The Mount Lemmon Science Tour, a free audio tour app produced by the University of Arizona College of Science, is now available to accompany the drive up the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson.
The trip along the Catalina Highway, from the Sonoran Desert at the bottom to the pine forest at the top of Mount Lemmon, covers 6,000 vertical feet and is one of the most spectacular drives in the country. In climate terms, it is like driving from Mexico to Canada in an hour.
The audio tour brings together the beauty of southern Arizona’s spectacular vistas and the surprising natural science of the region.
"The objective of the Mount Lemmon Science Tour is to engage locals and visitors with the amazing science of southern Arizona as they experience the outstanding natural beauty and history of the Catalinas and the Sky Islands region," said Shipherd Reed, marketing and communications manager for the UA's Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium.
"For all users, we want to nurture a deeper understanding of how our natural world works, and to inspire an appreciation for the complexity and beauty of life on Earth. For locals, in particular, we want to deepen their sense of place so they come to see and appreciate, from a global perspective, that our home is truly a place of wonder and that our natural world is a treasure we should work to preserve."
The Santa Catalina Mountains are just one of several Sky Island mountain ranges that make southern Arizona an environment unlike any other. Thanks to a landscape of desert basins and high mountains, there is more biodiversity — plants and animals, insects and birds — in southern Arizona than anywhere else in the United States.
This landscape has inspired scientists who came to find answers about how the natural world works. Researchers have explored the Sonoran Desert and the Sky Island mountains as a living laboratory. In the process, they made discoveries, creating new fields of science such as ecology and dendrochronology, and they expanded the boundaries of knowledge. These stories are told on the tour.
The idea for a Mount Lemmon Science Tour that could engage the public with the exceptional earth science of the region was born several years ago and formally proposed in 2010, Reed said. It originally was envisioned as an audio tour that would be distributed exclusively on CD. In the fall of 2013, the College of Science and Visit Tucson committed funds to create the tour.
In February, Reed finally was freed from other responsibilities to work mostly full time on the app.
"The vision was to deliver an hour of engaging science content, since the drive from the bottom to the top, at the speed limit, takes one hour," he said. "All that science content also had to be accessible for a general audience. Much of the core science content for the tour was based on the 'Exploring Sky Islands' exhibit (2012) previously produced by Flandrau in collaboration with the UA Department of Geosciences."
The tour unfolds in six sections: Sky Islands, rocks, life zones, water, forest and fire. The sections explore different fields of science and explain how natural systems and cycles are woven together to sustain life on Earth. They were recorded, and then each was tested on the drive up the mountain in concert with the others to ensure that the audio corresponded with the sights. All of the content was reviewed and revised by scientists in the College of Science and by researchers working on the UA’s Critical Zone Observatory, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.
Reed worked on the app with Madden Media of Tucson, wanting it to be as user-friendly as possible. A graphic designer, a GIS map designer and a video animator helped with the branding and visual content.
The tour transforms the drive to the top of Mount Lemmon into a journey of discovery. Along the way, there are two suggested stops. The first is Windy Point Vista, with views looking south over the Tucson basin toward the Santa Rita Mountains. The second is Aspen Vista, with views looking north across the San Pedro River valley toward the Gailluro and Pinaleno mountains.
To augment the narration, the tour includes graphic slideshows and animated videos that visualize the science and interpret the vistas. When the app is downloaded, all of the audio and visual content is on the user’s phone because consistent cell phone service is not available on the mountain.
To bring the full flavor of the unique region to life, the tour features music by the band Calexico. Joey Burns, the lead singer for the band, narrates the tour.
"All of this scientific knowledge about the Sky Islands, and the Catalinas specifically, existed in individuals and departments within the College of Science," Reed said, "but it had never been collected or interpreted in a way that would make it accessible to the public."