Jim’s Tech Talk
By Jim Langley
If you enjoy long, tough climbs and spectacular scenery, Mt. Lemmon in Tucson, Arizona should be on your bucket list. It’s been on mine for a long time, but I can’t remember when I first learned about it. It might have been while I was helping to compile a greatest climbs in the USA story for Bicycling Magazine. Because I know my buddy and fellow editor there (and former RoadBikeRider humorist) Scott Martin told me he loved Mt. Lemmon when he rode it.
Another possibility is that when I did the El Tour de Tucson century in 1999 as a coach for the Team in Training Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (TNT) that someone told me I should do Mt. Lemmon next. But, it might have been Lon Haldeman who told me about it at one of his Pactour Desert Camps which started in Tucson. No one knows how to pick great rides better than he does.
Crazy About Climbing
I’ve made it a point to seek out and try to make it up major climbs every chance I get (at least part of them if I don’t have time or the lungs to complete them). Some of my favorites include Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, Haleakala in Maui, Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park, the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park, Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, Mt. Constitution on Orcas Island, Washington, the Climb to Kaiser in California and Trail Ridge in Colorado (where I collapsed at 9K feet).
So on our current RV trip into Arizona we got a site in an RV park in Tucson specifically so that I could try my luck on Mt. Lemmon. The website ArizonaBikeRides has a helpful page all about this epic Mt. Lemmon is named for Sara Plummer Lemmon, a botanist from Maine.
From their site I learned that most cyclists start in Tucson at the Safeway parking lot on the corner of Tanque Verde Rd. and E. Catalina Highway. The elevation there is about 2,560 feet. From there to the top is about 30 miles, which is the 7,000 foot elevation mark and the turnaround for riding back down.
They said that the 60-mile round trip takes 4.5 – 5.5 hours on average. For more climbing you can ascend to the Ski Resort (a right turn near the welcome to Summerhaven sign). That gets you to 9,000 feet elevation but while the average grade up the main climb is in the 4.5 – 6% range, that 2.8 miles to the ski area is 8%.
When I texted my friend and RoadBikeRider reader Seth who lives in Tucson that I was in town and ready to ride up Mt. Lemmon he told me that I’d picked the perfect day for it. He said it was the nicest weather in three weeks and I’d have a great day, though it might be windy. I did it on Saturday February 4, 2023.
I started at the Safeway parking lot as recommended. There’s a McDonalds there that opens early. It was about 40 degrees at 7:30 when I started. I wore leg warmers, a baselayer top, jersey and wind jacket plus riding gloves with winter gloves over them.
From the parking lot, you turn right onto E. Catalina Highway. This is a wide long straight road that gradually climbs. It seemed to me like I was riding away from the mountains which were in front of me at the parking lot and were now on the left.
Luckily, another rider came past and she told me that if I keep going straight I’d be fine. I did that but grew more concerned as I was expecting E. Catalina Road to become Mt. Lemmon Highway. But that doesn’t happen for a long time. Also, as you roll along there are signs on the road reading Sky Island Scenic Byway, which I hadn’t heard of and later I saw signs for General Hitchcock Highway.
But, if you just keep your wheel headed straight ahead, you’ll stay on course up the mountain. I rode my new Trek Checkpoint gravel bike (which I reviewed last week in this space) because I have a 32 chainring and a 34 tooth cog for the steepest stuff and 40mm-wide tubeless tires for protection from possible goatheads on the road and for traction on the snow and ice at the top.
All told, heading up and down the mountain I saw about 50 riders. Every one was on a standard road bike. I didn’t see any gravel bikes or other types of bikes – no electric bikes either.
Because of the position of the sun over my right shoulder I didn’t notice much scenery of note on the first 5 miles. I wasn’t focused on the roadside at that point anyway. I was concentrating on holding a pace I could maintain. Besides the rider who told me to keep straight, I was passed by 3 others setting a much faster tempo than I dared attempt. I’ve learned the hard way that the worst mistake you can make on a climb as high as Mt. Lemmon is to elevate your heart rate too much anywhere on the climb but especially at the beginning because you can’t recover.
I also know the importance of hydration and I carried two large bottles and sipped regularly on the way up. I was counting on finding water along the way because there are campgrounds every 5 miles or so. I hoped there’d be drinking water and bathrooms.
The Elevation Takes Its Toll
4.5 to 6% isn’t that steep for a long climb and I felt fine up until about the 6,000 foot elevation sign. At that point my breathing felt a little restricted and I found I was most comfortable only when spinning my easiest gear. Around there a double paceline with 6 riders came whizzing by chatting away. I also started seeing snow on the side of the road. It felt cold but Siri told me it was 54 degrees so not that bad. And the sun was out, which felt good.
Speaking of Siri, I thought I’d have a cell connection on most of the climb to check in with my wife back at the RV in Tucson. But it turned out that on the majority of the climb there was no reception.
Where’s the Top?
I knew that I only had a thousand feet to get to the top but it took miles and miles to get there as the switchbacks just kept coming. I could see the radio towers at the top and that kept me motivated to keep pushing. I did get to the 7,000 foot sign but then the road descended for a good way before climbing again to another 7,000 foot sign, which I found out later is the official top.
Since I wasn’t sure if I’d reached the top, I kept going which was a mistake because again the road went down. But, I took the free ride and then climbed some more and ended up at 8,000 feet. Along that entire stretch the snow was deeper and there were icy patches on the road which was worrisome.
At 8,000 feet the road dropped again and I followed it until I saw the Welcome to Summerhaven sign and the turn to the Ski Resort. I figured I might as well attempt to ride up to the Ski Resort and 9K feet, but my legs were toast and I thought better of it after about 10 pedal strokes.
The Ride Down
As soon as I turned around I started feeling a little light-headed and stupid for not stopping way back at the 7K mark. Because to get back there, I had as much up as down. I was crawling along sitting and standing trying to recover a bit. I drank the last of my water and ate some more of the food I’d packed. I stopped to use one of the campground bathrooms and was disappointed to discover that there was no water to be had. The campgrounds were all closed for the winter.
Luckily, when I finally got back to the 7,000 foot marker (about 26 miles from Tucson), I saw that a Cycling House van (a bike adventure company https://thecyclinghouse.com/) was parked there with water and food. They have a ride that climbs Mt. Lemmon and they were at the top to sag their riders. They were happy to help me, too, and it saved me from a tough descent and long pedal back to town without water.
My photos here won’t do justice to the incredible beauty on the way down the mountain. While I was blinded by the sun on the way up, it lit the terrain magnificently on the descent. At the top, it was a lovely winter scene especially up by the ski resort. Once I got below the snow, I came into a magical zone of hoodoos, quirky rock-upon-rock formations all around and for miles down. Then, a couple of switchbacks later I was in a spectacular saguaro cactus forest with breathtaking expansive views of the sprawling city of Tucson below.
Once back on E. Catalina Road heading toward the Safeway parking lot, it was 82 degrees. Quite a temperature swing from 40 to 54 to 82. A steady stream of solo riders were heading toward me at that point apparently having waited for the best part of the day to hit the mountain.
Road Conditions and Traffic
I read several web pages about the Mt. Lemmon climb and they all said the roads had wide shoulders and the pavement was in excellent condition. There are wide shoulders on E. Catalina road at the bottom of the climb. Once you get on the main road that ascends the mountain though the shoulders are still there most of the time, but they’re not that wide and in some places hardly there at all. Up in the snow zone, as you’d expect the snow was on the shoulder, ice, too.
I took the lane as needed. But, I have to say that whether in the lane or on the shoulder – maybe due to it being winter – the pavement was hardly excellent. On the shoulders and in the lane, it was rough enough that I was happy to be on gravel tires, especially on the descent at speed. Had I been on my road bike with skinny tires, I would have taken the middle of the lane for fear of hitting a hole and flatting or even crashing.
There was an awful lot of traffic going up and down the mountain. Arizona has a 3-foot law but the drivers apparently haven’t gotten the memo because time and again they passed within inches. Fortunately, they did slow and the bigger vehicles did wait to cross the centerline to give me space. So overall it wasn’t a lot different than some of the climbs I do in California.
My Mt. Lemmon Stats (according to Strava)
It took this 69.5 year old roadie 5 hours and 33 minutes to ride 59.42 miles for an elevation gain of 6,750 feet and a max elevation of 8,155 feet. My average speed was 10.7 mph, average power was 97 watts and I burned 2,166 calories. Just for kicks I looked it up and it looks like the record to the top of Mt. Lemmon is held by Lionel Sanders who did it in 1:14:35.
If you’ve conquered Mt. Lemmon and have a story to tell or wish to correct any facts I may have gotten wrong please do. It would also be great to hear about your favorite classic climbs so we can all add them to our bucket lists. Thanks and keep on climbing!
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his “cycling aficionado” website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim’s cycling streak ended in February 2022 with a total of 10,269 consecutive daily rides (28 years, 1 month and 11 days of never missing a ride). Click to read Jim’s full bio.
Being a Phoenix, AZ native of 10 years, my wife and I have done a good bit of cycling around the Tucson area including a self-supported weeklong tour from Tucson to Bisbee, AZ and back as well as day rides around Tucson. As you found, the roads around Tucson, in our opinion, are generally in poor condition. Also, Arizona is getting a lot of California transplants who, in our experience from cycling in California, don’t have a lot of respect for cyclists. Arizona drivers, on the other hand, are fairly respectful and will generally give you a wide berth when they pass you. Just my experience from bicycle touring around the western and eastern USA.
Tony Buffington says
PJAMM Featured the Mt. Lemmon climbabout a month ago https://pjammcycling.com/climb/156.Mt-Lemmon.
Our son lived in Civano a few years ago and I got to do this ride on my travel bike, a Bike Friday Pocket Rocket. I loved it and would love the opportunity to ride it again!
Absolutely beautiful climb from desert to alpine forest in 25 miles! 🚵♂️👴🏻
Jerry Brick says
Great climbing Jim Langley, and to all of you who have conquered MT Lemmon! I plan to take the challenge next year,but was wondering what bike to take. I have a 18 lb road bike with a 53/39 crank set and 12/25 cassette. I also have a 25 lb gravel/touring bike with a 42/28 crank set and a 11/32 cassette. Would the heavier but low geared bike be the smart option?
Thank you, Jerry.
Every cyclist needs to spend a month or so in Europe before their career ends.! Those are the ‘real’ climbs. You string together 3 or 4 Alpine beauties (Madeleine, Glandon, Telegraphe, Huez) and you’ve done a good day. And the next day, you can head over to the Saisies, Joux Plaine Morzine,etc.. There is no end of vertical torture. Don’t get me started on the Pyrenees or the Dolomites: you really have not lived fullly until you have experienced the Mortirolo and the Zoncolan: (18-25% all the way up!).. These make the Tourmalet, Stelvio and Gavia pale by comparison, as grade trumps distance every time ..
Let’s hear about some adventures in the heart of cycling history..
Joe DeYoung says
Dear Bigborb, AMEN. First went to France in 2001 to witness the Tour. Returned to Europe many times since to cycle the epic and legendary climbs in France and Italy. Nothing like it. Bicycle Woodstock!
Keep climbing. / Joe DeYoung / Chicago
Roy Bloomfield says
This article is about riding Mt Lemmon IN FEBRUARY….try that in Europe! And yes, the Mortirolo is stout, but (in my opinion) no way makes the Gavia or Stelvio “pale by comparison”. I speak from experience.
Lemmon is a beautiful monster. Well done, sir!
Nice!!! I visited the Tucson area in October and was able to get in the Lemmon climb so I enjoyed reading your report. In addition to the incredible scenery, a stop at the Cookie Cabin was a treat! 😋
Bruce Miller says
Great article. Hope you have an opportunity to ride up Hurricane Ridge from Port Angeles, WA at some point. Mostly 5-6% with terrific views from the top.
Mark Riordan says
Enjoyed the article. A group of “East Coast” riders is planning a Tucson trip in Feb. 2024 and Mount Lemmon is in the plans for some of the group. Another climb that seems to get no real respect from cycling publications is the Beartooth Highway out of Red Lodge MT towards Yellowstone National Park. Statistics are similar to Mount Lemmon but the scenery is slightly different (but just as spectacular).
Joe DeYoung says
Mark, Have had the pleasure of working and cycling Yellowstone the past 4 years. You are soooo right about Beartooth and also the Chief Joseph Biway. Such spectacular roads with overlooks that I will never forget. The American West, such a gift.
Joe DeYoung / Chicago
Jim Langley says
Thanks for the climb suggestions everyone!
Three of us did Mt Lemmon, Kitt Peak and then went down to Sierra Vista to do the Bisbee loop. On the way up Kitt Peak, we had the pleasure of a vintage car rally, including a Cord, one of which I haven’t seen on the road in over 50 years. After a rest day, we then did Mt Lemmon, and saw the same bunch of cars there too. Quite an adventure, with a bonus car rally for our enjoyment!
Joe DeYoung says
Dear Jim, Your Mt Lemon trip report brought back memories from my ascent & descent of Mt Lemon in 2003.
Now 71 I understand that my next trip up there will be a different experience for sure. As time goes by my cassette gets larger and my times slower, but still determined to find my way to the top. Haleakala coming up in a few weeks. Keep climbing Jim and writing about it. Joe DeYoung / Chicago
Jim Langley says
Enjoy Haleakala, Joe – I still put that at the top of my list because you ride from the ocean to above the clouds and it’s uphill all the way. I think you’ll love it.
Larry E Wilson says
I live in Tucson and have done Mt Lemmon more than 120 times. I never get tired of it. The climb is great, traffic is generally very low. You pass through a number of climatic zones that cause dramatic changes in vegetation and wildlife. The views are huge. In the summer, we start riding at mile post 11 and do repeats to Ski Valley to beat the summer heat down below. Something great for every season. And the ride down is especially good. One doesn’t need to use brakes. The grades aren’t that steep and the updrafts keep the speed at reasonable levels.
ELLIS O JONES says
You know what would be cool? Collect trophy pictures from readers — pictures of bikes (and riders, hopefully) next to signs mentioning elevations or famous peaks — and run a gallery once in a while. It would be fun.
Jim Langley says
That’s a nice idea, Ellis. Thanks!
Barbara Titus says
Have you ridden up Sandia Crest, in Albuquerque? Start at the Smith’s Grocery at the entrance to Tijeras Canyon, Ride around the east side of the mountain and up the Crest Road. It tops out over 10k. Classic ride here in Abq!
Lady Cyclist says
My goal is to be able to to Mt. Lemmon every year. So far, so good. I took pictures of every elevation marker. So stopped at Palasaides for water… the only water on the climb. Chatting. With someone also stopped..Me ” I do this ride once a year just to know I can do it”. He..” I do this ride once a week”!!! So there’s peeps like me and peeps like he all doing this climb.
I like the shoulder all the way up. Makes me feel safer being away from the cars when I feel wobbly. Windy point is a great stop. Sometimes I only make it there. But that’s okay too.
I am scared going down. I know most cyclists love it, but it scares me. My husband will do the climb, ride down, drive up to get me. No matter how you do it, it’s a great ride.
Jim Langley says
Congratulations, Lady Cyclist, great climbing!
William Brannon says
You believe you left Mt Evans off the list. Starting at 7,000 and topping out at 14,000′ the air gets a bit thin.
Jim Langley says
Yes, Mt. Evans is definitely one of the great classics, William. Thanks for mentioning it. The one thing is that not everyone will be able to make it because that elevation is dangerous – speaking from experience having had a “cardiac event” on Trail Ridge in Colorado somewhere near the 10K elevation mark (also goes to 14K I believe).
Dennis Driscoll says
Yes, Trail Ridge Rd passes 14,000 feet, and continues down the opposite side you approached. Mt. Evans is the highest paved road in North America (summits at the parking lot at 14,130 ft). I have ridden it over 50 times, as I live less than an hour away. The road surface above Summit Lake is poor, so moderate your speed coming back down. Check out the Bob Cook Memorial Mt. Evans Hill Climb – it is a classic pro and citizens event. https://www.bicyclerace.com/
T. Biaggi says
Great article, enjoyed reading it! It was a beautiful ride up Mt. Lemmon but the ride down was a bit challenging with the winds. I said to myself…. I completed that ride but I am not doing that again….doing it again this April 2023
John Perlman says
agree, its a bucket list ride. i’ve done it twice on my visits to Tucson. Problem is you can’t fully enjoy the views when working to climb up, and need to be careful when admiring the views on the way down since you’re screaming down the mountain. So do take the time to pull off and enjoy.
when in Tucson, its also an interesting experience to try their +-55 mile loop trail around the city. not many climbs but still a fun way to see your way around the city. Esp pretty on the northwest side.
Let’s not forget some great climbs on this side of the country – my favorite is to start at the walmart in Pisgah Forest NC and climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. epic views on the parkway. And of course, Six Gaps in north GA.
Jim Langley says
You’re the second person to recommend the Blue Ridge Parkway, John. I actually rode part of it in 1979 but for me it was up and down and up and down and up and down, so I didn’t think of it as a mountain climb but rather a rolling road in the mountains.
What I would want to do: cycle to Mt Lemmon Ski Area, take the lift to the top, and ski down. You would need to rent ski equipment at Mt Lemmon or bring yours up there the day before. A bike/ski biathlon!
Jim Langley says
Ha, ha, that’s a great idea Howard – at least for those who ski 😉
Jim Langley says
Here’s a comment that arrived via email by Johnny Ware. Johnny writes:
“Good afternoon Jim. i really enjoyed your article of your epic ride of Mt. Lemmon of which i have done many times. i live in Scottsdale, AZ & my tri group goes down regularly beginning in March/April before the desert floor is 100 coming off the mountain. one thing that you missed that you have to do is the cookie shack!! pizza & homemade cookies the size of your paper plate!! well worth the trek up the hill. next time you make that ride or suggesting, make sure to mention the cookies. it is on past the restrooms & the restaurant at the top, not ski resort top, about 100 yards. you will not regret it!! safe riding.”
Thanks a lot, Johnny!
Fran Summerhill says
Congratulations on a great climb, Jim! I rode it 8 years ago and it was a great experience.
Another ‘great climb’ not mentioned is the Pike Peak ascent either, but like Mnt Evans and Trail Ridge Road, that climb is in its own category of challenges, unique to Colorado;)
Keep those wheels rolling!
James M Langley III says
Thanks a lot, Fran!! I’ve watched the Pike’s Peak automobile race, is that the same course as the bike climb?
Frances Summerhill says
Yes! It’s a smooth paved road all the way which makes for a fantastic descent.
Craig Horn says
I’ve done the route from Furnace Creek to Dante’s View in Death Valley a few times. 25 miles and 5500 ft elevation. The last half mile is super steep; the rest is prob 5-6 percent. Great roads, great views. Just dont do it in the summer. Best in early Nov or March. Had to stop 1/2 mile on the way down because my rims [friction style] got burning hot to the touch and it made me nervous.
The view from Dante’s looking North was in the first Star Wars movie -a matte of the small town where they met Han Solo.