Peppersauce Campground is closer to Oracle, Arizona than it is to Mt. Lemmon, yet it is one of six campgrounds listed as ‘on’ Mt. Lemmon. To get to the other five campgrounds, you take the Catalina Highway from the east side of Tucson, an excellent 27-mile two-lane road from a saguaro forest at 2,000 feet to a parking lot near the top of Mt. Lemmon at 9,157 feet. This is a scenic day trip that features many pullouts and spectacular views as well as five campgrounds, a trout-filled lake, ranger station, picnic areas, hiking trails and a ski run. On a hot summer day, it can be 100 degrees at the beginning of the road and only 70 degrees at the upper parking lot, consequently attracting lots of Tucson hot weather escapees. You can also get to Peppersauce from the Catalina Highway, but it requires a high-clearance vehicle and nerves of steel. Just before the ski run, turn right on the Control Road and drop some 4,000 feet over a 25-mile descent across granite slabs and rocky washes to find Peppersauce Campground. A better choice is to take Highway 77 (Oracle Road) north to Oracle, pass Oracle State Park and continue on Mt. Lemmon Road eight miles to Peppersauce on an improved access road that is an easy drive for any automobile.
The campground lies in Peppersauce Canyon, a treed oasis that features hundred-year-old Arizona sycamores, black walnuts, cottonwoods and hackberry trees along a typically dry wash filled with Barne’s conglomerate and other colorful rocks. There are multiple campsites, including one large group site, picnic tables, freshwater pumps (currently shut off) and pit toilets. At nearly 5,000 feet, this location attracts many birds not found in the lower elevations at Oracle State Park and Oracle City Park (both excellent nearby birding locations), including Mexican Jay, Hutton’s Vireo, Summer Tanager and Arizona Woodpecker. Summer Tanagers have nested here for years and are an easy beautiful bird to find singing in the campground. The road into the campground continues past the campground into the private grounds of Sycamore Canyon Academy, a full-service facility for troubled youth. Timing your visit here to permit brunch at the Oracle Patio Café in Oracle is also highly recommended.
In addition to birding the campground area, take the time to walk the first mile of the Rice Peak Trail, which begins just across the road from the campground entrance. The Rice Peak trail climbs eight-miles to the top of Rice Peak, but just nine tenths of a mile up the trail you come to a pipe-fed spring that collects water in that part of the wash, and the area is a second beautifully treed park-like oasis full of birds. Summer birds include Acorn Woodpeckers, Black-headed and Blue Grosbeaks, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Western Tanager and Painted Redstarts. Deer and Wild Turkeys are also common to the area, as are large groups of coatis, which you can sometimes find in the trees.
At the campground site in 1880, Alex McKay broke camp after staying a few days. While packing up, he couldn’t find his bottle of hot pepper sauce. Apparently, he was pretty upset and he reported the missing bottle to the local authorities. Since then, the campground has been known as Peppersauce. Obviously, it was a slow news day.