Over nine-thousand feet above sea level, Mount Lemmon rests in the Coronado National Forrest just a short drive north of Tucson, Arizona. Rising from the desert floor to this alpine environment you’ll experience a 30 degree drop in temperature, making this an excellent escape from Arizona’s summer heat. Surprisingly, Mount Lemmon is also home to the southernmost ski destination in the continental United States.
Early Saturday morning Robert and myself started to pack the truck with warm cloths, food and drinks. Hopeful of snow on the summit we tossed in an empty cooler and a shovel to bring back snow for my niece’s birthday party later that evening. The first hour of our trip was enshrouded by an unusual fog that stretched from Mesa out to a few miles past Florence. As we slipped out of the fog, faint traces of snow on the north face of the Santa Catalina Mountains could be seen.
We detoured for a quick fuel top off in Catalina. Cold weather was reeking havoc on the gas pumps we stopped at turning a five gallon quick fill into a twenty minute visit. Although we ended up not needing to fill up, it was still a good idea as we later discovered there are no gas stations at the top of the mountain. Few people may have luck purchasing fuel from a local, however don’t be surprised of a large price tag.
Full of gas we headed towards the city of Oracle, seven miles east of Biosphere II. The fun began once we hit Forest Road 38 just outside the city limits. Stepping up the pace over the long rolling hills put a bit of air under the tires. Naturally, this was a good spot for some photos.
Desert slowly broke into mountain grasslands which seemed misplaced in the southwest. Gusts of wind pushed the grass around as if a rock had been tossed into water. Having never been in the mid-west or a similar environment, this experience was surreal to me.
Ascending further along the winding trail, cliffs and snow became more prevalent. Mountain shadows protected snow packs from melting away. Roughly halfway up the road we reached our first big patch of snow settled on a curve. Turning corners with nearly bald tires made it exciting as we progressed though the snow. There’s nothing like the back end of your truck sliding around near a steep drop off.
Temperatures dropped as we neared the fire station which is also the end of Forest Road 38. From there we headed to The Cookie Cabin located in the small mountain village of Summerhaven. Unfortunately on this trip, The Cookie Cabin was closed. Although, on a previous visit the oven was fired up and cookies were abundant. Huge delicious plate sized cookies can be purchased in six varieties at 4 bucks. If sweets aren’t your thing then pizza may fit the bill. Do arrive before 4 pm as the ovens are shut off an hour before closing time. Summerhaven is also home to a general store and a cafe, both recently reopened after a devastating fire in 2003.
On this trip to Mount Lemmon we would be exploring one of the back roads. We turned around and headed to the other side of the mountain. Driving down N Catalina Highway was beautiful with snow covered trees glistening in the sunlight. The bulk of snow started once we turned off the highway onto Bear Wallow Road. Shimmering drops of melted ice fell from the trees being touched by sunlight as we drive past. Snowy mountain scenery is an awesome sight bringing the kid out in anyone.
Pulling over in a snow bank, Robert and I got out to climb around and take photos. Foliage was covered in only three inches of powdery snow. Whipping out the empty cooler, I began to pack in as much snow as possible. After placing the full cooler back in the truck we continued to hike around and take photos. From here it was time to head home to make it to the party. The snow was a big hit (pun intended).