A visit to Mount Lemmon can be a perfect day trip but also an amazing weekend or multi-day getaway.
Below, I’ll go into detail for all of the different things you need to know to plan an awesome trip, whether you are spending six hours or six days on the mountain.
I’ll cover things like dining, lodging, hiking, and all of the other activities you might be interested like stargazing.
Mount Lemmon overview
Mount Lemmon is the name of the highest “peak” of the Santa Catalina Mountain range at 9,159 feet (or 9,171 feet according to some).
I put peak in quotations because the summit of Mount Lemmon is not very prominent like a typical mountain peak.
But because it’s the highest point, a lot of people refer to the entire Santa Catalina Mountain range as “Mount Lemmon.”
That can be a little confusing and misleading because this mountain range is a huge area full of canyons and peaks many of which are many miles away from the summit of Mount Lemmon.
For purposes of this article, I will refer to “Mount Lemmon” as the attractions and sites that could be easily accessed from Mount Lemmon Highway. (I’m leaving out lots of the sites on the north side of the mountain and those found in lower elevation areas like Sabino Canyon.)
These sites also fall within Coronado National Forest which covers a large portion of the Santa Catalina Mountain range.
Mount Lemmon dining and lodging
We’ll kick off this guide by talking about the different dining and lodging options on Mount Lemmon.
These are all located near the top of the mountain which means that you’ll need to complete the Mount Lemmon Highway scenic drive to get to them.
Mount Lemmon Restaurants
If you work up an appetite on Mount Lemmon you have a few options at your disposal in the main town of Summerhaven where you will come across the following dining options:
- Sawmill Run Restaurant
- Cookie Cabin
- General Store
Sawmill Run Restaurant
The Sawmill Run Restaurant is the spot you want to head to for burgers and sandwiches. They also have a nice little bar area as well as a cool patio for outdoor dining.
If you’re up for the challenge, try to take on the ultimate cookie at the Cookie Cabin. If you’re in the mood for something more savory you can also find pizza by the slice which you can enjoy in their outdoor dining space.
If you forgot to pack your bug spray or sunscreen or even if you just need some type of snack, the general store will have just about everything you need including some irresistible fudge treats.
They also have a fair amount of souvenirs and random gear you can purchase.
Mount Lemmon Fair
On weekends in the summer you can find the Mount Lemmon Fair going on which is like an arts and crafts/mini farmer’s market.
Among the dozen or so stands, you can find some cool souvenirs and snacks to hold you over while you’re up there in Summerville. It runs all day on Saturdays and Sundays.
Just a couple of minutes up the mountain from Summerhaven you have more dining options including:
- The Iron Door
- Miner’s Sweet Tooth fudge shop
- Grub Stake
The Iron Door
The Iron Door is my favorite restaurant on Mount Lemmon!
It has great views from some of the windows indoors and also has an outdoor patio where you can dine under beautiful aspen trees. If it’s cold outside, be sure to try out their awesome hot chocolate!
Tip: If you order a breakfast item you can get a free pass to the ski lift.
Miner’s Sweet Tooth fudge shop
The Miner’s Sweet Tooth fudge shop is a cool little hut to stop at for some sweets. Just like at the General Store, you can find some irresistible fudge along with unique treats like Dr Pepper jellybeans. They also serve coffee, popcorn, and homemade caramel corn.
While Mount Lemmon is a perfect day trip destination you can take the experience to a different level by staying a couple of nights on the mountain.
This will allow you to truly relax in the fresh mountain air and appreciate what the mountain has to offer.
New lodging is popping up every year but for now you have a few options.
One popular route is to go the Airbnb route and find a cabin, which can be a great option especially if you are traveling with a lot of people or large family.
We recently stayed at the Mt. Lemmon Hotel which is basically a series of small cabins located in Summerville. We really enjoyed our weekend at the Mt. Lemmon Hotel and you can read more about the experience here.
Mount Lemmon things to do
The main road that heads up Mount Lemmon goes by several names: Mt Lemmon Highway, Catalina Highway Scenic Drive, and General Hitchcock Highway.
To make things simple we’ll just call it the “Mt Lemmon Highway.”
The 27-mile Mt Lemmon Highway is no doubt one of the primary attractions in Tucson and I would argue in Arizona/the Southwest as a whole.
It’s one of the most striking scenic drives I’ve ever done and it boasts an incredible and quick transition from desert to mixed-conifer forests. I don’t know how many other mountain roads in the world offer such a rapid transition in vegetation and scenery but it can’t be many!
It takes about 45 minutes to get from the base of Mount Lemmon up to Summerhaven and an additional 5 to 10 minutes to get near the summit.
If you’re heading up there on the weekend be prepared to drive a little bit slower with all of the cyclists making their way up on the side of the road. And if you are a slow driver be sure to utilize the pull outs so that faster drivers can pass you.
You’ll find many overlooks and pull outs as you climb up over 6,000 feet in elevation!
I’d recommend making several stops along the way but one area you definitely don’t want to miss is Windy Point Vista. It’s here where you can wander around a rocky playground and admire the phenomenal views looking over Tucson.
During your drive on the Mount Lemmon Highway, if you visit when the snow is melting or during monsoon season after rains, you can find waterfalls flowing at various points in the mountain.
It’s not the most dizzying mountain road I’ve driven on but for those prone to motion sickness popping a Dramamine before your drive might not be a horrible idea.
Mount Lemmon Hiking
From the base of Mount Lemmon to the summit, you have dozens of hiking trails to choose from.
We’ve almost done every hike on Mount Lemmon and many of them are extremely scenic hikes. Below, I’ll give you a breakdown of some of the most popular hikes grouped by elevation/terrain.
There are plenty of more trails including back country trails and lesser known spots but I can’t be giving away all the local’s secrets. 😉
Also, a lot of these are moderate to strenuous hikes but you can always make them easier by just cutting the distance in half.)
If you want to get a feel for the Sonoran Desert, towards the beginning of the Mount Lemmon Highway you can look for the following trailheads: Soldier Trail and Babat Duag, and Molino Basin.
The Soldier Trail (Length: 5.3 mi; Elevation gain: 1,938 ft) is a moderate to strenuous hike that wastes no time and picks up elevation quickly before leveling off and opening up to beautiful canyon views and when the creeks are running, a couple of waterfalls.
Babat Duag (Length: 5.2 mi; Elevation gain: 1,204 ft) is an easy to moderate hike with great views. It takes you through the upper zone for saguaros and introduces you to the high desert scenery.
The Molino Basin is an easy to moderate trail where you can appreciate high desert scenery where rolling foothills of oak and agave have replaced the saguaros.
The Bug Springs Trail (Length: 9.5 mi; Elevation gain: 1,991 ft) will offer you the chance to experience the transition from the high desert to pine forests firsthand.
On this strenuous hike, you’ll start off with amazing views and then make your way through a rocky playground before dropping down into a shaded pine forest. It’s one of my favorite trails but it’s popular with mountain bikers so be on the lookout because they fly down this thing!
Once you are in the pine country of Mount Lemmon at around 6,000 feet plus in elevation you may consider trails like the Green Mountain Trail and Incinerator Ridge.
The Green Mountain Trail (Length: 8.8 mi; Elevation gain: 2,575 ft) is a strenuous trail that starts near the Mount Lemmon Highway but eventually works its way into more remote scenery.
The last time we attempted this trail part of it was closed due to repairs so you might have to cut your journey a little bit short.
The Butterfly Trail Sunset Loop (Length: 9.3 mi; Elevation gain: 2,362 ft) is another great strenuous option that is home to beautiful views, a seasonal waterfall, and even plane wreckage.
The trail can be quite overgrown during certain parts of the year so pants might be needed to minimize thorn cuts. I found this to be a pretty amazing trail to do in the evening since it can be pretty exposed in the morning.
Higher altitude trails
And finally when you are near the summit some of the great trails include:
- Sunset Trail
- Marshall Gulch and Aspen Trail Loop
- Wilderness of Rocks Trail
The Marshall Gulch and Aspen Trail Loop (Length: 4.2 mi; Elevation gain: 872 ft) is definitely a fan favorite and can get a little bit busy.
It’s a great trail because it takes you through some pretty diverse scenery including a beautiful creek and Aspen Grove. It’s definitely suffered some damage from recent fires though.
My favorite part about the trail is that once you make your way to the Marshall Gulch saddle you have the option of continuing on and making the hike a little bit more strenuous or simply turning around and going for an easier hike.
The Sunset Trail is an easier hike that has a lot of bang for buck in terms of views. And if you make your way near the summit of Mount Lemmon the Meadow Trail is an easy hike worth looking into.
Mount Lemmon picnic areas
There are tons of picnic areas located throughout Mount Lemmon.
Most of these do require you to pay the fee which is eight dollars for a day but if you have an America the Beautiful pass a.k.a. the annual pass for national parks, you can use that to use these facilities for free.
Some of the picnic areas will have shaded areas, grills, and primitive bathrooms. It looks like reservations are not required at most of these.
These are three picnic areas that are perfect for those looking for a cooler experience among the pine and oak forest. These are located near the Green Mountain trailhead so you have easy access to a pretty cool hiking trail.
Group picnic areas at Rose Canyon Lake open from mid April until mid October. These group picnic sites can be reserved by calling 1-877-444-6777.
These picnic areas are all located nearby each other in the higher elevations where you can expect temperatures to be 20 to 30° cooler than what you would find in Tucson.
These are very close to Summerhaven so you can easily pick up food from the general store or from one of the restaurants and enjoy it in one of the picnic areas.
High elevation picnicking
This picnic area is one of the highest you’ll find on Mount Lemmon and it is near the trailhead for Marshall Gulch. Here you can relax near Sabino Creek which appears as a small creek but it winds down into one of the most scenic canyons in Arizona as it makes its way down to lower elevations.
You could always continue to make the drive up to near the summit of Mount Lemmon where temperatures will drop even more and the wind will likely kick up some. Here, you can just find a spot to picnic yourself but there is no official picnic spot up there.
Of course, if camping is more your style you have tons of campsites available:
- General Hitchcock Campground
- Gordon Hirabayashi Campground
- Molino Basin Campground
- Peppersauce Campground
- Rose Canyon Campground
- Spencer Canyon Campground
The stars really come out on Mount Lemmon and depending on which side you are on, it’s very possible to shield yourself from light pollution. It’s a great place to watch meteor showers and to take in the Milky Way when it’s visible.
If you want to take your astronomy experience to the next level consider booking a tour with the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter.
They offer a few different tours but the most common one is to spend an evening learning about the stars and looking through one of the high powered telescopes located on the summit of Mount Lemmon. Doing a tour is also the only way to access the summit which is pretty cool.
You’ll get a chance to look through some of amazingly powerful telescopes and view celestial objects like planets, galaxies, and star clusters.
If you’re visiting when the snow has melted then you can use the ski lift as a way to just admire the beautiful mountain scenery and forest. It’s about a 30 minute round-trip total ride and it’s just a really peaceful experience.
Check out the visitor center
On your way up the mountain you may want to stop by the Palisades Visitor Center.
It’s a pretty small visitor center but you can get information about the mountain and perhaps buy a map to help you find some of the different trailheads.
AllTrails is great but they don’t show you all of the trails and it’s always good to get some personal recommendations from a friendly park ranger.
They also have a few interesting exhibits to check out that give you a sense of the local vegetations and wildlife among other historical background information.
Mount Lemmon is one of the best places for rock climbing in Arizona. It has more than 1,500 climbing routes, many of which can accessed by the Catalina Highway. Read more about rock climbing at Mount Lemmon here.
Mountain biking and road biking
Mount Lemmon is one of the best places for mountain biking in the area and I’ve seen many mountain bikers navigating some pretty technical terrain.
There’s even something known as the lemon drop which takes you basically from the top to the bottom of the mountain.
The Mount Lemmon highway is also a popular road biking route. You can find out more about road biking Mount Lemmon here.
Skiing and other winter activities
Mount Lemmon has many claims to fame and one of them is that it is the southernmost skiing destination in the continental US. Enjoy skiing, snowboarding, or just riding a sled through the snow.
You can get all the information you need to plan a ski trip to Mount Lemmon here.
If you’re into fishing I’d highly suggest you check out Rose Canyon Lake, a beautiful 6 acre lake surrounded by rocky slopes and towering ponderosa pine trees.
It’s a popular place to go fishing for rainbow trout which may be large enough to take home. They are released in the lake about once a month from early April through the end of August.
Lake parking day use is $10.00 per day but you cannot use your interagency pass.
There is a campground store next to the parking lot and it is open Thursday to Sunday, 10am-5pm, Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Unfortunately, no swimming is allowed at Rose Canyon Lake.
Birdwatching is a super popular activity in this area of Arizona and Mount Lemmon is a great place to do it.
On just about every hike I’ve done on Mount Lemmon, I’ve come across a variety of beautiful birds including hummingbirds, warblers, woodpeckers, owls, and more.
I could only imagine all of the birds I could have seen by now if I were setting out to observe them in a more patient and focused way. Find out more about Mount Lemmon birdwatching here.
Mount Lemmon passes (cost)
Mount Lemmon is free to visit but certain facilities require you to purchase a pass. These include parking at trailheads, picnic areas, etc.
Below are the prices for Mount Lemmon fees:
- Day-use: $8 per vehicle
- Weekly: $10 per vehicle
You can purchase a pass online or purchase a pass on site with cash or check.
Because this is a national forest site, you can get in for free with a valid Coronado National Forest Annual Pass or Interagency (America the Beautiful) Pass, including the Annual, Senior, Access, or Military Pass.
Just make sure that you display the pass on the driver side of the vehicles dashboard.
As you can tell, there is a ton to see and do on Mount Lemmon. It might just be my favorite place to spend time in the Tucson area. It can be an action packed experience or also just a relaxing and low-key visit where you can enjoy beautiful forest scenery and cooler temperatures. Either way, you can’t go wrong!
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.