One of the most challenging hikes in Arizona is one that few people know of. The trek from Catalina State Park to the top of Mt. Lemmon, a vertical climb of around 6,500 feet and a total elevation gain of over 7,500, is not for the faint of heart. It requires serious endurance, athleticism, pain tolerance, and good friends. In about nine hours of hiking Mt Lemmon, we did 14+ miles.
When it comes to the best Tucson hikes, this is one of them, as you get to see the landscape change before your eyes!
Everything you need to know about Hiking Mt Lemmon
Planning your Hike up Mt Lemmon
Your route hiking Mt Lemmon
You’ll start your hike up Mt Lemmon from Catalina State Park on the northwest side of Mt Lemmon. Here you’ll head to Romero Pools, then up to Romero Pass, and through the Wilderness of Rocks before reaching the summit. You can also stick to the ridgeline if you want. I dive into the entire route below!
Gear to Pack
You’ll want to pack lightly, as this is a butt burner of a hike! However, if the weather changes, you will want enough water and an extra layer.
- Wide-brimmed hat
- Hiking Pack
- Hiking Poles
- Sturdy Hiking shoes
- Plenty of water
- Water filter
Estimated Time this will Take
It took our group about nine hours to hike. We were all young and in our 20s and likely did it faster than most people. I’d assume 10-12 hours for most hikers.
How many miles is the hike up Mt Lemmon?
It’s a little over 12 miles from Caltina State Park to the top of Mt Lemmon. The views overlooking Tuvson from the top are gorgeous!
What’s the elevation gain of Hiking Mt Lemmon?
The elevation gain of hiking Mt Lemmon near Tucson is a whopping 6,800+ feet of gain. This is almost 50% more than the Rim to River hike of the Grand Canyon.
Do you have a ride at the top?
Most people who hike to the top of Mt Lemmon get picked up at the top and drive down. We did this, and I recommend it as your route too. If not, you’ll have a 17-19 hour hiking day.
Where to stay in Tucson
Tucson has many places to stay, ranging from budget to luxury. Find your home away from home below! Of course, you’ll want to stay somewhere north central, which will be the closest distance to Mt Lemmon Highway.
Your Guide to Hike to the Top of Mt Lemmon
Beginning the hike in Catalina State Park
With bags packed, we headed to the rendezvous point for breakfast. By 7:15 am, we were at the trailhead, bags strapped on, and ready to go hiking Mt Lemmon!
With overcast skies above us and the sun beginning to rise on our left, we began the journey up, up, and up.
Reaching Romero Pools
The first break spot is Romero Pools, three miles in and nearly 1,300 feet up. This is a popular spot in the warmer months (with a caveat that there’s water running) as people cliff-jump into the pools below.
One of our friends decided he needed a quick splash and jumped in—nothing like a March dip into something close to snowmelt. Once everyone was dry, we started up – literally – again. (Have I mentioned how steep this hike is? Well, it was.)
After a while, we entered the clouds hiding the peaks of the Catalina Mountains, where I finally (thankfully) put away my camera and didn’t have to deal with it sloshing around my chest. Unfortunately, the wind started picking up at this point, and the temperatures began dropping.
Romero Pass sits around 6,000 feet (or the halfway point in terms of elevation gain) and was home to our lunch break. Unfortunately, we were in the clouds at this point, and the wind whipped viciously, forcing me, who didn’t bring enough layers, to hunker down off the ridgeline.
Romero Pass is around seven miles from Catalina State Park and just over 3,700 feet up, making for a pretty arduous climb. We, however, were just getting started. We had another 3,000+ feet in vertical elevation and over 4,000 feet of total elevation gain left.
As we left the pass, the clouds thickened, and we walked with not much more than 50 feet of visibility. This gave us nothing to look at but the trail and trees surrounding us. Furthermore, the uphill climb had us winded, which meant there was little to zero conversation while hiking Mt Lemmon.
Other Arizona hikes: Getting to Havasupai
After another two or three miles later, we reached a fork; go through Wilderness of the Rocks or continue along what I imagine is the ridgeline. We went with the Wilderness of the Rocks, which was scenic and basically a flat basin. For approximately the next two miles, we enjoyed the scenery and the reprieve it gave our legs not to be walking uphill.
However, to get into the basin, we had to go downhill, giving up 500-1000 feet of elevation we had secured earlier. This meant in the last two miles, we had to gain about 2,000 feet—definitely not a walk in your local park.
The Final Climb of Hiking Mt Lemmon
We climbed and climbed as we began our ascent out of the basin. Our eyes were trained on the fire tower above, the symbolic end of the struggle.
As long as I’ve been an athlete, I’ve always had a second gear toward the finish line. I’m unsure where it comes from, but I took the lead and went all out. The reasons were twofold: I wanted to get off the damn mountain, take photos at the top, and not have the rest of the group waiting around.
So I took off, finally letting my legs extend, and found a nice cadence hiking Mt Lemmon.
Once at the fire tower, the views were spectacular, looking south from Mt Lemmon and into the Tucson community – and my home-away-from-home for four years during college. This, indeed, was one of the best Tucson hikes!
With the uphill behind me and the photo session completed, I meandered the rest of the trail/dirt road to the parking lot, where, with tired legs and a sore back, we all piled into the car and headed to the Cookie Cabin. I don’t think we comprehended that we just climbed Mt Lemmon in a single push!
A treat at the top after hiking Mt Lemmon
Cookie Cabin Madness
Once at the Cookie Cabin, this magical restaurant sitting at 9,300 feet, we devoured pizookie, pizza, chili, and more pizookie. In other words, we went crazy on carbs and sugar. But who wouldn’t after nearly nine hours on the trail?
After we stuffed our faces, we rolled down the mountain. Just kidding. A friend’s partner picked us up, and we drove down like ordinary people into civilization.
Wrapping up – Hiking Mt Lemmon
Hiking Mt Lemmon was well worth it for the company, experience, and physical challenge. Plus, to knock off one of the best Tucson hikes is perfect! Being in nature with good people should never be taken for granted.
And for fun, I took photos of Caleb and Megan’s golden doodle because who doesn’t like dog photos?!
Until next time adventurers, take care and be safe.
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