Catalina-Rincon Trek, 2016

Across Tucson’s Sky Islands: Damaged Trails, More Restrictions

From the UA campus in Tucson, I always ogled the mountains that framed the city. Most of my free time was spent roaming these soaring Sky Islands with the UA Ramblers hiking club.

In January 1975, five of us set out in predawn dark in Pima Canyon for a four-day trek across the Catalinas and Rincons northeast of town. We planned to finish Day 1 with a steak dinner at Summerhaven near the top of Mt. Lemmon. The day before, we dropped off David’s car on east end of the Rincons on a jumble of ranch roads, planning to find it on Day 4.

That trip didn’t quite go as envisioned. Near the top of Mt. Lemmon, we were slowed slogging snow, then had to camp when one of us got hypothermia and another lost a boot heel. Next day, three gave up at Summerhaven. David and I hitched a ride down the highway to General Hitchcock Trail, hiked a brushy ridge and roads to the Rincons, camped in snow, and climbed Rincon Peak on Day 4. That night we wandered dark roads to the lighted door of X-9 Ranch—which had closed public access across its property to the trailhead years before. (The now-late) Henry Jackson gave us a lecture but then drove us to David’s car which we might not have found on our own; he said he was wondering who had left the car!

For our 2016 revisit, we planned carefully and followed rules and official advice. Fire trail damage in the Catalinas added an extra day to our trip but we were able to call Saguaro National Park (the Park) from a high ridge by cell phone and adjust campsites. Still we ended the trip with a violation sticker on our vehicle and panic calls from Park law enforcement—(which had not been updated on our itinerary change)!

Perhaps this trek was a good metaphor for the evolving picture of western wilderness hiking: more climate change impacts, less trail maintenance, and more prohibitions, leading to declining visitor experience.

Catalina-Rincon trek traversed two ranges forming northeast corner of Tucson: the Santa Catalina (Catalinas) and Rincon (Rincons) mountains. The trek in March-April reenacted a hike we did January 1975 as University of Arizona (UA) students. Route is now encompassed by 3 wilderness areas: Pusch Ridge and Rincon administered by the Forest Service and Saguaro Wilderness administered by the Park Service within Saguaro National Park (the Park).
Original 4-day trek was challenged by short days and some snow slogging on high but trails were in excellent condition. Our 2016 trek was challenged by sleet and snow at first, then near-90-degree temperatures, fire-damaged trails, and working around the Park rules and policies.
Catalinas trail system was so good in 1975, we easily did 20 miles the first day; on the latter trip, damage from a 2003 Aspen Fire and slower hiking pace tripled time to cross the range.
Rincons trail system was about as good in 2016 as in 1975 but hikers must negotiate the Park’s reservation-only campsites and other rules. We chose to park vehicle within the Park requiring circular route to camp in legal campsites, also adding to length of the trip.
The Arizona Trail (AZT) now links Catalinas and Rincons and replaced our 1975 cross-country route between the two ranges; we used non-wilderness AZT (heavily worn by mountain bikes) to more closely follow our original route.
Visit statistics: 10 days, 114 miles, and 575 feet per mile average elevation change.
Go to map below for more information on trailheads, daily routes, mileages, elevation changes, and photos. (Click on white box in upper right corner to expand map and show legend with NAVIGATION INSTRUCTIONS.)

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Four Peaks became wilderness in 1984. It includes 60,700 acres along the Mazatzal Mountain ridge north of Superstition Wilderness and south of Mazatzal Wilderness. A 19-mile segment of the Arizona Trail (Passage 20) traverses the east side of this wilderness starting along Vineyard Mountain ridge, passing Camelback Mountain, and then winding in and out of drainages below Buckhorn Mountain.

Although the Tonto National Forest website on Four Peaks mentions 40 miles of trail, the only maintained ones we hiked were the AZT and a loop that included Four Peaks, Brown’s Trail and a newly reopened lower segment of the Amethyst Trail that continues up the mountain to a privately owned working Amethyst Mine.

Maps showed a rough road and two trails that traverse the peaks on the west side of the wilderness connecting to a road and Alder Creek Trail #82. We had planned to use those trails to loop back to the AZT. How good they are, or whether they exist, is unknown to us. (The map below shows our intended but unhiked route in yellow.)

At Bear Saddle, an unmarked trail took off on a slowly descending contour. After a few hundred feet, the brush was impassable and there was no visible path. David dropped down the steep brushy slope into the drainage. I crept down, leaving my pack for my mountain-goat husband to ferry.

The drainage was less steep and brushy. David cut away the worst branches with hand clippers (deemed a necessity for Arizona several years ago). Darkness approached as we neared the confluence of the main canyon; David went back to a seep to pump water for the dinner while I scouted for a campsite. At the confluence, a rushing stream! We made camp in a small clearing on the bank under a large dead ponderosa pine.

The next day we were hopeful as we kept finding stretches of the trail. It never got better. The creek was running a bit too high for rock hopping so we thrashed through brush on slopes above. We weaved back and forth across the drainage, which was sometimes running, sometimes dry.

About 3 pm we got to a pour-off, still more than 2 miles from the canyon mouth. David said if we found no trail around the pour-off we should turn around. We dropped packs and worked our way down to the creek. We found a trail of sorts along the drainage but nothing climbing up the hillside to skirt the pour-off (as the GPS map indicated).

If the trail continued bad or nonexistent after Alder Creek, David worried we might need a day or more to get to water. We turned back. Two hours later, a mile back up the canyon, we found a nice campsite in unburned oak

The next day back to the AZT was terrible—uphill in brush is harder. We started out well, hopping rocks on the creek to avoid brush. But the increasingly steep drainage back to Bear Saddle kept forking; we always seemed to take the worst fork and ended up on the ridge above the saddle.

The long contour on the maintained AZT was a relief. David enjoyed the full moon rising over Lake Roosevelt; I was distracted by the steep rocky drop to the first available flat area for camping—a badly burned but fairly open bench.

The rest of the trip was Plan B: an out-and-back hike on the AZT to burned Pigeon Spring (with algae-covered tank and cow pies), a chilly grey day hike loop near Brown’s Peak, backtracking to make camps in a remnant pine stand and an open sandy flat near Granite Spring (consolation for backtracking is knowing the best campsites!), and repeating the long up-and-down wind back on the AZT above Lake Roosevelt.

Several trail junctions indicated a much more robust “legacy” trail system prior to fire and neglect—a trail to Alder Saddle which originally connected to Alder Canyon Trail below, and two trails dropping towards the lake: Oak Flat Trail, with abundant cairns (stone markers), and Chillicut Trail, which looked totally abandoned except for a hidden sign.

We saw a few AZT thru-hikers and one young couple hiking an AZT section. At Lone Peak Trailhead (for trail to Brown’s Peak) a dozen Universal Terrain Vehicles (UTVs) were parked, their riders talking energetically (no one hiking). On our return back on road, a shorts-clad couple in a UTV asked where to find snow. Maybe bored shelter-at-home refugees were seeking relief in the mountains?

Our last day, upon my insistence, we left the AZT for a more gentle-graded forest road. Amazing wildflowers, non-native grass and fields of invasive star thistle. I stomped those near the road (tactic adopted a few weeks earlier in Superstition Wilderness) but most were out of easy reach.

Near the highway we encountered many informal camps, undoubtedly due to closed campgrounds. One had about a dozen vehicles—apparently undeterred by the governor’s order to limit gatherings to 10 people to slow spread of coronavirus.

Well we definitely didn’t see anyone in Alder Creek. Nor did we see any alder—maybe it all burned.

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Google Map

(Click upper right box above map to “view larger map” to see legend including NAVIGATION INSTRUCTIONS; expand/contract legend by clicking right arrow down/up)