Part of the Santa Catalina range, Mount Lemmon—named for Sara Lemmon, the first woman to reach the peak of this mountain, in 1881—is the southernmost ski slope in the continental United States, but you don't have to be a skier to enjoy the area: in summer, it's a popular place for picnicking, and there are 150 miles of marked and well-maintained trails for hiking. The mountain's 9,157-foot elevation brings relief from summer heat (temperatures are typically 25 degrees lower than in Tucson).
Mount Lemmon Highway twists for 28 miles up the mountainside; driving time from mid-town is about an hour. Every 1,000-foot climb in elevation is equivalent, in terms of climate, to traveling 300 miles north: you'll move from typical Sonoran Desert plants in the foothills to vegetation similar to that found in southern Canada at the top. Rock formations along the way look as though they were carefully balanced against each other by sculptors from another planet.
Even if you don't make
it to the top of the mountain, you'll find stunning views of Tucson at Windy Point, about halfway up. Look for a road on your left between the Windy Point and San Pedro lookouts; it leads to Rose Canyon lake, a lovely reservoir.
Just before you reach the ski area, you'll pass through the tiny alpine-style village of Summerhaven, which has some casual restaurants, gift shops, and pleasant lodges.
There are no gas stations on Mount Lemmon Highway, so gas up before you leave town and check the road conditions in winter. To reach the highway, take Tanque Verde Road to Catalina Highway, which becomes Mount Lemmon Highway as you head north.
Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley. Follow Mount Lemmon Highway to its end and you're at Mount Lemmon Ski Valley. Skiing and snowboarding here depend on natural conditions; there's no artificial snow, so call ahead. There are 21 runs, ranging from beginner to advanced. Lift tickets cost $40 for an all-day pass and $35 for a half-day pass starting at 12:30 pm. Equipment rentals and instruction are available.
Off-season you can take a ride on the chairlift ($10), which whisks you to the top of the slope—some 9,100 feet above sea level. Many ride the lift, then hike on one of several trails that crisscross the summit. There are some concessions right at the ski lift; the Iron Door Restaurant, across the road, serves sandwiches, soups, and homemade pies, which you can enjoy with gorgeous views. 10300 Ski Run Rd., Mount Lemmon, 85619. 520/576–1321. www.skithelemmon.com. Closed Tues.–Wed.
Mount Lemmon Hwy., Tucson, Arizona, 85619, United States
520-576–1400-recorded snow report; 520-547–7510-winter road conditions