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Best Quick Wilderness Escape

Mount Lemmon

READERS' PICK: Mount Lemmon is to Tucsonans as the North Shore is to Bostonians or Brighton is to Londoners. It embodies the possibility of escape--in this case, from the heat, your boss, or the city, or the fierce, albeit inaccurate, belief that you can't see the change of seasons while living in Tucson. Mount Lemmon provides adventure without the heavy compromises of a full-blown excursion. Just throw some stuff in the car, tell the kids to grab some water and snap on their fanny packs, bring the mountain bikes, bring the dog. Maybe, for those of us who have occasion to miss other climes, Mount Lemmon is especially precious. It's a return to greenery and small, winding water paths, along which grow moss and delicate wildflowers. Cabin-dwellers' hearth fires at any time of year are reminders of cool and faraway places. Indeed, there is little else so peace-instilling as a slow tromp through a Mount Lemmon forest on a gray, misty day. Supporting the notion that every cloud has a silver lining, the recent fires on Mount Lemmon have left behind shivery, gothic trails, cross-hatched with fallen trees and slick with soot. Take a poke around these if you get a chance. Back in Summerhaven there's wonderful homemade pie and hot soup to be had at the Mt. Lemmon Café--not really wilderness, but then no one's keeping score.


STAFF PICK: Pontatoc Ridge Trail--different from Pontatoc Canyon Trail in its destination--begins at the trailhead for Finger Rock at the north end of Alvernon Way. The Ridge Trail concludes at Pontatoc Cave, an old mining tunnel, but you won't be sure you're heading in the right direction until you hit a trail marker about half way up. (Betty Leavengood's Tucson Hiking Guide has very specific directions.) The ascent, at less-than-power-walking speed, takes about two hours, is a reasonable hike for kids who can do the time. There are only a few places where it gets rocky and steep and they mostly occur near the very top. In this case, "wilderness" means you'll be navigating a winding, switchback-sprinkled trail surrounded by myriad cacti and shrubbery with up-close, north-looking views of the crags and canyons of the Santa Catalinas. Finger Rock beckons ahead and to the left. Close at hand, small rocky hollows and shaded nooks create comforting reprieves. Depending on the time of year there will be more or less water in the trail-breaking creeks, and more or fewer wildflowers coloring the hills. Expect to see rabbits, lizards, snakes, birds and butterflies. "Quick" means that, from almost any point on the descent trail, the city, or some outlying evidence of civilization, is visible. Substantiated rumor has it that the caves used to be cordoned off; however, there are currently no evident restrictions to entering, so if you're curious or foolhardy, take a head lamp or a flashlight and enjoy a cool escape from the sunlight. To get there, take Campbell Avenue or Swan Road to Skyline Drive, then Alvernon Way until you hit the dirt.

CAT'S MEOW: As you near the end of First Avenue on your way to the Pima Canyon trailhead, your brain may still be grinding and churning with urban angst and pressures. But once the canyon makes its first turn around Rosewood Point you start to feel the separation from society necessary to irrigate your mental colon. We'll admit that the only running water we saw on a recent hike were the rivlets dribbling down our own backs. Okay, so maybe it was a bad idea to go in August with 90-percent humidity. We made it to the Mountain Sheep Reservoir, where dozens of rust-colored dragon-flies flitting flirtatiously were the only wildlife we saw that day. As we sat talking, we knew we were in a place where no one could call us into work or ask us to fix the evaporative cooler.

Case History

1998 Winner: Saguaro National Park East

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