Think of the Sky Island Scenic Parkway, as a kind of time machine. No, really. Let yourself go a minute and imagine a landscape that compresses an extraordinary range of topography into one 30-mile stretch of road. The road, known as the Mount Lemmon Parkway, does just that. It takes visitors through five life zones, from Sonoran Desert lowlands all the way up to a mixed-conifer forest, the geographic equivalent of traveling from Mexico to Canada.
Prepare yourself for breathtaking views and a climate change that would be similar to driving from Southern Arizona to Northern Montana. Each thousand feet up is like driving 600 miles north, offering a unique opportunity to experience 4 seasons in one trip.
The 30-mile drive begins at Tanque Verde Road in Tucson, and the first few miles are mostly flat. The desert vegetation at the outset is typical of the Sonoran Desert, but once you begin the climb, you’ll see hillsides crammed with saguaros, which appear taller and thinner than those along, say, Interstate 17 north of Phoenix. It’s likely that some of them have been on these hills for 150 years or longer. But before you’ve had time to really ponder that, the saguaros give way to scrub bushes, as the road heads uphill. The Catalina Highway is a two-lane paved road that twists and turns, as it climbs in elevation, with turns becoming more severe as elevation increases.
In 4 miles you enter the Coronado National Forest. This road is sometimes referred to as Mt Lemmon Highway or Hitchcock Highway, in honor of Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock, who spearheaded the development of the highway to serve Summerhaven and Mt Lemmon.
The drive is fascinating due to the transition from desert to forest dominated by cottonwood, oak, sycamore and willow trees within a very short distance. In fact, the highway gets its name from areas of biological diversity in the Coronado National Forest, that rise dramatically from the desert floor to stand wreathed in clouds, as twelve widely scattered “sky islands.” You would believe you were in Colorado or Northern New Mexico – full of pine trees. It didn’t look anything like the desert, that was just fifteen minutes away!
Each turn of the road reveals a new perspective. As I entered Bear Canyon, the forest transformed once again into a lusher, cool environment with flourishing cypress, juniper, pine, sycamore, and walnut trees. Granite pinnacles soared into the sky, and with rocky outcroppings and stony hoodoos, some of Arizona’s best rock climbing could be found here. The narrow highway, filled with sharp turns and steep grades, had my eyes torn between watching the road and the fantastic scenery. With plenty of turnouts, overlooks, hiking trails and picnic areas, my eyes were best focused on the highway.
The drive officially came to an end when I arrived in the quaint town of Summerhaven, which features a General Store, shops and restaurants. There are NO GAS stations, so fill up before you begin the drive. Before I started my drive I thought there would be a gas station in Summerhaven, but there wasn’t. Lucky for me, though, there was a fire station. If by chance you run out of gas be sure to go there. The turn off is right before the Ski Valley turn off. It’s a $20 donation for one gallon of gas, which is just enough to get you back down the mountain.
The small town, near the top of Mt Lemmon, was nearly wiped out during the Aspen Fire in 2003. Over 300 structures were burned. Summerhaven is around 8,200’ and Mt Lemmon is 9,157’. And be sure to watch for rattlesnakes! I came within five feet of one with no warning, and it didn’t rattle once to let me know it was there.
If you want to experience the sky up close, then Mt Lemmon Sky center is the perfect place to do it. Photographs do NOT do the views justice!