I've looked at the mountains around Tucson for years in wonderment and awe, appreciating their beauty, but lately realized that I had some questions. How many mountain ranges are there? Where did they come from? So I put together a two-part primer to answer some of those questions.

Here's part one.

How it all began

Tucson, at 2,643 feet elevation, is surrounded by six mountain ranges, all within 40 miles of downtown. The highest peaks approach 9,500 feet.

The story begins tens of millions of years ago with a period of intense folding and faulting of the earth's crust. That was followed by slow stretching during which the crust broke up into huge blocks along the faults. Some blocks dropped, forming basins or valleys, while adjacent areas rose, forming mountain ranges.

The result of this "basin and range" geologic activity, plus millions of years of erosion from wind, rain and streams, is the miracle of Tucson's mountains.

The Santa Catalina Mountains, just north of the city, are the largest and most complex of the mountain ranges surrounding Tucson. It has more than 50 peaks, over half not even named. Since 1908 the Catalinas have been designated as part of the Coronado National Forest.

The Catalinas are the source of Sabino Creek that drains into the Rillito River and Cañada del Oro Creek that drains into the Santa Cruz River.

Santa Catalinas

It is said that in the 1690s Italian-born missionary Father Eusebio Kino named the mountains after his sister's patron saint, Catarina (Catherine of Sienna, 1347-1380). It wasn't until the 1890s that the Spanish form of Catherine, "Catalinas," permanently replaced the Italian form in maps and documents.

From the 1860s to the 1960s the Catalinas' history included sporadic and largely unsuccessful gold, silver and copper mining.

The Catalinas are Tucson's most popular place for mountain recreation, including hiking, biking, climbing, camping and picnicking. Favorite sites include Sabino Canyon and Bear Canyon on the range's east side and Catalina State Park in the western foothills.

Most of us have driven up the beautiful "Sunrise Highway" from Tanque Verde Road to the charming village of Summerhaven near the Catalinas' highest peak, Mount Lemmon, at 9,157 feet elevation. Mount Lemmon Ski Valley is the southernmost ski destination in the United States.

In 2003 the month-long Aspen Fire seared almost 85,000 acres and destroyed 340 homes and businesses in Summerhaven. Since then the village has been slowly rebuilding and Tucsonans are rediscovering the Catalinas.

Miners are also rediscovering the Catalinas with the Oracle Ridge underground copper mine due to reopen soon on the back side of the mountains.


To the east of Tucson, separated from the Santa Catalinas by Redington Pass, are the Rincon Mountains. The Spanish word "rincon" means "corner," the basic top-down footprint of the mountain range.

The Rincons are made up of a few broad peaks rather than several jagged ones. In fact, when you're driving east on Speedway it's hard to believe that you're looking at a substantial range of mountains. But Mica Mountain at 8,664 feet and Rincon Peak at 8,482 feet are certainly worthy mountains.

Tanque Verde and Agua Caliente Creeks flow out of the Rincons before draining into the Rillito River. Like the Catalinas, the Rincons are part of the Coronado National Forest.

Most of the Rincon Mountains are contained within Saguaro National Park East or in the surrounding Rincon Mountain Wilderness.

The wilderness has no major access road. Most of it is off-limits to motor vehicles and bicycles, but can be accessed by horseback or on foot for day hiking or backpacking from surrounding forest routes and trails.

Santa ritas

The Santa Rita Mountains, also part of the Coronado National Forest, lie some 25 to 40 miles southeast of Tucson. The mountains are named for the patron saint of impossible causes, Saint Rita of Cascia (1381-1457).

Some of the earliest silver mining in Arizona occurred in the Santa Ritas, beginning in the 1850s. The highest peak in the range, and the highest point in the Tucson area, is Mount Wrightson at 9,453 feet.

There is no road to the top of Mount Wrightson, but there is a paved road from I-19 into the northwestern part of the Santa Ritas to Madera Canyon, one of the world's premier birding areas and a favorite of Tucsonans for picnicking, hiking and camping.

The Smithsonian Institution's Fred Whipple Observatory sits atop nearby Mount Hopkins at 8,560 feet.

In July 2005 the massive Florida Fire burned more than 23,000 acres, mostly in wilderness areas.

The Santa Rita Mountains are involved in a controversy over copper mining. The proposed open-pit Rosemont Mine would occupy 4,500 acres of the Rosemont Ranch on the north flank of the mountain range. Opponents raise both economic and environmental issues.

Next week: Tucson's mountains primer, part two.

More online

Bob Ring has combined his two recent stagecoach articles (published June 28 and July 12), added some new material, and posted the expanded article online at ringbrothershistory.com/bobsprojects/bobsprojects.htm

E-mail Bob Ring at ringbob1@aol.com