In Southern Arizona, an area with no shortage of scenic drives, one 27-mile stretch of road in particular stands out among its peers. Catalina Highway, as it is popularly known, takes you from Tucson’s Northwest side along a steady, beautiful incline to the top of Mt. Lemmon where you can frolic in pine forests and will feel like you are hundreds of miles away from the Sonoran desert town you left behind you just an hour ago.
Technically known as the General Hitchcock Highway or Arizona Forest Highway 39, though almost never referred to by either name, this stretch of road takes you through a similar series of biologic and vegetative zones as you might experience in driving the distance from Mexico north to Canada. As you leave Tucson, planted firmly in the Sonoran Desert, you will continue through semi-desert grasslands, oak woodlands, pine-oak woodlands, ponderosa pine forests and finally at the top a mixed conifer forest. Along the way there are ample opportunities to pull the car over and take in beautiful vistas, stop for a picnic, catch some trout, go for a hike, partake in rock climbing, camp for the night, etc.. At the top you can enjoy the nation’s southernmost ski resort or have some lunch at the appropriately named mountaintop village, Summerhaven. If you drove up in a capable off-road vehicle you can take the primitive road down the “backside” of the mountain, descending into the town of Oracle.
Catalina Highway is truly a unique Tucson experience that should not be missed. Depending on how much time you have you can get up and back down in just a couple of hours, or you could spend endless days using the highway as a basepoint for exploring the Catalina Mountains and never get bored!
How to get there:
From Central and West Tucson, take Tanque Verde East to Catalina Highway.
From East Tucson take Houghton Road North to Catalina Highway.
Stay on Catalina Highway until you get to the top!