A Festive Anniversary Week in the Sonoran Desert. Part 6: Mt. Lemmon  – Tucson’s Majestic Backdrop and a Cool Summer Retreat

(December 11-17, 2022)

December 16, 2022

We totally get it! Why Mt. Lemmon is nicknamed “Tucson’s Great Escape.” Why the scenic highway is ”Cool!”  From the Lower Sonoran Desert and the Tucson Valley (2,200 feet) to the upper reaches of a Spruce-Fir Forest (topping out at about 9,200 feet), the popular Scenic Highway up Mt. Lemmon offers breathtaking views, plants to discover, geology to learn, recreation opportunities, and temperatures often 30 degrees F lower than the desert below. That means a lot, especially when Tucson’s summer temps are in the triple digits! 

But on the day of our driving adventure we found snow ….. on the highway, at scenic overlooks, and on walking trails.  The storm hit 4 days earlier forcing closure of much of the highway. But on this day, most of the roads were clear and so was the sky.

So come along and learn what there’s to see along the Mt. Lemmon Scenic Highway.

Journal page with general Mt. Lemmon fun facts and scenery

My first journal page provides some general background about the mountain, life zones and temperature extremes. 

The next 2 journal pages is the map of the highway, indicating Mile Posts (in boxes) and 8 of our stops (numbered Stop Signs). Included on the pages are highlights of our discoveries and views, and a diagram of the major Life Zones.

The 2-page Hwy Map

It’s amazing to witness transitions in vegetation types nearly every 1,000 feet. We began in the Desert (saguaro, of course), then moved to the Grasslands, to Chaparral and then Oak.  Oak began mixing with Piñon Pine, and then on into Ponderosa Pine forest. Climbing higher still, Ponderosa gave way to cool Fir Forest, then Spruce appeared. And there were waterfalls too! The deep, cool canyons provided perfect locations to find riparian habitat. It was all quite fascinating. 

Close-up of Page 1 of the Hwy map.

It’s said that a journey of 1,000 feet up the mountain equals a 300 mile trip from Tucson north. Another way to look at the magnitude of change ….. this also represents a biological trip from Mexico to Canada in only 30 miles!  That’s just amazing!

Close-up of Page 2 of the Hwy map.

We had a great time, and I hope you enjoyed the virtual trip also. If you’ve been to the top of the Mt. Lemmon Scenic Highway, let me know how you liked the experience. If you haven’t been, yet, maybe this post will inspiration for a trip sometime in the future.

Stay tuned for Part 7: The “Snowbirds” of Tucson


  1. Fascinating change in zones as you ascended the mountain! We hiked at Sabino Canyon which looks like it is in the southern area of the way to Mt. Lemmon. I’m fascinated with those stacked biological communities! Fabulous map and interesting plants and trees along the route up. Interesting that the wasp nested on the saguaro — they really are amazing communities in themselves as homes to so many creatures! Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for the comments, Karen! It was such an interesting drive from bottom to top, and what we missed along the upwards journey, we caught on the way down. I found myself recognizing plants by genus, but with little differences …. making them not seem quite right, but familiar. It was fun to learn new species to many familiar genus’s, like the 4-5 needle AZ ponderosa pine and the 3-needle Border piñon vs 2-3 needle Rocky Mountain ponderosa and our two-needle piñon. Don’t get me started with the oaks and manzanitas! And how brave of saguaro to hold on into the chaparral zone! An excellent outdoor classroom.
      Wasps calling saguaro home? Weird!

      Liked by 1 person

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