School will be out soon, the temperature has hit 100 and it is time to cool off in the Mountains. Northern Arizona has San Francisco Peaks, Central Arizona, the White Mountains. Southern Arizona has our Sky Islands. Here is a sampling of cool places you can visit on our Sky Islands. Hint: Mt. Lemmon is one, but there are others. And some less crowded. The pandemic has put a damper on some of the activities, and it is always good to check ahead. That said, read on.
Mt. Lemmon is the closest getaway from Tucson, so logically it is the most crowded when the temperatures rise above 100. Mt. Lemmon is a 365 day vacation getaway. Snow in the winter and a cool respite from the sweltering desert heat in the summer. Those of you who have been here for more than a year, have surely been up to Mt. Lemmon. So, what’s there to do up there?
First, it is not just about the arrival, sometimes getting there is half the fun. The drive or bike ride itself is spectacular. OK, it is not Yellowstone National Park or Yosemite. But given that our Sky Islands exist in the Sonoran Desert is noteworthy in itself. Mt. Lemmon’s summit rises above the desert floor at 9000 feet elevation. To get there you must drive through no fewer than 4 biosystems, ranging from the desert floor to pine-covered forests. Mt. Lemmon is part of the Coronado National Forest system which stretches from Mt. Lemmon to the Mexican border. The Arizona Trail runs through it. You can locate several access points while traveling up to the top.
Stop at the Cataracts, spectacular after a rain. Stop at Windy Point on the way up or down. Hike out on the rocks. Watch for rock climbers.
Halfway up the 26-mile drive is Windy Point, popular with Rock Climbers. On a good day, (non windy) you will find top ropers and free climbers scattered about these rocks.
The lower campgrounds are closed during the summer as are the upper ones in the winter. Rose Canyon Campground has a lake stocked with fish. Spencer campground, which was scorched by the Aspen fire of 2003 is coming back. It is large and quiet. On the Northeast side of the road, near Mt. Bigalow is primitive camping. In the drier months, fires of any kind are not allowed, including cigarettes and marijuana. Read a review of the campsites here.
Rose Canyon Campground and Lake is stocked with rainbow trout every few weeks. Check the stocking schedule here. Come on up, relax and cool off, do some fishing with the kiddos. You can check online availability to the Rose Canyon Campsites here. You may reserve sites a year in advance, and reserve campsites for the weekends. Go early. There are plenty of walkups (no reservation) for tent camping but you must get there early or even the day before.
There is plenty of hiking in this area. Do come prepared. Not all trails are overly popular, well-marked and cellphone accessible. Several rescues occur each summer.
If you are a newcomer, two trails you might start with are the Aspen Trail to Marshall’s Gulch and Soldiers’ Trail to Marshall’s Gulch. Marshall’s Gulch is a popular area at the end of the road past Summerhaven. Go early for parking.
Butterfly Trail is also a popular hike. See our list of other hiking trails on Mt. Lemmon here.
Make reservations for the Sky Center to view the stars from a 32″ telescope. Dress warmly as the nights are quite cool even in the dead of summer. Read about our Sky Center experience here.
Kitt Peak would ordinarily be another choice, but as of 2022-05-10, Kitt Peak is closed until further notice, due to the ongoing volatility of the pandemic.
Food – Picnic or Restaurant
Picnic at the southern end of Summerhaven or eat out at one of the restaurants on top of the hill, the Sawmill Restaurant in Summerhaven and the Old Ski Lodge turned Restaurant, the Iron Door just across from the Ski Lift. We often go up on a hot summer’s day just to get out of the heat for lunch. Go early or be prepared to wait for table or picnic table, as many others usually have the same idea.
Mt. Graham; A Cool Alternative
Editor’s Note:10/4/19 Much of Mt. Graham was devastated by the 2017 Frye fire. We have not been up there since but will update this page when we do.
Riggs Flat atop Mt. Graham is another fishing hole stocked with trout during the summer and one of our favorites along with Soldier Campground (above).
In contrast to Mt. Lemmon is Mt. Graham at over 10,000 ft. elevation. Although it is somewhat north of Willcox, and has no town, or restaurants, it is much quieter, less crowded. The 29-mile drive is narrow, windy, and unpaved most of the way. There is plenty of tent camping.
We prefer Soldier Creek campground. Riggs Flat Campground and Riggs Flat Lake are further up the hill. There is no RV camping for vehicles over 22 feet, and you would not want to drive anything larger up these roads. Boats are permitted on Riggs Flat Lake, but trolling motors only. Bring your own drinking water although Riggs Flat has drinking water. There is a Ranger Station near the top and a resident docent at Riggs Flat. The Observatory is not open to the public. The road to Mt. Graham is closed from Nov. – April. Read more on the National Forest Website here or read our Mt. Graham story here.
Have you ever been to Reef Townsite?
Reef Townsite is an old mining camp set atop Carr Canyon, just south of Sierra Vista. Be mindful of the incoming weather. It’s a scenic drive with breathtaking views of the valley below. Over six miles of dirt road make a high clearance vehicle preferred. No RV’s over 12 feet please. They cannot negotiate the tight turns and narrow road. (We actually got stuck for a bit one time as we negotiated getting out of the way for another car.) Approximately 7 miles to 2 lightly used campgrounds, it is a lovely place. The Reef Townsite campsites in back are the best. It is a quiet forested area, unless you are there at cleaning time. They have toilets, but bring your own water. A short nature trail will take you around through what remains of the mining area. The campsite is over 7,000 ft. A trail will take you another 2,000 more feet to Carr peak at over 9200 ft. Read Hikearizona for a review here. The US Forest Service’s post about the trails is here.
Mt. Hopkins Whipple Observatory
Although the telescope is currently shut down for restoration, you can still visit the Visitor’s Center at 5000 ft. elevation and picnic there. 2022-05-10 The Observatory is currently closed as is the visitor’s center. Check with the Whipple Observatory site. Watch our short Mt. Hopkins slideshow for an idea here.
Visit the Chiricahua Mountains
At the Eastern end of I-10 Arizona lies the Chiricahua Mountains, some of the most spectacular scenery in the country. There is camping above 5000 ft. as well as hiking, a Visitor’s Center, and the Faraway Ranch where you can see what it was like to live in the midst of the Wonderland of Rocks before it became a National Monument. As of 5-10-22 the Faraway Ranch is closed for renovation, but you can still walk around the perimeter.
Head up to Massai Point at over 6870 ft elevation and take the short Nature Trail or go on a full-blown hike. Be sure to stop off at the Visitor’s Center for orientation, a map, or reservations to see the Faraway Ranch. Faraway Ranch is a real-life fairy tale come true. Pick up the booklet, and take the tour.
In conclusion, there are other scenic places at high elevations in Southern Arizona, but most involve plenty of hiking.
If you have more time, head north of Morenci into the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest and explore. And, further on, of course, there are the White Mountains, a favorite of those from the Phoenix area, but just slightly out of our Southern Arizona jurisdiction.