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HC climbs: Mount Lemmon, Arizona

The highest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Mount Lemmon’s varied climates make it one of the most scenic climbs in North America

Joseph Delves
1 Dec 2017

Almost 50 kilometres wide, but home to only 530,706 inhabitants, the desert city of Tucson takes a while to peter out as we leave the low-lying chain stores and six lane freeways behind and head towards the Santa Catalina Mountains.

Located to the north and east of the city the mountains mark the end of the plain on which Tucson sits.

As the already widely spaced buildings get even sparser the desert starts to reassert its authority over the landscape.

Perfectly adapted to the arid conditions, the plants lining the road are too rigid to sway with the wind and give little indication of the breeze whipping past.

It’s only the American flags hoisted in the yards of almost every roadside bungalow that give it away. Waving forcefully from atop their compounds, they make visible the warm wind pushing us forwards and towards Mount Lemmon.

Just as the houses finally give way to the wilderness we hit the base of the mountain. Coming on slowly with the gradient building over the early kilometres before steadying at around 4-5%, a giant cut-out of Smokey the Bear, the United States Forest Service mascot, marks the start of the mountain proper.

Today he warns us that the risk of forest fire is moderate.

The first few kilometres pass by easily, interrupted only by my desire to snap pictures. As I try and work out an ETA based on my current speed and the fairly steady gradient over the next 50 kilometres, a swarm of affluent locals in heavily modded drift cars start filtering by.

While the rumbling cars are impressive and their owners courteous, I wonder if the traffic will be this heavy all the way up.

The Catalina Highway which runs through the Santa Catalina Mountains from the east side of Tucson and up to Summerhaven is known as the Sky Island Parkway.

A designated part of the US National Scenic Byway system, and the sole road up Mount Lemmon, it’s popular with tourists and locals alike.

However after the hundred or so amateur racers pass by there’s very little traffic for the rest of the climb.

Abundant wildlife

Drawing in visitors is the abundance of wildlife and vegetation that populate the mountain. The complete climb will take riders through a wide variety of different environments, from desert to alpine.

The hot and exposed lower slopes, like the Sonoran desert below, are studded with the regions famous saguaro cacti, which can grow to over 12 metres tall.

Settling into a sustainable tempo up the climb they’re fairly quickly left behind as, unable to cope with extended frost, they stick to the base of the mountain.

Changing greenery

As the road slowly carves a meandering path through the foothills and higher into the range they’re replaced by a sparse covering of green scrub oak, piñon pine, and juniper grass. All of which dot the rock strewn yellow landscape.

As the mountain’s sides start to encroach on the road, great pillars of stacked rock increasingly mark the outside of the turns.

At around 23 kilometres in, and just below 2,000 metres, the road curves around to Windy Point.

Providing a stunning and open view back down the mountain, and just before the halfway point, it makes an ideal location to stop and take stock.

Having lolled about a few minutes, we push on. Wide open and slightly bleak, above it is perhaps the road’s most spectacular section.

As the gradient eases, the tarmac traverses back above itself. Exposed and high up, with the rock falling away precipitously on either side, it seems to float through the sky.

It lasts a couple of kilometres, before turning back towards the summit. Here the environment again changes almost instantly.

Far more enclosed, ponderosa pine start to crowd the roadside. Growing taller and more vigorous as the elevation increases, signs at the roadside warn us to stay alert for bears.

Watch out for bears

Although they rarely attack people, I’m starting to flag and wonder if they wouldn't perhaps chance going for a slow moving cyclist-sized snack.

Apparently, according the bartender I chatted to the day before, it’s the mountain lions you really need to watch out for.

Pushing on ever upwards the forest becomes denser, with the pines now also joined by fir, aspen, and maple.

At 40 kilometres in the road drops downhill for the first time. Losing almost a hundred metres, the next six downhill or flat kilometres take us to Summerhaven.

Almost the summit

Almost at the top, and the final stop for most riders, a cluster of cabins dot the surrounding area. Coalescing around a general store that provides for the around 40 permanent residents, there’s also a post office, pizza place, and fire station.

In 2003 a wildfire destroyed a good proportion of the buildings, which have since been rebuilt. An ideal place to recoup, many riders seem content enough with their beer and food that they turn straight around and head back down from here.

However, just at the top of the drag back out of town is a turning marked Ski Run Road. This climbs a further 300 vertical metres through the trees and presents the steepest slopes of the climb at around 8%.

Starting at around 2,500 metres, it’s not entirely fanciful to imagine that it’s altitude that’s making this bit a slog.

Another four kilometres later, dodging around a barrier at the top of the main road leaves you on a final stretch of poorly maintained road just before the true summit and the Mount Lemmon Infrared Observatory.

Sitting behind a high chain link and barbed wire fence, the site was originally a radar installation run by the American Air Defence Command and used to track both spaceships and missiles launched from nearby airbases.

Currently administered by the University of Arizona, its eight telescopes are now occupied by celestial rather than military applications.

Beside it a cleat-trashingly rocky path leads to an overlook providing the best views off the mountain and back towards Tucson.

Even in November, on the valley floor the temperature was over 30°C. Despite the cloudless sky, at the top it was down to single digits.

Figure in the windchill against sweaty bodies and the shade among the pines and you’ll definitely be glad of having dragged warm clothes up for the descent.

With snow possible anywhere between December and April the road normally remains passable all winter, during which proper clothing isn’t just advisable, but essential.

Time to descend

With a brief stretch of almost 15%, the descent down from the observatory is the only truly technical section of the route.

Once back on the main road the corners are all fairly broad. Add the mild gradient and it’s just about possible to fly down without touching the brakes.

In fact only the speed limit will force you to check your progress. Although generally in good condition, the yearly snow does cause some cracks down the centre of the asphalt on the top half of the mountain, while the occasional rock also manages to find its way off of the hill and onto the black top.

Both mean it’s worth keeping your wits about you as you head down.

One of the joys of an out-and-back route is discovering exactly what each corner is like ridden in reverse and at speed.

Even playing at being racers and employing our best top-tube squating aero tucks it was over an hour to get back to the bottom.

With the temperature slowly rising we whizzed inexorably downward, the differences between the various temperate zones and their flora appearing even more pronounced when ridden through at speed.

While the high noon sun had scorched the landscape on the climb up, the end of the short November day was quickly catching us, throwing long shadows across extended sections of the road.

As we raced along the last few kilometers the glittering grid of Tucson suddenly spread out ahead of us. At times the mountain’s slopes perfectly aligned with the roads crossing the desert plane below, seeming designed to spit us out at velocity off of the hillside and into the city.

At the roadside the huge cacti sprang back up like antennas. We rolled back past Smokey the Bear and within a minute were on the flat road heading to Tucson.

Vital stats

Average gradient: 4-5%
Maximum gradient: 14.9 %
Length: 51.2 km
Altitude start: 783 metres
Altitude top: 2784 metres
Ascent: 1756 m

Local knowledge

Long and steady, with moderate fitness only going off too fast should prevent you reaching the summit. Try and take the first hour easy and then work out your pace from there.

At 52 kilometres long the mountain is a marathon, not a sprint.

Take plenty of water. On hot days aim for at least two litres. Although there are toilets at the halfway mark (Windy Point) the first possible water restock is at the Palisades ranger station, 43 kilometres up the climb.

Don’t be fooled by the conditions on the valley floor. The temperature will vary drastically between the top and bottom of Mount Lemmon.

Even in summer you’ll be glad of arm warmers and a gilet on the descent. At all other times consult the weather forecast and dress appropriately.

Largely untroubled by professional races Mount Lemmon is a favourite training ground for local riders, at one time including Lance Armstrong.

If you feel the need to race there are regular time trial and gran fondo events organised on the climb.

Otherwise you can try and beat former Cannondale pro Tom Danielson’s strava KOM, although you’ll need to average over 26km/ph.

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