Monsoon rains have kissed the Catalina Mountains with lush landscapes, flowing water and wildflowers in brilliant bloom.
Forests are flourishing after months of drought — with pines, firs, ferns and mountain grasses flushed with moisture and showing healthy hues of green.
The effects are most dramatic in upper reaches of the range from mile marker 17 and beyond on the Catalina Highway northeast of Tucson.
“The rain is a blessing,” said Michael Stanley, manager of the Mount Lemmon Water District. “The storms have been lighter than normal but these small storms are really great for the watershed. Most of the moisture soaks in and there is less runoff. The creeks have a little flow and will increase as the water table rises.”
Stanley said riparian (stream-side) areas are full of new growth and low temperatures are in the 50s.
“The forest is green and wet,” he said. “The water system has full tanks and spring flows are adequate. The best part of this year’s monsoon is a lower fire danger. We are all happy the drier days are behind and we hope for more rain before the end of September.”
Drivers pass lots of wildflowers and greenery along the highway, but a walk on a mountain trail offers a leisurely and close-up tour of the rain-washed terrain.
TRAILS TO TRY
Here are some trails in the Catalina Mountains where you’re likely to see trees, wildflowers and other vegetation showing positive effects of recent monsoon rains. Take a rain jacket and stay off the trails when lightning is in the area.
- Aspen Draw Trail — This 1.6-mile route, with a trailhead near Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, winds uphill through forests of evergreens and aspens, passing wildflowers along the way.
To reach the trail, take Tanque Verde Road to the Catalina Highway and follow the highway past Milepost 24 to a turnoff for Mount Lemmon Ski Valley. Continue to Ski Valley and park. Then walk about 20 yards down the south side of the highway from the ski area parking lot and watch for a trail leading downhill. Follow it for 0.2 of a mile down the side of the hill and across a small watercourse to the signed start of the Aspen Draw Trail.
- Butterfly Trail — The 5.7-mile route connects two trailheads along the Catalina Highway and winds through pine forests with wildflowers and, sometimes, flowing water.
Take the Catalina Highway past Milepost 19 to a parking area and trailhead on the right. A second trailhead is on the right between mileposts 22 and 23. This trail offers gentle walking in some stretches and fairly steep trekking in others. Elevations along the way range from 6,700 feet at Novio Spring to 8,300 feet near Mount Bigelow.
- Meadow Trail — This 0.8 of a mile trail, with links to other routes, begins near the 9,157-foot summit of Mount Lemmon, the high point of the Catalinas. Beautiful forests, wild blooms and, yes, a large meadow area await hikers.
Take Tanque Verde Road to the Catalina Highway and follow the highway past Milepost 24 to a turnoff for Mount Lemmon Ski Valley. Drive to Ski Valley and continue on a narrow road beyond the ski area 1.7 miles to a parking lot at road’s end. A signed trailhead is at the parking lot. Follow the trail about 0.2 of a mile to a junction with the Meadow Trail. You’ll pass some mountaintop observatory installations along the first part of the trail.