The forecast was for another day in the mid 90s. Our northern Minnesota blood was too thick for the heat. Sylvia, our AirBnB hostess, had just the answer.
“Have you been to Mount Lemmon? It’s always 30 degrees cooler up there.” That’s all we needed to hear. It was also on my left-over wanna see list from last year’s stay in Tucson.
At 9,100 feet, Mount Lemmon is the highest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains, the same range we’ve been admiring from our patio all week long. It boasts a ski hill at the top, so there is a good paved road and a small community called Summerhaven near the summit.
We crossed town to reach the start of the Sky Island Scenic Byway. I settled in to enjoy the ride, as the 27-mile journey is an attraction in itself. We started out in the now-familiar Sonoran Desert environment, surrounded by cacti and scrub brush. As we rose, saguaro and a sea of yellow wildflowers took over the landscape. The city of Tucson dropped below us, a miniature playset of streets and buildings just visible over the edge of the cliff. Fortunately, there were frequent pull-outs for safe gazing.
Each curve delivered new scenery. Saguaro giants gave way to real forest, with Aspens and Ponderosa Pines looming overhead. Wildflowers changed suit as well. But it was the rock formations that demanded my attention, and added a new term to my vocabulary. “Hoodoos.” Tall thin columns of weather-beaten rocks stood at attention on the slopes as we navigated the switchbacks.
At Windy Point, I just had to get out and mingle with these giants. Numerous other visitors populated this stopping point, clambering up rocky promontories for pictures and posing for selfies. I enjoyed the same views and poses from safer flat rocks. And there was no mistaking the refreshing breezes that cooled the higher air.
A pool of cyclists congregated at this vista as well. The byway is a popular challenge for cyclists, and by this point the intrepid athletes had already climbed 18 miles and 3,600 feet. We would continue to see bicycles all the way up and down the mountain. Never once did we wish ourselves in their seat!
Near the summit, we continued on past Summerhaven and beyond the ski hill to reach the very end of the road and a trail head. Those last few cliff hanging miles justified the 10 mph speed limit.
Itching to get out and experience the mountain up close, I insisted on a hike. Sylvia was right, the car thermometer registered 64 degrees, and we each donned an extra layer before setting off. Left over snow was not confined to the ski hill, as we traversed thick patches on our trek. We felt right at home in the pine forest.
We noticed the lookout tower in the distance, but it took a fellow hiker to entice us down another path to take in its views. The wind whipped around us as we stood on the rocky promontory.
The trip back down the mountain let us view the whole scene in reverse. Cyclists continued to struggle up and whiz down, even as the afternoon waned. The temperature rose in reverse proportion to our elevation, but we had successfully missed the peak heat of the day. Instead we had a delightful Minnesota type day, chilling out on the mountain.