The mountains are calling. Cooler climes beckon from up north in Flagstaff, Prescott and Sedona, but a siren song also emanates from our sister metropolis to the south. Tucson’s Santa Catalina Mountains and their rolling foothills provide ample opportunity for you to hit “reset” – on your sun-beaten spirit, your heat-addled mind and, perhaps most importantly, your overtaxed sweat glands.
Kids in tow? Head to family-friendly Mt. Lemmon, the Catalinas’ highest peak (9,157 feet) and the southernmost ski destination in the United States, for some Von Trapp family-style mountaintop bonding. Riding solo or with a group of adults? Relax and recharge at Miraval Arizona, the luxury wellness resort, spa and outdoor-adventure destination at the base of the mountains, or at one of the foothills’ other palaces of pampering (see sidebar).
The twisty road up to Mt. Lemmon’s idyllic village of Summerhaven, about 30 miles from Tucson and typically 30 degrees cooler, is not for the faint of stomach. The road, known variously as the Catalina Highway, Mount Lemmon Highway and Hitchcock Highway (after Frank Harris Hitchcock, Postmaster General of the United States under President Taft), is a designated National Scenic Byway and winds back and forth like a metronome.
Pop some motion-sickness medicine and enjoy the geographic metamorphosis whisking by your window as blankets of cacti give way to paler cousins of Sedona’s monolithic rocks and then to proliferations of ponderosa, oak, Arizona pine and aspen trees. Keep an eye out for cyclists and runners – the scenic highway is a popular endurance test, and on Sunday mornings in particular cyclists swarm the road.
Recreate: Hiking trails abound on the way up the mountain and at the top. The Marshall Gulch Trail #3 is a fine trail on its own, but 1.2 miles in, it opens up into Marshall Saddle, a five-way junction of linking trails for a choose-your-own hiking adventure. Continue straight to the Wilderness of Rocks Trail, take one of two trails back down to the trailhead, or meander through the Mint Spring Trail or the Aspen Trail. The latter is a shaded, fairly easy trek favored by locals for its blooming flowers and post-monsoon running springs.
For a stunning view of the damage from the 2003 Aspen Fire, drive up Ski Run Road and park just outside the Forest Service gate marking the entrance to Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter. A walk beyond the parking lot and to the left opens to a breathtakingly eerie vista of skeletal tree trunks – a forest graveyard in shades of black and gray that “looks like something out of a Tim Burton movie,” says Gabriel Greenberg, chef/owner of Sawmill Run (see Refuel, below).
Most trailheads have an area for picnicking, so pack a basket or ice chest with provisions before you head up the mountain, or order a takeout smorgasbord from one of the local restaurants. Keep in mind that Summerhaven is a “pack it in, pack it out” town with no public trash facilities.
Relax: Kick up your feet after hiking with a leisurely ride on the ski lift at Ski Valley (10300 Ski Run Rd., 520-576-1321, skithelemmon.com), open Saturday-Monday. In the summer, the lift soars over the grassy, tree-lined slopes, and wild turkeys, coatimundi and white-tailed deer sightings are common. Tickets range from $5-$10, and if you eat lunch at the on-site Iron Door restaurant on Thursday, you get a two-for-one voucher for the skyride. Stop at the gift shop for ski ephemera and to play with the owners’ cats, who roam the store when they deign to leave their cushiony beds. Caramel corn and hot cocoa (yes, hot cocoa – it may be summer, but the mountain breezes are brisk for visitors from the concrete jungle) from the snack shack complete the alpine experience.
Refuel: For such a compact area, Mt. Lemmon/Summerhaven has plenty of options to stuff yourself silly. In the summer, Sawmill Run (12976 N. Sabino Canyon Pkwy., 520-576-9147, sawmillrun.com) expands its menu of barbecue classics like smoked ribs and pulled pork to include weekend breakfasts fit for Paul Bunyan, from brisket-loaded Mountain Man Hash to cheddar biscuits topped with creamy, well-seasoned gravy brimming with sausage chunks the size of small meatballs.
Head to Mt. Lemmon Cookie Cabin (12781 N. Sabino Canyon Pkwy., 520-576-1010) for lunch. Nix the serviceable yet popular pizza for a juicy brat tucked in a soft brown pretzel bun and slathered in the saucy offspring of a zippy barbecue sauce and a classic French onion soup. Finish it off with one of the tiny cabin’s signature cookies – buttery behemoths spilling over the boundaries of dinner plates and smothered with six scoops of ice cream, a snowbank of whipped cream and almost any topping imaginable. But if you eat only one sweet thing on the mountain, make it the delectable homemade fudge at Mt. Lemmon General Store & Gift Shop (12856 N. Sabino Canyon Pkwy., 520-576-1466, mtlemmon.com). Flavors rotate daily, but there’s always a spread of at least a dozen varieties to choose from. Indulge with caution – the store is also home to the only ATM for 30 miles, and you might be tempted to drain your savings for more hits of this creamy crack.
Retire: There are no hotels on the mountain, but if you plan ahead, you can rent a cabin from Mount Lemmon Realty (520-576-1333, mountlemmonrealty.com) from May 15-November 15. Or simply stay at the budget- and family-friendly Ramada Tucson Foothills (6944 E. Tanque Verde Rd., 520-886-9595, ramadafoothillstucson.com), near the base of the mountain. Sweet and accommodating staff, spotless rooms, complimentary hot breakfasts and social hours make it a great home base after a day of mountain living. Squirrel away some extra fudge from the mount for midnight munching.
left to right: Chicken at Miraval; Mt. Lemmon cookie
If a more holistic reset is in order, book a stay at Miraval Arizona (5000 E. Via Estancia Miraval, Tucson, 520-825-4000, miravalresorts.com), the luxe health and wellness resort frequented by the Kardashians and the cast of The Real Housewives of New Jersey. While the foothills have no shortage of opulent resort accommodations (see sidebar), Miraval’s all-encompassing offerings and chichi New Age summer camp vibe make it a unique destination. Every resort has a fab pool and spa, but how many have shamanistic healing, equine therapy and workshops on how to get a better brain and better sex? Clusters of casitas create an insular feel, and cell phones, tablets and computers are verboten except in rooms.
Recreate: Jumping off a four-story-high wooden platform to zipline across the Sonoran Desert doesn’t exactly scream “resort relaxation,” but it is one of several outdoor adventures offered to get guests out of their comfort zones. Trained outdoor adventure guides shepherd your zipline experience from start to finish, with a pre-zip chat about expectations and fears; pep talks during the challenge for moral support; and a post-glide sharing session to reflect on your physical and emotional triumphs.
It’s all very touchy-feely, but sometimes that’s exactly what you need when you’re on the brink of tears and strapped into a harness – a safe space to freak out before stepping off the ledge, and captive ears to gab to about your success when you get down.
Activities aren’t limited to extreme challenges. Schedule tennis, golf, yoga and Pilates, or get crafty with art and photography classes. For the Real Housewives treatment, sign up for an equine experience at the on-site Purple Sage Ranch. “It’s Not About the Horse” provides “energy mirroring” to examine your attitude in relation to the horse and its implications for your relationships.
Relax: After you’ve exercised, swung across the desert like a Southwestern Tarzan and learned about yourself with the help of a horse therapist, you deserve some truly indulgent relaxation. First, try one of Miraval’s more than 10 meditation classes, from chakra to gratitude to forgiveness.
Floating meditation isn’t something you’ll find at the average spa, so give it a whirl – literally. Hop into a silky yoga hammock suspended from the ceiling, starting in seated meditation pose and then extending into a reclining pose so you’re parallel with the floor and completely enveloped by the sheet. Gently rock back and forth as the yoga/meditation teacher glides around the room playing a series of crystal bowl instruments and swaying each meditator. Weirdly pleasurable, it simulates being in utero and being held as an infant – close cradling in a warm, enveloping space and the nurturing, soothing sensation of being rocked. Many meditators are lulled to sleep, which is fine – as long as there’s no snoring. One-time snorers will be tenderly nudged awake; repeat offenders may be asked to leave.
Life in Balance Spa offers the usual suspects (massages, mani/pedis, hair care, skin care), exotic treatments (Qi grounding, spiritual shamanism and aqua Zen) and outdoor services like Abundance, a “farm to treatment table” body renewal ritual that sounds good enough to eat, with a grapefruit kombucha body scrub, Hawaiian noni and lime sugar scrub, and an argan avocado oil and grapeseed shea butter massage. It’s the perfect antidote for the ravages of the Arizona sun on skin.
Refuel: Get off the massage table and head to a dining table at Miraval’s Cactus Flower Restaurant. Breakfast and lunch buffets come with calorie counts displayed on the labels of each dish. Graze on fruit and veggies or splurge on imported cheese and fresh scones.
Lunch specials like red snapper and black quinoa cake are worth a try. Dinner is slightly more formal, with a seasonal menu by Executive Chef Justin Macy. Chilled corn and bitter melon soup soothes on a summer day, and you won’t believe the chicken relleno with green chile cream cheese and mole verde is low-cal.
Everything edible and quaffable (except alcohol) is included in the price of your stay and Miraval is a non-tipping resort, so leave your wallet and tip calculator in your room. If you need a pick-me-up between meals, make a pit stop at Palm Court for freshly-squeezed juices, smoothies, coffee, tea and snacks, from fruit to “mindful” chocolate chip cookies. Even the snacks here are self-aware.
Retire: To your private casita, complete with flat-screen TV, mountain views and a magnifying mirror to marvel at your exfoliated and newly dewy skin.
More pampering in Tucson’s Catalina foothills:
6380 E. Grant Rd., 520-741-1111,
Get a massage or hot stone pedicure.
Lotus Massage & Wellness Center
2850 E. Grant Rd., 520-326-7700,
Try energy work and cranial-sacral therapy.
Hilton Tucson El Conquistador
10000 N. Oracle Rd., 520-544-5000,
Work on your backswing or putting skills with Hilton’s premier tennis and golf facilities.
Loews Ventana Canyon
7000 N. Resort Dr., 520-299-2020,
See the foothills from above and lounge poolside for a family-friendly “dive-in” movie.
Tanque Verde Ranch
14301 E. Speedway Blvd., 800-234-3833,
For an equine experience that’s more cowboy and less medicine man: horseback riding.