Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Excursion to the top of Mount Lemmon

It's about 25 miles from the eastern part of Tucson up the Catalina and General Hitchcock Highways to the 8000 foot summit of Mount Lemmon.  The road is smooth but full of switchbacks and curves that may give someone unfamiliar with mountain driving a certain amount tension. Weekend crowds  and tons of cyclists can increase the strain. Take your time and don't exceed the speed limits.   

It was a sunny Monday morning when we headed out and traffic was blessedly light. We took our time with stops at almost every listed vista point on the Sky Island Scenic Byway map provided by the Coronado National Forest folks.  What follows is some of what you can expect to see on your trip.

You begin on the valley floor and you can see where the highway begins its climb into the foothills on that light colored slash just above the trees on the right.



You climb quickly and in short order are looking back down at the straight flat road you left just minutes ago.


Just as fast you leave the bahada (initial foothills)  behind.


About seven miles up we pulled in to the



This is now a campground and picnic area, but from the 30's to the 70's it was the site of a prison camp that housed prisoners who provided labor to help build the road.  The story of  the campground's namesake is too long to tell here but click on Learn more to get a rundown on this Japanese-American's battle against interment during WWII.

At the 8.4 mile marker you can look out at the Thimble Peak area. The peak at the top is a hard granite intrusion called a "sill." The jagged cliffs just below the thimble are the Gibbon Mountain Sill. These sills are only 50 million years old and were injected in molten form into the 1.4 billion year old Oracle granite.  The whole caboodle was lifted up later and erosion of softer materials has now exposed the harder surfaces.




A few miles further on you can stop at the Seven Cataracts vista to see a series of  (now dry) waterfalls that are carving out what might be a new canyon in a few million more years.


At 14 miles you reach Windy Point Vista where several geologic features can be viewed.

First you notice that the Tucson Valley has been left far behind.




And the highway is a narrow ribbon far below.


Around and above and below you are granite spires and cliffs that have splintered and eroded into strange and beautiful forms.







The cliffs make for some challenging rock climbing. See the climber in white below.

 
When you stroll out onto the main Windy Point cliff you can see Tafoni which are formed by a combination of water and wind. 


Another feature formed by nature's elements are these irregular depressions called solution pans.

Many of the forms begin to take on imaginative shapes.





None of them are push-overs no matter how hard you try.



My favorite shot has nothing to do with geology. It is just a look at "Selfie Heaven"



At 17.5 miles up you can peer over the top of the Catalinas and look down on the other side and see the San Pedro River Valley.


You can also begin to see the still standing upright scars of the horrible forest fire of 2003. It ravaged the mountain and almost totally destroyed the little town of Summerhaven.




 
 

Finally at 27 miles up you can see the top.

We took a lunch break at this restaurant in the ski area.


And then it was a quick trip downhill until we hit the flatness of the valley once again.
 

 


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