From Cacti to Pine Trees

Just North of Tucson we drove through the Coronado National Forest up in the Santa Catalina Mountains to the Catalina Scenic Byway. The Catalina Scenic Byway also known as the “Mt. Lemmon Highway” is a 28-mile scenic drive that begins at the base of the mountain and peaks at 9,157 feet above sea level.

You start the highway in the desert amongst the saguaro cacti, and go through mountain passes with fields & meadows, rugged cliffs and hoodoos with spectacular outlooks then end up in an alpine and aspen forest.

This part of the drive you get to see saguaro cacti, the nearby Rincón Mountains and the city of Tucson.

Driving up the scenic highway you start to notice that the cacti are no longer and your seeing fields and scrubs on the mountain.

We stopped and hiked at the Molino Canyon Vista.   It was a deep canyon with a creek running through it. This area was a fabulous spot and a great place to boondock, as someone had setup a yellow table cloth and their tent was close by. A really neat place for sure.

This site is also known as Prison Camp. The site was a Federal Honor Camp beginning in 1937 to house federal prisoners who worked to build a road for access into the Santa Catalina Mountains.  The Prisoners had been convicted of federal crimes ranging from immigration law violations to tax evasion to bank robbery.

During World War II, many of the prisoners of this camp were conscientious objectors whose religions prohibited them from serving in the military. Some were Japanese Americans, as Gordon Hirabayashi was.  After WWII  Japanese Americans and many American Citizens, were imprisoned in these camps for fear they would conduct espionage and sabotage along the west coast.  Gordon later fought that he was imprisoned wrongly, he won the case and after that the area is become known as The Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site.

What’s left of the prison today.

At this point the elevation being 5000ft. it was just a tad chilly.

The Scenic Highway is windy & curvy as it goes up the mountain. Dave had fun, plus now he has experience in driving these roads.

This picture shows the windy road from Windy Point Vista.

Windy Point is a scenic view point on Catalina Highway, on Mt. Lemmon. The overlook provides a a great view of the Catalinas and the Tucson valley below to the east and the Rincon Mountains to the west. 

We never thought we would see hoodoos here, but it was great to see them, the huge tall rocks that look like statues.

Windy Point’s elevation is 7000ft. it was windy and felt very chilly. We noticed we started to see taller trees.

There are a lot of people who also bike up the mountain because it’s one of the highest roads in the state. 28 miles going up hill, I gotta give them a lot of credit, plus some of them looked older than us.


We kept driving higher and rolled up our windows because now we were 8000 ft. elevation, and it was about 45 degrees. All we were seeing is some leaves that changed color and pine trees.

We knew there was skiing on top of the mountain and signs told us so.

As we drove by the Ski Valley and kept going up higher we came to Summerhaven?

It was definitely chilly up here at 9000 ft elevation.

It was like we were on a mountain top in a small town somewhere in Vermont … Not Arizona. We drove thru the town and the road turned into a dirt road so we turned around and started back down. We did stop at Mt. Lemmon General Store to get some fudge, boy was it delicious! You can rent a room, get a bit to eat, there is a couple of restaurants, stores and a post office.

Little did we know that Summerhaven was even at the top but it’s popular both in the Winter & Summer. In Winter they say Mount Lemmon ski resort is the number #1 local ski hill for residents of Tucson, AZ and claims the title of the southernmost ski resort in the United States. In the hot summer months when it’s 100 degrees or more, people come to the top of the mountain where it’s 20 to 30 degrees cooler.

Some pictures of our trip back down Mt. Lemon.

All we can say is that we saw breathtaking views and a climate change that people say is similar to driving from Southern Arizona to Northern Montana. Each thousand feet up is like driving 600 miles north offering a unique opportunity to experience 4 seasons in one trip. It was a really spectacular drive and we feel it’s up there with one of the neatest things we’ve done.

View of the Santa Catalina Mountains and Mt. Lemmon from the campsite we’re at.

2 thoughts on “From Cacti to Pine Trees

  1. Sandy

    Beautiful photos! But you missed the best part! That sign for famous chili and pies was no joke. The Iron Door Restaurant has an indoor atmosphere unlike any place you’ve ever been. Sorry to say, but I recommend making that drive again just to experience the restaurant!! It’s not far from the ski resort. From the outside you may question the choice, but inside, it’s magic. And your photos prove the views will also be spellbinding again.

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