This story originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of our print edition.
Southern Arizona is a mysterious place, where cacti outnumber climbers and tumbleweeds really do roll across empty stretches of highway. It may not be mentioned in the same breath as Moab, Bishop, Boulder, or North Conway, but it should be—and you’d be hard-pressed to find better climbing conditions in the dead of North America’s winter than around Tucson. Average highs in February are in the low 70s. The golden granite domes of Cochise Stronghold, once the hiding place of Apache chiefs and now the home of runout testpiece trad routes, are just 90 minutes away. The domes and bulbous walls of Cochise might humble even the strongest climbers when they find themselves shaking on a “solid” 5.9. Over the past two decades, the local climbing community has developed hundreds of sport and trad lines up the many granite edifices on the expansive Mount Lemmon, an area with more than 500 5.10s and everything from power-tech crimp lines on the Beaver Wall, to pure enduro hauls up at the Orifice. You can find steep limestone sport routes at the recently developed Dry Canyon and hundreds of boulder problems scattered around the town. With a quirky bar scene, killer Mexican food, and a near-guarantee of empty, quality cragging, what’s not to love about this desert town?
Where to Eat/Drink
Any climber worth their salt knows that a post-sesh burrito is truly therapeutic, and this area has some of the best in the nation. Nico’s Mexican Food (520-790-5550) is a local chain and favorite for the midday taco. Slightly upscale, La Cocina (520-622-0351) is a hip Mexican joint where you’re sure to run into fellow climbers. For a unique Tucson experience, try the Sonoran hot dog—it may well be the pinnacle of hot-dog endeavors. The bacon-wrapped tubesteak is smothered in a colorful array of condiments including pinto beans, avocado, pico de gallo, cheese, and jalapeño sauce, then held together in a doughy, extra-large bun. This is one seriously delicious dog, and may be a rest-day activity in itself. El Guero Canelo is the spot for this mighty hot dog, so pay a visit while you’re in town.
Get a “Man-mosa” (Miller High Life and orange juice) at Che’s Lounge (520-623-2088) for just one buck. Also notable, The District Tavern (520-791-0082) boasts the best jukebox in town in a dive-y atmosphere of cheap drinks and billiards. It’s cash only, and the ATM is regularly out of order. Warning: $3 gets you a beer and a shot of whiskey, which can quickly turn tomorrow into an unintended rest day. Craft beer your thing? Tap and Bottle’s Dragoon IPA is what one local climber says “is the only thing that makes anything worthwhile” (520-344-8999).
Where to Stay
There is free camping all over the Santa Catalina Natural Area—the home of Mount Lemmon. Mt. Bigelow Road, which takes you to the summit of Lemmon, has scattered primitive campsites throughout, though these are closed from December until March. There are plentiful year-round sites on Incinerator Ridge Road, off of Mt. Lemmon Highway. All of these sites are on BLM land, but fire permits are required at some, so do your research, or pack a stove. If Cochise is your objective, there are free sites at both East and West Stronghold. At the latter, Isle of Ewe offers gorgeous, free camping just outside of Sheepshead and Westworld Dome. In East Stronghold, the parking area at the end of Ironwood Road has pay-station sites with bathrooms (520-364-3468). None of these sites, established or off the grid, offer running water, so invest in a five-gallon jug and fill up in town, which is especially important in the warmer months.
Where to Buy Gear
Summit Hut has been a Tucson institution for more than 40 years. Starting in the bedrooms of its founders in 1967 (with the gear inventory stashed under their beds), Summit Hut now thrives with two locations in the area. Stop by the shop for deals on chalkbags, gear, ropes, and climbing shoes. The store also has a bookshelf with extensive literature and guidebooks on Southwest crags. As is expected at local shops, the staff is knowledgeable and can help you out with camping or climbing beta for Lemmon or Cochise.
Spend a Rest Day
As a rule, any desert down time should be spent seeking water, for hydration, sure, but especially for swimming! Find killer swimming holes and cliff jumping at Lemmon Pools (via an easy eight-mile round-trip hike) or Tanque Verde Falls (a 1.6-mile out-and-back), both within an hour’s drive of Tucson proper. Or grab your headlamp and venture into Peppersauce Cave at the base of Mount Lemmon. This formation has over a mile of mapped underground trails.
What to Climb: The 10 Best 4-Star Routes
As ranked by Mountain Project Users
The Wasteland (5.8)
East Cochise Stronghold
“An excellent maze of zigzagging cracks, chimneys, and chickenheads, not to mention a heady traverse, and excellent exposure. No doubt one of the best climbs in Arizona. No place for a sport climber!”
Old Man (5.9)
Windy Point West, Mount Lemmon
“The exposure after you pull the roof will put a smile on any climber’s face. The views of Hawk’s Bill Spire from the belay are great.”
Absinthe of Mallet (5.9+)
The Sheepshead, West Cochise Stronghold
“Wow, this is a stellar climb! The cruxes were terrific and well-protected, though the sixth pitch will feel runout to folks not comfortable with slab dancing.”
Westworld Dome, West Cochise Stronghold
“Awesome route. I fell and fell on the friction-slab first pitch. Once I finally made it, the rest of the route was a cruise, except for the wind up high. I hugged the arête for a long time waiting for it to die down. Exciting!”
Lizard Marmalade Direct (5.10+)
Windy Point East, Mount Lemmon
“One of the best routes in Southern Arizona. A few exciting thin moves in the middle to a steep, juggy, interesting finish. Engaging to the last move. A little spicy in the middle but good placements.”
Rockfellow Dome, East Cochise Stronghold
“What a day! Rugged approach, excellent and varied climbing, solid rock, great position, and beautiful views. Feed yourself into the offwidth on the second pitch and expect no mercy!”
The Planet Eater (5.11)
Middle Earth, Mount Lemmon
“I was in the middle of a cruxy, kind-of-runout section up high when the bullets started landing. My belayer said ‘Jesus, someone’s shooting at us!’ My brain did a quick calculation of the chances of someone hitting me from across the canyon and came up with: Don’t sweat it, keep climbing. Save for the bullets, a really good climb that punches you in the face if you think it’s over before the chains.”
Sound of One Hand Thrashing (5.11c/d)
Rockfellow Dome, East Cochise Stronghold
“This route deserves way more attention than it gets. Save for the low-angle offwidth on pitch four, there is challenging climbing on good rock bottom to top. I have never climbed or even seen anything like the semi-circular groove on pitch two.”
New Wave Wall, Mount Lemmon
“This is one of the best sport climbs you’ll find on Lemmon and perhaps all of Arizona. I also believe this is a good gauge for all of the other 12s on Lemmon. Anyone who climbs Tsunami will not be disappointed.”
Hard Day at the Orifice (5.12b)
The Fortress, Mount Lemmon
“I’d give this six stars if I could. For a challenging thrill and a reward after you redpoint, clean the route then climb up on TR to the second bolt or higher and take the swing out over the canyon below. Mandatory at least once.”
Tucson, Arizona Climbing Metrics
Playground for sport; proving ground for trad
A moderate climber’s heaven
Quantity is a quality in itself
Warm winter wonderland
*Stats are for the immediate Tucson area. Get route beta, photos, and topos for the whole state at mountainproject.com.