Climbing more than 6,000 feet, the Sky Island Scenic Byway begins with forests of saguaro cacti in the Sonoran Desert and ends in a cool, coniferous forest in the Santa Catalina Mountains.
Prepare yourself for breathtaking views and a climate change that would be similar to driving from Southern Arizona to Canada in a mere 27 miles. Each thousand feet up is like driving 600 miles north offering a unique opportunity to experience four seasons in one trip.
Often referred to as Mount Lemmon Highway or General Hitchcock Highway, Sky Island Scenic Byway drive begins at the northeastern edge of Tucson.
As the road climbs among the giant saguaro cactus and brittlebush, enjoy hairpin curves as you arrive at the Babad Do’ag Viewpoint which overlooks the desert cacti studded Tucson Valley and the Rincon Mountains. There are interpretive signs at the lookout and if you’re up for a longer hike—try the moderate 5-mile round trip Babad Do’ag Trail. Incredible desert vistas of saguaro, wildflowers, and mountains await.
Continuing up the road, you’ll enter Molino Canyon. The road hugs the canyon’s cliff until the Molino Canyon Overlook. The overlook offers a short hike to a creek and series of waterfalls. Towards the center of the canyon is the Molino Basin, home to a campground and trailheads for a variety of hikes. Hiking here is especially fascinating due to the transition from desert to a forest dominated by cottonwood, oak, sycamore, and willow trees.
Each turn of the road reveals a new perspective. Entering Bear Canyon, the forest transforms once again into a lush, cool environment with cypress, juniper, pine, sycamore, and walnut trees. Granite pinnacles soar into the sky, and with rocky outcroppings and stony hoodoos, some of Arizona’s best rock climbing is found here.
Next stop, Windy Point offers the most amazing views along the entire scenic drive. Wind-sculpted rock formations, views of the Huachuca, Patagonia, and Santa Rita Mountains, and the Tucson Basin await at 6,400 feet elevation.
Geology Point Vista, offers another spectacular viewpoint. Sweeping panoramas and precariously perched rocks create a surreal and photogenic landscape.
From here, you climb through forests of ponderosa pine, fir, and spruce. Rose Canyon Lake is stocked with trout and surrounded by absolute beauty; this seven-acre lake is a perfect stop for fishing, picnics, and camping in the Rose Canyon Campground.
Shortly afterwards, you arrive at the San Pedro Vista which overlooks the San Pedro River Valley. From this stop, enjoy the 4-mile hike around Green Mountain to the General Hitchcock Campground.
Shortly after the viewpoint is the Palisade Visitor Center. Self-guided displays inform about the Coronado National Forest and it’s a great location to get more information about hikes. Two of the most popular are the Butterfly Trail and Crystal Springs Trail with trailheads one mile from the center. Both trails are long, but you need not do the entire trail to enjoy the shaded, dense forests. Butterfly Trail features such a diverse biology, it has been designated a Research Natural Area. If you are up for a challenge, the medium-to-difficult Crystal Springs Trail will bring you to Mount Lemmon’s summit.
Experience the sky up close at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter. There are daytime and after-dark programs using their 32-inch Schulman Telescope. Reservations are required. The SkyCenter is at an elevation of 9,157 feet.
This scenic drive officially ends in a small town mostly filled with summer chalets, appropriately named Summerhaven. A great retreat for people to escape the summer desert heat.
While here, consider a few short side trips. For spectacular views in every season, Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, the southernmost ski area in the country, can be reached via East Ski Run Road. The ski hill offers an opportunity to ride the ski lift for breathtaking vistas at 9,100 feet. Continue a few miles further and turn onto Summit Road. At the road end is the actual summit of Mount Lemmon, an amazing way to end this scenic drive.
The Forest Service has done a great job with the road and attractions along the route including campgrounds, picnic areas, trailheads, pullouts, vista points, and interpretive overlooks.
Stay close to nature, it will never fail you.
—Frank Lloyd Wright