First Snow of the Season

by Tyler Clark Friday, November 11th 2011

Snow days are few and far between in Southern Arizona—and when they do come, you usually need to drive up a mountain to enjoy them.

Mt. Lemmon is the highest mountain in the Santa Catalina range just north of Tucson and resides at a modest 9,157 feet. While it isn’t the tallest point in Southern Arizona, it still offers wonderful views and occasional snowfall. It is usually in late December or early January that Mt. Lemmon receives a dusting of snow, causing throngs of excited Tucsonans to flock to the mountain to get a taste of winter. This year, however, it received some early season snow. Seizing the opportunity to go hike and play in a rare winter wonderland, my girlfriend and I headed up the mountain a few days after the first snow of the season.


The drive up Mt. Lemmon is incredibly scenic and well worth the 25 miles and roughly 5,500 feet of elevation gain. Cacti and shrubs gave way to pines and shaded canyons before we spotted snow at about 7,000 feet. Wanting to find as much snow as possible, we drove all the way to Summerhaven at the very top of the mountain. From there, we continued to follow Catalina Highway until it dead-ended at the Marshall Gulch trailhead parking lot. When we climbed into the car down in Tucson, the car’s thermometer read 67 degrees; as we climbed out of the car to begin our hike, the thermometer revealed that it was a brisk 43 degrees.


Undaunted, we set off across the icy parking lot and headed up Mt. Lemmon Trail #3 leading up to Marshall Saddle. Due to the sheltered conditions in the gulch, the trail was still covered in a few inches of snow and our Lowa Renegades crunched nosily as we progressed. The trail followed the partially frozen stream and crisscrossed it several times as we slowly climbed higher. The beauty of a landscape covered in snow is mesmerizing, especially to a native Tucsonan who typically only sees snow on the cover of mountaineering books or in the latest Alpinist magazine.


By the time we reached the saddle, however, we were in the direct sunlight and the snow around us had vanished. Heating up from the uphill climb and the sun, I shed my Outdoor Research Albi Jacket, stowed it in my Deuter Speedlite 30, and continued on. Looking further down an adjacent trail into the Wilderness of Rocks, we were disappointed to see that much of that trail’s snow had already melted; we were hoping to find its strangely-shaped and precariously placed boulders covered in snow.

This caused us to change our hiking plans. Instead of going into the Wilderness, we headed south from the saddle along Aspen trail on a loop that would bring us back to our car. The trail traversed the south side of the mountain for a ways before heading north and back into the shade where the magical powdery white substance reappeared. The autumn leaves covering the snowy trail made for uniquely beautiful scenery.


Unfortunately, many downed trees from the snow storm had fallen across the trail and made progress slow. Upon returning to the car, we found we were the last people left in the parking lot. This was not surprising, considering the handful of people we had run into on the trail.

Hungry and cooling down, we hurried over to a picnic table, donned warm clothing, and cooked up a surprisingly tasty dehydrated meal. After chowing down, we enjoyed some toasty hot chocolate before packing up and hurrying back down the mountain to reality and responsibilities. While we may have been a few days late to enjoy a fresh powder day and a snowy Wilderness of Rocks, the first snow of the season was still beautiful and fills my head with hopes of more snowfall (and a snow shoe trip later this season)!



The Authors

Dave BakerDave Baker

I'm Dave Baker, founder of Summit Hut, an independent outdoor retailer based in Tucson, Arizona since 1969. As an experienced and passionate hiker, climber and backpacker, my blog is intended to be an informative and interesting look into the outdoors and the outdoor industry.

Dana Davis

Dana Davis

I’m Dana Davis, co-owner of the Summit Hut. I mostly enjoy hiking and road biking though I often do other things to keep it interesting (mountaineering, motorcycling, backpacking, climbing, you name it!) My biggest challenge is sometimes finding the balance between career, family, and fun but it’s working out so far!

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

I'm Dan Davis, after retiring from the National Park Service as a Ranger and manager, I worked for the Summit Hut until 2009, then retired for good (maybe). I'm now spending my time traveling around the southwest writing and working on my nature and fine art photography business.

Emily Gindlesparger

Emily Gindlesparger

I’m Emily Gindlesparger, a member of the Summit Hut floor staff. Since moving here from the Midwest, I’ve been taking advantage of all possible adventures in Arizona: rock climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, whitewater kayaking, caving and trail running; I’m always excited to see what’s next!