Must See in Tucson: Drive Up the Scenic Catalina Highway

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The Catalina Highway is a 28-mile road that begins at Mt. Lemmon’s base on Tucson’s north side. The base starts at around 3,000 feet in elevation and ends at the top of Mt. Lemmon at around 9200 feet. It’s our favorite thing to do when people who’ve never been to Tucson come to visit.

You’ll start the journey in the desert among towering saguaro cacti, snake your way through mountain passes with grasslands and waterfalls, and finally end up in an alpine and aspen forest where it’s about 30 degrees cooler and often covered in snow in the winter months.

It’s an amazing drive that can only truly be experienced by doing it, but we’ll try our best to sum it up for you here. Keep reading to learn about our favorite stops along the highway!

Babad Do’ag Overlook

Babad Do’ag is the Tohono O’odham name for the Catalina Mountains. It’s pronounced “Bob-aht Dough Ahk” and it means frog mountain, as to them the mountain looked like a giant frog.

This overlook point sits at around 3600 feet in elevation and offers a great view of saguaro cacti, the nearby Rincón Mountains, and the urban spread of Tucson.

Looking over the expanse of Tucson from Babad Do’ag vista

This spot is great to visit day or night, as you can catch a sunset or view the city lights. There’s a trailhead nearby that offers a moderate-rated hike with views of desert fauna, wildflowers, and rock formations.

If we want a taste of Mt. Lemmon but don’t have time to drive all the way to the top, we often drive up to Babad Do’ag and enjoy lunch.

Molino Canyon Vista

On your way up the highway, between desert and grassland, there is Molino Canyon. On one side, the road is a deep canyon with a creek that flows with snowmelt and monsoon rains and creates several waterfalls. On the other side of the road, there’s a campground that’s open almost year-round.

The first time I visited Molino Canyon, I felt like I was in a video game. Hundreds of tiny frogs were in the water, and the air was full of butterflies.

Sitting on top of one of the waterfalls in Molino Canyon

There’s a sidewalk that offers a viewing area over the canyon and waterfalls to the west, and to the east, a small dirt trail takes you directly to the creek. Cross the creek carefully, and you can stand right on top of the falls.

This is one of many “hidden gems” on Mt. Lemmon, and you can usually visit the waterfalls without encountering crowds of people.

Thimble Peak Visa

Thimble Peak Vista in the rain

Thimble peak is a rock formation between two significant canyons of the Catalina Mountains — Bear Canyon and Sabino Canyon. At around this elevation (5,000 feet), the cacti disappear, and the rolling grasslands begin.

Other than the views, what I love about this stop on the highway is the smell. It’s different depending on the season and the weather, but in general, the smell at this vista is piney and fresh with faint floral undertones.

Seven Cataracts Vista

Higher up the road from Thimble Peak, there is Willow Canyon. Within Willow Canyon, there are a series of waterfalls known as Seven Cataracts. While the falls only run with snowmelt or rain, if you park at the vista you’ll know when it’s running because you’ll hear the roar of water falling down the canyon.

Peer over the edge of the vista toward the rock walls and you’ll see the seven waterfalls that give this spot its name.

Canyon waterfalls at Seven Cataracts Vista

A sad part about this area is that it was once the scene of a suicide. In 2000, someone drove a van into the canyon.

At the time, there was no way for crews to recover the van from the canyon safely. Until recently, if you looked over the edge, you could still see the van’s rusty remains, and it was an unwelcome reminder for the family of the deceased person.

In 2019, a volunteer-driven effort removed the van from the canyon.

Windy Point Vista

Looking out over southeast Tucson on Windy Point Vista

The first time I visited Tucson, I walked out to the cliffs’ edge on Windy Point Vista and lost my ability to form coherent thoughts. It was like nothing I had ever seen and made me feel insignificant in the best way.

Part of the purpose of our trip was Levi trying to convince me to move here, but truth be told I didn’t need much convincing. One of his favorite memories, and one he brings up often, was my statement as I stood on this vista point and looked out over the desert.

“This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Rock climbers scaling the weathered hoodoo rock formations of Windy Point

I’ve now been to the cliffs of Windy Point nearly a dozen times. Maybe more. I’ve taken in the desert’s expanse and the weathered edges of the hoodoo rock formations more times than I can count, and nothing is lost.

Every time I visit, I still feel the awe, the wonder, the respect, and the amazement as I felt the first time I saw these things.

The lights of Tucson seen from Windy Point on Mt. Lemmon

Windy Point is at around 7,000 feet in elevation, and part of it has a view of the west, so it’s a great spot to catch a sunset. While it’s not a great place for stargazing as Tucson’s lights can be seen, the view at night is also spectacular. If you’re from a flat place like I am and not used to seeing city lights from above, you’re in for a treat.

If you find yourself on the Catalina Highway with only time for one stop, Windy Point is it.

Summerhaven

Looking down at the village of Summerhaven, AZ

On the way to the top of the mountain, you’ll pass by the village of Summerhaven, where you can grab a bite to eat, rent a cabin, or purchase some souvenirs at the general store.

Our favorite things to do in Summerhaven are:

  • visiting the Cookie Cabin, where you can grab a sandwich or a cookie as big as your head,
  • stopping by the general store for homemade fudge and souvenirs, and
  • driving to the end of the road that goes through town down to Marshall Gulch, a quiet picnic and hiking area with lots of pine trees, ferns, streams, and large granite rocks. We’ve seen turkeys, squirrels, deer, and tons of interesting birds at Marshall Gulch.
Along the road past Summerhaven and into Marshall Gulch. Pine trees and snow. And a snowman. Can you find it in the photo? 🙂

The Top: Iron Door Restaurant, Ski Valley, and Radio Ridge

Keep heading up the road from the village of Summerhaven and you’ll pass a small ski slope and a restaurant called the Iron Door. It’s a quaint little ski lodge type place with a nice patio.

Some things to know about the Iron Door:

  • The hours are weird because they’re based around when most people are on the mountain. If you want to visit the Iron Door, check the hours before you head up.
  • The food is on the pricey side because everything has to be driven up the mountain.
  • They aren’t always prepared for a rush in visitors, so the service, while always friendly in our experience, can be on the slow side sometimes. That doesn’t bother us, but if you’re on a schedule it’s something to consider.
Inside dining area of the Iron Door restaurant

Sit in the patio area and you’ll be treated to dozens of hummingbirds darting about around the various feeders hanging from the patio beams. A few times we’ve been there we were joined by “Rufus and Doofus,” a pair of ravens that hang around hoping for a handout.

I’ve heard the homemade pie is excellent, but I’ve never had room to try it due to the size of the entrees. Our favorite things to order are the chili, cornbread, and George’s Gorge — a turkey Reuben sandwich with sauerkraut on marbled rye bread.

Huge baked potato with chili at the Iron Door restaurant on Mt. Lemmon

While hours vary, the ski lift across from the Iron Door runs year-round. Riding the Mt. Lemmon sky ride only improves the view, and if you’re like me and not at all familiar with ski-type things, it’s a novel and terrifying-in-a-good-way experience.

Riding the ski lift on Mt. Lemmon

The ski lift is not like a ride at a theme park that stops to let you get on at your leisure. The operator will have you stand on a platform, and a ski lift chair will come by and scoop you up. After that, you’re off and on your way.

Not only does the ski lift not stop, if you look up, it feels like there isn’t much holding the chair to the wire. And of course, if you look down, you realize how far off the ground you are.

At $15 a person, it may be too expensive for some, but we found it worth doing once.

Picnic area and trail at the top of Mt. Lemmon. On this day when we started driving up the mountain it was 80 degrees at the base.

Continue up from Ski Valley, and the last part of the road to the top gets narrower and more wind-y. This last stretch of road is often closed in winter months as it’s difficult to plow and dangerous when there’s ice. If you’re on the mountain and the road to the top is open, it’s worth driving up to look.

The top features a picnic area, hiking trails, and the Mt. Lemmon Sky Center — which the University of Arizona uses for astronomical observation and research. In autumn it’s a chance to see something people think we don’t have here in southern Arizona: changing leaves!

Driving to the top of Mt. Lemmon in autumn

Once the road ends, park in the small gravel lot and walk through the trees to the Mt. Lemmon Trailhead and Radio Ridge — named for a series of radio and cell phone towers installed on the top of the mountain that can be seen from Tucson.

Here you’ll see the remains of the 2003 Aspen Fire, a devastating human-caused wildfire that torched nearly 85,000 acres and all but burned the village of Summerhaven to the ground.

It was said that it would take 100 years for the forest to recover from the Aspen Fire. And in June of 2020, the Bighorn Fire swept through the area and burned it again. Only this time, due to fire crews’ efforts and the old fire lines from the Aspen Fire, the town of Summerhaven was saved.

We haven’t been back to Mt. Lemmon since the Bighorn Fire, as much as it has been closed to the public until recently. We’re eager to go back as it’s one of our most treasured places, but we’re also afraid of what we’ll see when we get there.

View from the top of Mt. Lemmon and the remains of the 2003 Aspen Fire

The Catalina Highway is well-maintained, not too steep, and wide enough for even the most heights-averse among us to enjoy.

There are endless things to do and see on Mt. Lemmon, and this post only touches on a few of our favorites. We hope this post inspired you to take a drive up the highway, see all the things Mt. Lemmon has to offer, and come up with some of your own favorites. 🙂

See our map below for a list of the stops mentioned in this post!

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