Complex dazzling view syndrome
Locals here in Tucson are likely familiar with this exceptional loop, but visitors may not be. It combines everything the Catalina high country has to offer: pine forested ridges, temperature escaping altitudes, the Wilderness of Rocks, and a nice tough climb. Sounds good huh? Some burn areas are encountered here and there along the way, but it does nothing to take away from this hike in my opinion.
Start this hike on the Mt. Lemmon trailhead at the very top of the Catalina highway, at the generators. The trail takes off through some brush, then becomes broad. An immediate choice presents itself to you: stay on the main path or take a short 0.8 mile excursion on the meadow trail to your right (my choice). This trail leads you through some very nice forest with some grassy meadows that are rare sights for those of us in Tucson...very nice. As this trail dips around it ultimately descends and intersects back at the main Mt. Lemmon trail. Here you will hang a right and begin to follow the rather gradual descent of the Mt. Lemmon trail along a prominent ridgeline for about 0.75 miles to the saddle/intersection with the Sutherland Trail. Along the way massive ridge views will open up to either side, which probably weren't visible before the fire. Make sure to pay attention along the way, soon after joining up again with the Mt. Lemmon trail, for a faint trail that breaks off to your left towards a very prominent rock formation that you will surely notice. Follow this little path to the formation, scramble up it and experience some of the most amazing views I have ever seen in the Catalinas...fantastic.
Back on the main trail, you soon descend to the Sutherland trailhead, which is marked. Continue on your way on the Mt. Lemmon trail, which now wraps around the ridge and offers views in a new direction, before starting a more earnest switchbacked descent towards the far southwest reaches of the Wilderness of Rocks. This may have been my favorite part of the hike as you scramble up and down, all around the edge of the Wilderness often looking way out over the whole area. Pictures galore out here.
In due time you come to the signed intersection with the far end of the Wildernss of Rocks trail on your left (about 2.3 miles from the Sutherland intersection). Take it and follow the trail back towards Mt. Lemmon. I refer you here to the excellent description of this fantastic trail by Lizard.
After about 2.4 miles on the Wilderness trail you come to the signed intersection for the Lemmon Rock trail on your left. Take this and stretch those legs out because it's time to gain back most of that elevation we've lost on the way out. It's really not that bad, just persistently up via switchbacks for 2 miles. The views become nicer and nicer and you climb back up into some exceptional pine forest as well. The upper reaches of this stretch are really fantastic, with some unique rock formations near the top as well. Before you know it you meet a signed spur on your right to the functioning Lemmon Rock Lookout. Make sure to go check this out, as this lookout is placed in perhaps the most amazing spot in the Catalinas with dazzling views in literally every direction. After taking that in, head back the way you came, past the point where you joined the spur and within minutes you are back on the signed junction with the Mt. Lemmon trail to complete the loop. Hang a right and follow back for just a couple minutes to the trailhead.
Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.
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