Saguaro Wilderness, 2021

Rincons Return Prompts Reminiscence

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Dave first showed up Wednesday night when trips were reported and new ones planned.

Richard and I had proposed a three-day trip to the Rincon Mountains east of Tucson; up the backside (southeast) to Happy Valley Saddle, climbing Rincon Peak, up to Mica Mountain, and down via Turkey Creek. After the meeting, interested hikers met with trip leaders. We got two.

Steve, a University of Arizona Ramblers hiking club veteran, could do an overnight. He’d come up a shorter route and meet us on Mica Mountain. The new guy Dave wanted to go with Steve.

I sized him up: “John Denver” look with wire-frame glasses, blonde-brown bangs, and collar-length hair. Hairy muscular legs in cutoffs indicated hiking potential. His question surprised me.

“Do I need to bring water?” In arid Arizona. We said yes. I wondered: would Dave be okay? Tough hikes wipe out newbies.

On Day2 of my hike with Richard, we met Dave on Mica. In his wake came wide-eyed Steve. “He hikes faster uphill,” he gasped. (see our 1975 Mica campout picture on map below)

This sealed Dave’s reputation with the Ramblers. He had spent the summer hiking on a Forest Service summer job; in Idaho mountains (at that time) you just dipped a Sierra cup in nearest stream. Hence water question. Other Rincon highlights included:

  • A gourmet cook-off at Deerhead Spring, which then had a picnic table and stream. (Table, spring, and campsite now gone.) Kurt made a deep-dish pizza in a homemade reflector oven on the campfire; Dave and I made steaks and “dressed for dinner” in clothes from the thrift store (see 1970s Ramblers photo icon on map maybe link to map below).
  • A 30-miler day hike loop on top of Mica Mountain; three of us did more miles on Reef Rock and North Slope trails while rest napped at Manning Camp; we all returned by flashlight. (The Park Service has abandoned Reef Rock Trail which disappears into brush. North Slope Trail is hard to find due to fire.)

Dave and I married in 1977, with Ramblers attending. Although he returned to his birth name David, he will always be “Dave” to our friends. Over the years we often revisited the Southwest for family or work and took every chance to hike the Rincons. Our most recent revisit found effects of climate change, more hikers, and Park Service staffing. But usable trails, high country solitude and incredible landscapes remain the same.

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Rincon Mountain District: Revisiting a Perennial Favorite

I have lost count of the times I have hiked the Rincons; in my University of Arizona years 1973-77, at least eight backpacking trips and two long day hikes of 28 and 35 miles. I didn’t know they became Saguaro Wilderness in 1976. I knew Park Service managed them because you had to go to Saguaro headquarters on Old Spanish Trail Road to get a permit. (Now the Park Service only staffs its visitor center part time and you deal with finicky online recreation.gov site for reservations.)

Since college days we’ve visited Rincons many times including recent repeat of a Catalina-Rincon trek done in 1975.

We had wanted to revisit the Rincons to mark my 66th birthday. But we were concerned about water availability; Tucson had almost no rain since May 2020 and we saw sad sight of dying cacti around town. However, a two-day late January storm dumped two feet of snow on highest elevations of mountains around Tucson.

Still cautious, we did two “check out” day hikes to east and southwest ends of the wilderness and found ample water (see day hikes on map below). On our trip, Feb. 17-20, we found abundant water at Juniper Basin, Grass Shack, Manning Camp, Douglas Spring, and pools elsewhere in the low country.

The big 2021 surprise was unseasonably cold temperatures and high winds. This seemed to be a “climate change” effect where shift in air currents sent cold storms from Canada to middle U.S. for ice storms in Texas while West was in a frigid dry high pressure zone. Our first day was a chilly hike to Juniper Basin where a cold camper had a fire (technically illegal but who could blame him?). We set up in woods out of the wind; just before bedtime a couple came bouncing down the trail. I couldn’t decipher his European accent, other than “Meeka Mountain.”

Next day our surprise was snow—icy drifts on all north slopes from Tanque Verde Peak upwards but mostly melted off on south slopes even at higher elevations. After a snowy skid into Manning Camp, we were pleased to find snow-free pine sites all to ourselves. After a trip to the spring (running the best we’ve ever seen), I was shocked by a sunset so bright it lit up the camp area; at first I thought other hikers had come in and set up lights.

We met no one on top although tracks in snow indicated some had trekked around Mica Mountain since the storm. David also noted evidence of fires (11 since 1987 according to this fire history website [by using Pima County, Arizona filter]) but little impact other than some dead pine foliage from last summer’s fires.

After a snowy morning hike to Mica Mountain, we descended to Grass Shack where the only other backpacker was already nestled into his lean-to. He left before dawn the next morning. We wondered if he and other traffic from snow prints on top were early season Arizona Trail (AZT) thru-hikers.

Dropping out of the high country we started seeing people; at Douglas Spring a woman filling up water, a hiker springing on up the trail with light pack, a young guy talking on his phone in one of the campsites, then a whole cluster of Boy Scouts and their leaders enroute to camp at Douglas. Three deer browsing peacefully on a ridge were the wildlife highlight. We did not catch up to bright-attired hikers far below us on their way out. We had solitude again for our last camp in a wash at Ernie’s Falls (we did not find the falls but had nice pools); conveniently just across the park boundary in Rincon Wilderness where no camp permits are required.

We spent our last half-day in Sonora desert traversing foothills trails through saguaro and other cacti to complete loop back to our vehicle. After breaking camp at sunrise, we met 10 trail runners at the junction from the trailhead 3.4 miles away. In 12 miles of trekking, we saw about 40 hikers doing loops on various side trails from Douglas Spring Trailhead and another 50 on short trail segments across Cactus Forest Drive in Saguaro Park (not to mention cyclists, vehicles, and dog walkers on the road). And we mostly avoided heavily used Douglas Spring Trail.

Tucson Mountain District: Hiking with crowds in “secret” wilderness

In a recent blog, I compared my struggling 66th birthday hike in the Rincons (Saguaro Wilderness) to a 20th birthday in 1975 when I bounced up and down almost 30 miles of the trails with no effort!

In 1976, my 21st birthday hike was to Wasson Peak in the Tucson Mountains (now western Saguaro Wilderness) for a campout and cookout, hiking up in late afternoon and evening with a few of my Ramblers hiking friends.

In 2018, I could not repeat that trip. First, camping is no longer allowed. Second, flat spots on the rugged peak looked uncomfortable! And third, we would never have the mountain all to ourselves. We saw at least 40 day hikers (one group with 15 people) on our loop to Tucson Mtns high point via Hugh Norris, Sendero Esperanza, Dobe Wash trails and Bajada Loop Road.

Although thousands of people hike here in winter and spring, I doubt that many know that most of the area is wilderness; designated in October 1976. It’s in three blocks excluding a scenic loop road, Golden Gate and Picture Rocks roads, called “cherry stems” (or extension of non-wilderness through wilderness). Park Service steers wilderness visitors to Rincons to backpack, only allows day hiking and seems to downplay its wilderness status. Park maps from the visitor center don’t even distinct the wilderness.

Our only solitude was an evening visit to Cam-Boh (A Tohono O’odham word meaning “camp” ) Trail. The trailhead sign had rules, safety warnings and, under the header “Backcountry Hiking,” noted that “you are entering designated wilderness.” Our loop began with a sandy slog up Prophesy Wash, where a few ironwood, mesquite and palo verde trees shaded the wash while creosote, ocotillo and cacti including saguaro, barrel and cholla lined the banks. Prophesy Wash ultimately connects to Picture Rocks Wash named for petroglyphs which are on private land outside the park. We looped back across barren flats on Ironwood Trail to return to vehicle via Cam-Boh, trooping across the washes in the light of a full Supermoon and the sound of roaring vehicles on nearby Picture Rock Road.

Park Service could accommodate some short evening backpack trips to the extensive wash trail system in Tucson Mtns by allowing some modest overnight camping with pack-in water. As is, we did our camping at Gilbert Ray Campground run by Pima County on edge of the national park, a remnant of what used to be the county’s Tucson Mountain Park.

Afterthought: Park Service, the absentee landlord

In the 1970s, you got permits from the visitor center. Now the Park Services uses a national online system for all camping. It’s tricky and more designed for camping than backpacking but it sort of works once you figure out the drill (email me if you need help). However the Park Service now operates as absentee landlord. The Saguaro National Park information line only dispenses one-way information and accepts no voice messaging and the Rincon visitor center is only staffed a few days week.

No park staff at entrance station or visitor center when we started our 2021 backpacking trip. We parked at Javelina Picnic Area by the Tanque Verde Ridge Trailhead, legal overnight when camping in Saguaro Wilderness. But with only an online permit, I wanted to ensure the Park Service knew our plans because our last backpacking trip in 2016 returned to an orange violation sticker because we changed trip plans with approval of backcountry office which was not communicated to Law Enforcement Here’s a tip: the PARK WATCH phone number listed on the park information line goes to a real person: a dispatcher in Paige Arizona! (Glen Canyon Recreation Area). I told her my situation, and she passed on our reservation and vehicle information to the right folks. No orange sticker this time.

Park Service “presence” seems spotty in Saguaro Wilderness. Years ago I met a ranger on patrol at Douglas Springs. However Manning Camp (accessible for horses and used by Park trail and fire crews in summer) seems to get more agency attention with big stacks of firewood and a nice campground vault toiled stocked with sanitizer and toilet paper. Toilets at Douglas and Grass Shack are not well-stocked and the register on Tanque Verde Peak has not been changed for several years. But I saw two Law Enforcement vehicles patrolling the roads.

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