In the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona, a mountain range by the name of the Santa Catalinas rises quickly to over 6,500 feet above the valley at an elevation of 9,157 feet. Known by modern biologists as a “Sky Island,” the 60 minute drive from the Tucson valley to the peak of these mountains is equivalent to driving from Tucson to Canada as far as the variety of ecosystems passed through.
The peak Mt. Lemmon carries within it a timeless story of love and adventure. It is one of only a few peaks in the US named for a woman. In the 1800s, the early days of European/American settlement of the Wild West, the sky island of the Santa Catalinas as well as the handful of other sky islands in this geographic range were only visited by a few settlers, mostly for mining and timber attempts. The terrain of the Catalinas is particularly rugged and steep. It daunted even the most staunch pioneers, as many turned towards easier to access mountains in the region.
Meanwhile in California, a botanist named John Gill Lemmon had begun to explore remote areas that others considered inaccessible in a quest to discover plant specimens hitherto undiscovered by modern science. During the 1870’s J.G. Lemmon met Sara Allen Plummer. Ms. Plummer was a strong and motivated woman who was very active in her community of Santa Barbara California. She was brought back from the brink of death by long walks in which she collected plant specimens. She contributed specimens and papers on botany to the Natural history Society. On a visit John Lemmon made to Santa Barbara, the two met, and Sara accompanied him on many a plant exploration. On Thanksgiving day 1880, the perfect pair were married.
For their honeymoon the two set their eyes on the Santa Catalinas in the territory of Arizona. To give a window into the modus operandi of these unique newly weds, Sara described their honeymoon plans like this: “Instead of the usual…visit to a watering place, idling our time in useless saunterings…we should wait a few weeks, devoting the time to study, then make a grand botanical raid into Arizona and try to touch the heart of the Santa Catalina.” And that they did, but the Catalinas would not let them in easily.
In their first camp on the south side of the mountains, the Lemmons had to walk nearly a mile from an abandoned cabin through rough desert terrain to gather water and plants. Through sweat and blood, they tried to gain elevation in the Catalinas, but realized that they could not reach the higher terrain from the south side. They were sent to the north side of the mountains to Pandora ranch where they met up with E.O. Stratton. He became their guide, outfitted them with a horse and pack animal each and up they went to what is now known as Summerhaven. From a camp there, Stratton led the Lemmons to the highest peak in the Santa Catalinas. Enamored by Mrs. Lemmon’s delightful person, Stratton declared the peak Mt. Lemmon in her honor. In 1904 the Pima County surveyor made Mt. Lemmon official by putting that name on the map for its highest peak.
Between 1880 to 1882, the Lemmons collected many specimens in Southern Arizona. They were brave and imperturbable in their quests on the frontiers of biology. To this day, about 3% of the vascular plant species of this state were discovered by the Lemmons.
Although many people call the mountains north of Tucson the Catalinas, it is just as common to call the whole range Mount Lemmon. The legacy of these early botanists lives on. The Inns at El Rancho Merlita are located just a few minutes from the highway that will take you up to this Tucson treasure, unique in all the world. So come stay with us and enjoy the adventure of discovering a Sky Island named after a woman, containing the southern most ski area in the US, and so many more beautiful mysteries.
The ERM Family
*The information for this blog post was gathered from the book, “Look to the Mountains,” by Suzanne Hensel.