When wandering through Arizona, there’s a tiny stretch of mountains you must stop and see. Mount Lemmon, part of the Coronado National Forest and Santa Catalina Mountains, is truly a getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city of Tucson.
Up on the mountain top, you’ll find that 360-degree views of the desert meld with forest to create an epic landscape that you may not find anywhere else. To us, Mount Lemmon has become a place that breathes fresh air into our bones and allows us to witness the beauty of both the mountains and the desert.
In this guide, I’m giving you all the details about how to plan your trip to this epic spot for a quick weekend getaway or a week-long stay.
What’s So Special About Mount Lemmon?
Mount Lemmon is a special place because at the bottom of the mountain all you see around you as you drive towards the mountain are saguaros in every direction. As you climb up the mountain, you notice that the short brush of the desert grows next to luscious mesquite trees. By the time you reach the top, you’ll find yourself surrounded in the woods in a forested valley, leaving the desert behind.
We haven’t traveled everywhere in the world, but I would bet money that Mount Lemmon is one of the most unique places you can visit on four wheels. It’s also a great place to bring the family for a little peace and quiet that you don’t always get when driving on the interstate to your next destination.
What Should You Know Before Heading Up the Mountain?
Mountain Grade Roads
Just an hour’s drive from the center of Tucson, you can experience Mount Lemmon with an RV or a trailer in tow, but be mindful of the grades and sharp corners that come with a mountain road. Mount Lemmon Highway is a pretty steady 5% grade the entire way up and down, so make sure your trailer brakes are in working order before heading up.
Winter Weather Alerts
In the winter, Mount Lemmon may experience heavy snows at the top which could be difficult or not safe for travelers. Sometimes, if the snow is heavy enough the road up to the top will be closed, too, so it’s best to check the weather ahead of time before making the journey.
Where to Camp on Mount Lemmon
Be prepared to come with a range of cash, from $10-$22, for each night you intend to stay at any Mount Lemmon campgrounds. I always forget how much it is for each night and find myself halfway up the mountain with $20, scrambling to find $2 in change in my truck console, while the camp manager stares at me like I’m crazy. So, needless to say, it’s best to check out what each Mount Lemmon campground charges to ensure you have enough cash to get you by for several days and nights.
Most campgrounds on Mount Lemmon aren’t meant for extended RVs or long trailers, but if you have a small pull behind, camper van, or 22 foot or smaller RV you can find spots at several of the campgrounds including Rose Canyon Campground, which is actually our favorite campground on the mountain.
Rose Canyon offers 3 RV loops, but no electric hookups are available so be prepared to rough it while you’re up on the mountain top. There is potable water at almost every campground, but be sure to check with the campground manager at each site to find the spigots. The good news is that these campgrounds do come with some amenities like toilets, firepits, bear bins, picnic areas, and some even have rope swings hanging from the trees at a few campsites.
If you need a little socializing and get tired of cooking over an open fire, you still have plenty of options up at the very tip-top of Mount Lemmon that is partially the reason we head up there time and time again.
What to See and Do on the Mountain
No matter what you’re into, whether it be hiking, biking, or relaxing, there’s plenty to do on Mount Lemmon. We’ve made several trips and still haven’t been able to see or do everything the mountain has to offer, but we do have some favorite stops that you just can’t miss on your first trip up.
The Cookie Cabin
The Cookie Cabin is truly a one of a kind place. This little mountain cabin/restaurant is where you’ll find oven-baked pizza, cookies the size of your face, and hot chocolate you can’t put down. We always make sure to stop in at The Cookie Cabin before doing anything else because their supplies are often limited and you never know when the weather on the mountain can change and the restaurant might close early. It may sound stressful, but I promise you that it’s well worth the effort to make it to the top just to have a slice of mountain pizza. For the first night of our camping trips up on the mountain, we often buy an extra pizza slice and share it for dinner later over the campfire. Yum!
The General Store
We always seem to make a stop at the General Store even if we don’t want to. This little shop has been our savior several times as we always forget one or two things we need (like food and water…). I know we’re not the best trip packers but we get so excited about heading up the mountain that we forget a few things sometimes which always leads us back to the General Store.
This quaint little shop actually has a great variety of food, beverage, and even clothing items if you find yourself lacking enough layers to keep warm at night. The prices are pretty reasonable and we often grab ourselves an adult beverage of some sort from here, too, as they have various travel-sized bottles and cans.
Our favorite hike on Mount Lemmon is Sunset Trail. This short, but jaw-dropping trail is a hike that almost anyone can do with the proper footwear. The trail itself drops down, roughly 300 feet, into a forested valley that is the perfect view for (you guessed it!) sunset!
Depending on when you make the trek, you may see little waterfalls falling over rocks as you make your way towards the end of the trail. During the Fall, the trees in this valley change colors as they ready themselves for winter and make for an even better view if you’re willing to brave the mountain breeze and cooler temps.
Things Still on Our List to Do
Over the last several trips, we’ve managed to check a ton off the Mount Lemmon bucket list, but we still have a few things we haven’t done that have been recommended to us.
Fish at Rose Canyon Lake
Though we haven’t had the chance to make it down to the lake (we’re hikers!), we have it on our list to visit Rose Canyon Lake with a fishing pole in tow. We don’t normally have a fishing license on us, which is why we haven’t made the attempt yet, but if you have one handy you should make a quick stop to relax around the lake and, hopefully, catch you a fish!
Ski at the Top of the Mountain
Skiing on Mount Lemmon is at the top of our list for our next trip up the mountain. The best time to ski, if the roads are open, is December through early March. Mount Lemmon receives nearly 200 inches of snow each winter and actually has reasonable prices for day passes. At $45 for a day pass and additional rental fees, you can easily take a day trip just to go ski if you find yourself in Tuscon for a weekend.
Visit the SkyCenter
Despite the University of Arizona SkyCenter signs that lead you up the mountain that I’ve seen more than five times, I never knew that there was an observatory at the top of the mountain until recently. I’m a huge fan of sleeping under the stars and I’ve recently taken up stargazing as a hobby, so when I found out that the SkyCenter had a telescope in it, I knew I had to add it to our list of things to do.
Obviously for stargazing, you’ll want to visit the SkyCenter at night, but you should also check out the list of events and workshops that the University of Arizona offers at the center to make sure you don’t miss out on Milkyway photography classes or a lunar eclipse!
Mount Lemmon is Calling…
And you must go!
When I say Mount Lemmon is at the top of the list of places we’ve been, I mean it. There is so much to see and do on the mountain without spending an arm and a leg to reserve a campsite. From the hiking trails, birding, mountain biking, fishing, skiing, stargazing and everything else, you really can experience the best of both the desert and the mountain in a unique way every time you visit.
I have never been disappointed with a trip to Mount Lemmon and I don’t think you will be either. It’s impossible to grow tired of the views, memories, and campfire stories it provides each and every time.
Erin Maxson is rooted in South Dakota, but wanders every chance she gets to see the beauty that nature holds. From hiking to climbing, there’s not an adventure she’ll turn down.
After renovating her 1976 Airstream Argosy, Erin knows the ins and outs of living life on the road and trailer maintenance.
Whether she’s on the road with her dog and partner or at home curled up with a good book, Erin is always planning her next adventure because life is meant to be lived outdoors.