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Stories & Facts

The Backside of Mt. Lemmon

Mt. Lemmon has been a favorite place for people to temporarily escape the summer heat of Tucson for at least a hundred years. The highest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains, it is about 9000 feet high, and is now less than an hour's drive from Tucson. This is by way of the Hitchcock Highway, an engineering feat that takes you up the "front" of the Catalinas (the side towards the Tucson valley), which was built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1930's.

When my parents met, courted and were first married in Tucson (the late twenties to early thirties), the way to Mt. Lemmon was longer. You drove north out of Tucson to Oracle Junction, and then took a narrow, winding dirt trail up from there. The grades are easier on the north side of the Catalinas, but still steep and rugged. The road is only wide enough for one car, mostly ten to fifteen feet wide, with many curves, switchbacks, little washes to cross, and possessed of no modern "necessities" such as guard rails.

In those days, it was a controlled road. Until a certain time (perhaps 2 p.m.), you could travel up the road. After 2 p.m. no one could go up the road, and after allowing time for the last auto to reach the top, people started going down. My folks never mentioned meeting someone going up during the "down" hours, but they did have another harrowing experience.

They were driving an old car (I don't even know what kind or year, but most likely a Ford made in the early twenties). Part way down, the brakes failed, and my Dad had to make all those curves and switchbacks using only gearing! Luckily, they made it down all right, but I'm sure they triple-checked the brakes before they went on another picnic to Mt. Lemmon!

Today, this road is still a narrow, dirt path, neither controlled nor maintained. People with four-wheel drive and similar vehicles adventure up and down this road, if they know where to find it. The Forest Service warns them off when there is snow. The last time we came down the backside of Mt. Lemmon, we had trouble negotiating a washed-out section piled with two-foot boulders without damaging our Volkswagen Vanagon. Now we leave it to the four-wheelers.

Pat Grames