Historical Experiences at Mt. Lemmon

By: Mindi Feldstein

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May 18, 2016

Mt. Lemmon is the highest point in the Santa Catalina Mountains and, as this family discovered, rich in history and ruins of a time past.

About the author

Mindi Feldstein

Mindi Feldstein is a Pittsburgh native with new Arizona family roots. She has been traveling to the Grand Canyon state over the past ten years, spending about a month each year actively exploring new places with her young family. She is a part time computer educator and enjoys writing, traveling and discovering all things unique and unusual.

One of the most beautiful attractions in the Tucson area is Mt. Lemmon. The scenic drive up, over and around the mountain is full of a complete Arizona topography. The trip starts in the desert, surrounded by saguaros and prickly pears, and ends in the snow. It is such a wonderful experience to drive the entire byway and watch the seasons change right outside your window. 

We have made this journey several times, all when our little one was much smaller. On one such occasion there were tears because, as you might not know, there’s no lemonade sold at the top of Mt. Lemmon. Which was a huge disappointment for our little one. 

However, this past trip was for a different purpose. Upon researching the building off the byway, this adventurous urban exploration or urbex family discovered how and when it was built, and we were on a historical, archaeological mission. In a nutshell, it turns out the byway was built by prisoners of the federal penal system.

To give you a brief historical background, Frank Hitchcock came up with a cheap way to build the Catalina Highway starting in 1933. He first built a prison camp at the base of the mountain until storms made them push the camp up the mountain. It now rests at the Gordon Hirabayash Recreation Area, named after one of the men of an internment camp during the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II.   

Prisoners lived in tent like structures but there were more permanent buildings for officers. No gates or walls were erected. Instead, prisoners had boundaries marked by white rocks and after working full eight-hour days, they had recreational activities they could participate in including hiking within limits, ball games, etc. We were intrigued and had to find the area.

It was an easy, well worth it drive. At about mile seven, we turned into the recreation area. Parking was right there and we were able to get out and walk right to the ruins. Beautiful steps adorned what must have been an officer entry and residence. Foundations littered the area, as well as various scraps of metal, some loose, some tightly secured in rock walls and floors. We followed the creek discovering storage shelters, and other various ruins along the walk. 

The creek had man-made steps built in the time of the camp for men to cross easily and, after a bend in the creek, we stood at the end of the foundation. As we slowly found our way back to our car we realized the hard work and sweat of those man had made this day trip possible.

While you cannot find a lemonade stand on the top, it is possible to visit and vacation at Summerhaven. You can see snow in Tucson and ski in white, fluffy powder and enjoy a cookie the size of your head.

The men who built the camp made the highest point of the Santa Catalina Mountains something every person can reach – pretty incredible. I’m glad we made the trip and stopped to remember their work and this moment in time and history.

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