Cycling Mt. Lemmon
Typically riders begin their voyage up Mt. Lemmon at LeBuzz Café on Tanque Verde and Catalina Highway. Filling up on caffeine and a spot of food is encouraged, as you need the energy. As with any hard ride, bring adequate water and nutrition. When riding Mt. Lemmon it is especially important to hydrate as there is no water available until Palisades (around mile point 20). Begin heading northeast on the Catalina Highway to approach the base of Mt. Lemmon.
Riders start off in the low desert and begin climbing quickly. For new riders the first few miles may seem overwhelming as they are some of the steeper grades on the mountain. Keep going! The views and the cool mountain air ahead are worth the hard work. You achieve 4000 feet in elevation around Molino Canyon and the Sonoran Desert’s saguaro cacti are replaced with rolling grassy hills and smaller trees. Around mile point 9 the ride starts to get scenic. To the south you can see the backside of Thimble Peak and as you look ahead you can see the mountainous rock formations broken up with Douglas Fir. Most of the year you can hear running water around Bug Springs and the shade coverage provides motivation to keep you rolling up to Windy Point.
Windy Point Vista is one of the better look-out points. You can see most of the Tucson valley and Windy Point is a common stopping point for riders. From Windy Point there are 6-7 more miles of climbing ahead. Riding along the ridge after Windy Point is my favorite part of the Mt. Lemmon ride. Looking to the right side of the road you can see the highway you’ve climbed at two different spots and looking to the left you can see Palisades, Incinerator Ridge and other scenic vistas. After Windy Point you lose the desert feel. If you dropped someone atop this ridge you could convince them you were in another state. You can look out over the backside of the mountain at this point and see the peaks of the Galiuro Mountains to the east or look to the west and see the whole city of Tucson.
If you intend on continuing to the top of the mountain, you’ll need to fill up on water at Palisades. There’s a bookstore with a gift shop where you can find water. If that’s closed then backtrack about 100 meters to the parking lot on the left side of the road for a bathroom and a water hole. Around mile 21 you’ll experience sweet relief from the hard climbing and you get to descend for a minute or two. There’s one more climb before reaching Summerhaven.
Summerhaven is a beautiful mountain town recovering from a fire that occurred almost a decade ago. Businesses in Summerhaven allow you to refuel on food and water. Most people consider Summerhaven a turnaround point and begin the epic descent down Mt. Lemmon from there. If you desire more mountain climbing, you can continue to Ski Valley or the Mt. Lemmon Observatory. The road between Ski Valley and the observatory is steep and winding. If you can reach the observatory on Mt. Lemmon there is little you cannot achieve. It is one of the best bike rides in the world, rivaling the best passes on famous European stages of professional cycling.
If you are a cyclist in Tucson, take advantage of Mt. Lemmon. We are fortunate to be so close to this amazing scenery. Seeing the world I’m normally entrenched in from above gives me a new perspective every time I trudge up the mountain. With so many different eco-systems and such an interesting elevation profile, you can always see and experience something new.
Be safe, ride hard and keep climbing!