Places to Picnic on Mount Lemmon Near Tucson

Mt. Lemmon’s Sky Island Byway winds 25 miles through 6 life zones and a 30-degree temperature drop. Visitors are treated to sweeping views and beautiful picnicking spots.

Practically in Tucson’s backyard, Mt. Lemmon provides much more than a place to escape the desert’s heat. It’s also one of the best birding sites in the country, a popular challenge to bicyclists, and an easy way to experience the same vegetation zones one would see driving from Mexico to Canada.

Mt. Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson

Mt. Lemmon is in the Coronado National Forest, rising more than 6,000 feet above metropolitan Tucson, home of the University of Arizona. The summit is 9,157 feet above sea level, and a safe, well-paved highway takes visitors to the small village of Summerhaven, near the top, in just an hour’s drive from the city.

Along the way, there are multiple places to pull off and enjoy rocky crags, hoodoos, and spectacular views. In early October, forests of Aspen turn color in the upper reaches of the mountain, and winter snow fuels the nation’s southernmost ski area. Trout fishing can be found at Rose Canyon Lake, and eight campgrounds provide a range of overnight experiences for tent campers as well as those with RVs or trailers. Some of the campgrounds are suitable for picnicking, in addition to designated picnic sites.

Getting to Mt. Lemmon from Tucson

The Catalina Highway intersects with Tanque Verde Road in northeast Tucson. Tanque Verde can be reached from northwest Tucson via Skyline to Kolb to Sabino Canyon Road, which joins Tanque Verde.

From Interstate 10, Speedway Boulevard can be taken east to Wilmot Road. Turning north on Wilmot leads one to Tanque Verde, which angles to the right. The Catalina Highway turns left from Tanque Verde about five miles from Wilmot. Milepost 0 for the 25 mile trip to the top is just under 5 miles from Tanque Verde.

Places to Picnic Along the Catalina Highway

Picnicking sites on Mt. Lemmon are available in every life zone. There are eight designated picnic areas, all with good parking, tables, and (primitive) restrooms. In addition, there is one group picnic site at Rose Canyon Campground. Some of the campgrounds are also available for day use and picnicking, and there are many other places suitable for lunch for those willing to forgo a table.

The following picnicking suggestions are listed in ascending order, from the lowest elevation on the mountain.

Molino Basin Campground and Gordon Hirabayashi Campground

These two sites are both located just past the fee station, about five miles up the highway. They are both under 5,000 feet in elevation, an area that consists of grassland, oak trees, and chaparral, and which is only nominally cooler than the Sonoran desert zone 2,000 feet below. Molino Basin is open for camping only from late October until late April, and, consequently, is one campground always available for picnicking the rest of the year.

Hirabayashi is a small campground open year-round, but available for picnicking if there are any open sites. The day-use fee at both of these campgrounds is five dollars.

Cypress, Middle Bear, and Chihuahua Pine Picnic Sites

These three sites are close together and are located between Seven Cataracts Vista point and General Hitchcock Campground. The elevation is about 6,000 feet, and the picnic areas sit in cool pine-oak forests that border seasonal stream beds. The tables are well separated and plentiful. Other than the Coronado Recreation Pass fee (see below), there are no charges for use of the picnic sites.

Rose Canyon Lake and Campground

Rose Canyon is the largest campground, with over 70 sites. A small store is located near the lake, which is at the far end of the campground. The area is large and open for picnicking and fishing at the lake (Arizona license required for anyone 14 or older), with a day-use fee of 8 dollars.

Often crowded, Rose Canyon is nestled in a beautiful Ponderosa pine forest. Although the elevation is 7,000 feet, the area is in a heavily forested canyon, without sweeping vistas,

Inspiration Rock, Box Elder, Alder and Loma Linda Picnic Sites

These four sites are all located shortly before the turnoff to Ski Valley, at 8,000 feet. Box Elder and Inspiration Rock are across the road from each other, and the area surrounding the picnic sites provides some spectacular views. The forest here is mixed conifer, with fir trees as well as pine. No separate day-use fees are required at any of these sites.

Marshall Gulch and the Road Beyond Ski Valley

The final designated picnic site is reached by driving through and beyond the village of Summerhaven. Marshall Gulch sits on a seasonal stream, a peaceful setting where fortunate picnickers may spot Red-faced warblers in the creekside trees.

The road to Ski Valley and the Iron Door restaurant turns off the main highway before Summerhaven and continues almost two miles beyond the restaurant to a parking area and trailhead just shy of the summit. There is no designated picnic area here, but those willing to rough it will find lovely spots to have lunch in the surrounding aspen groves.

The Coronado Forest Recreation Fee and Day Use Fees

The fee station at milepost 5 sells Recreation passes for $5. A pass is required for any use of vistas, restrooms, trailheads, picnic areas and other facilities throughout the length of the Catalina Highway. The fee is waived for holders of Golden Age or Golden Access cards, provided that the card is displayed in the car. Golden Age or Access holders also receive a 50 percent discount on day use and campground fees.

Picnicking on Mt. Lemmon

Mt. Lemmon is a perfect way to exchange the bustle of Tucson for high mountain solitude. The variety of life zones, spectacular views, and numerous picnic sites make it a special place for lunch, as well.


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