A Paved Road So Compelling, We Asked Ourselves “Why Hike When We Can Ride?”
Though hiking is our focus in life, we occasionally take a break from the backcountry to go road cycling. Riding is an effective way to stay fit when trails are snow covered but paved roads remain dry.
Choose the right road, and cycling can be just as scenic as hiking—perhaps more so, if you factor in how far you can ride in a day and how much scenery that distance allows you to appreciate compared to a day on foot.
During our recent foray to Tucson, Arizona, we brought our road bikes. Sure, winter hiking is superb there. But while driving to trailheads in the Santa Catalina Mountains last winter, we realized the highway climbing from Tucson up 9157-ft (2792-m) Mt. Lemmon is a world-class road ride on par in every respect with Mont Ventoux, of Tour de France fame. We had to try it.
Lemmon is the highest and largest massif of the four sky-island mountains surrounding Tucson. Sky Island means an island of forest in a sea of desert. Lemmon towers over Tucson, and the highway (skyway, is more like it) affords views of other, prominent sky-islands including Tanque Verde Mtn (nearby SE), Rincon Peak (distant SE), and Mt. Wrightson (SE).
The road has many names. Most people call it the “Mt. Lemmon Hwy.” Some call it the “Catalina Hwy.” And it’s now officially the “Sky Island Scenic Byway.” The mountain was named in honor of botanist Sarah Lemmon, who in 1881 was led to the summit by Native American guides.
The ride is spectacular, exhilarating, challenging. It’s a constant, serpentine, cliff-side ascent above canyons, beneath hoodoo pinnacles, ultimately into a grand forest. It climbs from sand to ice, from saguaro cacti to ponderosa pines, from snakes to bears. Views are frequent, often panoramic. And the pavement is perfection: smooth, with a slender-but-adequate shoulder providing a margin of safety. In all of North America, very few roads offer such magnificent cycling.
As for vehicle traffic, cyclists can relax on the Mt. Lemmon Hwy. The road is so sinuous, it’s difficult for motorists to drive dangerously fast. If you ride here midweek, you’ll encounter only light vehicle traffic. And if you ride here on a weekend, when vehicle traffic increases markedly, you’ll be among many other cyclists strung out along the entire route, so motorists will be alert to your presence. Plus, Tucson is a bike-friendly city where—generally—cyclists are expected and accepted. In that regard, Tucson is refreshingly European.*
The Mt. Lemmon Hwy was completed in 1950 after 17 years of construction. It was awarded the Arizona Engineering Excellence Grand Award for Context Sensitive Design in 2005, because it deftly preserved the tumultuous terrain and delicate environment.
We’ve cycled Hwy 1 along California’s Big Sur Coast, the Icefields Parkway in the Canadian Rockies, and Utah’s Hwy 12 from Escalante to Capitol Reef National Park via Boulder and Torrey. All are premier rides. But Mt. Lemmon is our favorite.
In December, 2009, Team Radioshack trained for the 2010 Tour de France on Mt. Lemmon. No wonder. Winter weather here is so consistently sunny and warm that you can usually ride in shorts and short sleeves. Only if it gets windy higher on the mountain might you need tights and a wind shell.
Our first day on Mt. Lemmon, we cycled 14 miles (22.5 km), gaining 3,500 ft (1067 m) from elevation 3050 ft (930 m), to Windy Point Vista, at 6560 ft (2000 m). Pedaling at our loping, “scenery first” pace, it took us about one hour and 40 minutes, plus 20 minutes for stretching and refueling. Bear in mind, we stopped and gawked at all the vista pullouts. We recommend you do, too, even though your bike already grants you a vastly better view than is possible from a car.
Going that slow was a joy. We were constantly captivated by the views and astonished by the highway itself. In some places, only if you tilt your head way back will you see the highway almost directly above you. Yet only a few, brief sections of pavement qualify as “steep.” Languorous switchbacks keep the ascent mercifully gradual.
The 14-mile, downhill blast is ecstatic. From Windy Point Vista, we probably pedaled no more than a dozen crank revolutions (in the vicinity of Green Mtn trailhead). We arrived at our parked car within 35 minutes.
We were back on Mt. Lemmon a week later. This time we covered 20 miles (32.2 km), gaining 4895 ft (1492 m) to the Palisade Visitor Center at 7945 ft (2422 m). The 20-mile, downhill blast: 50 minutes. Emotional effect: a strong, lasting desire to return to Tucson and ride Mt. Lemmon again and again.
You’re a hiker who rides? Mt. Lemmon is one of those rare places where you might prefer a bike beneath your bum instead of a pack on your back.
Drive to the junction of Sabino Canyon Road and Tanque Verde Road. This is in NE Tucson. Udall Park is on the SE corner. Reset your trip odometer to zero here, then proceed E on Tanque Verde.
1.2 mi (0.75 km) Bear left on Tanque Verde Road, where right leads to Wrightstown and Pantano Road.
4 mi (2.5 km) Turn left onto Mt. Lemmon Hwy.
7.3 mi (4.5 km) Park on the right, just beyond milepost 1, at 3050 ft (930 m).
0 mi (0 km) Milepost 1, at 3050 ft (930 m).
5.7 mi (9.2 km) Molino Basin rest area, at 4370 ft (1332 m).
9 mi (14.5 km) Thimble Peak Vista, at 5320 ft (1622 m). Here you can peer W, across Bear Canyon—the largest drainage in the Santa Catalina Mtns. Seven Cataracts Vista is shortly beyond, followed by three long switchbacks. Soon enter a forested canyon. Beside you is a creek drainage harboring sycamore trees.
12 mi (19.3 km) General Hitchcock campground, at 5920 ft (1805 m). It’s closed (gated) during winter.
14 mi (22.5 km) Windy Point Vista, at 6560 ft (2000 m). A spectacular vantage. Public toilets. In the next couple miles, you’ll pass Geology and Hoodoo vistas.
17.6 mi (28.3 km) San Pedro Vista. The Galiuro Mtns are visible E.
20 mi (32.2 km) Palisades Visitor Center, 7945 ft (2422 m). Pass a water faucet and public toilets on the right, just before arriving.
25 mi (40.25 km) Village of Summerhaven, 8080 ft (2463 m).
*Here’s another, exceptional ride in Tucson. Drive to the East section of Saguaro National Park. From the visitor center, cycle the 8-mi (13-km) Cactus Loop. Do it twice. The scenery is good, the pavement smooth, and the midweek vehicle traffic is nil.