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)!