Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Mount Kimball, 7,258': Pima Canyon to Finger Rock Canyon, Pusch Ridge Wilderness

Essence: Mt. Kimball, the pine-topped prominence of the Santa Catalina Mountain front range, is the perfect Pusch Ridge viewpoint. Intimate look at two equally dominant canyons; together, they offer a complete experience of the west end of the ridge. Travel through five life zones, from saguaros to evergreens, during this rugged and premiere hike.
Travel: This route requires a short shuttle between the Finger Rock and Pima Canyon trailheads. In Tucson, zero-out your trip meter at Sunrise Drive and Swan Road. Drive north on Swan for 0.9 mile to Skyline Drive. Turn left/west and travel to Alvernon Way at 1.9 miles. Turn right/north. The Richard McKee Finger Rock Trailhead parking is on the left at 2.8 miles. Drop a vehicle here. Zero-out your trip meter and go south on Alvernon Way for 0.9 mile to Skyline Drive; turn right/west. Sunrise merges with Skyline at 1.7 miles. In 3.5 miles, Skyline turns into Ina Road. Avoid Pima Canyon Drive and turn right on Christie Drive at 4.4 miles. There is a brown sign for the Pima Canyon Trailhead. At 5.8 miles, turn right on Magee Road. The parking lot is on the right at 5.9 miles. Donʼt overshoot the entrance in the dark; exit spikes will flatten your tires.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 12.5 miles; 4,667 feet of climbing includes optional side trips to Pima Saddle and Linda Vista Saddle
Time: 7:00 to 9:00
Difficulty: Trail, steep and rocky; navigation easy; no exposure; carry all the water you will need
Maps: Tucson North, Oro Valley, AZ 7.5 Quads; or, Pusch Ridge Wilderness, Coronado National Forest, USDA Forest Service, 1:24,000
Date Hiked: January 28, 2015
Pusch Ridge Wilderness Bighorn Sheep Closure: It is prohibited to travel more than 400 feet off designated Forest Service trails from January 1 through April 30, bighorn sheep lambing season.
Quote: Under a sapphire sky, the inland desert fills a broad valley in all directions, hemmed only by mountains that rise so abruptly from the flats, you would knock your forehead on them if you walked toward them blindfolded. Ellen Meloy, Eating Stone 

Regarding Cathedral Rock and Window Peak from Mount Kimball. (THW, photo)

Route: Hike can be done in either direction but the visuals are best by beginning in Pima Canyon. Take a break at Pima Vista, Pima Saddle, and Mt. Kimball. Descend on the Finger Rock Trail. Take the short spur to City View (The proper name is Linda Vista Saddle), and pause at Linda Vista.

Pima Canyon Trail: The trek is moderately difficult with giant vertical and some steep sections. Unlike Finger Rock, the canyon is convoluted and narrow with tight turns and big walls that frequently force the trail to cross the wash. Occasionally, the path is suspended above the drainage on ledges. Look down on gorgeous pools formed by Santa Catalina Gneiss. In winter months, walk in the shade most of the way to Pima Saddle.

From the Iris O. Dewhirst Pima Canyon Trailhead, elevation 2,920 feet, walk through private land on a thin easement. The treadway is admirably constructed, a pleasant mix of bedrock, stone, and dirt. Walking is easy as the path threads its way through a lush jumble of typical Sonoran plants: ocotillo forests, congregations of the mighty saguaro, agave, back-lit golden spiky grass and Indian rice grass, staghorn cholla, sotol, turpentine bush, and prickly pear.

In March, flowers are phantasmagorical. Goldenrod brittlebush predominate at knee height. Spikes of sweet-smelling lupine contrast with Mexican gold poppy fields. Delicate, creamy evening primrose compete with fairyduster puff balls. Dark orchid verbena win over dusky apricot globe-mallow.

At 0.4 mile, turn left on Trail No. 62, following the sign for Kimball "Peak," seven miles distant.


The first of numerous wash crossings is at 1.1 miles. During a wet winter, Pima Canyon's drainageway is flush with surface water but often it is intermittent at best. Below, the trail crosses a gneiss streambed and Table Mountain appears.

The track takes aim at the prominences at the head of Pima Canyon, climbing almost too gradually for the first 3.5 miles when it crosses the wash at 4,090 feet. The trail becomes embedded with large boulders but there are plenty of cairns and navigation is not an issue. Traverse beneath Table Mountain's southeast face. Fishhook barrel cactus, beargrass, and shin daggers are common at this elevation.

Approaching the head of the canyon, multiple crags are visually dramatic. Pt. 5,985', "Table Tower," is a prominent feature that looks like a fun scramble for another day. At 3.8 miles, climbing finally bucks up, the trail now suspended above the alluring creek on the south side. Next time, for fun I'm going to stay in the wash until the crossing at 4.3 miles.

Every Pusch Ridge canyon has an exceptional vantage point where people gravitate. Pima Vista rests on a mid-canyon ridge at 4.6 miles, 5,040 feet. Rock stacks and towers add to the charm, manzanita is common. A double tiered fireplace is well used. Four prominences, including Pt. 5,646', are in the southeast, Tucson in the wedge. (THW, photo)

Pima Saddle is visible to the northeast from Pima Vista. The route is exciting, revealed as you go. Pass a massive, soaring gneiss cliff, then tread the canyon bottom, thin and tight. The markedly cool drainage has tall pines and the biggest alligator juniper on the planet! Pima Spring at 5.2 miles, 5,545 feet, is a disappointing trickle in a concrete encasement. Don't count on topping off your water supply.

Scooch under an orange, bubble-wrap wall and reach the Pima Saddle sign at 5.6 miles, 6,200 feet. This optional spur goes left. It is 0.2 mile roundtrip and a steep 150 foot climb to the saddle. This is a worthy side trip. Just know, you can't get to Mt. Kimball from the saddle and must return to this point.

From the saddle, Cathedral Rock and Window Peak are in the east. Table Mountain in all its distinctive glory is nearby in the west.

Return to the main trail at the Pima Saddle sign and veer left. The track climbs about 100 feet and then contours at the base of an extensive stone bulwark below Pt. 6,053'. It bears southeast and makes a gentle climb up a draw to gain Kimball's northwest ridge. At 6 miles, catch your first glimpse of the summit. Upon reaching the ridge at 6.6 miles, 6,700 feet, the grade eases. Through a break in the trees is an unparalleled look at Finger Rock Guard, Finger Rock, and Prominent Point. The pines thicken as Kimball approaches. Will there be a view? 

Meet the trail (still officially the Pima Canyon Trail) coming up from Finger Rock Canyon at 7.15 miles, 7,200 feet and bear left/northeast on the summit spur. At 7.24 miles, pass a small view opening, the first of two crests on the peak at 7,240 feet. Keep going! The path descends slightly and then climbs easily to the true summit at 7.3 miles, 7,258 feet. You'll know when you are there. While Kimball is perhaps the most wooded of all the Pusch Ridge peaks, its crest is pure, bare rock, protruding like the prow of a ship. The lookout is precipitous. The broad swing view is unexpected and welcome. You can see peaks from the west end of the ridge (even Pusch Peak!) all the way to the east. More immediately, towers soar above treetops below. (THW, photo)

The comfortable perch has the best view anywhere of Cathedral Rock and Window Peak.

Finger Rock Trail: Finger Rock Canyon has a more uniform shape than Pima. It is the most open of Santa Catalina Mountains' major front range corridors. Expansive views to the southwest are one of the great features of this descent. It is a somewhat challenging treadway. Half of the route is steep and crumbly the other half is steep and rocky with big steps down boulders. Sure, it is relentlessly steep but for a few, brief stretches; it is also the fastest way off the mountain, and the most popular.

From the peak, return on the summit spur to the Pima Canyon Trail and turn left/southeast. On a consistent descent, in half a mile reach the junction with Finger Rock Trail, #42 (Kimball Saddle). This is the official end of the Pima Canyon Trail. Turn right/southwest. The path cuts through ponderosa and more massive, ancient junipers. The route crosses the canyon making for the southeast side. It stays on that aspect all the way until it crosses the drainage once again at 3,520 feet.

The route hugs the base of cliffs on a platform just wide enough to allow passage. It slithers around crenelations so closely you can drag your fingers along the smooth rock as you walk. (THW, photo)

At 8.8 miles, go left on a spur to Linda Vista Saddle. This optional side trip adds 0.5 mile roundtrip and about 50 feet of climbing. It's worth it to stand on the saddle between Pontatoc and Finger Rock canyons. See Mount Wrightson seemingly across town.

From here, it's a short hoof down to Linda Vista at 9.8 miles, 5,200 feet. This is Finger Rock's equivalent to Pima Vista. It is perfectly located for a mid-descent break on sitting rocks. I think of it as the launch pad to magic for this is where the route to Finger Rock Guard departs from the standard trail. It's pretty magical just being here oohing and aahing over Baboquivari Peak, Kitt Peak, and the Tucson Mountains. 

Tear yourself away and scurry down rock runners.

Look over your shoulder at the Finger Rock cluster and vow to climb The Guard sometime between May first and December 31.

The trail maintains a southwest, descending traverse, the canyon bottom ever nearing. It clings comfortably to the edgy hillside, a middle path threading between cliffs above and below. 

The author returns to the lush Sonoran, conifers but a memory. (THW, photo)

Cross Finger Rock Canyon's wash at 11.5 miles, 3,520 feet. The pitch eases considerably and into saguaro heaven you go. These signature cacti living on the southeast face of Pusch Ridge are easily as robust and plentiful as those in Saguaro National Park. You will intuitively understand why the Tohono O-odham Nation respect saguaros as members of their tribe. Take a final look back at Mount Kimball rising over the head of the canyon.


Saturday, January 24, 2015

La Milagrosa and Agua Caliente Canyon: The Narrows Loop

Essence: Traverse an extraordinary pair of Catalina Gneiss narrows. A clockwise loop beginning in aptly named La Milagrosa, "The Miraculous." Extended scramble on flood-smoothed, slick streambed boulders. A massive quad workout with deep steps up and down.
Travel: At the Tanque Verde Road and Catalina Highway intersection, zero-out your trip meter. Go northeast on the Catalina Hwy toward Mount Lemmon. Pass Houghton Road. At 3.6 miles, turn right on Snyder Road and go east toward Agua Caliente Hill. At Solider Trail, keep going east. Turn left on Avenida de Suzenu at 5.0 miles. Park at the intersection of Suzenu and Horsehead Road at 5.3 miles.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 8.0 miles; 1,525 feet of climbing, including Pt 3,776'
Time: 5:00 to 6:30
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 3 scrambling with moderate exposure
Maps: Agua Caliente Hill, AZ 7.5 Quad, or Green Trails Maps: Santa Catalina Mountains, Map 2886S
Date Hiked: January 24, 2015
Quote: Like all dwellers in extreme landscapes, this is the first thing they want to know: Where is the water? I describe a confluence of rivers hidden in folds of stone, a spring on the side of the mountain in land so holy, you must sing every footstep you place on it. Ellen Meloy, Eating Stone

Upper pool in Agua Caliente Canyon narrows. (THW, photo)

Route: Walk through the narrows of La Milagrosa and continue for another mile in the upper canyon. Cross over the ridge to Agua Caliente Canyon with an optional spur to Pt 3,776'. Scramble down Agua Caliente to meet the incoming route.

From parking, 2,790 feet, pass a gate and walk east on Horsehead Road through a neighborhood. At 0.6 mile, go around the right side of an old gate, leaving the road and onto an obvious trail. Cross Molino Wash at 0.7 mile and go up a low rise. From the top, locate the distinctive knob that sits between the canyons--La Milagrosa to its left and Agua Caliente on its right.

Descend to Agua Caliente wash, reaching it at 0.9 mile. There are many braided trails in this area; turn left on the near trail, north of the stream. It soon crosses the stream and heads towards the knob, shown. Bear left and drop into the La Milagrosa drainage.

Abundant water in both canyons complicated progress but walking is relatively easy in lower La Milagrosa. Soon enough, boulder hopping commences. The stone is Catalina Gneiss, a metamorphism of igneous rock. Streambed weathering has polished it to a glassy gloss. It is breathtakingly beautiful but equally slippery. Leaping carefree from one boulder to another is not an option because traction is sketchy. La Milagrosa is dubbed 5.11 Heaven by technical climbers who relish the walls.

In the narrows, the canyon steepens and obstacles get really big. Work your way around, under, and over them until you simply can't carry on, at 1.6 miles. We worked all the bypass possibilities upcanyon right unsuccessfully. Find a bypass upcanyon left on a steep slope with dirt and loose rock. Climb about 50 feet to a moderately exposed ledge. Move laterally until it is possible to return to the floor.

The canyon makes a 90 degree turn to the left/north at 1.8 miles. There is a cliff-framed view downcanyon of Tucson. Now the canyon further constricts and presents two waterfalls to admire and negotiate. The first is simple. Climb the high angled slope of stone to the right of the lower falls, shown. Holds are good. It's easy to see why cliff-jumping is popular in this canyon. (THW, photo)

Studying the image below, my hiking partner is going over to have a look from the top of the lower falls. Find a chock stone wedged in the narrows in front of the upper waterfall. Next, climb the wall to the right of it. This is a two-part proposition. The scrambling requires some concentration up this near vertical wall, but the holds are good. In about 100 feet, reach a flat rock and regroup. Proceed up the slope, upcanyon right, and into a thin crack, too skinny for daypacks. Once past the squeeze, reach the top of the bypass, about 150 feet above the canyon. Traverse above the tightest narrows of La Milagrosa. I have subsequently heard that the second fall may also be bypassed upcanyon left.

This image was taken from the top of the bypass, looking back at the wall that forces the waterway to make a sharp bend to the west. (THW, photo)

Walk to the cliff edge and gaze into the narrows with its suspended wedge of stone. By 2.1 miles, you should be back in the wash. (THW, photo)

Upper La Milagrosa is an altogether different topography. The canyon, shown below, is open, the walking relatively flat and easy on big slabs of gneiss bedrock framed by fountain grass and saguaros. There are numerous swimming holes. Pass a side canyon, upcanyon left at 2.9 miles. Leave La Milagrosa at the second left side canyon at 3.2 miles. Climb 300 feet up the slope to the right, going due south, and intersect the Ridge Trail at 3.6 miles.


Alternative Hikes: There are a maze of trails and options in the two canyons. 1) Continue up the La Milagrosa drainage about three miles to the Arizona Trail. Turn left/northwest and walk 4.0 miles to the Molino Basin Trailhead. I have not done this yet. 2) Upon returning to the canyon from the waterfall bypass, walk 0.1 mile and intersect the Ridge Trail. Turn left to return to the trailhead, or right for a swift trail to Agua Caliente Canyon.

At the Ridge Trail, turn left/east. Almost immediately, the La Milagrosa Trail comes in on the left. Note: This trail is marked on the Green Trails Maps but not the topo. La Milagrosa is a technical mountain bike track starting at Molino Basin. It is 2.9 miles from this intersection northeast to the Arizona Trail. For the optional climb to Pt 3,776', go northeast on this trail 0.1 mile to access the southwest ridge. This worthy side trip adds 0.5 mile roundtrip and 200 feet of climbing. I call this the Tequila Spur because 0.1 mile northeast of the Ridge Trail under a mesquite tree we found a half gallon bottle of Tequila and an ammo box with food, emergency supplies, and register. Return to the Ridge Trail at 4.2 miles. Go east and descend 300 feet to Agua Caliente Canyon, shown below.

Our hike leaves the trail immediately and stays on the canyon bottom. If you've had enough bouldering, stay on the trail. It goes south to Gnat Tank and then west to rejoin the incoming route near the confluence of the two canyons.

To continue through the narrows, at 4.6 miles, start down the wash at the trail crossing. We found more water in Agua Caliente than La Milagrosa. Sadly, both washes are tainted with yucky algae. At 4.9 miles, the creek is dramatically blocked by humongous boulders with a log wedged between them, shown below. This is the first pool obstacle and the beginning of the Agua Caliente narrows. Judging from the webbing, someone used the log as an anchor. However, we bypassed downcanyon left. There is one airy, exposed move on this bypass. Return to wash at the base of the cliff-rimmed pool (top photo).

The second pool quickly arises. It is easy enough to get down to it but then you are stuck. We spent 0.3 mile exploring every which way and eventually gave up.

Therefore, return to the first pool and bypass by crossing its mouth. Get onto an obvious ledge downcanyon right. Go no higher than necessary. Walk about 100 yards on the lateral before returning to the floor. Be careful; it is exposed with loose material. The image below shows the second pool.

Throughout the steep narrows, there are a near constant series of big blocks, stair-step drops, and maze-like challenges. It is a fun, gorgeous adventure. There are no cairns and few footsteps. Below is the third pool. (THW, photo)

Once past the narrows the way is cluttered with obstacles and rather tedious. Foliage impedes and icy slick boulders are constant. Apparently both canyons are often dry which would make passage easier, but less beautiful. Below is the fourth pool. (THW, photo)

Rejoin the in-coming trail at 7.3 miles. From here it is a quick walk west to the trailhead.