Thursday, December 3, 2015

Agua Caliente Hill, 5,369', Coronado National Forest

Essence: The fringed western slopes of Agua Caliente Hill roll into eastern Tucson. The prominence is dead center between the Rincon Mountains and Santa Catalina Mountains. Diverse sampling of Sonoran vegetation. Treadway rises to the rounded crest where soft grassland ridges emanate in all directions. Gentle grade suitable for all hikers. Optional off-trail return route with unavoidable shindaggers will appeal to ridge purists.
Travel: In Tucson, zero-out your trip meter at Sabino Canyon Road and Tanque Verde Road. Go east on Tanque Verde and as it narrows to one lane, turn left/north on Houghton Road at 4.4 miles. At 5.4 miles, turn right/east on Fort Lowell Road. Cross Soldier Trail, continuing east. Fort Lowell turns into Camino Ancho at 8.4 miles. Turn left on Camino Remuda at 8.8 miles. At 9.1 miles, the road swings left onto Camino Cantil. At 9.4 miles, turn right into the paved parking lot. Pima Country refers to this as the Agua Caliente Hill South Trailhead. No water, no facilities.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 9.2 miles; 2,700 feet of climbing
Time: 4:00 to 6:00
Difficulty: The standard peak hike is on-trail and navigation is easy, no exposure. The loop option is off-trail with moderate navigation and a brief Class 2+ segment; carry all the water you will need; dogs permitted on leash
Map: Agua Caliente Hill, AZ 7.5 Quad
Date Hiked: December 3, 2015
Poem:  
Breathless, we flung us on a windy hill,
Laughed in the sun, and kissed the lovely grass. 
Rupert Brooke

Agua Caliente Hill summit and optional return ridge from the standard trail. Grasslands roil with gladness. (THW, photo)

Route: The standard trail bears roughly northeast to the summit. Most travelers will return as they came. The loop option descends off-trail on a west-southwest ridge, rejoining the main track 1.6 miles from the trailhead.

Agua Caliente Hill Trail #46, elevation 2,900 feet, is well signed. Step to the side of a historic Western gate and enter the Coronado National Forest.

The roomy, crushed granite trail with railroad tie risers climbs immediately. At once hikers are intimately enclosed by beautiful stony foothills. A view corridor opens west to the home valley we left moments ago.

Trails can be so liberating. Teddy bear and staghorn cholla delight but keep a respectful distance. Barrel, or compass cactus, lean as always to the southwest, nestled under paloverde and ocotillo. An unusual number of ghost saguaros cohabit with infants. We are privileged to walk among them. The saguaro's range is limited to the Sonoran desert of southwestern Arizona and northern Mexico. There are no others...anywhere. Grand prize goes to this flamboyant saguaro who lives beside the trail and delights in making us smile.

At 0.7 mile, 3,300 feet, top out on a low ridge. Views are continuous and expansive from now on. Already, enjoy a grand sweep from Tanque Verde Ridge to Cathedral Rock.

At 3,580 feet, 1.3 miles into the trek, the peak comes briefly into view, image-center, looking very far away. Glimpse it now for there are legions of false summits that play gotcha.

The footpath winds through hillocks embellished with intriguing rock features. The stone is a highly textured granite, bright and shiny. Pegmatite clusters have clumps of feldspar, mica, and quartz crystals. Give up some elevation and pass by Cat Track Tank at 1.7 miles, 3,550 feet.

At 2.5 miles, cross the drainage that bifurcates the two hiking ridges. There is intermittent water in the potholes. Climb a short hillside. Switchbacks with excellent footing make the ascent effortless, well, nearly.

Gain the principal ascent ridge at 2.7 miles, 4,000 feet. As the sign indicates, Forest Road 4445 joins here having punched up from Agua Caliente Canyon. The summit is within reach, 1.5 miles distant.  

Finish the climb on the expansive, grassy ridge. For just a moment, you can look deeply into La Milagrosa with its telltale sheer cliff walls. The Santa Catalina Mountains track our progress. Think of the contrast between this smooth dirt pathway and the trails of Pusch Ridge, so steep and cluttered with boulders. The treadway aims at rock-banded Point 4,773', shown. (Spoiler alert--false summit!)

Ascending, the saguaro fade out, giving way to evergreens. Contour 200 feet below the hilltop and return to the relatively flat ridge, the summit in full view. Whisking through native grasses I feel elated and recall Henry David Thoreau. In youth, before I lost any of my senses, I can remember that I was all alive.

Half a mile before the summit, at 4,800 feet, the trail swings southeast. It steepens while plowing through manzanita thickets and boulders. It is uniformly pleasant climbing in a suddenly disorderly landscape.

Crest the crown at 4.6 miles and proceed to the alligator juniper which guards the popular peak register. The softly rounded summit is peaceful and beautiful with subtle ridges flowing away in all directions. The eminence is so overly large and powerful it feels sublime.

Agua Caliente Hill is in its own world, residing between mountain ranges. The full-circle panorama is boundless. You will see just the tip of Rincon Mountain, Mica Mountain, Tanque Verde Peak, Mount Wrightson, Baboquivari Peak, the Tucson Mountains, Pontatoc Ridge, the Pusch Ridge Wilderness, Mount Lemmon, Bassett Peak in the Galiuro Mountains, and Mount Graham in the PinaleƱo Mountains.

The loop road in Saguaro East is visible way below to the south. On the other side, the Mount Lemmon Highway cuts its straightforward way to Molino Basin. The peaks of the Santa Catalina Mountains, so close, are clad in forest green. The stone slopes of Cathedral Rock, rise above all else on Pusch Ridge.

Most hikers will want to return to the trailhead as they came. However, if you wish to get a sense for the unadulterated, truly natural Agua Caliente Hill, traverse the off-trail ridge. Beware of thick patches of shindaggers and tall yucca with two foot spears. When annoyed, I remind myself that humans are the most dangerous creatures on Earth. By contrast agave spears are pretty good company.

From the summit, follow the ridge due west and then curve with it southwest. 

At 5.3 miles, arrive at playful stone obstacles, shown. Go straight over the first one, Class 2+. Bypass the next gendarme on the right.

The ridge is never steep. Surprisingly, there is no wildcat trail but then the grass is too thick to see your feet so an infrequently used path doesn't stand a chance. The ridge splits several times but the primary rib is easy to cipher. Stay on it. As indicated on the 7.5 topo, an old trail crosses Point 4,473' at 6.3 miles, left of center in this image. The trail is long gone so simply stay on the ridgecrest.

Return to the saguaro zone at 4,000 feet. Hedgehogs and pincushion cactus add to the ground cover mix. The image below shows Cat Track Tank center-right and the standard trail tracking down our ridge. Soon after passing above the tank you will rejoin the trail at 7.6 miles, 3,640 feet. The ridge is not a shortcut in time or mileage. And yes, the shindaggers are irritating. However, positive ridge qualities include open views all the way, beautiful native grasses, gentle undulations, and pleasing aesthetics.


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