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Ive been to Tucson twice now but both times the main priority was visiting Saguaro National Park. But the second time, this time with my parents, I wanted to try and do something else, too.
That “something else” ended up being driving the Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway! I didn’t know anything about it (shocker) and figured it would just be driving, no hiking, and it was.
Travel Services I Recommend:
AllTrails – This is my favorite hike tracking app.
America the Beautiful – The national park pass is essential.
Booking.com – This is great for finding and booking hotels.
Get Your Guide – I recommend Get Your Guide for booking tours.
National Park Obsessed – This is the best national park planner.
Skyscanner – Skyscanner is great for finding and booking flights.
Enterprise – This is my rental car recommendation.
See all my resources here.
We didn’t have plans to do anything else this day so we didn’t start super early and took our time the whole way. The first part of the Mt Lemmon drive is through a residential area but soon enough you’ll be look out at that below you.
The first overlook we stopped at, the Babad Do’ag Overlook, was looking out at the valley below, saguaro cactus still towering around us. We enjoyed the view there for a bit before moving on.
I’ll try to find the names of each overlook but some of them I’m not entirely sure on. The photos are in the order that I mention them in from Tucson to the top. The next stop was the Molina Canyon Vista which had a few short trails to follow, so follow we did.
One of the paths went to a little creek where I noticed a bunch of frogs on the rock! I don’t know if I’ve seen frogs in the desert before this and I was so excited!
The view from here was nice but the frogs were definitely the highlight for me. There’s also a shooting range, or there were people shooting at stuff, across the road from here.
Off we went to the next overlook. Also, some of the stops were just small pull-offs that I don’t think had names, I’m mostly just sharing the major stops.
So the next one was the Thimble Peak Vista. This gives you an amazing view of, you guessed it, Thimble Peak, a very distinctive rock formation that looks like a thimble. Thimble Peak can be climbed, but it isn’t often.
The west side borders Sabine Canyon and the east, Bear Canyon. We pretty much had this, and all the overlooks so far, to ourselves on our October visit. I really liked this spot.
Next up was a quick stop at Manzanita Overlook before the big Windy Overlook stop. This was a pretty busy overlook but the views are beautiful and sprawling. There are bathrooms here.
We did the short walk to the left of the parking which took us to a slightly different vantage point of the canyons and Tucson below. I think aside from the frogs, this was my favorite stop.
After this one, we made a couple of other stops but not much until we got to the very end of the road. I liked the first half a lot more than the second half, which was more woodsy than desert.
That’s not to say it’s bad but I like desert more than mountains. It also got quite a bit colder and windier up at the top but we did get to see leaves turning yellow, which I always love.
After a snack at the top, we headed back down. The views from the parking area weren’t that great because it was surrounded by trees but you could walk to a couple views that were OK. There are also bathrooms here.
We didn’t really make stops on the way down for views, just for breaks from the winding road. We got back to town in the late afternoon and stopped by a LUSH on our way back to the hotel and ended up having dinner nearby at North Italia, which was delicious.
I still prefer visiting Saguaro National Park, but I’m glad we drove up Mount Lemmon because I would have wanted to do it another time anyway. It was still worth the time we spent up there and would definitely recommend a drive up one of Tucson’s finest.
Where is the Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway?
Mt Lemmon Scenic Byway is in the Catalina Mountains on the northeast side of Tucson, between Tanque Verde and Catalina Foothills. It is also near Sabino Canyon Recreation Area.
Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway map
One of my least favorite things is trying to find directions to the start of scenic drives. It’s literally the worst, but this map will give you Mount Lemmon directions, no problemo.
Once you turn off of Tanque Verde Highway by the Safeway I have it starting at in the map, you just follow the highway as far up Mount Lemmon as you would like.
How long is the Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway?
From the first turn off Tanque Verde Road to the Observatory, it is 32 miles. So round-trip it is just over 60 miles if you don’t turn off the main Mt Lemmon drive at all. It takes 2-3 hours to drive with minimal stops.
Is there a fee for driving Mt Lemmon?
Nope! There are certain day use sites that require permits and fees, as well as camping or any other activities available, like a rock climbing tour on Mount Lemmon, but there is no fee to drive up Mount Lemmon.
Is the Mount Lemmon drive paved?
Yes! There are dirt roads that branch off of the main Mt Lemmon Scenic Byway but the main road to the top is entirely paved so anyone can do it.
Is the Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway open all year?
Yes! Mount Lemmon is drivable year-round but in the winter, snow may cause road closures. But other than that the road is open 24/7/365. Dirt roads branching off the main road might be impassable when wet.
Are there bathrooms on Mt Lemmon?
Yes! There are bathrooms in Summerhaven and at most trailheads. There are a few along the way at overlooks and in campgrounds. If not, there are plenty of trees around.
What if I don’t have a car?
Other names for the Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway
- Sky Island Scenic Byway
- Mount Lemmon Highway (Mt Lemmon Hwy)
- General Hitchcock Highway (General Hitchcock Hwy)
- Catalina Highway (Catalina Hwy)
Will I get carsick on the drive up Mount Lemmon?
If you have a history of getting carsick, it’s definitely possible, especially if you get carsick very easily. I would definitely take Dramamine. I took it and felt pretty much fine but it’s a very curvy road so if you have a history of it, know it could definitely happen here.
Is the Mt. Lemmon Scenic Byway worth it?
Yes. While it may not have been my favorite thing we did on the trip, it is definitely worth doing the Mount Lemmon drive. It’s beautiful and has tons of great hiking available along the way. It’s a great way to spend a morning or afternoon in Tucson.