One year ago in April 2003, we had no idea that the landscape through which we drove that fresh spring day would become drastically altered by one of the worst forest fires in southern Arizona’s history only a few months later. The fire called Aspen that raged in the Santa Catalina Mountains northeast Tucson in June and July 2003 would mark each ecozone it touched, as well as virtually torch the small high mountain community of Summerhaven at 7840 feet.
Mount Lemmon, crowning at 9175 feet, is called a “sky island” by naturalists and National Forest staff. The Santa Catalinas are but one of 15 mountain ranges that make up Coronado National Forest in southeast Arizona. “Sky islands” refer to the “islands” of cool pine-forested higher elevations of these ranges, whose bases rise from the desert. We took about half of the day driving the 27 miles through five ecozones (stopping frequently to take short hikes and pictures, and once to enjoy a picnic lunch). We climbed from the Sonoran desert elevation of 2400 feet all the way to the ski valley’s ponderosa pine forests at 8000 feet. The zones in between were mesquite grassland, oak woodland, mixed conifers, with quaking aspen and Douglas fir, and near streams, riparian zones where the water loving plants and animals take root or reside.
Babad Do’ag (Frog Mountain, in Tohono O’odham) Vista is a view area a few miles up the highway that provides panoramic views of Tucson. We stopped to practice pano shots with my (then) brand new digital camera, even though it was a bit hazy that day. Just past Molino Canyon Vista is the fee station. The fee per vehicle is $5, or free with a Santa Catalina Mountain pass, Golden Age or Golden Eagle pass. About six miles up the highway at 4370 feet elevation is Molino Basin Campground, with 37 spaces for tents or smaller RVs 22 feet and under. This campground borders the Pusch Wilderness, a management area for the desert bighorn sheep. Mountain bikes and dogs are not permitted into Pusch Wilderness, and dogs in the campground must be leashed at all times. The best time to camp in this oak studded grassland surrounded by steep, rugged cliffs is the springtime, with the wildflowers in bloom and Molino Creek running by at its fullest. It’s open in fall and winter as well. The Arizona Trail intersects this campground, providing access to an extensive wilderness trail system.
One begins to wonder about the geologic history of these mountains when viewing the scenery at Thimble Peak and Seven Cataracts Vistas. But the full impact that this is an unusual and starkly beautiful place fully hits at Windy Point and Geology Vistas. Geologists believe that the Santa Catalina Mountains were formed 12 million years ago, during a time that the entire North American continent was being stretched, cracked, and buckled into blocks bordered by steep faults, creating what is termed “basin and range” topography. The Catalinas probably began as small hills, but as blocks of rock sank around them, forming valleys, they were left higher. Almost immediately, wind, ice, and water began their erosion process on the young mountains. The distinctive rocks are formed of ancient granite and “Catalina” gneiss.
In all, there are six forest service campgrounds along the Catalina (Hitchcock) Highway. The higher ones close in winter, and are open from May to October, depending on the weather. Rose Canyon Campground, which was still closed when we drove up Mt. Lemmon, sounds particularly attractive. The campground borders a seven-acre mountain lake stocked with trout. The highest campground, Spencer Campground, elevation 8000 feet at the head of a forested canyon, overlooks Tucson and the Santa Cruz Valley. There are nine picnic areas with tables, trashcans and toilets. For hikers, there are 16 trail access points. At the top of Mt. Lemmon lies Mt. Lemmon Ski Resort, the southernmost ski area in the U.S.A.