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From Cactus to Aspen in an Hour’s Drive

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By Wayne Lazarus on December 15th, 2009

Categories: Linda's Travel Articles

Can you snow ski in the desert? Well, no, but in an hour, you can drive from the arid, sunny climate in Tucson to Mount Lemmon Ski Valley at 9,150 feet above sea level. The drive along the Sky Island Parkway winds its way up through a portion of the Coronado National Forest and through five ecological terrains to the sub-alpine region, with some of the Southwest’s most spectacular scenery along the way. From the various vista points and picnic areas, you can see sweeping views of Tucson, the Santa Catalina Mountains, the San Pedro Valley and Reef of Rocks. Along the way there are sheer cliff faces, deep canyons, rock spires and hoodoos — balanced rocks formed from the erosion of softer rock beneath harder rocks.

GeologyViewVert0403In addition to the diverse vegetation, wildlife in this area includes mountain lion, golden eagle, peregrine falcon, black bear and coati mundi, as well as over 200 species of birds. The area is managed by the U. S. Forest Service and a $5 parking pass is required to park at picnic, scenic vista and recreation areas. The pass can be purchased at the Palisades Visitor Center and other fee stations along the way. The community of Summerhaven, with its shops and restaurants is 7,840 feet up and makes a good respite from the drive. The Mt. Lemmon Ski resort is open in the summer as well as ski season. Visitors enjoy the views from the ski lift and hikers use it to access trails at the top.

The Sky Island Parkway is known locally as the Mount Lemmon Road, the Catalina Highway and General Hitchcock Highway. Mt. Lemmon was named for Sara Plummer Lemmon, who climbed it in 1881. The Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Area is named for a Japanese-American who protested the WWII order for interment. When his appeal to the U. S. Supreme Court failed, he served his time at the Catalina Federal Honor Camp here. (His conviction was overturned in 1987.)

(Photo courtesy of National Scenic Byways Online. Used with permission.)

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