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Wilderness of Rocks from the summit of Mt. Lemmon

Santa Catalina Mountains

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Total Length8.6 miles
Highest Elevation:9080 feet
Lowest Elevation:7280 feet
Elevation Change:1800 feet
Difficulty Rating:B
Best Seasons:Spring Summer Fall
Hiking Time:5 hours
Dogs:Dogs allowed

This trail is open again as of 30 July 2004. The description and pictures are from before the Aspen Fire. I will not get a chance to visit and prepare a revised description for many months, so please email me a report and/or pictures if you do this hike.

The Wilderness of Rocks, located below the summit of Mt. Lemmon, is a natural sculpture garden of rock formations among the pines. At times I think that this is the most scenic spot in the Catalinas, but there are so many incredible places in the Catalinas that it doesn't seem right to label one as the best. There is no question, however, that this is one spot that every fan of the Catalinas should visit. An added attraction of the Wilderness of Rocks is that it is relatively uncrowded. On a typical weekend hike here I usually see only 5 to 10 people once I get about 40 minutes down the trail, which isn't much considering the length of the hike. The hike is a down and up hike; you start at the high elevation, drop down quite a ways, and then climb back up to your starting point.

Directions to Trailhead

•From the intersection of Tanque Verde and Kolb/Grant, head east on Tanque Verde until you get to the Catalina Highway, about 5 or 6 miles. Catalina Highway is the next light after the light for Bear Canyon Road.

•Turn left on Catalina Highway (the only way you can go on Catalina Highway), and drive towards the mountains. After a few miles the road begins to climb into the Catalinas. You will stay on the main Catalina Highway for most of its length.

•You will have to stop at the U.S. Forest Service toll booth located near Molino Basin and pay $5 per car. These fees for recreational use will hopefully allow the Forest Service to continue to subsidize grazing leases and timber sales at their present generous levels.

•Thirty miles from Tanque Verde, turn right on Ski Run Rd, at the sign for "Ski Valley." If you get to Summerhaven you have gone too far; turn around and go back less than a mile to the Ski Run Rd.

•When you get to Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley, continue straight up the road past a sign that says "Service Road, not Maintained for Public Use." Follow this smaller road as it twists and turns up towards the summit of Mt. Lemmon. You will pass a number of gates that are usually open. Turn left into a dirt parking lot, next to a fenced-in electrical substation, when you see a brown sign that says "Forest Trail" and a brown gate (usually closed) blocking the road.

•The trail head for the Mt. Lemmon Trail is on the left hand side of the substation, at the end of the parking lot farthest from the road.

Trail Description

Mt. Lemmon Trail, FS #5
(Mt. Lemmon to Lemmon Rock Lookout Trail)

Mt. Lemmon Trail trailhead

Length: 0.4 milesHiking Time: 0.17 hours
Highest point: 9080 feetLowest point: 8890 feet
Trail goes downhill

This short segment goes between the dirt parking lot near the summit of Mt. Lemmon and the junction with the Lemmon Rock Lookout Trail.

The trailhead is just to the left of the fenced in electric substation next to the dirt parking lot. The correct trail is the one that follows the fence around the substation, not the one the bears left and has some large rocks set across it.

Follow the trail past the electric substation, climbing gently uphill to an open area. Go straight across the open area and look for a brown metal gate closing off a dirt road a little to the left of straight ahead. The trail, which is a dirt road, goes through this brown gate.

Just after the gate there is a sign marking the intersection of the Mt. Lemmon Trail and the Meadow Trail. The Mt. Lemmon Trail continues straight on the dirt road, while the Meadow Trail goes off to the right. From this point the trail descends gradually to the intersection with the Lemmon Rock Lookout Trail, which is marked by a sign. The Lemmon Rock Lookout Trail is a dirt road which goes to the left, and leads to the lookout, which provides a good view of the Wilderness of Rocks.

At the sign turn left to take the Lemmon Rock Lookout Trail.

Lemmon Rock Lookout Trail, FS #12
(Lemmon Rock Lookout to Wilderness of Rocks)

Rappel Rock from the Lemmon Rock Lookout Trail

The view from Lemmon Rock Lookout

Length: 2.0 milesHiking Time: 1.2 hours
Highest point: 8890 feetLowest point: 7280 feet
Trail goes downhill

This trail leaves the Mt. Lemmon Trail just below the top of Mt. Lemmon, and descends past Lemmon Rock Lookout to the junction with the Wilderness of Rocks Trail in the Wilderness of Rocks.

The trail continues as a dirt road which ends at the Lemmon Rock Lookout, which is a large rock outcropping with a Forest Service lookout station on it. To go to the Wilderness of Rocks turn right on the signed footpath which drops down the hillside about 100 to 200 yards before you get to Lemmon Lookout. Just as you begin descending this footpath there is a sign saying you are entering the wilderness area.

The footpath descends very steeply through relatively thick pine forest, and there are numerous places where you can see Rappel Rock rising above the trail to the north. After you have been descending for a while, you start to pass near large rock formations, the beginnings of the Wilderness of Rocks. The trail begins to level out a little bit after 1.5 miles (approx.) and then comes to the signed junction with the Wilderness of Rocks trail at 2 miles.

Turn right on the Wilderness of Rocks Trail.

Wilderness of Rocks Trail, FS #44
(Lemmon Rock Lookout Trail to Mt. Lemmon Trail)

Wilderness of Rocks, looking towards Mt. Lemmon

Campsite next to Lemmon Creek

Wilderness of Rocks

Lemmon Creek at junction with trail

More interesting rock formations.

Length: 2.3 milesHiking Time: 1.2 hours
Highest point: 7280 feetLowest point: 6980 feet
Trail goes downhill

This segment connects the Lemmon Rock Lookout Trail to the Mt. Lemmon Trail, traveling without much elevation change through the heart of the Wilderness of Rocks. The area is almost all open pine forest (little shade) with large rock formations. Because the Wilderness of Rocks is relatively flat (for the Catalinas) and open, it is easy to wander off the trail and explore.

From the junction with the Lemmon Rock Lookout Trail, the Wilderness of Rocks trail continues straight (right turn from Lemmon Rock Lookout Trail), descending slightly. After a short distance you cross a small stream, which usually has at least some pools of water in it, which is immediately followed by a small shady park (i.e. stand of ponderosa pine).

From here the trail goes up and down over small hills until you come to a second, larger, park with larger trees. This second park is very beautiful, and looks like it would make a nice campsite.

The next landmark is where the trail crosses Lemmon Creek in a dense (i.e. shady) stand of ponderosa. There is a nice campsite here, and the creek almost always has water in it. From this point the trail winds through the rock formations, and then climbs up to the junction with the Mt. Lemmon Trail. At this junction the Wilderness of Rocks Trail ends, and the Mt. Lemmon Trail goes to the left and right.

Turn right on the Mt. Lemmon Trail.

Mt. Lemmon Trail, FS #5
(Wilderness of Rocks Trail to Sutherland Trail)

Trail junction of the Mt. Lemmon Trail and the Wilderness of Rocks Trail. Sign is typical of those found at almost every trail junction in the Catalinas.

Length: 2.4 milesHiking Time: 1.7 hours
Highest point: 8550 feetLowest point: 7280 feet
Trail goes uphill

This segment of the Mt. Lemmon Trail travels up from the junction with the Wilderness of Rocks Trail to the junction with the Sutherland Trail

After leaving the junction with the Wilderness of Rocks Trail, the trail climbs uphill through an area of rock formations and occasional pine trees, with views to the north and south as the trail wanders around near the crest of the ridge. After awhile you come to a more forested area, followed by an area which has been badly damaged by fire.

The trail then comes to a flat and open area among living pines, where the Sutherland Trail comes in from the left, and the Mt. Lemmon Trail continues on the opposite side of the opening. There are two trail signs here, one showing which way the two trails go, the other giving distances to various points.

Continue on the Mt. Lemmon Trail on the opposite side of the clearing.

Mt. Lemmon Trail, FS #5
(Sutherland Trail to Meadow Trail)

A view towards the front range of the Catalinas from the Mt. Lemmon Trail.

Length: 0.7 milesHiking Time: 0.3 hours
Highest point: 8800 feetLowest point: 8550 feet
Trail goes uphill

This segment runs from the intersection with the Meadow Trail to the intersection with the Sutherland Trail.

From here, the Mt. Lemmon Trail is basically a dirt road, though it is closed to public access. The trail runs through thick fir forest, with occasional views down towards Sabino Basin.

This segment ends when you reach a signed junction with the Meadow Trail, which takes off to the left. Since you are walking on a wide dirt road, and the Meadow Trail is just a footpath, you will need to keep an eye out for it.

Turn left onto the Meadow Trail

Meadow Trail, FS #5A
(Mt. Lemmon Trail to summit of Mt. Lemmon)

The meadows along the Meadow Trail.

Another view of the meadows.

Length: 0.8 milesHiking Time: 0.3 hours
Highest point: 9080 feetLowest point: 8800 feet
Trail goes uphill

This short trail parallels the top end of the Mt. Lemmon Trail, rejoining it very near the end of the Mt. Lemmon Trail. The Meadow Trail is much prettier than the part of the Mt. Lemmon Trail that it bypasses, and is about the same distance.

This footpath leaves the dirt road and climbs through thick fir forest. After a relatively short climb you come to large flat park area with open meadow under large pines. This spot is very beautiful, and is certainly much more attractive than the alternative of remaining on the Mt. Lemmon trail for the last climb to the top. Towards the end you pass a small fenced-in military facility which has signs saying that the use of deadly force is authorized to prevent trespassing. Despite the dire warnings, this facility looks old and neglected. Shortly after the top secret facility you pass along the edge of the University of Arizona observatory. The trail ends at the brown gate at the top of Mt. Lemmon.

To get to the parking lot, go to the paved road about 100 yards past the brown metal gate and turn right. The parking lot is on the right just past the metal gate across the road.



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