Ruth & I visited Phoenix and Tucson during the past week despite the border crisis and COVID shutdowns that are impacting the area. Both cities have been especially affected by these awful social disruptions. Most indoor attractions in and near both cities are shut down and are likely to remain so until at least next September. We could not even see and get help in the relatively new Visitors’ Center in the historic Pima County Courthouse in Tucson because it is currently closed. The people of both cities are putting on brave faces covered by masks through all of this, but this is a difficult time to visit. Luckily, both cities are outdoor activity seeking places and most outdoor venues around and near both cities were open and busy.
For example, the drive up Mount Lemmon has reopened, and we spent most of an entire day enjoying the experience of sharing its road to the summit with bikers, hikers, and other motorists. Despite fires, Mount Lemmon is still a marvel. A true sky island in the desert, Mount Lemmon soars to 9,157 feet in the shadow of Tucson and shelters many animals that can’t survive in the Sonoran Desert that surrounds it. One wonders, for example, how bears made it to live in the pine forests atop this mountain. Drivers do not get much beyond 8,000 feet during the drive up the 2-lane highway to Summerhaven, its mountaintop community with a new hotel near a ski valley. When we began at Mount Lemmon’s base, the temperature was in the 90s but the air was quickly cooler as we ascended this 26 mile long highway. We know because we made frequent stops to admire the flowering saguaros, ocotillo cacti, and palo verde trees. Mount Lemmon, which has several canyons including Sabino, sits in the Coronado National Forest. Tucson barely gets 11 inches of rain each year while the residents of Summerhaven get almost 3 times as much moisture. We saw snow patches near their town.
Mount Lemmon experienced major fires in 2003 and 2020. Ruth and I saw evidence of the more recent fire in several places. There are frequent pull-over spots all along this highway, and Ruth and I enjoyed almost all of them. One offered dramatic views of Thimble Peak. Another, the Windy Point Vista, meant seeing a host of hoodoos. Tucson is framed by 5 mountain ranges. One of them is the Santa Catalina Mountains that Mount Lemmon is part of. Lemmon is, in fact, the Santa Catalina’s highest peak.
Despite the Bighorn Fire of 2020, the Mount Lemmon Hotel opened in Summerhaven in early April, 2021. Its most distinctive feature is 17 casitas, approximately 400 feet of hotel living space in stand alone buildings. Ironically this new guest facility replaces the Alpine Lodge that burned in the major Alpine Fire in 2003. That forest fire destroyed 84,000+ acres and more than 300 homes and businesses.