Mount Lemmon is Tucson's forested sky island getaway, where the leaves change color and the air feels crisp.
Because a drive up Mount Lemmon takes you from the desert floor up the highest peak in the Catalina Mountains, elevation changes rapidly, whisking you through a variety of habitats — a welcome change for many a desert dweller.
From marveling at autumn colors to perusing the shops and restaurants in the charming community of Summerhaven, there's lots to do on the mountain — even as many trails and campgrounds remain closed in the aftermath of the Bighorn Fire this summer.
If you are planning to make the trip, here are a few things you need to know about visiting Mount Lemmon in fall 2020.
Since the Bighorn Fire ravaged the Catalina Mountains this summer, the Coronado National Forest closed many of the trails and campgrounds on Mount Lemmon.
An updated order, effective on Nov. 1, maintains the closure of many developed recreation sites and trails that are within the burn scar of the fire — "the area of burned or scorched vegetation, including but not limited to wood, rock, or dirt."
The order notes that portions of trails outside of the burn scar are open, but will be closed where they enter the burn scar area. You can see a list of those trails and the mileage from the trailhead to the burn scar in the text of the closure order. The order also lists all of the trails and recreation sites that remain closed, including the Rose Canyon Campground, Spencer Canyon Campground and others.
Certain facilities also remain closed due to COVID-19, and bathrooms and trash service are still limited in some locations, says Dorilis Camacho Torres, the acting public affairs officer for Coronado National Forest.
Violation of the closures can come with a hefty fine and/or imprisonment for no more than six months. Also, it's dangerous. The damage from the fire can cause unpredictability, including unstable trees and an increased possibility of flooding.
The updated closure order for the Bighorn Fire will be in place until May 1, 2021 or until it is rescinded, whichever comes first. Closures due to COVID-19 are revised monthly and will remain in effect until Nov. 30, 2020 if they are not modified beforehand.
The Public Lands Interpretive Association recently posted that the educational bookstore on Mount Lemmon will again be open — only now you'll find it on the deck outside the Palisades Visitor Center off of Catalina Highway. You can stop by for Mount Lemmon-themed books, apparel and more Thursday through Monday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., according to that post by the association. The visitor center remains closed.
Chances are, you've seen a friend recently post dreamy images of trees adorned in scarlet and gold leaves.
Jenni Zimmerman, a Mount Lemmon Realty broker and president of the Mount Lemmon Business Economic Association, says the cold snap we experienced earlier this week brought a light dusting of snow to the mountain.
Still, she says many of the leaves are probably still there — and even if a blast of wind has wrested them from the trees, you'll still get to walk on a crunchy carpet of fallen leaves. Although, as we move into November, the sooner you visit, the better.
For easy leaf-peeping, Zimmerman recommends parking in Summerhaven and then walking up Turkey Run Road, across from the Sawmill Run Restaurant. Other popular spots for finding fall colors include Bear Wallow and Ski Valley.
You should definitely plan on spending some time in Summerhaven, a tiny village with several gift shops, restaurants and a general store beloved for its fudge.
Zimmerman, whose family owns Mount Lemmon Realty and the Sawmill Run Restaurant, says this year has been brutal on the local businesses on the mountain, first with coronavirus-inflicted closures and then a fire-forced evacuation.
Zimmerman suggests calling the restaurants or shops you want to support to double check hours, as the village heads into the slow season between fall leaves and winter snow. And, as always, wear masks and practice physical distancing.
"Be patient with the businesses because they're short-staffed because of COVID and it's hard to get employees up here in the first place," she says.
Beyond exploring the shops and getting a bite to eat, you can also take a ride on the chair lift at Ski Valley for panoramic views of the mountain.
You'll also notice the Mount Lemmon Hotel under construction right along Sabino Canyon Park, the main road, across the street from the Mount Lemmon General Store and Gift Shop. The hotel is actually comprised of more than a dozen individual cabins. Justin Hafner, who owns the hotel with his wife Andrea Hafner, hopes the first nine cabins will be open in the next month or so, with the remaining cabins opening in the spring.
Of course, hotel construction has seen plenty of delays since its start in March. The site is actually at the location of the former Alpine Lodge, which burned down in the 2003 Aspen Fire.
The little cabins will each have fully stocked kitchens, a queen bed and a fold-out couch. To make a reservation, Justin Hafner suggests signing up for the hotel's email list at mountlemmonhotel.com to get first notice when booking begins.
Zimmerman says if you are making plans to head up the mountain, make plans to take your trash back down. It's a problem every year, especially when all of Tucson flocks up Mount Lemmon for snow. She also suggests checking road conditions before you begin your journey. You can do that by calling 520-547-7510 to make sure Catalina Highway is open. That's especially essential in the winter.
"Always support local," Zimmerman says. "Go to each of the shops ... It's nice to get out and walk down the road. You can walk all the way down to Marshall Gulch." 🍂 🍂 🍂