The thermometer reads 115 here in Tucson, and I'm kind of glad that the hottest day will be the last day of our visit, because
Our plan for today was to drive up to the top of the highest peak in the Santa Catalina mountains, the northern-most of the ranges that form a jagged ring around Tucson. At an elevation of 9137 feet, Mt. Lemmon stands about 6800 feet above the city. It has the southern-most ski resort in the United States on its slopes, and the vegetation as you travel from the base to the top changes quickly from desert to pine forests more commonly found in Canada.
We had read that it could be as much as thirty degrees cooler at the top, and so, as we turned onto the 26 mile Catalina Highway, we all took turns guessing what the temperature would be when we got up there. Louise, ever the skeptic, guessed 90, and Gary was not much more optimistic with his prediction of 88. I thought 85 would be pleasant, so that was my conjecture, and Heidi went for what she hoped for, 79.
The outside temperature gauge in the rental car read 107 at 11 AM and saguaro, agave and ocotillo dominated the landscape that dropped dramatically to our right as we we headed up and around the first hair-pin turn. At the fifth or sixth scenic turn-out, we stopped the car to admire the seven cataracts that loomed above us, and with a slight breeze blowing, it was amazing how refreshing 95 degrees felt. The mountainsides here were dotted with scrubby mesquite and green-wooded palo verde, there were a few prickley pears, but not a saguaro in sight. We were just over 5000 feet.
The temperature continued to drop as promised, although the sky remained cloudless blue, and the sun was bright and warm. After only three days in the desert, we nearly skipped out of the car at each stop, giddy at the ever-cooler air that tossed our hair when we opened the door. Louise and Gary were out of the running by 6000 feet, and as we continued to climb past aspens and into pine forests, the vistas below growing more expansive, we shut off the a/c and rolled down the windows. It was 86, and the rock formations all around us resembled giant cairns, precisely stacked and pointing us higher and higher.
It was 82 when we reached the Palisades visitor center at milepost 19.9, elevation 7850. The temperature held steady at our next stop, the Summerhaven General Store where they make ten kinds of fudge right there on the premises almost every day. Then began our last few miles to the top, and when we pulled into the parking lot, the thermometer read exactly 79; a more perfect summer day could not have been found anywhere. Surrounded by douglas fir, indian paintbrush, and yellow coneflowers, we congratulated Heidi on the amazing accuracy of her prediction, and then far below, the sprawling grid of Tucson caught our eye, and we wondered what the temperature was down there.