Friday, February 12, 2016

McFall Crags, 5,840', Rattlesnake Peak, 6,653', Pusch Ridge Wilderness

Essence: Climb McFall Crags and Rattlesnake Peak in one astronomical, arduous day. The two peaks hover above the edge of Tucson but are seriously remote by foot. Unconventional route for accomplished, stalwart desert hikers comfortable off-trail. Ascend a remarkably friendly and resplendent ridge to lower McFall Crags, a  stark contrast with the standard Rattlesnake Canyon route. Return on the West Fork Trail to Sabino Canyon.
Travel: The Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is located at the northeast corner of Sunrise Drive and Sabino Canyon Road in Tucson. Park in the paved lot, placing your Coronado Recreational Pass or National Parks Pass on your dash. Absent one of these, pay $5.00 for a day pass at the entrance booth or at the self-pay station. Tram information. Water and bathrooms at the trailhead.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 18.5 miles (14.7 if you catch the tram at the end of the hike); 5,300 feet of climbing
Time: 10:30 to 13:00 (without tram)
Difficulty: Road, trail, off-trail for half the distance; navigation considerable; Class 2+ with no exposure; a long, rigorous hike--take extra food and at least six liters of water; carry headlamps!
Maps: Sabino Canyon, Mount Lemmon, AZ 7.5 Quads; or, Pusch Ridge Wilderness, Coronado National Forest, USDA Forest Service, 1:24,000 
Latest Date Hiked: February 12, 2016
Quote: As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Rattlesnake Peak and McFall Crags as seen from atop the first roller on Breakfast Ridge.

Route: Clockwise Loop. Walk up Sabino Canyon Road and go left on the Rattlesnake Trail. Leave the drainage and gain Breakfast Ridge, northwest of Breakfast Canyon. At the base of the lower crags, contour to a saddle west of Pt. 5,500', the blue-line route. Climb southwest to meet the McFall Crags ridge. Walk north and scale McFall Crags. Continue north to the east ridge of Rattlesnake Peak. Take the blue-line route to the crest. Descend on a north ridge to the West Fork Trail. Go southwest and intersect the Sabino Canyon Trail. Take it south to the asphalt. Catch the tram or walk down Sabino Canyon Road to the start.

Walk past the Visitor Center at 2,725 feet and start up Sabino Canyon Road. A dirt path parallels on the right if you wish to avoid the pavement.

At 0.7 mile, Esperero Trail #25 takes off on the left side of the road. This trail is an option into Rattlesnake Canyon wash but it goes up and down more than we need right now. At 1.2 miles, leave the road and go left on Rattlesnake Trail #50. This is your last chance for bathrooms and water.

At 1.34 miles, leave the Rattlesnake Trail and go into the pleasant wash. Stay right when the stream braids at 1.4 miles. (Don't get sucked into Breakfast Canyon wash.) At 1.6 miles, leave the drainage and mount Breakfast Ridge. My climbing companion pioneered this route and placed a large cairn (shown below) to mark this junction at 2,880 feet. This ridge is so named because it parallels Breakfast Canyon.

The ridge is altogether accommodating, void of snarling vegetation. The grade is mostly gentle with a couple of short pitch-ups to ridge prominences. With no obstacles to fast hiking, it is a quick 2.6 mile walk to Breakfast Park. A few game trails assist. The image below shows the first ridge knoll on the right, McFall Crags, center-left.

Reach the first prominence at 2.9 miles, 4,000 feet. Then give up 100 feet. The ridge gets better and better, baffling in its perfection. Amazingly, it is a shindagger-free zone.

The second knoll at 3.8 miles, 4,425 feet, is a good orientation viewpoint. Our ridge parallels Sabino Ridge, and beyond that lies Saddleback Ridge with Blackett's and Thimble Peak to the east. West is Rattlesnake Canyon and ridge. The lower crags begin to show themselves. This was an exploratory hike in 2015; we had our hearts set on climbing the lower grouping of crags, shown below. And while that proved formidable, from this vantage point an approach up the right side looked possible. Rattlesnake Peak is on the left.

Attain the third prominence at 4.16 miles, 4,641 feet. This is the entrance to the beautiful and peaceful Breakfast Park, a grassy, open, undulating, and playful area at the head of Breakfast Canyon. From here walk northeast to intersect the top of Sabino Ridge just north of Pt. 4,788', image-right. (THW, photo)

The next objective is McFall Crags summit. I have done this two ways; both are laborious and time consuming. The one I recommend is the blue-line route on the map above. Leave the ridge at about 4,800 feet and contour northeast and gain the saddle just west of Pt. 5,500', the low point on the horizon in the image below. Side-hill walking is hampered by boulders, brush, and small ravines. We escaped too soon into the obvious drainage gully which was beautiful (and steep) but cost us time. Try to stay above it. Once on the saddle, it is a fun and fast climb west up the boulder strewn slope. Gain the ridge at 5,640 feet, just south of McFall Crags.

If you want to probe into the lower crags as we did in 2015, then follow the black-line route from Sabino Ridge. Do a rugged traverse on broken, unstable blocks to the obvious gully left of the rock outcrop, image-center above. This access will leave you on an airy, four foot wide ridge. From here, we made multiple attempts to get up the near vertical rock. Conceding, we contoured north, all the while, probing the craggy ridge.  Pesky towers kept forcing us off. Eventually, we found a reasonable way to gain the ridge.

There are two ways to climb the high point of McFall Crags. The more adventurous approach is to pierce the southeast face, shown. Go into a fiercely shrubby crack. It was so choked we were forced left onto an exposed chunky rock tower. Drop back into the crack as soon as you can, staying in the bottom. Push through the shrubbery and climb to the top at 6.1 miles, 5,840 feet. (THW, photo)

Alternatively, contour around to the east side and enter the first break. Climb a rubbly, steep but functional cleft in the towers. This image looks down into the defile.

The peak is aptly named because the summit is comprised of a collection of crags, yet another grouping of towers. There are good sitting rocks but no peak register. Judging from the complete absence of footprints, few attain this crest and certainly not from the south. The image below gives a good perspective on the relationship between the lower set of crags and the summit. From Breakfast Ridge, they look so imposing. From here, they are just another bump on the pinnacle-infused ridge. (THW, photo)

We dropped 40 feet off the top on the north side only to get cliffed out so scoot down the rift you came up. Contour north, hugging the cliffs until you are free of them and return to the ridge. Walking north, the spine is continuously troubled with impassible gendarmes. Go left of the first and then expect a crazy, craggy ration of detours. Progress is slow. Reach the east ridge of Rattlesnake at 7.0 miles, 5,700 feet.

If it wasn't such a long haul in here, Rattlesnake would be a fun mountain to climb over and over. So if you have the time and energy, head up the peak. It is 1.4 miles roundtrip, adds a thousand feet of climbing, and takes about two hours. The ridge is broad and fast at first. It rounds off at about 6,400 feet, something of a false summit, shown. From here cliffs and towers must be negotiated. There's nothing difficult but it does demand patience. In the upper section, we favored the north edge of the thin ridge. 

Summit at 7.7 miles. Be sure to climb the final and highest tower as I have done, shown below. Exhilaration! The view is wondrous. Behind me is Window Peak and Cathedral Rock. Off to the right is Mount Lemmon. Out in front are Mica Mountain, Rincon Peak, Mount Wrightson, Baboquivari Peak, and Tucson at your feet. Rattlesnake may be climbed from other directions--all intimidating and impregnated with towers. Only six parties signed into the peak register in the past three years. Pick your way back to the base of the east ridge. (THW, photo)

Our route now descends to the West Fork Trail. It is a 1,400 foot drop over one mile and takes about an hour. There is only one sensible way to do this. Descend on the north-trending ridge as indicated on the map above. In 2016, we checked out the northeast ridge thinking we would save some distance. But it cost an extra mile and 1.5 hours negotiating a series of stubborn cliff bands. We had no idea how lucky we were to get it right the first time.

The descent is pretty easy at first. Upon reaching the cliff-producing elevation at 5,000 feet, progress slows. Finagle your way. The image below looks back at the mild cliff structure.

Reach the West Fork Trail #24 at 4,300 feet, 9.4 miles. Yes, the trailhead is still nine miles away but take heart. You are now on a three mile per hour trackway. Go right/east on the trail and soon reach the cairned spur to Hutch's Pool at 10.2 miles. Note: there should be water in Sabino Canyon year round if you need to resupply.

The trail fords the West Fork of Sabino Canyon. Rock hop across the Box Camp Canyon tributary and then watch for the junction with Sabino Canyon Trail #23. Turn right/south.

The popular path climbs pleasantly 120 feet and then winds in and out of scallops on Sabino Canyon's east wall, holding the same elevation, about 3,700 feet. The path is smooth and fast, unlike most Pusch Ridge corridors. There are a few pleasing interludes of rocky treadway. This remarkable passage has views extending from lofty Mount Lemmon deep into the narrow, gneiss gorge. The image below shows the trail contouring under Thimble Peak. (In 2016, we hiked most of this segment in the dark with headlamps.)

Drop 400 feet on switchbacks to the pavement at the upper end of the tram line, elevation 3,300 feet. The last tram leaves about 4:45. If you make it in time, just pay the driver for a ride. It costs $10.00 roundtrip so carry that much just in case. Meanwhile, we walked another 3.8 miles down the road. There are bathrooms and drinking faucets all along the way. We crossed nine narrow bridges admiring the pools Sabino Canyon is famous for. Walls shimmered in the setting sun. It was a soothing, smooth finish to a massive and craggy day.

Note: Rattlesnake Peak is a difficult proposition and has been attacked from several routes. If your goal is to climb this peak alone, the easiest plan is to reverse our descent route via the West Fork Trail, catching the tram in both directions.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Mount Ajo, 4,808', Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Essence: Mount Ajo is located at the bottom of the country, the highest peak in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Remote, yes, but it is a premiere Sonoran hike with so many enchanting features it's hard to keep walking: globby tuff, an accessible arch, cones to play in, and lichen madness. The route showcases the western wall of the volcanic Ajo Range. During superblooms there are billions of buds and blossoms, and a multiplicity of birds.  
Travel: The Estes Canyon Picnic Area and trailhead is 10.9 miles out the 21-mile, one-way Ajo Mountain Drive, an improved dirt road suitable for all vehicles. Pick up a free interpretive guide from the visitor center. Then cross State Route 85 to begin the scenic drive. This is a mere five miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Pit toilet. Carry all the water you will need. No dogs, no bikes on the trail.
Entrance Fee and Campground: $12 per vehicle or free with annual National Parks Pass ($80). No reservations at the Twin Peaks Campground, however there is almost always space available at this peaceful village with 34 tent and 174 RV sites and solar showers. $16 per night in this starry starry night park. 
Distance and Elevation Gain: 9.0 miles; 2,700 feet of climbing
Time: 5:30 - 7:30
Difficulty: Trail; navigation moderate (carry your map); Class 2+; no exposure; best months are November through March. Beware--do not hike in the summer when the temperature can reach a scorching 118 degrees.
Maps: Mount Ajo, AZ 7.5 Quad; Trails Illustrated No. 224, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Latest Date Hiked: February 10, 2016
Quote: I’ve made an odd discovery. Every time I talk to a savant I feel quite sure that happiness is no longer a possibility. Yet when I talk with my gardener, I’m convinced of the opposite. Bertrand Russell 

Framed by saguaros and draped in winter light, Mount Ajo, image-center, is visible from the Estes Canyon Picnic Area.

Route: From the Estes Canyon Trailhead at 2,380 feet, take the established Bull Pasture trail to the overlook. Circle the south end of Bull Pasture on a cairned social trail. Bear roughly northeast and  penetrate the west wall of the Ajo Range. Continue north to the crest. On the return, complete the loop in Estes Canyon.

The admirably constructed trail descends into Estes Canyon and crosses the wash. Staircases are constructed from cut stone. In 0.1 mile the trail splits at a signed junction. Both routes lead to Bull Pasture but leave the slightly longer Estes Canyon option for the return trip. Go right toward Bull Pasture. The path traverses a broad canyon. Healthy, plump saguaros, infants and ancient ones, favor the drainage. Copious chainfruit cholla are so tall they shade my hiking companion from early morning light.

The track switchbacks pleasantly up a west-facing slope, or bajada. This region is thick with organ pipe cactus. These nocturnal bloomers will begin their display in May. The park encompasses the bulk of the organ pipe population in America. (THW, photo)

Turning southeast, walk up a gentle bedrock spine. The trail skirts east of the prow of a volcanic buttress and then works south toward a weakness in the cliffs. The Estes Canyon Trail joins at 1.1 mile. Visually, my favorite section of trail is from here to Bull Pasture. So even if you don't intend to climb Ajo, commit to the half mile spur to Bull Pasture. The trail inclines steeply on a stairway of placed boulders as it probes our access cleft. Northeast is Mount Ajo with its perfectly vertical western face and cliff layers stepping down through rhyolite to yellow hued volcanic tuff embellished with dark striations.

On the west, the trackway intimately hugs golden globs of volcanic tuff. The path hesitates as views open to the west before bending east to ascend slabs of stone. (THW, photo)

Attain the Bull Pasture Overlook at 1.6 miles, 3,260 feet. The sharp-eyed can see the towers atop Ajo. The established trail ends here. If you've had enough, this is your turnaround. Return on the Estes Canyon Loop for a total of 4.1 miles, 880 feet of gain. (THW, photo)

For those going on to the peak, the proper social trail crosses directly east beyond the sign. It is the most obvious amongst a myriad of wildcat paths. The trail curves around the south end of the broad Bull Pasture basin before traversing under the cliffs shown. Early ranchers grazed cattle in Bull Pasture.

Faithfully follow cairns southeast. At 2.0 miles the trail pivots east around a blue agave. My friend asserts blue agaves are either perfect or they don't exist. Walk a few paces south to look at Diaz Spire and Peak.

Do a short climb up a slope then essentially hold the contour beneath the cliff band, bearing northeast. Cross the stone floor of Estes Canyon wash at 2.6 miles. After passing below an arch, the track mounts very steeply southeast through The Cones. To stand in the arch, approach it off-trail from the east.

The trail tops out momentarily on a tiny saddle in bulbous cones comprised of compressed volcanic ash. This is an outrageous place to stop and play.

There is one final steep segment with loose material on the path. Pass beneath startling standing stones.

The route bends northerly and at 3.1 miles see a false peak at the southern end of the summit ridge. We are now walking on sunshine, blazing yellow lichen growing on the welded tuff, igneous rock that contains fragments of bedrock from an explosive volcanic eruption. (THW, photo)

The path makes an ascending traverse on the west side of the divide until, finally, at 3.6 miles, it pierces the ridgetop at 4,380 feet. But in just a few paces the trail moves east to bypass the false summit and a midway high point. The true summit comes into view at 3.8 miles.

The Class 2+ path wanders up through breccia, a volcanic conglomerate with large chunks of random rock picked up by flowing lava. Jojoba, rosewood, and juniper thrive here.

Crest the peak at 4.25 miles. The summit register is inside an enormous metal box. The prominence is a linear series of breccia mounds. There are various structures scattered all over for one purpose or another which detracts from the natural order. Soaring ravens and raptors will remind you that you are in wild country. Over 270 birds have been identified at Organ Pipe.

Since Mount Ajo is the highest eminence in the park, the view is unparalleled. To the west you can see our route, Estes Canyon, Ajo Mountain Drive, Twin Peaks Campground, Diablo Mountains, Tillotson Peak, Pinkley Peak, and Kino Peak. (THW, photo)

Close by in the south is Diaz Peak and Diaz Spire, named for Captain Melchior Diaz, leader of the Coronado expedition 1539-1542. Sonoyta, Mexico is but 13 miles away as the crow flies. (THW, photo)

Walk to the northern end of the summit ridge for a better look at Montezuma's Head, image-right. Swing to the right to see Mount Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Rincon Peak, and Baboquivari Peak.

On the return, we left the trail to visit the arch located at 3,700 feet in elevation. From its vantage point, the cones were accentuated in afternoon light.

Inside the arch.

Return as you came and soon you will once again be alongside the tuff buttress which, from this side, looks like a fin. Turn right at the junction with the Estes Canyon Loop trail. It adds a half mile but enriches the experience. The well engineered path switchbacks to the canyon floor. It is mostly flat from here to the trailhead. Walk through a lush arboretum of Sonoran plants. (THW, photo)

Some years ago, I climbed Mount Ajo during a superbloom. My field notes indicate that in March the following plants were blossoming: brittlebush, buckwheat, triangle bursage, creosote bush (one of the oldest living organisms on the planet), desert chicory, ephedra, fairy duster, fiddleneck windflower, filaree, desert gilia, desert globemallow, hedgehog cactus, hummingbird bush, Indian paintbrush, jojoba, larkspur, Mojave lupine, desert marigold, Mexican gold poppy, ocotillo, desert penstemon, phacelia, pincushion cactus, pink owl clover, ragged rock flower, sand lacepod, sedum, shrubby deervetch, trailing windmill, verbena, and yellow trumpet bush. 

Twenty-six cactus species live in Organ Pipe. By April the cholla will be blooming: chainfruit, staghorn, buckhorn, and teddybear. Wait until May for organ pipe, saguaro, Engelmann prickly pear, as well as agave, yucca, and palo verde. It might be July before the barrels start blossoming.

Little curled up brown balls of spikemoss boarder the trail. After a soaking rain these plants turn a moist, vibrant green aptly named resurrection plant. Likewise, throughout this magnificent hike, I felt like I'd died and gone to heaven.