Arizona Scenic Road Trip: Sky Islands Scenic Byway

Last Updated on February 14, 2021 by Janet Frost

National Scenic Byways are recognized for characteristics such as: archaeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and scenic. Their purpose is to preserve and protect scenic but often less-traveled roads and promote tourism. A few weeks ago I highlighted a “Wisconsin Scenic Road trip“, today let’s take an Arizona Scenic Road trip. We found the  Sky Islands Scenic Byway just north of Tucson.

Let’s Go! Learn Things about Sky Islands

Tucson, Arizona

Tucson sits in the Sonoran Desert surrounded by minor mountain ranges. The Santa Catalina Mountains are to the north of the city with their high point of 9,157 ft elevation,  at Mt. Lemmon. Mt Lemmon is a popular day trip destination in the area.  From downtown Tucson it is just an hour drive to the summit. You take Catalina Highway through the outlying neighborhood of Tanque Verde. As you enter the Coronado National Forest the road becomes Mt. Lemmon Highway. This highway will climb more than 6,000 ft to the summit.

Sky Islands
Sky Island Scenic Byway aka Mt. Lemmon Highway

Sky Islands

This was the first time I had ever heard the phrase “Sky Islands”.  The phrase refers to mountain peaks that are isolated from a large range. These forested mountains rise up out of the Sonoran desert floor. They are like hopscotch patches across the US Southwest, connecting the Rocky Mountain Range in the north to the Sierra Madre Occidental Range in the south.  The isolation of these mountains has significant implications for these natural habitats. Sky Islands consist of unique ecosystems and biodiversity that change rapidly as you progress up the steep elevations.

Biodiversity

The Sky Islands Scenic Byway climbs up to Mt. Lemmon through 5 distinct habitats. You will experience Sonoran desert, Saguaro chaparral, grasslands, woodlands and mixed-conifer forest. This phenomenon is the ecological equivalent of walking from Mexico to Canada. Obviously with this rapid range of life zones there are plenty of vistas and viewpoints along the route.

Sky Islands Scenic Byway
Towering rock formations along the Sky Islands Scenic Byway

University of Arizona and Mt. Lemmon

The University of Arizona provides great resources for the research, education, and preservation of this important environmental region. As you approach the foothills on the Catalina Highway there are signs for the Mt. Lemmon Science Tour.  This audio tour is available for free as an app on your phone. The tour is broken into sections that coincide with the vista pull-offs as you climb the Sky Islands Scenic Byway.  It provides a great depth of information about the area. I highly recommend using this well done app.

Another wonderful opportunity made possible by the U of A  is the University of Arizona Sky Center . A Schulman 32-inch telescope is available to the public through programs such as “Sky Nights” and “Discovery Days”. The observatory is at the top of Mt. Lemmon.

Mt. Lemmon
University of Arizona Sky Center on Mt. Lemmon. Photo credit to University of Arizona

Mt. Lemmon

All along the Sky Islands Scenic Byway are stopping points full of trails, picnic areas and campgrounds. At the summit are a ski run and the quaint mountain village of Summerhaven. Check out their website for all the activities available at the summit of Mt. Lemmon.

While we didn’t explore all the trails this trip, we couldn’t resist stopping at each vista point. We loved Windy Point vista.  Visitors were scrambling all over the many rock formations.  However, we were all in awe of the rock climbers practicing on these cliffs and bicyclers grinding up and down the steep grades.

The Palisades Visitor Center was full of maps and books to help you with the activities available in the Coronado National Forest.  I didn’t find the staff especially helpful or friendly, but it was worth a stop for the trail maps.

Sky Islands
Trail map for the Mt. Lemmon area.

Campsites and picnic areas are available from an elevation of 3,000 feet up to 9,000 feet, offering a year round season of camping opportunities and a full spectrum of vegetation and climate zones.

Summerhaven, Arizona

The adorable little mountain village at the summit of Mt Lemmon is a comfortable 30 degrees cooler than the 100 degree desert 6,000 ft below. A handful of vacation homes, tourist shops and restaurants line the one little road running through town.

Visit Mt. Lemmon on the Sky Islands Scenic Byway

This one hour drive easily turns into a day of exploring. Hiking trails climb all through the mountains and forests. This road trip is equally impressively as the seasons change. Yes we do have changing seasons in Arizona. However, be sure to check ahead in the winter months, because the road can be closed with snow near the summit. As a matter of fact, Mt. Lemmon has a ski slope that for a few short time, is the “southernmost ski resort” of the U.S.

With all the mountains and canyons throughout Arizona it is hard to choose which one to visit. Tucson is often overshadowed by the big names of Phoenix, Sedona and Grand Canyon. If you are looking to avoid summer National Park crowds, the Sky Islands Scenic Byway is a great option.

Go! Learn Things About other Sky Islands

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scenic byways, Arizona, Southwest road trip, Tucson, Mt. Lemmon, Catalina mountains, Sky Islands

8 thoughts on “Arizona Scenic Road Trip: Sky Islands Scenic Byway”

  1. Looks like some beautiful hikes. I’ve never been to Tucson, but I’d love to visit. I’m fascinated by the landscape after our winter visit to Arizona earlier this year.

    1. Yes, the desert is so different from anything I have known in the Midwest. The other great thing is how quickly you can move into totally different climate zones and landscapes.

    1. Even this day was unusually cloudy. But it is so spectacular out there.

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