Catalina-Rincon Trek, 2016

Sky islands: bad trails & bureaucracy

In January 1975, five of us set out in predawn dark in Pima Canyon to trek across the Catalinas and Rincons north and east of town. We would end Day 1 with a steak dinner at Summerhaven on Mt. Lemmon, and by Day 4 find our way to David’s car parked on edge of the Rincons.

It didn’t go as planned. Near the top of Lemmon, we had to slog snow, then camp when one of us got hypothermia and another lost a boot heel. The 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.

Hiking out of the mountains, we wandered roads in the dark. We headed towards far-off lights and knocked on door of lighted ranch house. As it opened, we noticed the placard “X-9 Ranch.” We had heard about X-9, an unfriendly place which had closed public access.

We were intimidated by the big, mustachioed rancher in a cowboy hat—but he seemed amused at our story and drove us out to David’s car, which he had seen on the ranch road. The now-late Henry Jackson said he closed access because people littered and someone even shot at his daughter. (More on X-9 Ranch history)

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 poorly managed rules that negatively impact the visitor experience.

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FIRE UPDATE: After Bighorn Fire of 2020 burned most of the Catalinas, the Forest Service closed most trails in Pusch Ridge Wilderness until May 1, 2021. See “Recreation in the Santa Catalinas after the Bighorn Fire.”

Prework & Planning Succeeded—Mostly

For our 2016 revisit, we chose end of March for minimal snow, maximum water, and mild weather. Forest Service was queried on the Catalinas trails and water; 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 Forest Service (wrongly) predicted little water. We rented a car to drop our vehicle at exit trailhead in Saguaro National Park. Our loop through Saguaro added miles but decreased odds of a vandalized vehicle at trail’s end. The car rental agency kindly dropped us off at Pima Canyon Trailhead start.

Crossing the Catalinas took almost 3 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 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 down logs instead of 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 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 intermittent Tanque Verde wash, running well, and camped there in Rincon Wilderness before the boundary of Saguaro.

We hiked over Mica Mountain, meeting early-morning day hikers already returning to Reddington Pass. We saw more hikers on Mica and joined two campers at popular 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 desert to unused Madrona Ranger Station surprised us with views of luxury houses (just south of trail) on the former site of 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 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: rocky stair-step Catalinas to Mt. Lemmon; Mica Mountain and Rincon Peak, our final high point before we dropped 4000 feet to hot Sonora desert then circled up and back to camp among 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. 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 32,000 feet ascent and similar descent (or 575 feet average elevation change per mile).

The Park Service allows overnight parking at Javelina Picnic Area for Tanque Verde Ridge Trailhead if you have campsite reservations in the wilderness, which we did. So I was surprised to find an orange “violation” sticker 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 called off once we explained the situation.

As a side note, almost all AZT thru hikers we met had hiked straight through Saguaro Wilderness in one day to avoid Park Service campsites (which require advance reservation 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; I sent in my double-spaced typed manuscript with David’s photos and one of me as author perched on a hill with my backpack. Article was rejected. In 1980, I sold Backpacker an article on backpacking cooking and got a check. It 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 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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