jeep wrangler on mt lemmon control road

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A trip up the Catalina Highway on the south side of the Santa Catalina Mountains is a thing most people visiting Tucson, Arizona put on their “must-do” list. 

It’s a winding, paved road that traverses through mighty saguaros, expansive grasslands, and rocky canyons before terminating in pine forests atop Mt. Lemmon and into the village of Summerhaven.

But did you know there’s another way to reach the top? 

If you’re into drives about more than just getting somewhere quickly, you’ll love exploring the Mt. Lemmon Control Road. It’s a wild and wonderful route where you can take your time and enjoy some of the best backcountry southern Arizona has to offer.

A Brief History of the Mt. Lemmon Control Road

Before the completion of the Catalina Highway in the 1950s, the Control Road was the only way to get to the top of Mt. Lemmon. 

The U.S. Forest Service built the road in the 1920s to provide the community access to the mining and ranching resources of the Catalina Mountains. Pima and Pinal counties contributed to the project, and in those days, it was called the Oracle Control Road.

But what’s with the name? The rough, rocky road was narrow in some places, making it impossible for more than one vehicle to get through at a time. So officials controlled traffic by setting different times of day for cars to go up and down the mountain. And that’s how the route became known as “Control Road.”

Now known to locals as the “backway to Mt. Lemmon” or “Mt. Lemmon Control Road,” it’s open for traffic seasonally and is a popular spot for off-highway vehicles, cavers, campers, cyclists, hikers, and birders.

The road has been widened since its original construction, and it’s possible for vehicles to travel in both directions safely. But there are still a few spots along its 25 miles that will make your backside pucker.

The Other Way (The Mt. Lemmon Control Road)
Mt. Lemmon Control Road video by Arizona Public Media

The Control Road offers jaw-dropping views of southern Arizona’s Sky Island mountain ranges and is a rewarding challenge for those willing to brave the rugged terrain. On a clear day, I’ve seen the snow-capped peak of Mt. Graham in the Pinaleño Mountains — a two-hour drive from Tucson.

You can head down from the Mt. Lemmon fire station just before the village of Summerhaven, Arizona, or up from East American Avenue in Oracle, Arizona. 

Each side of the Catalina Mountains offers a different experience — the Tucson side offers desert scrub and saguaros, and going up from Oracle has higher-elevation grasslands dotted with trees.

Since I live in Tucson, I like making the long highway drive to Oracle and going up the Control Road. But if you find yourself closer to the north side of the Catalinas, you may prefer driving up the Catalina Highway and taking the Control Road down.

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Summerhaven, Arizona on Mt. Lemmon

Impact of the 2020 Bighorn Fire

As you drive along the Control Road, missing the scar left by the Bighorn Fire of 2020 is impossible. This wildfire, sparked by lightning, raged for over six weeks and consumed more than 119,000 acres. Fire officers from Coronado National Forest say it will take 75–100 years for the area to recover from the blaze

Although much of the Control Road was damaged in the Bighorn Fire, firefighters used barriers from the Aspen Fire of 2003 to save Summerhaven, and not one structure was lost.

While humans didn’t cause the most recent wildfire, watching the mountains burn for weeks from natural causes was still difficult. The Catalinas are a beloved retreat for many Arizonans, and having them off limits in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic was tough.

Witnessing the damage left behind by fire is heartbreaking, and I miss the wonderful groves of aspen trees that once grew from the now-scarred earth. The way their white bark contrasts against the brown and jade tones of the pine trees and the sound of their leaves rustling in the breeze makes them a favorite tree of mine.

But I can’t help being in awe over how nature is already bouncing back a mere three years after the Bighorn Fire. Animals like bighorn sheep, black bears, and mule deer have returned to the area. It was a fast-moving fire, and the speed at which it moved kept the temperature at levels that allowed many pine trees to survive the mayhem.

The last time I drove the Control Road, I saw lots of young aspen saplings beginning to grow. I’ll most likely be dead by the time they reach their former grandeur, but it gives me hope that the mountains will bounce back for future generations to enjoy.

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The Bighorn Fire burning through the Catalina Mountains as seen from Tucson

Best Times to Visit and Vehicle Recommendations

Due to snowfall, the upper part of the road closes in December and reopens in March. So the best times to enjoy Mt. Lemmon Control Road are spring, summer, and autumn.

While the road is open in summer, Arizona’s monsoon rains cause flash flooding, often making it dangerous or impassable. And the Control Road is sometimes closed for events like the Mt. Lemmon Gravel Grinder. Check Coronado National Forest’s alerts and notices page before heading out to make sure the road is available for travel.

Locals will tell you stories about how many different vehicles they’ve taken on the Control Road. I’ve passed a lot of passenger cars that made me say, “Really? They drove THAT up here?” I’ve also seen some more-than-capable vehicles that got too close to a loose shoulder and found themselves teetering at the brink of a canyon.

Given the random vehicle parts I’ve seen strewn around and the unpredictable conditions, I’m inclined to be more cautious. 

I recommend a high-clearance vehicle if you drive the entire road to the top. And four-wheel drive may be necessary when parts of the road wash out. If you have the ability to air your tires down, you’ll be less likely to catch a sharp rock and end up with a blowout.

mt. lemmon control road going through the grasslands of southern arizona
The Control Road snaking its way through grasslands in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains

The Mt. Lemmon Control Road is a fun way to enjoy the less-developed parts of the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson.

From panoramic views of the beautiful mountain ranges of southern Arizona to fascinating history, there’s a lot to be discovered in the rough-and-tumble reaches of the Control Road.

If you’re visiting Tucson and looking for a rewarding backcountry adventure, I recommend exploring the backway to Mt. Lemmon.

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