Catalina-Rincon Trek, 2016

Sky islands: bad trails & bureaucracy

During our student years at the University of Arizona, five from our hiking club attempted to trek across the Santa Catalina (Catalinas) and Rincon Mountains (Rincons) that frame the northeast corner of Tucson, Arizona. We started in pre-dawn dark aiming to summit the range in one day, enjoying a steak dinner at Summerhaven at the top. After a 20-mile day that ended with slogging snow, we made camp early when one friend got hypothermia. The next day, three hikers bailed on our trip at Summerhaven. David and I kept going, catching a ride 12 miles on the highway to make up time. We finished the 75-mile trip after dark on the fourth day on far side of the Rincons. (To our chagrin we ended up lost on the doorstep of X-9 Ranch, which had closed trails to the public after conflict with users. The mustachioed rancher gave us a lecture, but then took us to David’s car!)

We planned the 2016 revisit carefully and followed official advice—but came out a day late and, apparently, in trouble with the Park Service. Our revisit might be a good metaphor for western wilderness hiking today: climate change, trail damage, and ill-considered rules that negatively impact the visitor experience.

Prework & Planning Succeeded—Mostly

For our 2016 revisit, we chose the end of March for minimal snow, maximum water, and mild weather. The Forest Service was queried on the Catalina trails and water resources; we reserved Park Service campsites in the Rincons. We’d take the Arizona Trail (AZT) between the two ranges (AZT Passages 11b & 10). We left food and water drops along our route in the Catalinas since the Forest Service (wrongly) predicted little water. We rented a car to drop our vehicle at an exit trailhead in Saguaro National Park. Our loop through Saguaro added miles but decreased odds of a vandalized vehicle at the trail’s end. The car rental agency (Enterprise on Oracle Road) kindly dropped us off at the Pima Canyon Trailhead start.

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FIRE UPDATE: Most Pusch Ridge Wilderness trails are closed 2022 (or beyond). The Forest Service closed trails after 2020 Bighorn Fire in the Santa Catalina mountains and keeps pushing back reopening date. If the Forest Service link to closed trails is not working, then scroll through the link on Alerts & Notices for current trail closure information.

Crossing the Catalinas took almost three days. Recalling formerly gentle switchbacks between peaks and saddles, we scrabbled washouts, dropped off boulders, crawled up steep chimneys, and inched along slidy sideslopes on trails eroded by fire damage and summer rains. A cold front met us with ridge winds, fog, and snow flurries. We saw day hikers but no one backpacking besides a European AZT thru-hiker with a light pack in West Fork Sabino Canyon. He streaked ahead, seeking a Summerhaven rest stop. Further up the mountain, I was saddened by a wind tunnel with downed logs instead of the big old-growth Douglas-Fir forest I recalled in Marshall Gulch.

To mimic the 1975 trek more closely, we took the Pusch Ridge Wilderness Bypass (mountain-bike and equestrian AZT route) following the ridgeline out of the Catalinas. My knees whined at steep “stairs,” then sharp descents designed for thrilling bike drops. The winding, 10-mile AZT across foothills of Redington Pass offered perfumed fields of Santa Catalina prairie clover and southwestern mock vervain, pools (despite “no water” warnings), and serene, young AZT hikers.

A day late

On a bony backbone ridge, as late afternoon shadows striped Tucson below, David called the Park Service’s backcountry office. Could we push back our reservations and leave our vehicle another day? After much paper shuffling, we got the okay. Right at dark we made it to the headwaters of the intermittent Tanque Verde wash, which was running well, and camped there in the Rincon Wilderness before the boundary of Saguaro.

We hiked over Mica Mountain, meeting early-morning day hikers already returning to Redington Pass. We saw more hikers on Mica and joined two campers at the popular and historic Manning Camp. We spent the afternoon day hiking familiar trails around the mountain.

We saw more AZT hikers before we left that trail and dropped down Heartbreak Ridge to Happy Valley, another piney camp we had all to ourselves. We left packs there for a round-trip, steep climb to Rincon Peak. The rarely-used trail down Rincon Creek was brushy and washed out; the hot hike through the desert to the unused Madrona Ranger Station surprised us with views of luxury houses (just south of trail) on the former site of the X-9 Ranch still blocking public access. Not surprisingly, the trail was little used until it joined the Quilter Trail (AZT) ascending the ridge above Grass Shack. Hiking in near-dark, we heard an Arizona (Mexican) whip-poor-will calling and the welcome sound of running water near the campsites among big oaks and sycamores.

On Day 10, I stood on Tanque Verde Peak to view an almost 360-degree panorama of our journey: the rocky, stair-step Catalinas to Mt. Lemmon; Mica Mountain and Rincon Peak, our final high point before we dropped 4,000 feet to the hot Sonora Desert, then circled up and back to camp among the oaks at Grass Shack. Now we ambled into Juniper Basin for a brief break in the shade, annoying a black rattlesnake waiting to drink at the canyon pool. Its sudden rattle startled me so much, I fell backwards (away from the snake, luckily).

We descended ridges towards a green flow of mesquite parkland where subdivisions stopped. The hot sun and spring resumed: purple blooms sprouted from the hedgehog cacti, yellow blossoms appeared on prickly pear; tiny pink buttons smiled on scraggy Manzanita. At the trailhead, the GPS marked 114 miles and a 32,000-feet ascent and similar descent (or 575 feet average elevation change per mile).

The Park Service allows overnight parking at the Javelina Picnic Area for the Tanque Verde Ridge Trailhead if you have campsite reservations in the wilderness, which we did. As a result, I was surprised to find an orange “violation” sticker (to return from photo, click on upper right white x or text outside photo) on the window of our vehicle. I turned on my cell phone for 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 paper permit somehow did not make it from the backcountry office to law enforcement. However, we were not in trouble and the search was called off once we explained the situation.

As a side note, almost all AZT thru-hikers we met had hiked straight through the Saguaro Wilderness in one day to avoid Park Service campsites (which require advance reservations for Park Service convenience but are difficult to plan in advance for a multi-day backpack trip).

Publishing Our Success—40 Years Later

For the 1975 trek, I wanted to combine my skills as a journalism major with my passion for the outdoors. I pitched an article on our trek to the new (1973 startup) Backpacker magazine. I took copious notes during our trip, and I sent in my double-spaced, typed manuscript with David’s photos and one of me as the author perched on a hill with my backpack. The article was rejected. In 1980, I sold Backpacker an article on backpacking and cooking and got a check. The article never was published.

In May, after finishing the 2016 trek, I queried Backpacker by email. An editor suggested a 500-word version for the “Life List” section. I wrote and revised it several times at her request, but then heard nothing back. In 2017, a different Backpacker editor contacted me. He wanted a 700-word essay. The final version, which ran in the September 2017 edition, seemed more about the young editor’s notions on senior hiking memories, but it was well-written and paid me $500. Success at last!

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