B y K e v i n F r a n k l i n
HEAT MAKES PEOPLE do strange things. Some wear hats with fans. Others lie in the sun trying to get skin cancer.
Mountain bikers, at least the less-than-hard-core types, head for the high, cool mountains, even for a short ride. The Lemmon Park Trail at the very pinnacle of Mount Lemmon is our destination for the day. In Mountain Biking The Old Pueblo, authors Michael Jimmerson and Jim Porter describe it as a "...must do! Some of the prettiest singletrack in Arizona and the highest trail on Mt. Lemmon."
A cool climate and three stars on a three-star rating propels us on the drive up the mountain. This sounding endorsement helps alleviate the absurdity of driving an hour up Catalina Highway for a trip of less than two miles. Besides, the drive up the big hill and out of the heat is in itself an intrinsic part of what makes this an enjoyable outing. We feel a wee bit sheepish looking at a dozen or so riders slugging it up the highway on their bikes. But on the other hand, the pained looks on their faces goes a long way toward evaporating any automobile guilt. Nevertheless, pedaling a vertical mile uphill demands at least our respect.
In the past I've often griped about the widening of the Catalina Highway, imagining it useful only as a flashing beacon to the RV container ships that ply their way on Arizona roads. The widening, however, has had the additional effect of increasing bicycle use up the mountain. Now that more than a centimeter separates most cars from most bikers, many more folks are using pedal power to peruse the ponderosas. Hats off to them. When the O.T. Loafer Association finally gets in shape, maybe we'll do this trip exclusively in the saddle. Or maybe we'll just keep right on admiring.
For now we acknowledge we'd barely make it to the Pizza Hut on Tanque Verde Road, much less up the mountain, if not for our fossil fuel propulsion.
We follow the highway upward and turn right toward the ski area before reaching Summerhaven. As we continue past the ski lift and the Iron Door Inn, we begin seeing white aspen trees and large pines. The air temperature drops dramatically. At 8:30 a.m. it's downright nippy up here. Do yourself a favor and pack a sweater or windbreaker for this trip. If you don't need it you can always leave it in the car.
Eventually, as we follow the now narrow road, we come to a gate blocking off access to Steward Observatory on the mountain top. We pull into the parking area to the left and hop on our bikes. The trail starts just to the southwest of a power transfer station sitting in the parking lot. We follow this for a short way until it pops out again onto a dirt Forest Service Road. We go around the gate on the road and immediately to our right a dual-track road heads off the main route.
This is where the all-around pleasantness of this ride begins. The route here is flat and cuts across a meadow, just alongside the old Air Force barracks. The tall fence you see directly to the west surrounds what used to be the command post for the Titan nuclear missiles that once graced the Old Pueblo. Now it sits there as another relic of the cold war.
In our T-shirts, we're fighting a cold war of our own. Yesterday I couldn't imagine anything but searing heat in the world, now we shiver.
Before long the exertion of riding warms us up and the beauty of Lemmon Park shines through the morning frost. We emerge from a darkly inviting primal pine forest to an open meadow of tall, richly green grass. This ride combines the pleasant topography of an open park with the fresh, gusty air of the Rockies.
We quickly pass through the meadow and drop off onto the side of Mount Lemmon on a steep, rutted track. The track is fairly easy to navigate except for a single 180-degree pinpoint turn that trounced all four of us. After this steep roller-coaster ride, we pop out onto Canada del Oro Trail and turn left. This is the halfway point.
Here the route starts following a rocky road uphill and loses the pleasant nature of the meadow, but the views that emerge are outstanding. From a small rocky outcrop we roll down to where we can see the whole of Sabino Basin, Tucson in the Santa Cruz Valley and the Santa Rita Mountains in the distance.
In a quarter mile we encounter the junction for the Wilderness of Rocks Trail and Lemmon Rock Lookout. We take a left and head back toward the vehicles.
The entire trip takes less than an hour. This little adventure might be better as part of a morning that includes brunch on the mountain and maybe another ride elsewhere. We decide to ride back into the meadow again, savoring the cool climate and thick greenery. Before long it will be time to head back down the mountain and into the inferno below.
Take the Catalina Highway up to the tippy top top near Steward Observatory. Park and ride the 1.6-mile loop, several times over if you wish. Like a favorite song, it's worth going over a couple times.
Cutline: Peak performance: Mount Lemmon offers a nearby escape for riders of all levels who want to beat the summer heat. Photos by Kevin Franklin.
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