Mount Lemmon is the iconic climb of southern Arizona. It’s big, it’s long, it’s beautiful, it’s varied. From the base of the climb it’s about 28 miles and 6,500 feet of climbing. If you also ride down you can add another 600 feet of climbing. Summerson rates the climb as somewhere between Category 1 and Hors Categorie. Most people start at Le Buzz, which adds about 4.5 miles to the base of the climb, so the whole trip, car to car, is about 65 miles.
Mount Lemmon has the strange property that there are different definitions of what it means to have climbed Mount Lemmon. Some people will ride to Summerhaven and say they’ve climbed Mount Lemmon. Others will ride to Ski Valley and make the claim. But to a purist, you’ve only climbed Mount Lemmon if you ride up to Sky Center, another 1.7 miles past Ski Valley.
Mount Lemmon is a popular ride, and many people ride it regularly. Many people ride some of it, especially when the weather is colder. Popular turn around points are: Molino Basin (5.5 miles), Seven Cataracts (9+ miles), Middle Bear (11.5 miles), Windy Point (14 miles), the end of the Hoodoo section (15.5 miles), the start of the big downhill (21 miles).
People ride Lemmon in different ways and from different directions. I’ve ridden it twice in a day (my friend Roger Peskett has ridden it three times in a day!), I’ve ridden it standing in my big chainring. You can do it as part of the Tucson Trifecta, as a big loop through Oracle and up the Control Road, as a big loop over Redington Pass and up Black Hills Mine Road and the Control Road. Or you can forget the climb and just circumnavigate the whole mountain.
The two main starting points are at Le Buzz and at Mile 0.
Le Buzz is a cafe next to Safeway in the big parking lot at the NE corner of Tanque Verde and Catalina Highway. The parking lot is a popular meeting place for cyclists, and Le Buzz is a popular place to refresh and socialize after the ride.
Mile 0 is the Mount Lemmon Short Road, just where the road steepens and starts to climb. It’s about 4.5 miles from the Le Buzz parking lot. Park in the dirt on the right side of the road just before the Short Road. Alternatively you could drive up to the parking area just before the first switchback then ride back down to start.
If you are riding to the top there’s only one decision point, just above Summerhaven where you leave the main road and turn right on Ski Run Road, so the ride is simple, if not easy.
The Mount Lemmon road varies in gradient, and even has a two mile downhill section after mile 20.5. The section between mile 12 and mile 15.5 is the most beautiful section (to me). The two miles between miles 12 and 14 are in some ways the most daunting, being more consistently steep than the section below. But once you’ve reached Windy Point at mile 14, the whole climb now feels within reach. The gradient is generally a bit easier above Windy Point and there’s the two mile downhill to look forward to.
Until you reach Ski Run Road, that is. The next 3+ miles are the most difficult on the mountain, and are the sting in the tail. It’s about 1.5 steep miles up to Ski Valley and the Iron Door restaurant. Depending on the time of year, the gate above Ski Valley may be closed but you can simply go under or round the gate and continue riding. Another 1.7 miles takes you to the finish at the Sky Center gate (if the Ski Valley gate is closed the Sky Center gate may be open and you can ride another couple of hundred yards up to the main observatory area).
Water can be an issue on Mount Lemmon. After the camp sites open at Palisades, there is usually a working water spigot at the Bigelow Trailhead (on the right just before the Palisades Visitor Center, at around mile 19), but this is not guaranteed. So bring enough water for the whole ride.