This week brought us our first day of triple digit temperatures. What do Tucsonans do when it is really hot; get an Eegee’s, jump in the pool, or go up the mountain. We started our day with the “up the mountain” option. Mt Lemmon is in the Santa Catalina mountains, part of the Coronado National Forest north of Tucson. Up from the valley floor, it rises to over 9000 feet in elevation. In the ponderosa pines there are trails, streams, campgrounds, picnic areas and cool temperatures. At that elevation, it is 30 to 40 degrees cooler and a haven for escaping the heat down in the valley. In fact, the small town at the summit is called, Summerhaven.
It was an early start, 6:30ish on the road. Even up the mountain, we like to get up early and on the trail. There is less traffic on the trails that early, the sunlight casts wonderful shadows and the birds are chirping. Most of the trails up on Mt Lemmon are either steep or out in the open on the ridgeline. Despite the wonderful pines and trees there are many places that show the scars of past fires and damage. But even in the wake of fire, the forest is rebounding and showing signs of regrowth. We decided to try two separate hikes. We started on the Sunset Trail not long after sunrise. Irony. The trailhead starts below Summerhaven at a small parking lot off Soldiers Camp Road. The first couple hundred yards are along a gravel road scattered with cabins.
Sunset Trail meanders along the side of a ridge facing southwest overlooking Tucson. Up and down and around tall trees, large boulders and amongst the blooming wildflowers and cactus. The views are spectacular enhanced by the clear blue skies of the early morning. There was a light breeze wafting the smell of pine and fresh air along the way.As the trail meandered further along the ravine we started to hear what sounded like water running. We wondered if there was running water at the bottom and if so, it would be a surprise to us as we had not planned on any water or waterfalls. As we rounded one of the last switchbacks we caught sight of it. A couple small but fast and running falls cutting through the rocks. We found a nice overlook and marked it as a great place for a snack.
The upper feed to the falls comes out of Marshall Gulch the western terminus of the trail. We opted not to go all the way up the parking lot but turned around and walked back to our falls overlook for a snack and view. It was a great place to sit and take in the view of the mountains and the bonus of running water.
Our hike back just seemed to go too fast. It was so nice up there and we were enjoying the hike and view. It was only 9:30 but the sun was already up over the ridgelines and starting to radiate some heat, especially at these elevations. Back at the trailhead we gathered our things and decided to drive on into Summerhaven and try one more trail, Mint Spring Trail.
Mint Spring Trail starts off from a trailhead at the end of Carter Canyon Road in Summerhaven. It runs about 1.6 miles to an intersection with Marshall Gulch trail. You can either make a loop of it for 5 miles, the last mile walking along the street in Summerhaven, or you can do an out-and-back. We opted for the out-and-back. In 2003 Summerhaven and the surrounding area were devastated by the Aspen Fire. Over 250 homes were destroyed and most of the trees were burned. The area continues to recover and the Mint Spring Trail cuts through a wide section of the burn area overlooking Summerhaven.
We knew it would be bleak for the first half but were pleasantly surprised by the recovery we saw. Shortly after you start out from the trailhead, there is a large stand of young aspen trees. This time of year, the leaves are just starting, but the fall color must be spectacular. We took note to come back up and see for ourselves. Once through the aspens, the small shrubs and grasses, and ghostly lodgepole pine carcasses are the predominant backdrop. But if you look closely, and “smell the roses” you will find lots of new growth, wild berries; strawberry, blackberry and raspberry.
As we continued on the trail became pretty taxing for us. There are quite a few downed trees crossing the trail that you must climb over or even under. At many of them, the footing is loose or the height is such that they are too high to straddle. We made it a little past a mile in, saw no relief in sight and decided to turn back. After our morning hike, we were tired, and did not want to ruin what was already a wonderful day out in the mountains.
One of our favorite places in Summerhaven is The Cookie Cabin. Though they sell an awesome homemade pizza, it is their plate-sized freshly baked cookies with a dollop of ice cream that draws our serious interest. Can’t remember a trip to Mt Lemmon without stopping to get one. Our drive between trails took us right past The Cookie Cabin. With the virus protocols, all the outside seating is closed, and they have a one-way controlled path up to a take-out window. As we drove by, we saw a sign that said closed for the day. Oh no!!!! So maybe this contributed to our mood during the Mint Spring hike. Anyway, driving back from the Mint Spring trail head, we noticed they were open. Turns out, the sign was just a holdover from the previous day 🙂 True to tradition, we ordered a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie with ice cream, on the side, and headed out to Loma Linda picnic area and a shaded picnic table. Turns out the picnic areas are open; it is just the campgrounds and restrooms that are closed in the national forest. We put a blanket on the table and had a wonderful picnic lunch overlooking the spectacular views of the Santa Catalina Mountains.
Our drive back down was uneventful until we got near the Babad Do’ag overlook vista. The overlook is the first designated overlook on the Sky Island Scenic Byway (Catalina Highway). As spring warms, all the cacti begin their annual flowering. The majestic saguaros are no exception. As we got near the bottom of the mountain, we started reentering the ecosystem zone of the saguaro. The saguaro blooms were everywhere. We pulled into the overlook to just look and admire. They truly have a unique and alluring bloom.
By the time we got back it was late afternoon and the temperature was approaching 100. A far cry from the 70 degrees we had enjoyed up the mountain and a stark reminder of why one of Tucsonans favorite things to do on a hot day is to “head up the mountain.” We were sure glad we did.