Sky Island Parkway (Catalina Highway) National Scenic Byway

Articles for this Road

Sara Plummer Lemmon
by Carrie M. Miner

“Any man experienced in driving a car, can make the road all right, but it is no place for . . . women drivers,” wrote Allen B. Jaynes on August 12, 1919, in a commentary on the newly constructed highway leading from the desert floor surrounding Tucson up into the forested slopes of Mount Lemmon. Perhaps Mr. Jaynes didn’t realize that this lofty peak, reaching up in elevation to 9,157 feet, was named for a woman – in fact, the first Anglo woman to hike to the summit.


Newlyweds Sara Allen Plummer and John Gill Lemmon spent their honeymoon in March1881, searching for a way to scale the tallest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains, an east and west running range that marks the city’s northern border. The two botanists from California wanted to find new plant species and name them. After several failed attempts the couple tried a route up from Oracle with the help of rancher Emerson Oliver Stratton. Beyond the tangled trees and stony ridges, they finally reached the summit, where they discovered two prospective loggers who had set up camp at what is now the mountain hamlet of Summerhaven.


When they set out on their journey, Sara was noted as wearing “a short suit of strong material, the best of firm calf-skin shoes, nailed along the soles and heels with gimp-tacks, and reinforced by substantial leather leggings that promised defiance to cacti and serpents. A broad brimmed ha[t] with a buckskin mask, and heavy gloves, a botanical portfolio, and a long staff, completed her outfit.” In the foothills of the south face of the range, the Lemmons discovered a stick and mud cabin that had been recently abandoned by a horse rustler. They used it as a base while they explored the surrounding terrain searching for an approach up the tallest peak.


Over the course of the next week, Sara and John were turned away from their goal by “deep inaccessible ravines with polished sides” and “projecting ridges, barred at intervals from bottom to top with vertical, sometimes beetling walls.” They finally found a “zigzag stairway of rocks” up a horizontal crack in the vertical wall of a ravine, which they used to make their passage up the ridge. Sara discovered a small cave, which she transformed into their next base for exploration. “Wooden pins were driven into cracks and cords stretched therefrom, copper wires attached, and so rations for a week’s stay were suspended safe from rats, mice, or lizards, in little bags and cans.”


The Lemmons discovered several new ferns and flowering plants, specimens, which were carefully tucked away in a botanical portfolio for later examination. But then, to their dismay, the Lemmons crested the rocky ridge only to find a deep abyss separating them from the main mountain. John Lemmon wrote: “To the west, a ridge running parallel to ours could be seen, leading away quite to the base of the pass. ‘Too Bad!’ we both exclaimed, ‘that we could not perceive this from the plain below.’”


What the Lemmons had discovered was that a rocky ridge of the Santa Catalina forerange is separated from the rounded granite dome of Mount Lemmon by a plunging east-west cleft controlling the waters runoff to the desert floor around Tucson. The disappointed botanists returned to Tucson and heard that the north side of the mountain was not as steep. And so the Lemmons took a stage to Oracle Camp, where they prepared a second attempt to scale the peak. They met up with miner and rancher Emerson Oliver Stratton at his ranch high in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains and persuaded him to lead them to the top. Stratton led them up a short trail that had been used to collect lumber for mining timbers, but when the trail stopped, the trio began to search for a passable course up the steep mountainside.


At what is now known as Dan Saddle, where the ridge’s oak woodland meets up with the pine forests, John Lemmon “seized a branch and shouted, ‘All hats off!’” “The leaves are in fascicles of five, instead of threes as in yellow pine, and this character distinguishes the new Pinus Arizonica, for which I had been so long in search,” said Lemmon. Not long thereafter, the weary group reached what is now Summerhaven, where they met two hunters, Carter and W. Reed, who had built a cabin and were planning to construct a flume so they could cut lumber for the desert dwellers below. The Lemmons and Stratton found a large tree and carved their names on the trunk. Unfortunately the tree was blown down several years later. “From Carter’s camp we went to the highest peak of the Santa Catalina Mountains and christened it Mount Lemmon in honor of Mrs. Lemmon who was the first white woman up there,” recalled Stratton.


“When Mr. Roskruge made a map of the country about 1904 he put in the name Mt. Lemmon. Just 25 years later on their silver wedding anniversary, Dr. Lemmon and his wife returned to Tucson, hunted me up and we again climbed the mountain.” On June 30, 1905, The Tucson Citizen recalled the Lemmons feat: “Mrs. Lemmon . . . was not alarmed in the least at the prospect of danger. She rather invited it. The prospect of being slain by the Indians, the danger of being lost in the mountains, or the likelihood of encountering rattlesnakes and bears in the mountains did not alarm either Professor or Mrs. Lemmon. Their trip will be remembered and spoken of long after the babies of the present generation are gray haired and bent with age.”


Even though it is Professor Lemmon who added his name in botanical history with the plants they discovered on that trip so long ago, it is from the diminutive, quiet woman at his side the mountain got its name. In one of Professor Lemmon’s letters to Stratton, he expressed his pleasure “and gratitude for the naming of the highest eminence for my wife” -- the woman who conquered the mountain long before women drivers were advised that they were not able to motor a car up the peak named for one of their own.