Mt Lemmon – A 30-Mile Climb


Peter Jenkins, author of a A Walk Across America, wrote something to the effect that if two strangers told him he should see something he took notice but if three did, he had to do it. I have made that sort of my mantra in life too.

Traveling last May from Oakland to Phoenix I flew with Dr. Paul Mittman who told me I should come out and ride Mt. Lemmon. I had never heard of Mt. Lemmon. Then one of the riders on last year’s Tour de France trip, Deirdre Mullaly, told me about riding Mt. Lemmon. That was two.

Last Christmas, Adrian Register from Great Britain was visiting his grandmother in Arizona and rode Mt. Lemmon. And he also told me that I must do it. 

That was it. Three recommendations from three people who don’t know one another.

Mt. Lemmon, it is.

Broadway Bikes

Although I have a nice bike crate, it is still such a pain to fly with a bike that for one day I decided to rent. I located Broadway Bikes, online, and made a reservation. I picked up the bike Friday at 5:00 p.m., found an In N Out Burger for dinner, then went back to the hotel.

Dinner of Champions

Wheels down at 8:00 a.m. I was at the Safeway at E. Tanque Verde and Catalina Hwy, it was 66°. 

The first four miles were on Catalina Highway a straight-as-an-arrow road that leads to the base of the climb. Then the road kicks up.

Catalina Highway

I rode for a little while with a man and his exchange student son from Madrid. Like many cyclists, he was very nice but we didn’t hang around long enough to exchange names. In many ways, cyclists are just two ships just passing in the night and there usually isn’t any attempt to become personal. I may be the exception because I enjoy meeting people.

A Man and his Madrid exchange student

But we rode and talked and I found they were only going to Mile 5 or 6. He asked if I was going to Mile 10 and seemed surprised when I told him I was going all the way to Mount Lemmon. I didn’t have a good feel for where the road would lead me – I just knew the road signs pointed to Summerhaven, some 25 more miles ahead. And up.

At Mile 5, or 6, they pulled over and I kept going. At first. As we said goodbye he turned and offered me his water. I said no. As I rode away I thought differently, turned around, and told him that I would take him up on the offer. 

He told he I didn’t have enough water to make it to the top and he was right. I finished off one bottle then refilled it. It was like having three bottles instead of two. But I would want four.

Catalina Highway

At the base of the climb you are in the desert with tall Sagura catci all around. The Tucson valley is at approximately 2,500 feet. I’ve read there are six different eco systems; it’s like driving from Mexico to Canada in a span of 30 miles. I can point out four and I’m no biologist.

At 5,000 feet,  the cacti are gone and you are in a barren area with lots of rock croppings. Yet higher about 7,000 feet, you’re in a fir forest and at 8,000 feet there are Aspins. 

I don’t think there were many cyclists on the road. I would guess less than 50. I do think at 8:00 a.m. I was one of the last to start the climb. And for good reason. It gets friggin hot in the desert, even in late October. But what goes up must come down and most cyclists seemed to be coming down while I was going up.

Look carefully. Someone left water in a jug by the pole. It was hard but I resisted the urge to fill up from this jug. Actually, I should have but maybe it was hot water.

Notice the retaining wall for this highway at the top of the picture

At Safeway, as I was getting ready, a couple was also getting ready to go and I thought I might jump in with them but decided not to. They were never far ahead of me and I sawe them turn around about Mile 10.

This couple thought the views were nice. They were overdressed.

The road seemed to average 5-6% which makes it the equivalent of the first seven miles of Skyline Drive coming out of Front Royal, Va. Except this would be for 30 miles. In the heat.

Looking back, and down, at the road just climbed

As I saw people going back down I was beginning to wonder if I should do this. Or if I should go all the way to Mount Lemmon. Yet I came for this purpose and there would be no turning back.

No water for you. (In fairness, I may have looked parched but neither did I ask for any.)

Halfway up I was passed by four guys with Carmichael Training Systems. This is a training camp that cyclists can go to. They were in their 30s and 40s and I thought about riding with them but wisely decided not to. Running out of water, I passed their support person. He was holding out new water bottles for the paying customers. I wanted him to offer me some water but he did not.

I was allocating my water — one sip/gulp every mile, when I came to the Palisades Campground around Mile 25 and saw the one source of water on the ride. I pulled over and filled my bottles from the faucet.

Water! at Palisades Campground. I hope it was free.

Back on the climb the four guys came whizzing down past me. I thought it strange they didn’t go to the top but in 200 meters or so I was at a summit. It was clear this was where they turned around but where was Mt. Lemmon? I kept going.

I was flying downhill over the top and wondering where the heck I was going. The only thing for sure was I was getting there fast and eventually, I would have to turn around and climb this on the way back.

Three miles later I was in Summerhaven, and after missing the turn and righting myself by talking to a local, or at least a local tourist from Tucson, I started the climb up the ski road. After almost 30 miles of climbing at 5-6%, the road kicked up to 8-9% with grades of 12%. I was hurting.


I passed a famous pie restaurant (I know because it said “famous pie restaurant”)* and entered a section beyond a gate. I saw a sign for “next two miles” and wondered how I could finish this climb after having climbed for 30. But I must. It’s one time. It’s Mount Lemmon.

I’m not the strongest climber – just enthusiastic, and my bike is made from carbon fiber (light) with a triple front ring (low of 30 teeth) and a pretty helpful 27 or 28 tooth cassette on the rear. I rented an aluminum bike (not as light) with compact crank (low of 34 teeth — harder than 30) and a rear cassette of 23 (much harder than 27 or 28). I divided one number by another and I calculate that it was 38% harder with this gear setup than the one at home. I may be grossly wrong because it didn’t feel any harder than maybe 35%.

At top of Mount Lemmon

I really did not look ahead at the road – just kept turning over the pedals. At the end of the two miles I came to a small parking lot and the road was fenced off with a no trespassing sign. The end.

The Summit. I guess.

There was no summit sign. In fact, I don’t think this was the true summit if there is a true summit. But it’s as far as the road allowed. I met three women from Germany having a picnic in the back of a pickup truck. They were gracious enough to take my picture and offered me a tomato. I declined the tomato.

Barry meets Mt. Lemmon

I headed back down the road, and came to a hairpin curve and pulled over for another photo op. None up here offered a clear view but this was one of the best. Two women had pulled over and were picnicking by the drop off. They offered me a nectarine and strawberries. I accepted.

Just don’t hit a bear

Back on the road, I hit 45 mph, disappointed that I didn’t hit 50, but I wasn’t on my own bike and the road didn’t allow for more. At Summerhaven, I began the three-mile climb back up to Palisades. Shut up Legs!

All downhill to Tucson

Once I crested at Palisades I began the 30-mile descent to my car. And it was sweet. While many curves were marked at 20 mph for cars, I never had to brake. Not once. I even went through one at 40 mph.

Reaching the valley floor it was hot – it hot 100° – and I regretted not having stopped for more water before my descent. I was parched, again, but the car was only 5-6 miles away.

I reached the car satisfied. Mount Lemmon is a beautiful ride. Water is probably the hardest thing to prepare for. If I did it again I would probably carry a couple of water bottles in my jersey as well as on the bike. Or a Camelbak.

Dr. Mittman. Deirdre. Adrian. You were right. This was one super ride.

*This was the Sawmill Run Restaurant