must see in tucson drive up the scenic catalina highway 1

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Each turn on the Catalina Highway showcases southern Arizona’s dynamic landscape. From towering cacti to alpine forests, it weaves a path through not only diverse ecosystems and amazing rock formations but a dark past as well.

Carved through the mountains near Tucson, Arizona, the Catalina Highway is a marvel of human effort. And its history is as varied as the landscapes it travels through.

The 28-mile scenic drive begins at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains on Tucson’s north side. The road starts at around 3,000 feet in elevation and ends at the top of Mount Lemmon at about 9,200 feet.

You’ll start the journey in the desert among mighty saguaro cacti, then snake through mountain passes with grasslands and waterfalls. 

Finally, you’ll end up in an alpine and aspen forest, where it’s about 30 degrees cooler than Tucson and often covered in snow in the winter months.

The History of the Catalina Highway: “A Mixed Legacy”

As a flatlander visiting Arizona, my first drive up the Catalina Highway bewildered and amazed me. Now that I live in Tucson, it’s still one of my favorite things to do. 

But like many achievements of the early 20th century, it also has a dark side.

Work was started on the highway in the early 1930s. Initiated by Frank Hitchcock, the project aimed to create a better way to access Mount Lemmon. 

Before the construction of the highway, the only way to reach the village of Summerhaven near the top of Mount Lemmon was the Oracle Control Road — a narrow, rocky route up the north side of the Catalinas that required a 30-mile drive around the west side of the mountains from Tucson¹.

While it’s a remarkable engineering achievement, what’s regrettable about the highway’s construction is the use of labor from a federal prison camp at the base of the mountain. In this era, people believed hard labor rehabilitated prisoners². 

During World War II, the prison camp was used as an internment center for conscientious objectors and Japanese Americans. Then known as Catalina Honor Camp, the use of prisoners for the highway’s construction continued.

When it was completed in 1950, the Catalina Highway was narrow and unsafe by today’s standards. Over the decades, it has undergone several renovations, significantly improving its safety and making it the well-maintained route you can enjoy today. 

In the mid-1990s, the former site of the prison camp was named after Gordon Hirabayashi, an American citizen who resisted internment during World War II.

Today, the Catalina Highway is a popular destination for residents and tourists. A fun way to experience the Sky Islands of southern Arizona, it offers incredible views and limitless options for adventure.

My Favorite Stops Along the Catalina Highway

Babad Do’ag Overlook

Watching the desert sun going down at Babad Do’ag Overlook in Tucson • Photo taken by the author

Babad Do’ag is the traditional name of the Santa Catalina Mountains. It means “frog mountain” in Tohono O’odham and was chosen because people native to the area thought the mountains looked like a sleeping frog.

Today, locals refer to the range as “Mount Lemmon” or “the Catalinas,” and unfortunately, the real name has been relegated to a single stop along the highway.

This overlook sits at around 3,600 feet in elevation and looks out on the Rincón Mountains and the city of Tucson.

It’s a fun spot to visit day or night, as you can catch a sunset or view the city lights. A trailhead nearby offers a moderate-rated hike with wildflowers and rock formations.

Molino Canyon Vista

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Top: Arizona poppies blooming after monsoon rains. Bottom: The author sitting on top of a waterfall at Molino Canyon Vista • Photos taken by the author

Molino Canyon sits in an area between desert and grassland on your way up the highway. On one side, the road is a deep canyon with a creek that flows with snowmelt and monsoon rains, creating 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 swam in the water, and the air was full of butterflies. It’s also a great place to spot javelina and mule deer.

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Mule deer near the campground in Molino Basin along the Catalina Highway • Photo taken by the author

A sidewalk 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 on top of the falls.

This is one of many jewels along the highway, and you can usually visit the waterfalls without encountering crowds.

Thimble Peak Vista

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Thimble Peak Vista in the summer. The rock formation that looks like a thimble and gives this stop its name is on the top-left side. • Photo taken by the author

At an elevation of around 5,000 feet, Thimble Peak Vista stands out as a stop along the Catalina Highway. Here, you’ll transition from desert to grasslands and be treated to vast canyons and interesting rock formations. 

The vista is named after Thimble Peak, a distinct rock formation you can see from the pulloff.

This area is an excellent spot for birdwatching and observing wildlife, especially during the quieter hours of dawn and dusk. I’ve even seen people here at night hunting scorpions with blacklights.

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There are no trails that lead to the top of the thimble rock formation — it requires climbing. • Photo taken by the author

Besides the view, I love the smell of this stop on the highway. It’s different depending on the season and the weather, but it usually smells fresh with faint floral undertones.

Seven Cataracts Vista

Farther up the Catalina Highway from Thimble Peak, there’s a pull-off featuring a series of waterfalls known as Seven Cataracts.

The falls only run with snowmelt or rain, and 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.

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Photographing seven waterfalls creates a long image. Can you count all seven? • Photo taken by the author

I’ve found this spot a great place for stargazing, as it’s far back into the mountains enough that the cliffs block most of the light pollution from Tucson.

The area is a popular spot for canyoneering, and you can often see people rappelling down into the canyon.

Windy Point Vista

the catalina highway makes its way through a canyon below windy point vista in tucson
Walking out onto the cliffs of Windy Point Vista on a cloudy winter day. You can see the Catalina Highway in the middle of the image. • Photo taken by the author

This overlook provides a panoramic view of Tucson and the surrounding mountain ranges. Windy Point sits at around 7,000 feet in elevation and has a view to the west, so it’s a brilliant spot to catch a sunset.

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.

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.

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The lights of Tucson viewed from Windy Point Vista on the Catalina Highway • Photo taken by the author

I’ve now taken in the desert’s expanse and the weathered edges of the hoodoo rock formations more times than I can count. Every time I visit, I still feel the awe and amazement I felt the first time I saw it.

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


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The village of Summerhaven, Arizona atop Mt. Lemmon in autumn • Photos taken by the author

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

The community was established in 1939, and its name comes from the elevation. At around 8,000 feet, it offers a summer retreat from the heat of Tucson³. 

Despite the devastating Aspen Fire of 2003, which destroyed many of the original structures, Summerhaven was rebuilt and remains a popular destination.

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.
  • Driving to the end of the road that goes through town down to Marshall Gulch, a quiet picnic and hiking area with pine trees, ferns, streams, and large granite rocks. We’ve seen turkeys, squirrels, deer, and tons of interesting birds at Marshall Gulch.

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

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One of our guests had enough room to try the pie at Iron Door Restaurant

Keep heading up the road from Summerhaven, and you’ll come upon a small ski slope and a restaurant called the Iron Door.

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, check the hours before you head up.
  • The food is pricey due to the location. Most supplies have to be driven up the mountain.
  • Because they have a small staff, service is relaxed. That doesn’t bother me, but it’s something to consider if you’re on a schedule.

The patio area will gift you with dozens of hummingbirds darting around the various feeders hanging from the patio beams. When we visit, we’re often joined by “Rufus and Doofus,” a pair of ravens that hang around hoping for a handout.

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

Riding the ski lift on Mt. Lemmon. Yes, it runs when there isn’t snow! • Photo taken by the author

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 skiing, the ride is a terrifying-in-a-good-way experience.

The ski lift is different from 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, but if you look up, it feels like there isn’t much holding the chair to the cable. And, of course, if you look down, you realize how far off the ground you are.

Continue on from Ski Valley, and the last part of the road to the top gets narrower. This final stretch of the route is often closed in winter 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. In autumn, it’s a chance to see something people think we don’t have in southern Arizona — changing leaves!

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Aspen trees line the road in the upper reaches of Mount Lemmon • Photo taken by the author

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.

This marks the end of your journey up Mount Lemmon. But guess what? Driving back down is just as fun as the drive up!

Now It’s Your Turn

Despite its complex history, the Catalina Highway is an amazing experience that’s doable even for those of us who aren’t fond of heights. 

There are endless things to do and see along the route, and this post only touches on a few of my favorites.

I hope I’ve sparked a desire in you to go find your own special places along this remarkable road.

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


[1], [2]: Zoellner, T. (2019). The Catalina Highway: Boosterism, Convict Labor, and the Road to Tucson’s Backyard Mountain. The Journal of Arizona History, 60(2), 131–157. Retrieved from

[3]: Barnes, M. E. (2008). The Road to Mount Lemmon: A Father, a Family, and the Making of Summerhaven. University of Arizona Press.

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