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‘Sky Island’ is a term for an isolated mountain surrounded by a vastly different climate – in most cases, desert. The term originated in the American Southwest where 12-14,000 years ago, the climate warmed and dried the valley floors. Isolated mountains retained unique biodiversity especially in contrast to the desert floor below.
Just out of Tucson, Arizona, lies one of the iconic sky islands — the 9,159 feet (2,791m) Mount Lemmon.
On Mount Lemmon, you pass through four distinct life zones from cactus of Sonora Mexico, to alpine conifer found in Southern Canada.
A true island in the sky, it’s a refuge for plants, animals, and adventure seeking-humans.
Lemmon is a place for seekers. “Everyone is up there exploring something,” says former professional road racer, Lauren Hall, who spends part of the year in Tucson and rides the mountain often. “There’s no climb like it. Arizona Trail hikers, rock climbers, hunters, moto riders, and obviously, bike riders … It’s a thoroughfare for the curious.” Hall appreciates the wide bike lane on the paved climb and loves to get a cookie near the top in Summerhaven.
At 26 miles (41km) in length with 5,400 feet (1,645m) of vertical gain, Mount Lemmon is a marathon of a climb. Fortunately, the road is an ultra steady 4-5 percent grade with no shortage of views from bottom to top.
The vertical gain means you pass through several different climate zones, from sparse desert to tall pines, on your way to the aptly-named Summerhaven, a tiny mining town with fresh baked cookies and other supplies.
Apart from being a massive climb, Mount Lemmon is also the most iconic aspect of Tucson’s riding scene. It looms over the city and has come to define riding there. If you didn’t ride Lemmon, did you even go to Tucson?
There’s something on the mountain for everyone. Roadies, mountain bikers and, more recently, gravel riders (who use an unpaved route to the summit on the mountain’s north-east side) are seen in droves all over the mountain. Whether it’s a hard set of intervals, a long distance day, an evening cruise, or a lifetime achievement, Mount Lemmon is a mecca for cyclists.
Coaches and data driven cyclists love Mount Lemmon for its consistency. Former elite triathlete Ian Mallams used the mountain for intervals. “It’s 2-3 hours of climbing, the whole time. It’s so nice to know what you’re going to get, there’s no place to hide,” Mallams says.
But there’s something more to the mountain’s legacy than just being a popular training ground. “It’s an iconic place. Four rides in one,” he explains. “And some of the views around Windy Point are the best you’ll get anywhere.”
Mile markers throughout the climb make for an honest metric. The truth is, there really aren’t any other places in the continental U.S. where you can do a climb like this 12 months of the year.
The ride commences from the unofficially official start location, Le Buzz, a coffee shop at the gateway to Lemmon commonly filled with lycra wearing brethren. An unmistakable rosy, windblown glow clearly identifies riders stopping for a post-descent treat versus those yet to climb.
After a handful of miles, saguaro cactus gives way to pine forest and unique hoodoo rock formations. A large shoulder and smooth pavement make it possible to comfortably ride two abreast while chatting the miles away. Closer to the summit, riders are greeted to a new ecosystem of aspen trees and crisp mountain air. Across from the alpine ski area of Ski Valley is an old school, German style restaurant called The Iron Door with a menu perfectly suited to guilt-free indulgences.
After lunch, make a stop at the Mount Lemmon Cookie Cabin for a freshly baked dessert of their famous chocolate chip cookie. “Some people say it’s not the best cookie (and) it’s like eight bucks. But it’s the size of a plate, and I love it,” Lauren Hall told us. Based on our independent testing, we can confirm that it’s a winner.
Bellies and bottles full, drag your tired body back up the short but especially arduous climb out of Summerhaven.
From there, it’s a flowing, brake-free descent. Forty-five minutes of downhill bliss later, we hit the desert valley floor.
Cyclists explore the mountain in myriad ways. “Mount Lemmon is the reason I keep coming back to Tucson. It’s my happy place,” says Olympic mountain biker turned (self-proclaimed) soul rider, Sam Schultz. “It brings all forms of riding together, from super tech mountain bike trails, gravel roads, and pavement.”
Schultz used the slopes of Mount Lemmon to train for the highest level of mountain bike racing and now rides the mountain to escape and explore. “It’s the way I want to interact with my bike. You find a rhythm climbing up, then you point it down for a gravity assisted puzzle to be solved,” Schultz enthuses.
Mount Lemmon’s proximity to Tucson makes it a special backyard gem. A literal haven for wildlife, it’s also a haven for those of us who seek to explore, to challenge ourselves and to see from different views. I can’t wait to get back.
Through fall and winter months highs usually range between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit and with an average of over 300 days of sunshine per year, these months are almost always dry and sunny. This is the prime time for riding in Tucson. In the summer months when temps at the desert floor can exceed 100 degrees, you can head up to Mt Lemmon for a challenging climb to cooler temps and a serious descent. If you choose to tackle Mt Lemmon in the winter months, layer up and keep an eye on the forecast.
When it comes to wildlife, the Sonoran Desert is anything but deserted. There are plenty of animals that call this area home including bobcats, coyotes, Gila monsters, and hundreds of bird species. Depending on where you ride it’s not uncommon to see some wildlife, especially early in the morning or on the lesser-traveled gravel routes.
While most of these animals shouldn’t worry cyclists, the main thing to look out for is rattlesnakes. They don’t pose much of a threat while on the bike, but always look before you sit down to take a break and admire the views.
With a metro area population of nearly one million people, Tucson has plenty of shops all over the city. Check out Copper Spoke Cycles, Fairwheel Bikes, Oro Valley Bikes, and Tucson Performance Endurance Center. Trust us, it’s not hard to find a friendly shop and a top-notch mechanic in this bike-crazy city.
Pavement quality can vary on the outskirts of town, so a tubeless setup along with a thicker casing tire is recommended for the more adventurous riders. Plus, you never know when that dirt road off in the distance might start calling your name. And while it might sound like a no-brainer, make sure to bring plenty of water, especially in the warmer months – it is the desert after all.
Did we mention that Tucson is a bike-crazy city? That means that there are way too many clubs to mention here. If you’re looking for more local info or trying to link up with a group ride, check out the Greater Arizona Bicycling Association (GABA) at bikegaba.org.
Tucson has a little bit of everything but at the end of the day, it’s all about the Mexican food. With literally hundreds of different places it’s not hard to find a deliciously authentic meal. Head down to South 12th Ave (aka La Doce) and check out places like Tacos Apson, El Güero Canelo or BK’s for incredible street tacos and multiple variations of the famous Sonoran Hot Dog (Hot Dog, wrapped in bacon with Mexican-style toppings). Another local Mexican food favorite is Seis Kitchen, which boasts two locations, including the one at Mercado San Agustin, an ever-popular spot for pre and post-ride meetups. You can even find delicious plant-based and vegan Mexican food options at places like Tumerico.
For drinks be sure to check out one of Tucson’s many craft breweries. You won’t be disappointed with the selection or the attention to detail at places like Pueblo Vida or Dragoon Brewing. Looking for a broader selection of taps? Try Westbound, Tap + Bottle, or Ermanos.
And if coffee is the mission, check out EXO Roast Co., Le Buzz Caffe (another popular meetup spot at the base of Mt Lemmon), or the aptly named Presta Coffee Roasters (with one of its two locations at the aforementioned Mercado San Agustin).
Regardless of whether gravel or road is your flavor, Mount Lemmon has an option for you.
The road route up Mt Lemmon is a 34.1km Strava segment, with an average grade of 5%. The KOM is held by none other than Phil Gaimon, with a time of 1:18.32 (average speed of 26.1km/h).
Off the backside of Mount Lemmon is a terrific gravel climb, known locally as ‘Steel Cow’. That’s a 19.6km Strava segment, with an average grade of 6%.
Aside from grabbing some Southside Mexican Food and enjoying the Downtown nightlife on Congress Street and 4th Ave., be sure to check out some of the area attractions. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Saguaro National Park both are bike-friendly and provide an immersive intro to Tucson’s unique natural surroundings.
If you want to broaden your horizons, visit one of Tucson’s scientific wonders like Biosphere 2, Kitt Peak National Observatory (also a great ride destination), or the Pima Air & Space Museum. And history buffs will appreciate the tranquil beauty of Mission San Xavier del Bac and the stunning collection of Native American artifacts found at the Arizona State Museum, located on the campus of the University of Arizona.