The drive up Mount Lemmon has a lot to offer — spectacular views of the Tucson area, varied plant and animal communities, and cool weather just about any time of year. What it doesn’t offer is much comfort to those who are prone to getting carsick around winding, curving mountain roads, which is why my wife kept her eyes closed for most of the 30-mile drive from Tucson to Summerhaven.
But my 4-year-old son, Wes, loved it — which was good, since the whole trip was his idea. For quite a while, he’s been obsessed with roads and maps, and he recently found Tucson on a map and asked whether we could go there someday. He also expressed an interest in visiting Crater Lake in Oregon; I told him the Beaver State might have to wait, but we could knock out the “Old Pueblo” right away.
We drove down from Phoenix on an overcast Friday morning. After checking out Diamondback Bridge — true to its name, it’s a bridge that looks like a diamondback rattlesnake — we headed down Tanque Verde Road, then up Catalina Highway (also known as General Hitchcock Highway and Sky Island Scenic Byway).
A forest of saguaros marks the early part of the drive. Wes has a love-hate relationship with saguaros, by which I mean he loves them as long as he’s not anywhere near them. The safety of the car was enough for him to put aside his anxiety and enjoy the scenery, which changed from desert vegetation to ponderosa pines, then other evergreens and aspens, as we climbed higher.
What makes the drive ideal for young children is that there are plenty of places to stop along the way. We stopped at Windy Point Vista, which offers an incredible view of Tucson, but other viewpoints feature hiking trails, interpretive signs or views of the other side of the Santa Catalina Mountains.
In Summerhaven, near the summit of Mount Lemmon, we ate lunch at the Sawmill Run Restaurant, which has a kids menu. The town also provides a teachable moment for children old enough to understand the importance of preventing forest fires: Much of Summerhaven burned in the Aspen Fire of 2003, and the fire’s effects are still visible throughout town.
After a quick exploration of Summerhaven, we headed back down the mountain, then back to Phoenix, having crossed one destination off my son’s list. Wes now wants to visit Payson, another relatively easy drive for us … but if he ever notices Kayenta on his map of Arizona, we might have to do a little more planning.
— Noah Austin, Associate Editor