Sky Island Scenic Byway
E. Catalina Hwy. to Summerhaven
520/749-8700 (Palisade Visitor Center)
HOURS: Daily 8:30 a.m.–4:40 p.m.
COST: $5 per car
About 50 miles—an hour or so up a twisty paved two-lane road from the desert floor northeast of Tucson—and you’re at nearly 10,000 feet. This two-lane road is known as the Sky Island Scenic Byway, a nod to the fact that the 10,000-foot, forested peaks look like lonely islands in an endless dried-up sea. The trip, it is often said, is like traveling from Mexico to Canada in one short scenic drive.
Until the 1930s Tucsonans couldn’t reach the cool heights in great numbers. But then former U.S. Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock called in some federal favors and secured money and convict labor to begin building a road into the mountains; the indomitable Civilian Conservation Corps eventually finished the job.
There are dozens of trails on the range, and there are several public bathrooms, campgrounds, and lookout points.
It’s a good idea to stop at the Palisade Visitor Center (milepost 19.6) at 7,200 feet, which has trail maps, a bookstore, and displays about the mountain’s ecology. To begin your drive, take either Broadway Boulevard or Speedway Boulevard east to Wilmot Road, which becomes Tanque Verde Road. Head northeast on Tanque Verde Road for about 10 miles, and then turn left at East Catalina Highway, which rises into the Santa Catalina Mountains.
At various points, East Catalina Highway becomes the General Hitchcock Highway and the Mount Lemmon Highway (the name most locals use for the route). The road ends at the tiny village of Summerhaven.
© Tim Hull from Moon Tucson, 1st Edition