Catalina-Rincon Comback:
Traversing the Tucson Skyline

*A different version of this article appeared in the September 2017 edition of BACKPACKER Magazine p.13.

Four days and halfway across rugged mountains framing the northeast boundary of Tucson, we needed an extra day.

Last time was quicker.

In 1975 David and I finished a Santa Catalina-Rincon mountain traverse late the fourth night, wandering into the backyard of a rancher. Five started this Christmas break trek. Snow, hypothermia and equipment failure stalled us 21 miles in and 4 miles short of our first day goal: steak dinner in Summerhaven near Mt. Lemon on top. Two of us kept going: hitching a ride 10 miles on the Catalina highway, “bushwhacking” down to the pass, hiking jeep roads and  slogging snow through the Rincons.  We got a ride from the rancher to our vehicle.

We planned better for 2016. We chose April for minimal snow, maximum water and mild weather. We queried the Forest Service on the Catalinas (Pusch Ridge Wilderness) and reserved Park Service campsites in the Rincons (Saguaro Wilderness). We’d take the new Arizona Trail (AZT) between the two ranges. We planned food and water drops since Forest Service predicted little water. We parked our SUV at our exit trailhead in Saguaro National Park. Our loop through Saguaro added 24 miles but decreased odds of a vandalized vehicle or irate rancher at trail’s end.

Trekking the Catalinas took almost 3 days-thanks to older knees and rougher trails eroded after fires and summer rains. Recalling gentle switchbacks between peaks and saddles,  we scrabbled washouts, boulder drops and steep chimneys and inched along slidy slopes. A cold front met us with ridge winds, fog, and snow flurries. Pack-bearing knees creaked on mountain bike descents designed for thrilling drops. A winding, 15-mile path across foothills of Reddington Pass offered perfumed fields of prairie verbena and pools galore (despite “no water” warnings) and longer route to the Rincons. On a bony backbone ridge, as late afternoon shadows striped Tucson below, David dialed Saguaro backcountry office. Could we push back our reservations and leave our vehicle another day? After much paper shuffling, we got the okay.

On Day 9, I stood on Tanque Verde Peak to review our journey: rocky stair step Catalinas to Mt. Lemon; behind us Mica Mountain and Rincon Peak we’d ascended before dropping/climbing 4000 feet to hot Sonora desert and back up to camp among oaks at Grass Shack spring. Now we ambled into Juniper Basin for brief break in juniper shade, annoying a black rattler waiting to drink at the canyon pool. 

We descended stair step ridges towards a green flow of parkland where subdivisions stopped. Hot sun and spring resumed: purple blooms sprouting from the hedgehog cacti, yellow blossoms on prickly pear; tiny pink buttons on scraggy manzanita. At the trailhead the GPS marked 114 miles and 36,000 feet of ascent/ descent.

Our SUV sported a red “violation” sticker on its window. My cell phone offered a message from my sister: “Could you call the Park Service? They are worried about you.”

We made the call. Law Enforcement was about to launch a lost hiker search. Our updated permit didn’t make it across Park Service divisions.

For those who prefer rugged, remote and knee-busting, the Catalina-Rincon trek will not disappoint. Go in a wet spring, when the deserts dress in their Sunday best and checker flag Gila monsters march the trails. Plan well; and expect to be surprised by the mountains, the weather or maybe the landlords. 
Cindy assesses a Park Service ‘violation’ sticker on her vehicle-surprised since official Park Service permission had been granted to park at the trailhead.
Click Images to Enlarge
Author hikes out of Pima Wash in the Catalinas (Pusch Ridge Wilderness) finding  good trail for 2-3 miles but deteriorating near head of canyon.
After 40 years, gentle switchbacks between peaks and saddles have deteriorated into washouts and slidy slopes due to fires, erosion and lack of trail maintenance.
Many Catalina trails covered with deadfall; rough going with backpack.
In late April in Arizona, a cold front met us with ridge winds, fog and snow flurries. A few days later, we sweltered in 90-degree temperatures in the foothills.
David admires old growth Douglas fir in Marshall Gulch near Mt. Lemon at the top of the Santa Catalina Mountains.
Dropping out of the Catalinas, heading down Reddington Pass towards the Rincon Mountains.
Prairie verbena carpeted the rugged foothills and canyons of Reddington Pass area.
David atop giant cairn on Rincon Peak during our four-day traverse of Catalina and Rincon mountains in 1975.
An older David and smaller cairn on Rincon Peak, on our second Catalina-Rincon traverse in 2016-eight days into the trip so far!
Colorful Gila monster marches along the trail from Madrona Ranger Station up the ridge towards Grass Shack in Rincon Wilderness.
Pusch Ridge
Rincon Wilderness
Sagurno Wilderness
Sabino Canyon Rec
Saguro NP Hike
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