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Mount Lemmon: A Cool Ride

By Chris Gould - August 2nd, 2000

The first light of morning is starting to creep over the Catalina Mountains. The air is still cool. It's 5 a.m. and I've just started pedaling up the Mount Lemmon Highway in Tucson. It's going to be a hot day down here in the desert, but that's no reason to put the bike away -- not with Mount Lemmon's cool heights beckoning.

At least once a week during the summer I wake up early and ride up the Mount Lemmon (Catalina) Highway. The 25-mile climb, a steady ascent but not terribly steep, is a great cycling route that takes me out of the heat and into the cool mountain air.

The first five miles are generally level, giving my sleepy muscles a chance to wake up. After about 20 minutes of slow pedaling I reach the base of the mountain and start climbing. I shift from my large chain ring down to the small one and begin the methodical spin that will help me reach the high point of today's ride. I alternate between going all the way to the top and to the Palisade Ranger Station at the 20-mile point. Today I'll turn around at the ranger station.

The road winds past one spectacular view after another as it ascends the mountain. The route to the top of Mount Lemmon is a dramatic example of a sky island's unique environment. Every 1,000 feet of climbing is like traveling 600 miles northward, with the 9,157-foot summit usually about 25 degrees cooler than the desert below.

After 30 minutes I reach the Molino Basin Campground, six miles up the hill. Normally my pace is not quite this brisk, but I feel strong, maybe the weekly rides are paying off.

Changing Scenery
The air temperature hardly changes during the first hour of my ride. I know the strange effect is a result of the changing elevation combined with my early departure, when the desert was at its coolest, but it's still an odd feeling. Although the temperature remains constant, I do notice a transformation in my surroundings. The cactus covered slopes of the lower mountain are gone, replaced by a mixture of scrub oak and grasses.

About five miles past Molino Basin I enter Bear Canyon, the only "flat" portion of the ride (it's deceptive after the steep approach). The vegetation changes once again, with dense trees crowding the sides of the road. The temperature finally changes as well. Cold air from the top of the mountain settles overnight in the canyon bottom. I slow down as I pedal through the mile long canyon, conserving energy for what's to come. From here, the road climbs 1,500 feet in the next two miles.

I'm halfway between Bear Canyon and Windy Point when I shift into my easiest gear. The road is steep here and I'm starting to feel it. I pedal slowly past a sign that indicates Windy Point is only a quarter mile away. When I arrive at the overlook, 90 minutes after leaving the desert, Tucson is just starting to come to life. The city below already looks hot. But up here, with a breeze blowing against my sweat-soaked jersey, I almost feel cold.

After a couple of minutes off the bike, taking in the view and cooling down, I'm ready to get on the road again. As soon as I leave Windy Point, the route descends a short distance and I actually do get cold. But then I'm quickly climbing again, pedaling up the mountain at a good clip. Ten minutes later I pass the entrance to Rose Canyon Lake, then comes the San Pedro Vista and its superb views to the east. Two more miles of uphill, then I can turn around and let gravity take me home.

The Return Flight
Two hours and 20 minutes after starting my ride, I arrive at the ranger station. I take a short break to fill my water bottles, eat a Power Bar and put on a lightweight jacket (no kidding). When I turn my bike around there's 20 miles, nearly all of it downhill, in front of me. Even though I've done this ride before, it still amazes me that I'll be back in Tucson in just half an hour.

I pick up speed quickly, passing Windy Point almost immediately, then returning to Bear Canyon just after that. The temperature is finally warming up, and I slow down at the bottom of the canyon to remove my jacket.

I continue on, pedaling as fast as I can in my big gear. I can feel my legs getting rid of all that unwanted lactic acid. I fly past the Molino Basin Campground on my way to the base of the mountain. Two miles later Tucson comes into view.

At 8 a.m. I return to the desert. The air is hot and there's no longer a downhill to create a refreshing breeze. I select a comfortable gear and spin the final miles back to my car. There are a lot more people on the road now; it's ironic but, looking around at the city streets, I realize I felt safer speeding down the mountain at nearly 40 miles per hour.

Trip Planner

Location: This ride can be started either at the base of the mountain or at the intersection of Tanque Verde and Bear Canyon roads, just prior to the beginning of the Mount Lemmon Highway (also called the Catalina Highway).

Local Shops: Two Tucson bike shops, Full Cycle (520-327-3232) and Fair Wheel Bikes (520-884-9018), sponsor weekly group rides up Mount Lemmon.


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