Camping on Mt. Lemmon: Molino Basin Campground

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Mt. Lemmon is one of our favorite places in Tucson. Whether it’s driving all the way up the Catalina Highway to the small village of Summerhaven to grab some fudge at the general store, eating lunch at the first vista point, catching a sunset at Windy Point, or taking the control road back way up the mountain for some off-roading fun, Mt. Lemmon has been good to us.

The only thing about Mt. Lemmon that’s ever disappointed us is…having to leave! (Well, it being on fire last summer disappointed us. But that’s a whole other story. 😬)

Mt. Lemmon boasts several campgrounds and a few dispersed camping opportunities. Our class A motorhome is too big to take advantage of those opportunities, so we told ourselves as soon as we got something small enough to camp in on Mt. Lemmon, we’d do it. And camp on Mt. Lemmon we did — at Molino Basin Campground.

Our campsite in Molino Basin as seen from the Catalina Highway

At around 4,500 feet, this campground is on the lower end elevation-wise and is open from October – April when the temperatures are comfortable for camping. After May, the desert heat starts to encroach on the area and you’re encouraged to camp farther up the mountain.

This elevation is the grassland part of the desert where the scrub and saguaros of the base of the mountain give way to cottonwood and oak trees. From our campsite, we enjoyed the company of deer, bats, owls, kangaroo rats, and several species of birds.

With 37 sites and an RV length limit of 22′, Molino Basin Campground is on the smaller end. We arrived at around 2 p.m. on a Friday afternoon in April and one spot was left. The RV camp spots are paved and offer a stone picnic table and firepit. Two sites are for picnicking only, and there’s a couple of group sites available. As of April 2021, the group sites were closed due to COVID-19.

The firepit and view from our campsite at Molino Basin Campground on Mt. Lemmon

We enjoyed two nights at site #18, and paid $10.00 a night with our Annual National Park Pass. While the space between campsites is ample, this isn’t a place to camp if you want to get away from other people.

The Catalina Highway runs above and below the campground, so if traffic noise annoys you this campground may not be ideal. The traffic slowed down a lot after around 10 p.m. and we only noticed it when loud motorcycles drove up and down the mountain.

I imagine the peace and tranquility of your experience largely depends on who your neighbors are when you’re there. The site across from us ran a generator for hours, and while it was far enough away to be background noise, it was still noticeable. We had a little fun dreaming up scenarios for why they’d need to run a generator for 12 hours straight.

They also found it necessary to blast country music one evening, but we could sit on the other side of our trailer and mostly ignore it. I’m the most noise-sensitive person in the world, but I only found myself mildly annoyed by other campers and traffic noise.

The road in and out of the campground is paved, and the Arizona Trail runs nearby. Many bicyclists and backpackers use the road to access the walk-in campsites and Arizona Trail, but we found the car and foot traffic in and out of the campground to be minimally disruptive.

Our Jeep/small trailer/rooftop tent combo attracts a lot of attention, and a few campers stopped by to talk to us about our setup. I don’t love attention and I’m still getting used to that. 😅

Pit toilets are among the provided facilities, but there are no RV hookups, and drinking water is not available. Leashed dogs are welcome in the campground, but aren’t permitted in the nearby Pusch Ridge Wilderness area due to the presence of bighorn sheep. We found cell phone service hard to come by, but it seemed to be accessible a little closer to the entrance of the campground.

While this was a bit different than the dispersed camping we usually enjoy, overall we had a great experience and would definitely return to this spot. If you’re in the Tucson area from October – April and this campground ticks all the boxes for you, we recommend you check it out!

Our campsite at Molino Basin Campground on Mt. Lemmon
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