ApproachFrom Tucson, drive north on AZ 77, the Oracle Highway. Drive past Catalina Park, Tangerine Road, and Wilds Road. About one mile north of Wilds Road, turn right onto Golder Ranch Road. There is a traffic light here. Drive east about 2.5 miles where the pavement ends, then turn south. A short distance later, bear left at a road junction, and continue south on Golder Ranch Road. A short distance after that, you will hit a fork in the road. The main road turns left, but you will go straight on a primitive road. This road is marked by a "State Trust Land" sign, and is designated as Forest Road 643 on the Forest Service map. Drive south about one mile on this road to reach the trailhead at the north boundary of Catalina State Park. You will park at this approximate location.
Route DescriptionAlthough few people realize it, an ascent of Mount Lemmon from the bottom is similar in scale to an ascent of Mount Whitney. However, since the air is thicker, the climb is considerably easier, and unlike Mount Whitney, you can catch a ride back down. Nevertheless, an ascent of Mount Lemmon from the bottom is a serious undertaking.
From the trailhead parking area at 2,980', the summit of Mount Lemmon is a longs ways above you. There are signs marking Forest Road 643, Catalina State Park, and the Sutherland Trail here. Walk through the gate, and begin your long ascent of Mount Lemmon. You will initially be on Forest Road 643, which may also be the Sutherland Trail. The road/trail initially follows the power lines that go all the way to the top. After about two miles, you will reach a Sutherland Trail No. 56 sign. The summit of Mount Lemmon is 9.6 miles from here. Continue up the road/trail for three more miles. The road doesn't gain much elevation through this stretch, and there are several up-and-down sections here. At 6.6 miles from the summit, the trail turns right at a signed trail junction. The elevation here is 4,880'. The primitive road continues going straight up the mountain here as it parallels the power line. Turn right on the trail, now designated as Trail No. 6 on the Forest Service map, and head for a drainage. After crossing the small drainage, the trail virtually disappeared for a short distance. The Sutherland Trail appears to be lightly used, and the recent forest fires have damaged the trail in several areas. We looked at our topo map, and it showed the trail going south a few hundred feet to another small drainage. We bushwhacked south and descended into the drainage, where we picked up the trail again. This was the worst stretch of the entire climb. The trail is faint in several other places, and we made a few wrong turns here and there, but this stretch was by far the worst.
Once back on the trail, follow it as it climbs up the mountain. You will begin to appreciate the huge size of Mount Lemmon during this stretch. At 7,720', you will link up with the power lines again on top of a ridge. Continue up on the trail. About 3/4-mile later, you will reach the junction with the Samaniego Ridge Trail No. 7 coming in from the north. At this point, I felt like we were finally beginning to approach the top. About 0.8-miles later, you will reach the junction with the Mount Lemmon Trail No. 5. The summit is 1.5-miles from here.
Start climbing up the trail, now a primitive road again, as it heads towards the summit observatory. About a half mile from the observatory, you will reach a signed trail junction. One trail heads straight and follows the primitive road, and the other trail turns left. These trails are designated as Trails 5 and 5A on the Forest Service map. The trail that goes straight heads for the front gate of the observatory, and the trail that goes left enters the observatory grounds from the back. We turned left, and followed the trail as it entered the backside of the observatory grounds. You will eventually end up on a paved access road within the observatory grounds. Make the final push to the true summit, where there are no views. I climbed Mount Lemmon from the bottom in 1994 via Sabino Canyon, but this appears to be a better route.
Hiking Distance: About 12 miles one way.
Elevation Gain: About 6,400'.