Last week, in an attempt to relish our last days at 8000 ft above sea level, we did one last day trip up Mt. Lemmon. This has been one of my favorite spots in Tucson ever since visiting Curtis for Thanksgiving in 2012. The ability to drive up 5000 feet in 26 miles, enjoy scenic viewpoints on the way, and see the area from a whole new perspective is what makes it one of the most popular tourist attractions in our city. It’s always on the top of my list of places to take my visitors to or advise others to check out. I love watching the transition from desert to pine forest, and have loved every hike we’ve done along the Catalina Highway. On our recent visit, we went out and explored a couple new-to-us trails that we found thanks to letterboxing.
My favorite days to drive up the mountain are during the week, when it’s less crowded. We were lucky enough to hike alone all day this time. If it were the weekend, the traffic on the roads as well as the trails would have been much heavier. The best time of year to visit is usually between March/April and October/November. It provides a great escape from the heat of the Arizona summer in the city, but can be quite cold and possibly covered in snow or ice in the winter. Last May when we visited with Curtis’ parents, we practically froze as temperatures dropped into the 30’s as we arrived at 8000 ft! The mountains had already gotten their first snow of the season, but we only came across it along a few North-facing slopes.
My favorite trail that we took today was the Box Canyon Trail. It provided scenic views in many directions at various points. As we started, I noted that the trailhead sign said it was only 13 miles from here to Sabino Canyon – if we were going to be living here much longer, then that would have instantly gone on my “AZ bucket list”…but hey, I’m sure we’ll visit again, so I might just add it just in case. 😉 We got off of the trail almost right at the beginning because we were sure the deceivingly obvious side trail was the main trail, but failed to realize this until hopping over several large fallen trees only to have our side trail end abruptly. Thankfully the main trail was only 20 feet above us and we easily scrambled up the trail and began walking in the right direction. Once we were hiking along the ridge, I became easily distracted by the magnificent views to the south and was continuously running off trail to snap a few pictures. It was gorgeous! We ended up passing the spot where the box was hidden, but once we realized this we decided not to turn around right away – we were enjoying this trail too much! But eventually we realized that since this trail ends up at Sabino, it was only going to lose elevation from here, so we turned around to save ourselves from having to hike up too far. So while we’ve seen so little of this trail, I’d have to say that if you’re looking for a short hike with great views near the top of Mt. Lemmon, definitely add Box Canyon Trail to your list!
I always love the hikes we do to the East of the Catalina Highway, simply because of the unobstructed views to the East. From every other direction on the top of Mt. Lemmon, there are always other peaks that “get in the way” of an expansive view. Not that those views aren’t beautiful…I just love being able to look down and around and out into the horizon and ponder life. 😉 This is why Mt. Bigelow/Kellogg Mountain Trail is my favorite hike on the Catalina Highway. Another East-facing hike we’ve done is the Green Mountain/Guthrie Mountain trail. Today, we did a short hike on the Butterfly trail. We didn’t go as far because there was a lot more snow in this area, but it was an easy hike and again, if we had more time, it’s one I’d want to hike in full.
Another reason to love the Catalina Highway is because they are (mostly) dog friendly! Charlotte has enjoyed many hikes with us up here, and she also loves watching out the window as we drive up and down the mountain. I thought it was the sweetest thing when we were driving toward the mountains and she could not take her eyes off them. She’s been on enough long car rides to know that it’s better to go to sleep until it’s over with, but when we slow down or when the road gets windy, we can always count on her to jump up to the front seat and take in the beauty right along with us!
The main areas that aren’t dog friendly are to the West when you enter the Pusch Ridge Wilderness area. (Which is why dogs aren’t allowed on other trails in the Catalinas, such as Sabino Canyon or any of the other peak hikes we’ve done out there!) Charlotte’s done some hikes to the West, such as Box Canyon and the Sycamore Reservoir, which are fine as long as she doesn’t enter Sabino Canyon or the wilderness area.
Our final hike of the day was on Bug Springs Trail, which was on our way back down the mountain. The trail was steep, but we found the box, making this a perfect 3 for 3 boxing trip. (Actually it was 4 for 3 due to running into an unlisted trashed girl scout box along a trail…but that barely counts.) We called it good for the day and made our way home, with Charlotte passed out on my lap. Success! 🙂