There Are Beautiful Places To Cool Off In Arizona
August 1, 2017
In Arizona, people tend to think of heading north to cool off in the summer, but there are many places in the southern and eastern areas of our beautiful state that also offer higher altitudes, cool forests, and great hikes. These places include Mt. Lemmon near Tucson, the Pinaleno mountains near Safford, and the Mt. Baldy Wilderness near Greer.
In July, the Burro fire was raging and crews were using the Mount Lemmon highway as a firebreak. Residents, campers and hikers were forced to evacuate, but hopefully by the time this article is published, the fire will be a thing of the past. However, there are several big fires burning in southern Arizona right now. When we visited the Chiricahuas earlier this summer, fire crews from all over the country were battling six different fires in the area. So make sure you check before you go to make sure that the area you want to visit is safe.
A Gorgeous Place To Visit
That being said, if Mt. Lemmon is open, it's a gorgeous place to visit. The Mt. Lemmon Scenic Byway takes you to the upper regions of the Santa Catalina Mountains and Mt. Lemmon. In this case, the road itself is part of the experience because of the cool rock formations and the gorgeous views you'll see from the road. There are plenty of places to pull over and take photos, and there are also lots of hiking trails, campgrounds, and picnic areas.
The road is paved and everyone except really big motor homes, buses, and trailers over 22 feet will be fine. The longer vehicles might have a hard time going around the sharp turns and handling the steep grades, and there aren't many places to turn around. The road is 28 miles long and will take you one to two hours. It took us a long time because we stopped everywhere - it's so pretty!
To Get There
To get there, take Tanque Verde Road east from Tucson to the Catalina Highway and follow it to the top. The name changes to Hitchcock Highway when you enter the national forest. There is another way up the mountain from Oracle, and that is a dirt road that is popular with off-roaders. Hoping to write about that soon!
Observatory At Top
At the top of Mt. Lemmon is an observatory that used to be an Air Force radar base. It is now used for astronomical research. They have visitor programs and if you go online you can buy tickets and get on the waiting list for their SkyNights StarGazing programs. You will get to use a telescope and a professional astronomer will help you to see astronomical objects. When you go online and "buy" a ticket (the price is $0), you are placed on the wait list.
If the weather cooperates and they are able to do the stargazing, they will call you on the morning of the program you signed up for. Monsoon storms can change things, which is why it's a wait list. You won't be asked for a credit card or anything since you're not buying anything.
Make sure you allow at least 90 minutes to get to the observatory from Tucson.
High And Cool
At the ski resort on Mt. Lemmon, Ski Valley, you can ride the lift in the summer. It takes about a half hour and gives you great views while taking you up to an elevation of 9100 feet. It's $12 for adults, $9 for youths, $7 for children, and $9 for seniors and the military. Go to skithelemmon.com for more information.
The top of Mt. Lemmon, at 9,157 feet, is twenty degrees cooler than the desert below, which makes it a great place for a summer visit.
There are several good campgrounds on the slopes, and the Rose Canyon Campground and Rose Canyon Lake offer fishing. Rose Canyon Lake covers 7 acres in the ponderosa pines. Fishing for rainbow trout is from the shore only – no boats allowed. The trout are stocked from April through the end of August.
There is also a nice trail around the lake (Rose Canyon Lake Trail #37), with several logs along the way so you can sit an relax and enjoy yourself. It costs $10 a day to park and Arizona Game and Fish regulations apply, so you need a valid fishing license to fish. Drinking water and toilets are available.
The campground near the lake has 43 sites that are available on a first-come, first-served basis, or you can reserve one of thirty sites by going to http://www.recreation.gov or calling 1-877-6777. The Senior pass gives you 50% off the regular camping fee of $22 for up to 6 people. An extra vehicle is $9.
There are many more campgrounds at Mt. Lemmon, and you can find a ton of information at fs.usda.gov, or just Google Santa Catalina Mountains and click on the Forest Service link that you will see. This site is also an excellent place to get information on fire closures.
Mr. Baldy Wilderness Area
Mt. Baldy is an extinct volcano 11,403 feet high. The wilderness covers 6,814 gorgeous acres, and it's one of the most popular hiking areas in Arizona. The mountain itself is inside the White Mountain Apache Reservation and the wilderness area is on the eastern slope of the mountain.
West Baldy Trail
One of the most popular trails is the one we took our granddaughters to just last month - the West Baldy Trail. This pretty and fairly easy trail follows the Little Colorado River for seven miles, then joins up with the East Baldy Trail near the boundary of the reservation.
So if you want to, you can make it a 14-mile loop trail. We, however, chose to simply walk a few miles along the river and enjoy the cool breezes and the beauty of the river and the forest.
There were a lot of wildflowers along the trail, including irises, and lots of butterflies to go with them. The girls (our granddaughters) spent quite a bit of time coaxing butterflies to land on their fingers. Lots of great Instagram moments.
The trail is fairly easy for the first hour and a half or so, then it gets steeper and starts switchbacking up the mountain. . It's a popular place for waders, hikers, and fishermen. We also saw a large group on horseback (two were on mules, and we just had to laugh at the way their ears flop back and forth at every step).
The further you go, of course, the fewer people you will see. We make a pact to come back when we have more time and do the entire 14 mile loop. I'd love to see the views from the mountain.
To Get There
To get to the trailhead, go west on State Route 260 from Eagar to State Route 273. Turn left onto 273 and it's 7.6 miles to the trailhead. We actually passed that area and drove down the road just a bit to the bridge at Sheep Crossing where you can park and pick up the Railroad Grade Trail and jump onto West Baldy Trail from there. You can find all kinds of information about camping and trails at the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest website. When we were there, we stayed at Reed's Lodge in Springerville. It's a super place – we had a big two-room suite that was very comfortable and quiet, plus there was a pool table in the rec room and lots of games. We had a blast. We also got a discount at Booga Reds restaurant across the street. Highly recommend both places.
Finally, caves are perfect places to cool off in the summer. They are naturally cool and dark. Some of our favorites include Colossal Cave near Tucson (check for Groupons before you go!), Kartchner Caverns near Sierra Vista (make reservations online), and the Lava Tube cave near Flagstaff.
I've always wanted to visit the Grand Canyon Caverns as well, and someday I will. All of these caves except the Lava Tube Cave offer tours as the only way to visit the cave.
Enjoy, Have Fun Safely
So there you have it. These are just a few of the many beautiful and cool places to visit during the summer in Arizona. Just remember that the monsoon season could throw some intense thunderstorms at you, so exercise common sense when starting off on a hike in the summer. Have fun, stay cool, and be safe!
Editor's Note: Margie Anderson hopes to visit and write later about the Pinaleno Mountains -another cool retreat - when she returns to the area and surveys the damage there from this summer's Frye fire.