available at the visitor center, which also sells a good selection of regional hiking guidebooks and topo maps. $5/vehicle; if there are no parking spaces left visitors must wait until a space becomes available.
- 3 Mount Lemmon Observatory (Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter / Steward Observatory), 9800 E Ski Run Rd, ☏ , fax: , SkyCenter@as.arizona.edu. Operated by the University of Arizona, this astronomical observatory offers nightly observation programs and workshops for the public.
- Astronomy Camp, 933 N Cherry Ave, ☏ , fax: , firstname.lastname@example.org. Run throughout the year for teenagers, adults, and educators. Campers spend time learning how to use the astronomical facilities, which range up to telescopes 61 in (1,500 mm) in size, and collect their own research data. Truly a must-do for any astronomy guru, although the camps tend to fill very quickly so check their website for details.
- 4 Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, 10300 Ski Run Rd, ☏ , Graham@skithelemmon.com. The southernmost ski resort in the United States. It's a very small resort with short runs.
- Rock climbing is popular throughout Mount Lemmon. With a variety of rock formations to match the climatic zones, the area is quite diverse with thousands of climbing routes and has everything from sport, trad, single-pitch and multi-pitch climbs. A guide book that covers the area can be picked up in Tucson.
- 1 Iron Door Restaurant, 10300 Ski Run Rd (across from Ski Valley), ☏ . Pricey but beautiful.
- 2 Mt Lemmon Cookie Cabin, 12781 N Sabino Canyon Pkwy, ☏ . Daily 10AM-5PM. At the far side of Summerhaven. They serve excellent giant cookies.
- 3 Mt. Lemmon General Store, 12856 N Sabino Canyon Pkwy, ☏ . M-Sa 10AM-6PM, Su 10AM-5PM. Fudge.
- 1 Palisades Ranger Residence Cabin, E Organization Ridge Rd (off the Sky Island Scenic Byway), ☏ . Check-in: 2PM, check-out: noon. The cabin is fully furnished and has indoor plumbing and electricity, but guests must bring their own sleeping bags and pillows. Pets permitted. The property is maintained by the US Forest Service, and reservations can be made online. $125/night.
There are campgrounds in the mountains. Be sure to get a permit at the foot of the mountain, just before Molino Basin near milepost 4. Camping fees are in addition to travel permit, self-pay at entrance.
- 2 Rose Canyon Campground, ☏ . RV Camping is 22 feet and less. No hook-ups. Tents, trailers to 22' and small motor homes permitted. Drinking water and toilets available. $18/vehicle.
- 3 Spencer Canyon Campground, ☏ . 68 first-come, first-served sites. No RV hook-ups available, fire pits, grills, and tables are available at the sites. All campgrounds have potable water and vault toilets. $18/vehicle.
- 4 Molino Basin Campground, ☏ . Open from 1 Nov - 15 Apr. No hookups, trailers and RVs under 22' permitted. No water, vault toilets. There is a pleasant hike between this campground and Gordon Hirabayashi (see listing below); park all the way at the end of prison camp and walk downhill to Molino. The destruction from the Aspen fire is evident here as is all the new green growth. $10/vehicle.
- 5 Gordon Hirabayashi Campground, ☏ . This campground is unusual as it displays the remnants (mostly rock walls) of a Japanese-American interment camp from WWII. The Arizona Trail also passes through this campground. Open from late fall through early spring. No hookups, trailers and RVs under 22' permitted. No water, vault toilets. $10/vehicle.
- 6 General Hitchcock Campground, ☏ . Not recommended for trailers or RVs. No water, vault toilets. $10/vehicle.
- 7 Peppersauce Campground, ☏ . This picturesque campground is located on the northern slope of Mt Lemmon. Toilets and water, no hookups, RVs up to 22'. $10/night.
Dehydration is very easy on the mountain and altitude sickness is very common so be sure to drink plenty of water in order to avoid both! Take a pack of gum with you on the highway because Tucson's elevation is at around 2,500 feet and Mount Lemmon is over 9,000 feet.
Once you reach the top of the mountain, you can take a shortcut that will take you to Oracle but it is recommended that only 4-wheel-drive vehicles use it.