The Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway, also called the Catalina Highway or the Sky Islands Scenic Byway, originates at the northeast edge of Tucson and climbs 27 miles to the heights of the 9,157-foot Mount Lemmon. From bottom to top, more than 6,000 feet of ascent makes traveling this highway the equivalent of traveling from the Sonoran desert up to the Canadian conifer forest and passing through several different ecosystems along the way. Most of the road passes through the Coronado National Forest, and there are numerous campgrounds and trailheads along the way that provide the opportunity to create additional adventures in your choice of climate niche. Near the top of the drive is Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, southernmost ski area in the country, and the little town of Summerhaven, home of the Cookie Cabin and the not-to-be-missed dinner-plate sized cookie!
Starting at the beginning of the Catalina Highway at Tanque Verde Road in Tucson, the road quickly starts climbing through high Sonoran desert and increasingly numerous "hoodoos" (tall, thin spires of weathered rock). Every turn reveals an increasingly majestic view and colorful rock formations. About halfway up, the vista area of Windy Point is a highlight of the trip. With a large parking area, restrooms, a vast playground of trails, boulders and gnarled trees, and the 180-degree views of valleys and mountains below, this is the Taj Mahal of all vista points. Expect crowds at Windy Point, but with an unlimited selection of vantage points, solitude and photo opportunities are always available. Continuing up the highway, the vegetation continues to change, eventually becoming a mixed conifer forest more typical of the Pacific Northwest than Arizona. There is a Forest Service ranger station where great recommendations for trails and camping can be obtained from the friendly ranger. The road eventually ends in the shadow of Mount Lemmon at the Marshall Gulch picnic area, also a trailhead for some great hiking.
It is suggested that the trip down the mountain be timed to catch the sunset at Windy Point and the city lights of Tucson at the last few turnouts before settling back at the valley floor. Overall, this is an adventure for all tastes and interests, from geology to photography to mountain biking or hiking.