It might come as a surprise for visitors to the desert city of Tucson, Arizona, but just an hour’s drive from the saguaro cactus and sizzling summer heat is a cool mountain retreat known for big valley views, fields of ferns and wildflowers, and a peak that offers everything from stellar stargazing to forest hiking to winter skiing.
The aptly named village of Summerhaven has long been a retreat for Tucsonans in search of a respite from the summer heat.
Compared to Tucson, which sits in the Sonoran Desert at about 2,400 feet elevation, Summerhaven is situated high on the 9,157-foot Mount Lemmon. Temperatures on the mountain are said to be 30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than Tucson’s — a claim I found to be accurate on my recent early-August visit. While Tucson was posting temperatures of about 105 degrees, Summerhaven was a wonderfully misty 67.
The mountain climate is a definite draw, but it is far from the only one. Fragrant pine trees, a network of scenic hikes, and the southernmost ski destination in the continental United States are all byproducts of Summerhaven’s mountain setting. Capping it all off is the thrill of driving to the summit of Mt. Lemmon along the magnificent 27-mile Sky Island Scenic Byway.
There are countless reasons to put Summerhaven on your travel list, and here are 9 of the best.
1. Sky Island Scenic Highway
From the busy streets in the northeastern corner of Tucson, the Mt. Lemmon Sky Island Scenic Byway meanders in a mostly northerly direction into the Santa Catalina Mountains, traversing 27 miles and climbing more than 6,000 stunning feet along the way.
Technically, the paved route takes about an hour to drive, but that’s assuming you do not stop at the many overlooks and parking pullouts along the way. And you will want to stop!
Also called the Mt. Lemmon Highway or the Catalina Highway Scenic Drive, the route is known to offer the biological equivalent of driving from the deserts of Mexico to the forests of Canada in a short 27 miles. That comparison is easy to observe as you climb steeply through saguaro-covered hillsides, past enormous rock formations, and finally, along roads bordered by towering pine trees.
The route is twisting and narrow in places, but there will be ample opportunities to pull over to take in the vistas. Spaced along the length of the Sky Island Byway are numerous overlooks with plenty of parking spaces, as well as a number of smaller parking pullouts, and a series of trailheads.
Pro Tips: The road features many sharp curves, so to minimize the danger of oncoming traffic, stop at the overlooks on the eastern (righthand) side on the way up, and the ones to the west on the way down.
2. Windy Point Vista And The Hoodoos
All of the byway’s overlooks offer worthwhile views of the surrounding scenery, but there are a few not-to-be-missed stops along the scenic highway.
On the drive north, it pays to pull over at the first overlook at Babad Do’ag (Frog Mountain) for the unique (frog-like) perspective of the Santa Catalina Mountains, as well as the huge views of the Tucson Valley spread below.
Then, at nearly the midway point, be sure to stop at the Windy Point Vista, located on the left side of the highway about 11 miles south of Summerhaven. The vista offers panoramic views of the sprawling Tucson Valley, framed by the distant rugged mountain ranges. There is also an amazing view of the twisting highway visible in miniature far below.
You will come to Geology Point a little farther on, where you can get a close-up view of the massive rock spires known as hoodoos.
Pro Tip: Along with its wonderful views, Windy Point Vista has restrooms, trash cans, and picnic spots, making it a convenient place to take a break from the drive.
3. Fields Of Wildflowers
Although wildflower conditions in Arizona vary widely by season and the amount of precipitation, the abundant monsoon rains in the summer of 2021 have yielded a huge crop of flowers in a rainbow of colors on Mt. Lemmon. By all indications, fall 2021 is shaping up to be outstanding as well.
All along the scenic byway and on the trails that branch off from it, flower peepers can expect to see an assortment of wildflowers, including brilliant red firecracker bush, multiple varieties of yellow sunflowers, and golden brittlebush.
Although wildflowers seemed to be everywhere on my recent visit, some of the best trails to take among the blooms include the easy 2.1-mile loop at the summit that takes in Mt. Lemmon Trail and the lovely Meadow Trail, as well as the scenic Aspen Trail, a moderate 3.7-mile loop.
4. Marshall Gulch Trail
For a delightful combo of running water, wildflowers, and mountain views, head to the Marshall Gulch Trail, a moderate 2.6-mile out-and-back hike in the Coronado National Forest just outside of Summerhaven.
The route heads through ponderosa pine forest, stands of aspen, Douglas firs, and oak trees. It also features views of the bare granite walls of the upper reaches of Sabino Canyon.
Adjacent to the trailhead is the Marshall Gulch Picnic Area, where picnic tables are arranged near the banks of the pretty Sabino Creek as it begins its drop into the upper reaches of Sabino Canyon, one of Tucson’s premier recreation areas.
Pro Tip: A Coronado National Forest or Interagency (America the Beautiful) pass is required for vehicles at the Marshall Gulch Trailhead and picnic area. Day use passes can be purchased at the Sabino Canyon Visitor Center. More information is available here.
5. Giant Cookies And Homemade Fudge
Mention Summerhaven, and many regular visitors will immediately mention the colossal chocolate chip cookies that are the specialty of the Mt. Lemmon Cookie Cabin, a rustic spot located right along the town’s main street.
Warmed to order, the giant cookies also come in other flavors as well, including oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, brownie, and white chocolate macadamia, and can be ordered with a scoop of ice cream. The Cookie Cabin, which has a charming courtyard with plenty of outdoor seating, also is known for its made-from-scratch pizza and sandwiches.
Just up the street from the Cookie Cabin, visitors can indulge in another sweet treat at the Mt. Lemmon General Store & Gift Shop. While the log-cabin-style store carries a variety of necessities and souvenirs, perhaps its most famous offering is its homemade fudge, including unique flavors like cappuccino, caramel apple pie, and mint chocolate swirl.
6. Dining With A View
Along with the cookies, fudge, and pizza spots, Summerhaven has several fun restaurants that offer hearty mountain fare, craft beers, and cocktails.
Before or after exploring the Summit Trails (or skiing in the winter), the perfect spot for a mountain-themed breakfast or lunch is the Iron Door Restaurant, a part of Mt. Lemmon’s Ski Valley Resort. The restaurant is famous for its chili and cornbread, but the menu also includes a range of entrées, sandwiches, and salads. In mild weather, be sure to ask for a seat on the patio, where you will be treated to a view of mountain scenery and hummingbirds flitting through the trees.
In Summerhaven, the local favorite is the Sawmill Run Restaurant, a casual spot that is located at the site of two former sawmills. The family-owned-and-operated Sawmill Run serves a wide variety of tasty appetizers, burgers, and entrées, including smoked wings, seasoned fries, barbecued chicken, and poutine. After ordering at the counter, guests have a choice between a rustic dining room or a spacious patio with a mountain view.
7. Skiing In the Winter
Tucson’s little hidden-gem ski resort, Ski Valley, is located at the summit of Mount Lemmon, offering skiing and snowboarding during snowy winter months, and scenic lift rides in the other seasons.
Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, known as the southernmost ski destination in the continental U.S., has 200 skiable acres with 21 runs. During seasons with no snow, the resort offers a 30-minute Sky Ride experience that will take guests up the slopes through the beautiful Mount Lemmon scenery. Ski Valley is open all year, and the website notes, “If we are not skiing, the Sky Ride is open.”
8. The Mountain Cabins
Since its early development in the 1920s and 1930s, the subdivision of Summerhaven has served as a spot for desert dwellers to retreat from the heat. The community’s website notes that there are about 450 acres of privately owned land on Mount Lemmon, completely surrounded by the Coronado National Forest, and much of the private land accommodates cabins and houses.
Along with second homes and private residences, Summerhaven also has a number of cabins available for rent through Vrbo. They range from luxurious modern abodes that accommodate up to 15 people to rustic spots in the middle of the forest.
In addition to its wonderful ground-level views, Mount Lemmon is also famous for its skyward vistas. The Mount Lemmon SkyCenter is home to Steward Observatory’s public astronomy outreach program. The SkyCenter, operating under permit from the U.S. Forest Service, provides access to Schulman 32-inch and Phillips 24-inch telescopes.
The SkyCenter offers regular after-dark SkyNights, during which ticket holders have a chance to view the night sky. The program includes an astronomy lecture, a light dinner, sunset, and guided navigation of the night sky. It starts with binoculars and ends with views through the telescopes.
Fun Fact: Mount Lemmon is named after pioneer botanist Sara Plummer Lemmon, who trekked to the top of Mount Lemmon in 1881 on a mission with her husband, J.G. Lemmon, to document southwestern plants. A sign at the summit notes that Mt. Lemmon is one of the few peaks in the United States named after a woman.
Pro Tip: To help guide your Mt. Lemmon adventure, a free Mount Lemmon Science Tour app is available for your iPhone or Android phone.
Tuscon can be a place you explore or used as a base to check out other Arizona attractions: