The only paved road that leads to the upper reaches of Mt. Lemmon and the Santa Catalina Range is one of the most scenic highways in the southwest. It provides access to a fascinating land of breathtaking vistas, outlandish rockscapes, cool mountain forests and deep canyons spilling out onto broad deserts. Because the road starts in the Lower Sonoran vegetative life zone and climbs to the high forests of the Canadian zone, it offers the biological equivalent of driving from the deserts of Mexico to the forests of Canada in a short stretch of 27 miles. Here, you’ll find plants and animals and geology that exhibit some of the most wide-ranging natural diversity to be found in any area of comparable size in the continental U. S. As you drive up the mountain, every turn seems to reveal something new. In some places that may be a community of trees, shrubs, and wildflowers different from the one just around the previous curve. In others, it may be a new gallery of natural rock sculptures even more impossibly perched than the last, or a broader panorama that stretches in an entirely different direction than the one that caused you to stop and snap a photo just a few moments before. For your convenience, there are turnouts at scenic overlooks and several campgrounds and picnic areas. Dozens of hiking trails offer access to the mountain’s backcountry canyons and ridges. Though virtually everyone calls this road the Catalina Highway, it is officially designated the General Hitchcock Highway in honor of Postmaster General Frank Harris Hitchcock. He, perhaps more than anyone else, was responsible for bringing together all the elements necessary to construct this popular access route into the Santa Catalina Mountains. Work was begun on the road in 1933 and completed 17 years later in 1950. Much of the labor was supplied by workers from a federal prison camp located for that purpose at the base of the mountain.
At a Glance
Northeast of Tucson
Santa Catalina Ranger District
Directions: Off Tanque Verde Road, take the Catalina Highway to the Forest boundary where it becomes the Hitchcock Highway. Continue on through deserts and canyons past overlooks, picnic areas, and campgrounds to the top of the mountain.
World-class views. Mexico to Canada (biologically) in 27 miles. Cool forests/hiking trails. Picnic areas and campgrounds. City lights at night. Ski area/sky ride at the top. Mileage/Driving Time: 26 miles to the village of Summerhaven. 27 miles to Ski Valley. 28 miles to the top of Mt. Lemmon. 3 hours round trip from Tucson. Season: Open year round, but winter storms may temporarily close roads or require snow tires or chains. Road Conditions: Paved and suitable for most vehicles. Very large motor homes, trailers over 22' and buses may have trouble negotiating steep grades and sharp turns. Places to turn around are few.