Friday, March 25, 2016

Saddleback Ridge to Point 5,001' Via Phoneline Trail; Blackett's Ridge to Point 4,409'

Essence: This trek rewards Santa Catalina Mountain aficionados. Traverse the Blackett's-Saddleback Ridge straddling Sabino and Bear Canyons. Utilize two popular trails in Sabino Canyon Recreation Area before launching off-trail into complete solitude. The route climbs rather than descends the two trickiest segments offering a reasonable route to the crest of Saddleback Ridge, Point 5,001'. Climb a protected gully to Blackett's Ridge and Point 4,409'. Both summits are legal, rising more than 300 vertical feet above the low point between them and the next prominence.
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, displaying your Coronado Recreational Pass or National Parks Pass. Absent one of these, pay $5.00 for a day pass at the entrance booth or at the self-pay station. Water and bathrooms at the trailhead.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 9.0 miles; 2,850 feet of climbing
Time: 5:30 - 7:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation challenging; Class 2+ with mild exposure; steep slopes; carry all the water you will need; no dogs
Maps: Sabino Canyon, AZ 7.5 Quad; or, Pusch Ridge Wilderness, Coronado National Forest, USDA Forest Service, 1:24,000
Date Hiked: March 25, 2016
Quote: O! how I dreamt of things impossible. William Blake 1757-1827

This entry is for everyone who has stood on the prominence of Blackett's Ridge and looked with longing at beautiful Point 5,001', the highpoint of Saddleback Ridge.

Route: From Sabino Canyon Trailhead 2,725', access the Phoneline Trail and walk northeast. When Saddleback Saddle 4,060' is visible from the trail, leave the Phoneline and gain Saddleback Ridge. Climb northeast to Point 5,001'. Return to the saddle and access Blackett's Ridge via a gully, topping out a few feet from Point 4,409'. Finish the hike on the familiar Blackett's Ridge Trail.

To access the Phoneline Trail, leave from the northeast corner of the Sabino Canyon parking lot and walk east on a broad and flat pedestrian-only track. At 0.5 mile, turn right on the paved shuttle road, following a sign for the 7 Falls Trail. At 0.7 mile, turn right at the fork, staying on the paved road toward Bear Canyon. This is the final opportunity for bathrooms and water. In the photo below, Point 4,409' is image-center and Point 5,001' is just to its right.

Cross Sabino Creek at 0.8 mile and almost immediately Phoneline Trail #27 takes off. Stay left at the split with the Bear Canyon/7 Falls Trail.

The Phoneline, the most popular trail in the park, carries on for 4.5 miles to the end of Sabino Canyon Road with occasional spurs down to the blacktop. The well-built treadway is hard packed sand, cobbles, and bedrock.

Blackett's Ridge Trail #48, our return path, goes right at 1.4 miles. Stay left.

The trail pretty much follows the contour; occasional climbs up crafted rock steps are effortless through this exquisite corridor.  A glimpse of Thimble Peak and Point 5,001' opens at 2.1 miles. Pass beneath one of Blackett's most dramatic sidewalls. Watch for the obvious Saddleback Saddle 4,060', shown.

Leave the Phoneline Trail at 3.0 miles, 3,440 feet. It is a 600 foot climb south to the saddle. Find a minor break right/west of the primary barrier wall.

Once above the obstruction, in the past my climbing partner worked his way left into the gully. However, that sidehill traverse felt too exposed to me and we found an easier and safer approach. We ascended the grassy slope southwest of the gully. The pitch eases after the first 100 feet. Plants have easy workarounds. There are foot-sized platforms of resurrection moss and well-seated rock. This is an excellent route; it even affords a closeup look at Blackett's east face minarets. (THW, photo)

In contrast, the gully route is troubled with vegetation (velcro plants!) and steeps.

It takes about 20 minutes for the climb to Saddleback Saddle 4,060', 3.3 miles from the trailhead. The southwest ridge of Point 5,001' affords spectacular lookoffs from a unique vantage point, a lateral ridge in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. From the saddle, climb northeast on the spine aiming for the base of the cliff, shown. It is steep but there is good rock to work with. Upon reaching the gendarme, contour right/east to a small saddle at 4,320 feet. (THW, photo)

The saddle leads directly onto a northeast trending bench. There is no right or wrong way from here, but there is a best way that we discovered after lots of wondering around in this area. Do a rising traverse aiming for the grassy slope just right of the escarpment, image-left. (THW, photo)

Here is a closeup with the route image-center. You may find fragments of a game/social trail on this grassy slope.

At the next level, the ridge presents a 20 foot scarp. Just for kicks, we did a Class 3 crack climb. On our return, we skirted the obstacle just to the southeast.

Minor challenges completed, at 4,760 feet a dreamy view the mountain is revealed. The remaining walk is on a segment of grand and elegant classic ridge. (THW, photo)

The spine tapers to 15 feet at its narrowest, falling sharply 800 feet before dropping more gradually to the canyon floor on two sides. There is mild exposure here. This image looks back at the narrowest link.

The Saddleback Diving Board is a temptation to all brave souls.

Top out on Point 5,001' at 4.2 miles. The field of vision from this interior highpoint includes familiar favorites. Besides most of the Pusch Ridge peaks, see the Rincon Mountains, Santa Rita Mountains, Baboquivari Peak, and Tucson Mountains. Thimble Peak, just 300 feet higher, is on a continuation of this ridge but is unattainable from here. Observe trail systems in canyons almost 2,000 feet below. The peak register was placed in 2,000 and consists of a few slips of paper. Three months had lapsed since the last visitor. (THW, photo)

On the return it is easier to spot and utilize game trails. Once back at the small saddle beyond the bench be sure to hold the contour for about 100 feet to avoid a dangerous drop. The descent back to Saddle 4,060' is most forgiving right on the ridgecrest. Regain the saddle at 5.2 miles for an mesmerizing view of the east bulwark of Point 4,409'. Access is up the gully on the left/south side of the mountain. (THW, photo)

Do a steep side hill traverse passing under a dominate rock outcrop. You may enter the gully at this level but it is choked with brush. It is better to keep climbing a short distance and enter the defile at about 4,100 feet.

Scale the declivity on stable rock. It is a comfortable route with a feeling of protection. (Note: In 2017, the gully was more troubled with brush than in 2016.) Emerge onto the ultra familiar Blackett's Ridge Trail just feet from Point 4,409'.

Reach the top of Blackett's Ridge at 5.55 miles. Yes, this is home turf but it feels somehow like a mighty achievement considering where we came from.

The Blackett's Ridge Trail drops 1,700 feet on a heavily trodden, steep treadway with a view of Tucson all the while. Descend slabs of perfectly angled bedrock, stone steps, and a series of switchbacks.

Close the loop at 7.7 miles where the trail meets the Phoneline. If you have not done so, take a brief side trip, turning right on the Bajada Nature Loop at 8.6 miles to visit Sabino Canyon's prize crested saguaro. At the loop go left, cross a wooden bridge, and soon arrive at twin saguaros. Proudly stands a most elaborate cristate with multiple arms growing from the anomaly. 

It is March so we identified a great number of flowering plants, including blue palo verde draped in yellow blossoms, a golden Mariposa lily, purple twining snapdragons, and magenta trailing windmills. The chili-red torches of the ocotillo were in full explosion giving enthusiastic expression to a flawless and deeply satisfying day.


  1. This is an amazing hike! Standing up on top of Saddleback, looking across to Thimble, wonderful airy drops on either side of the ridge... Just wow. And the clever exit chute climb is a win. The traverse from the saddle to the exit chute is a bit of tough side hilling but no real exposure. Brush was not bad in the chute and it felt quite safe. Our times were much longer than Debra, but I've come to expect that. Thanks for posting this winner!

    1. Ben, I'm delighted you did this complicated hike and pulled it off. Makes me want to do a repeat. Thanks for the feedback on the time range as well. Debra