Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Oracle Ridge Trail: Santa Catalina Mountains

Essence: Follow John and Sara Lemmon's 1880's ridge route to their namesake mountain, leaving the trail to climb Marble, Rice, and Apache Peaks. Easy walking through elevated country with unobstructed panoramas and abundant, trailside plant life. Trail #1 is infrequently traversed, yet essential for those who love the Catalina Mountains and consider them home.
Travel: From Tucson, go north on Hwy 77 to American Ave. in Oracle. Traveling east through town, bear right on the Mt. Lemmon Hwy, and continue, eventually on dirt, to a sign for the Arizona Trail. Turn right on American Flag Ranch Road. Drop a vehicle near the historic corral at the base of Cody Trail #9. Proceed back through Tucson and drive up the Catalina Highway. At mileage marker 24.5, just past Loma Linda, turn right at the sign for Old Mt. Lemmon Road, also known as Control Road #38. The Oracle Ridge Trailhead is past the fire station. Total shuttle time: 6 hours on a good day. Note: We hoped to take the Control Road back to our vehicle at the end of the hike but it is closed in the winter; check the dates.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 16.4 miles, 3332' net loss, 2350' total climbing
Time: 8:00 to 9:30
Difficulty: Trail and 4WD roads with three optional off-trail climbs; navigation easy but pay attention; no exposure.
Maps: Green Trails Map of the Santa Catalina Mountains #2886S, and/or the following 7.5 Quads: Mt. Lemmon, Mount Bigelow, Oracle, Campo Bonito
Date Hiked: February 11, 2014
Quote: For me, nature, wet or dry, furnishes the most cheerful as well as the most intelligible context for thinking and living and being. Joseph Wood Krutch
Map: The hike begins from the Oracle Ridge Trailhead on Mt. Lemmon and heads north and essentially downhill to the trailhead at American Flag Ranch southeast of the town of Oracle.
Route: This trek should be impossible in February but the winter of 2014 was warm and dry, the ground free of snow at 7,760'. On a sunny, 35 degree morning, we contoured around the west side of Pt 8,077' and quickly gained the ridge. While the trail wanders periodically off-ridge to the east or west, for the first 1.5 miles to Stratton Saddle, it resides on the topline. The spine is just narrow enough to feel like a ridge but never once is it overly constricted. Here, lifting our eyes above the most appealing array of early morning grasses we viewed the Reef of Rock and Samaniego Ridge in the west.

There are three named peaks on the ridgeline, or just off the east side, each with unique, beguiling characteristics. The southernmost is Marble Peak, 7654', which tops an eastern spur. It adds one mile and about 300 feet of climbing, well worth it. Stay on the trail past Stratton Saddle, going west of two knobs graced with milky white stone. The trail meets up with a 4WD road. Open the gate and walk east on the road, leaving it shortly to attain the west ridge of Marble. 

The peak is comprised of glistening grey-white, sharp edged stone. From the summit is a clear look at Mt. Lemmon, Pt 8,077', and the spine south of Stratton Saddle.

Back on the ridgetop, we are in the ideal biozone for the impeccable blue agave. Is there any plant on Earth so symmetrical and free of imperfection? We travel beside them until we are well past Rice Peak, stopping frequently to delight in their blue-grey color and translucent maroon tips. (THW photo).

Shortly before reaching Dan Saddle at 6,880', we intersect the Arizona Trail. We will remain with this well-marked route to the end of our hike. Tiny glinting flashes mark passage across the state. At the saddle, southbound thru-hikers head west to Catalina Camp but we continue due north.

The trail climbs about 600 feet through a youthful oak and juniper forest, staying to the west of Pt 7850' (approx.) and 7,693'. Just before dropping to the low point south of Rice Peak, the path is lined with playful conglomerate, sheared and colorful. Polka Dot Hill!

The Oracle Ridge Trail overlaps sporadically with 4WD roads. At the base of Rice Peak we join one and will stay with it for another mile. As soon as these three Jeeps cleared out, we left the official treadway and walked steeply up the road, adding a half mile roundtrip and about 200 feet to our day.

Rice Peak, 7575', is covered in lumps of conglomerate that forever enjoy a view back to our ridge,  Pt 7,693', and Mt. Lemmon. (THW, photo)

Despite the up and down across the miles, Rice Peak is only about 200 feet below our starting point. However, past Rice, we drop almost 1,700 feet before climbing Apache Peak. The miles clip off swiftly as we journey through the homeland of green agave and skim the tops of multiple golden hillocks. In the 2003 Aspen Fire, this entire region was burned and while magnificent trees three feet in diameter were tragically lost, fanciful shinny grey trunks and twiggy limb tips of the alligator juniper remain beautiful.

Our path skirts Pt 6,219' to its west, then drops to a base point beneath the looming SW face of Apache Peak. It must be climbed! While it is only 450 feet up the steep slope, we opt for an alternative approach because of the near vertical, crumbly cliff band at the top. Staying on the trail until it reached the north ridge, we began our 590 foot ascent, adding one mile to our total. We climbed the pitch, dodging brush, staying just west of the ridge. Within 200 feet of the summit, the rib narrows and chunky pink talus affords fun climbing. From the 6,441' crest, the spacy Biosphere 2 is juxtaposed with the jutting weirdness of Picacho Peak.

Back on the trail, it was mostly downhill for a mile through yet more appealing country until we joined up with the 4WD road coming in on the right from Bonito. It is another mile on the road to the junction with Cody Trail #9 at 5,360'. The sign is informative. If we had not climbed the three peaks, we'd be 10.2 miles from the upper start of the ridge trail. Our original intention was to park on the Cody Loop Road which would mean walking the 2.6 miles to Oracle. But when we did our vehicle drop the evening before, that trailhead was nowhere to be found. Therefore, we turned east at this sign and took Cody Trail #9 another 3.7 miles, staying with the Arizona Trail.

Crews recently worked the entire trail segment from Apache Peak to the Control Road. They achieved both beauty and functionality. The trail was smooth and fast, allowing us to do this final stretch in one hour. The trackway descends to 4,528', winding up a bit, down a lot, and all around, so pleasing and peaceful wending through spheroidal boulders, the low sun enhancing the color of winter grass (THW, photo).

In this image all three peaks are visible. From the right: Apache, Rice, and Marble.

The end of our trail was marked by an historic corral at American Flag Ranch, established in the 1870's.
Our superior hike was every bit as perfect as the blue agaves informing our way.

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