Devil's Tale


Summerhaven: The town at 8,000 feet

By Erika Wurst

Hugging every curve, Foxy Grandma... soared up above the city.


I came for the pie. I’m not going to lie and say I drove more than two hours from Phoenix to Mount Lemmon for the scenic ride or the rugged trails. No, sir, I came for the pie.

My mom loves pie as much as I do; it’s an obsession that becomes blatantly obvious when you see me in a swimsuit. For months, I heard her talk about the amazing blueberry pie that can only be fetched and devoured near the top of Mount Lemmon, so I convinced my boyfriend to make the trek with me, up windy roads to an elevation of about 8,000 feet, to “see the Summerhaven fires.” I had to say something. He’d never drive up a mountain for pie. Some people just don’t get it.

Somewhere in Tucson, between Tanque Verde Road and the Catalina Highway, my green Ford Contour magically transformed itself into an airplane. Hugging every curve, Foxy Grandma (as I like to call her) soared up above the city, reaching 3,000; 3,500; 4,000 feet. 

The best part about being on an airplane isn’t the tiny shots they sell you for $5 or the dry roasted peanuts. The best part is the window seat where the world you once knew shrinks and shrinks right before your eyes, becoming a place where even the biggest semi resembles a micro-machine car.

When you drive up Mount Lemmon, everyone has a window seat.

Our first stop was around 4,000 feet. We pulled off on one of the many vista points, ready for a good hike—to work up an appetite, of course. To our dismay, the trail was closed. One sign cautioned pedestrians to stay away, while another read: “One Careless Moment. Prevent Wildfires.” This was our first sad reminder of what would soon become a reality.

My boyfriend and I lived in Tucson last summer. From the comfort of our hot tub, we could look out into the black night sky and see orange flames outlining the Catalinas. Smoke billowed up off the mountain range as if a bomb had exploded, darkening the summer sky for weeks. News of one of the worst fires in Arizona history made headlines across the country.

After staring at the sign, we hopped back into Foxy and gawked at the thousands of saguaros sprinkled across the mountain. Motorcycles raced down the steep curves as if they had a death wish. We crept up at a steady 30 miles per hour. Determined to take that hike, we sought our second destination.

By the time we hit Molina Canyon, the saguaros had vanished, unable to survive the winter freeze. I couldn’t pinpoint where they stopped growing and where the semi-desert grassland began, but there was an obvious change in the scenery as lush cacti turned to brush. 

Not anticipating the heat at such a high elevation, we changed from T-shirts to tank tops in the parking lot before making our way down a gravel path. My boyfriend put on shorts, a decision he soon regretted as prickly plants scraped his shins. Posted signs described the vegetation, which changes with the seasons.

Rushing water broke the silence as we spotted a cascading creek. We followed the water alongside the trail, admiring the sparkling rocks, the warm breeze, the sounds of birds chirping instead of cars roaring. Bubbling like a mad scientist’s lab, the murky water tinted the bedrock a rusty yellow-red.

The sound of voices tore through the quiet canyon as four hikers came trekking our way. We took it as our cue to leave, and hit the road again.

Photo by Amanda Lee Myers A patron walks in the Mt. Lemmon Café, one of the only buildings to survive the devastating wildfire that burned much of Summerhaven in the summer of 2003.

Toward the summit
“Rebuild it and they will come. Thank you, firefighters.” My eye glimpsed a sign posted on a pole as we made our way even higher. Suddenly, the scenery changed from desert brush to green moss and charred black trees.

As we cruised up even farther, Tucson started to look like a faint dream. Water seeped down from the giant rocks on the side of the road, making them glitter like waterfalls in the desert sun. Snow blanketed entire areas of the mountain. Vans packed with families pulled over to the side of the road, and children lived out fantasies of snowball fights and snow angels. We must be close to the summit, I thought.

Pie at last
Winding round and round, we finally reached the top. We finally reached the pie! A dingy café, outlined with turquoise trim and decked with garlands and Christmas lights, stood next to a little log cabin that is the Summerhaven post office. Across the street was a realty office. This is all that’s left of what used to be a thriving summer getaway.

Paula Hughes, a frequenter of the tiny town at 8,000 feet, reminisced about Summerhaven as she sipped a cup of coffee on the café’s ramshackle patio. She was eager to talk about the better days, the days before flames swallowed the town.

Hughes painted a magical picture of street fairs and hippies, of artists displaying their work in giant lofts, and of streets lined with cottages. Today, these are just faint memories. 

“There was a little restaurant and an antique shop, a bed and breakfast--- everything burned, except the cement,” Hughes said with a look of dismay.

But the tiny Mt. Lemmon Café stood strong, radiating hope and the sweet smell of the sacred pie. 

“When the town was engulfed, they [firefighters] tried to save as much as they could before the feds, or whoever, wouldn’t let them in anymore. They came up a back way to save it. The café is the heart of Mount Lemmon,” Hughes said, surrounded by burnt trees and the orange Arizona sky.

The weather drops a good 20 degrees as soon as the sun sets, our waitress told us, and it became apparent as we sat outside waiting to devour the luscious homemade pie.

The menu warns patrons to arrive early. Heed the warning. By 4 p.m., just three types of pie were left: peach, blueberry, and strawberry rhubarb. I took the peach, a la mode of course, and indulged in the best piece of pie that has ever passed my lips, without question. My boyfriend agreed, but the pie wasn’t enough to warm him up. He opted to sit in the car as I began my next escapade, solo.

Mount Lemmon fast facts

• Summit elevation: 9,150 feet

• Southernmost ski resort in the United States

• Busiest times: weekends 11 a.m.–4 p.m.

• Slowest times: weekend mornings and weekdays

Curiosity beckoned me beyond a sign that read: “Residents Only.” I guess they didn’t want people like me snooping around the wreckage. A crooked wooden post advertised a gift shop 1,000 feet ahead. Sand bags lined the street, a failed attempt to stop Mother Nature and her mudslide of ash. Rock fireplaces stuck up out of the cement bases of what used to be homes. Two park benches, mauled by the flames, sat in front of a “No Trespassing” sign, and the tan logs being used to rebuild the gift shop stuck out like sore thumbs among the charred trees. 

The only sounds were cawing crows and the rushing water of a wash flowing alongside the road. No children playing, no people laughing. No cars driving or joggers’ feet pounding the pavement. In this ghost town, the eerie feeling of what used to be plagued my mind, and goose bumps raced down my neck. Where hippies used to frolic in the streets, I stood alone. It was time to leave.  

I walked back to the car and solemnly got in. We made the journey back down the mountain, through the snow and the desert grassland, past the saguaros and back onto Tanque Verde Road. I hope that the next time we make it back up Mount Lemmon, the pie won’t be the only thing we come for.



Summerhaven, Mount Lemmon

Getting there from Phoenix
Take Interstate 10 east to Tucson. Get off at Exit 257 (Speedway Blvd./University of Arizona) and turn left on Speedway. Drive 7.5 miles east and turn left on Wilmot Road, which becomes Tanque Verde Road. Turn left onto East Catalina Highway and head up to Summerhaven. If you’re just driving straight up, you don’t have to pay the $5 viewing fee, but I recommend stopping as many times as possible.

Mt. Lemmon Café
Located at the peak of Mount Lemmon. Open daily. A full-service menu offers Swiss fondue and other tasty entrées. But most important is the homemade pie. A slice costs $4.75 with an entrée and $6 without. A la mode adds an extra $.75. Flavors vary by the day, hour, and minute but include sour cream apple, blueberry, peach, and strawberry rhubarb. For hours and additional information, call 520.576.1234.


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