Best Place To Lay Your Bag Under The Stars

Mount Lemmon

READERS' PICK: OK, readers. We understand the impetus to find a good thing and stick with it, but Mount Lemmon doesn't offer wilderness camping. However, the Santa Catalina District of the Coronado National Forest (which includes Mount Lemmon) does have two fabulous, biologically diverse wildnerness areas and the closest one to Mount Lemmon is the Pusch Ridge Wilderness Area, accessible from trailheads along Catalina Highway (this is the eastern entry). This is a well-traveled wilderness area, which has its ups and downs. On the upside, access is incredibly easy from Sabino Canyon and Catalina State Park (on the west). On the downside, that means a much larger human impact than true wilderness should be allowed. (This may be advantageous for the less experienced.) A favorite route is to take the Romero and Sutherland trails all the way from Catalina to Mount Lemmon. Few local trips offer the dramatic discovery of this journey from saguaro-studded Sonoran desert to thick pine forest, taking in canyon and mountain views, stunning rock formations and (if you're lucky) wildlife including black bears, coatimundi, deer and a variety of songbirds along the way. Elevations range from about 2,800 to 8,800 feet within Pusch Ridge's 56,933-acre wilderness. Campgrounds are available, but vary depending on your route. Call the Santa Catalina Ranger District for exact locations and details (you'll need to stop in to register for a free permit, anyway.)

READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: The Rincon Mountain Wilderness Area covers 38,590 acres of national forest, and borders the Saguaro National Monument (East) on three sides. It gets our vote because throughout the years it's remained pleasantly remote in spite of the fact that it is relatively close to Tucson. Access is a little trickier, requiring four-wheel drive on the northwest side (from the Italian Spring Trail), some rigorous trail hopping in from the Monument, or (the easiest) from one of two trails off Mescal Road (FR 35) on the east, through Happy Valley. (This road, generally speaking, can be handled by any reliable car). Rugged and steep terrain is the order of the day here, with the rewarding Miller Creek Trail passing through the Monument on the way to Rincon Peak (desert riparian area gives way to rocky views from above, studded with piñon, juniper and oak). There's a campground at the top of that trail (no water), at the base of the last, narrow, 1,000 feet to the peak itself. Elevations range from 3,880 and 7,325 feet in the forest to 8,482 feet at the summit of Rincon Peak. Both Turkey and Miller creeks make for good hiking down below as well, with the added rewards of water (in all but the summer months) and access into the Monument and its own extensive trail system. To get there, head 39 miles east from Tucson on Interstate 10 to the Mescal Road exit (297). Take Mescal Road north, and it becomes FR 35. It's then 16 miles to the trailheads.

LOOSE CHANGE: Peña Blanca Lake, just west of I-19 almost to Nogales. A great choice for an outing that won't destroy your suspension, empty your gas tank or put your legs out of commission, Peña Blanca is a unique landscape of giant sycamores and cottonwoods nestled in an arroyo among grassy hills and craggy rock outcroppings. Peña Blanca means "white rock" in Spanish, and that is what you'll find cresting the hills and erupting from slopes in this zone. There's a graded dirt road that runs east from the lake; pull off nearly anywhere and it will probably suit you fine. The lake itself offers an interesting if somewhat out-of-place contrast to the dry hills (don't swim or eat any fish in this lake; mercury levels in the water far surpass your recommended daily allowance!). Spend some time walking on the boulders in the dry creekbed (it runs during wet seasons), or hike through the chaparral to the grassy hillsides dotted with oak trees. (Watch out for cow patties--unfortunately much of this land is still heavily grazed). The rocky tops of hills contain weird, sparse vegetation that might just make you think you're on Mars. Nights are perfect for those favorite campfire activities and on weekends you might find yourself camped alongside others with necks of the red variety. But hey, they wouldn't be out here if they didn't love it, too. And because it's a little cooler down there, it's a perfect place to indulge in the local tradition of car camping, and get out of the Old Pueblo for a spell.

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