Sunday, December 4, 2016

Pontatoc Ridge to Point 7,123', Mt. Kimball Loop

Essence: Gain Pontatoc Ridge at Saddle 5,140' and proceed to its terminus at Point 7,123' ("Pontatoc Peak"). Create a loop by returning on the Finger Rock Trail, pivoting at Kimball Saddle or Mt. Kimball. This hike features exceptional Point 5,783', the "Towers of Hercules," unique views of Window Rock while ascending a sequence of rollers, and Kimball's twin, Point 7,123'. Off-trail walking is accommodating in middle-altitude grasses rising to piñon-juniper, and finally, large-girth ponderosa. This hike completes Pontatoc Ridge; it is intended as a companion piece to lower Pontatoc Ridge. This description and hike will appeal particularly to Pusch Ridge regulars.
Travel: From Tucson's Skyline Drive, go north one mile on Alvernon Way to the Richard McKee Finger Rock Trailhead. Park in a large lot on the left. There is a drinking faucet but no other facilities.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 11.5 miles; 4,850 feet of climbing
Time: 7:30 to 9:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation challenging; Class 2+, no exposure
Maps: Tucson North; Sabino Canyon, AZ 7.5 Quads, or Pusch Ridge Wilderness, Coronado National Forest, USDA Forest Service, 1:24,000
Latest Date Hiked: December 4, 2016
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. Pontatoc Ridge is off-limits during that time period.
Quote: I may not know who I am but I know where I am from. Wallace Stegner

Free-standing Towers of Hercules armor Pontatoc Ridge as it approaches Point 7,123', image-right.

Route: From the Finger Rock Trailhead, elevation 3,060 feet, segue onto the Pontatoc Canyon Trail and walk to trail's end. Gain Pontatoc Ridge at Saddle 5,140'. Climb Point 5,783' and proceed through the Towers of Hercules to Pontatoc Peak, Point 7,123'. Descend to the Kimball Saddle. Take the optional spur to Mt. Kimball before returning on the Finger Rock Trail. 

The first 3.2 miles of this journey on the Pontatoc Canyon Trail to Saddle 5,140' is described in detail in Pontatoc Loop Route: Canyon and Ridge Trail Connector. If you are not familiar with this trail, please consult the link.

There are two essential intersections. In 0.1 mile, Finger Rock Trail #42 branches left. Proceed straight on Pontatoc Trail #410. At 0.9 mile, Pontatoc Ridge Trail #411 hangs a hard right. Stay on Pontatoc (Canyon) Trail to the End Of Pontatoc Trail sign at 3.1 miles, elevation 4,960 feet. Be advised that the last mile of trail has degenerated into a route, depicted accurately on the map above. To gain Pontatoc Ridge from here, cross the wash and head northeast for 0.1 mile. The image below looks back on Saddle 5,140' and Point 5,391', the gendarme marking the upper bounds of lower Pontatoc Ridge.

From the saddle, Point 5,783' is 0.3 mile away and 600 feet up. This is the steepest gradient of the entire hike. Walking is pleasant on the boulder strewn grassy slope. It is pretty easy to dodge sotol, beargrass, shindaggers, beefy green agave, and Arizona oak. Bear northeast, holding to the rounded ridge.

Point 5,783' has a small rocky crest with sitting stones. There is something so homey and comfortable about this little prominence that it would be a nice destination. A tiny notebook sits in a glass jar with a rusty lid. The continuous register spans 46 years. The first entry reads, "This register placed here Feb. 21, 1970 by the SAHC." The outcrop doesn't see a lot of visitors; the most recent name was four years ago. Judging from the commentary, a favorite loop back in the day was Pontatoc Canyon trail onto an interior Pontatoc ridge to Point 6,820', and looping to this very place. The old timers informally called Point 6,820', Gorp Peak. I've given it an unofficial place name, Linda Vista Peak. Inside the jar is a metal film canister with a single entry shown below. From the Southern Arizona Hiking Club Bulletin, Vol. 50, #11:

A hiker named Harry Von B.
Would roam through the desert with glee.
He'd glide through the cactus
With the east of long practice
But "why?" is what no one could see.

Pontatoc Ridge is clearly displayed from Point 5,783'. Point 7,123' is image-center. (THW, photo)

Drop to 5,660 feet and then center line a series of rollers. The ascent to the next knoll is gentle on a grassy hill with alligator juniper and chunky nuggets of milky white quartz embedded with crystals. Mexican piñon begin at 6,000 feet. From the promontory at 6,200 feet, 4.2 miles, look across Ventana Canyon and directly through Window Rock.  Window Peak is image-center.

The divide between Pontatoc and Ventana Canyons narrows. Work around the vegetation, mostly piñon-juniper with big patches of resurrection moss. Pictured below is the 6,500 foot hillock.

The south ridge of Linda Vista Peak is clearly visible from 6,500 feet.

On the east side of the ridge, pillars rise overhead and march up the side of the precipice from below. The first series of towers begins with playful Class 2+ scrambling.

At 4.9 miles, 6,800 feet, intersect the ridge to Linda Vista Peak (Point 6,820'). The prominence is only 0.3 mile distant. We decide to defer so we can reprise the hike described in the peak register on Point 5,783'. Judging from this image shot from Point 5,730' on Linda Vista Ridge, the peak can also be climbed from Linda Vista Saddle.

Enter the Towers of Hercules, granitic monoliths. In 2013, we stayed on the rock as much as possible, climbing everything we could. This was great fun but time-consuming. Inevitably you will get towered-out. Bypassing to the east is not an option so this time we skirted the towers on the west, staying right at the base of the rock. It is a pretty quick passage plowing through vegetation.

Pass by the Guardian of Pontatoc, a venerable alligator juniper. (THW, photo)

Summit Point 7,123' at 5.3 miles. While we gave it the unofficial name, Pontatoc Peak, it stands just shy of 300 feet above Kimball Saddle and thus, is not a legal summit. Locate the peak register in a ten-foot circular clearing. Living in obscurity under the shadow of Mt. Kimball, the last visitor to this admittedly unremarkable crest was three years prior. The view is compromised by tree cover but you can see Mt. Kimball, so similar in vegetation and elevation. Cumulative elevation gain to this point is a hefty 4,400 feet.  

Descend easily 0.4 mile on the broad northwest ridge to Kimball Saddle, elevation 6,860 feet. This is the all-important signed junction for the Finger Rock Trail and Pima Canyon Trail #62. If you've had enough, simply return to the trailhead by going left on the Finger Rock Trail.

Note: In 2013, we returned via Ventana Canyon because we had not been on the two mile connector between Finger Rock and Ventana Canyons. Turn right on the Finger Rock Trail and in one hour you will intersect the Ventana Trail down in the canyon. This secondary trail is well marked with cairns. It is a convoluted landscape and you will go over, around, and under towering cliffs. This option is truly exciting but it does require a shuttle between the Ventana and Finger Rock Trailheads.

To visit Mt. Kimball (so close!), turn right onto the Pima Canyon Trail. The peak is just half a mile away with 400 additional feel of elevation gain. Walk through a stately ponderosa forest. Watch for the signed 0.1 mile spur to Mt. Kimball. Pass a small view opening at 7,240 feet, a false summit. Keep going! The path descends slightly and then rises gently to the true summit, elevation 7,258 feet, 6.2 miles.

While Kimball is 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 jolting, framing peaks the full length of Pusch Ridge. More towers (they're everywhere!) soar above treetops below the standing perch.

Kimball affords the best view of Pontatoc Peak. For those who climb Kimball by way of Pontatoc Ridge, there is a strong sense of completion.

Mt. Kimball is the first peak I climbed years ago in the Santa Catalina Mountains. It is pure magic, a euphoria generator. (THW, photo)

Return to Kimball Saddle and turn right on the Finger Rock Trail. I have described this trail in a previous post: Mount Kimball, 7,258': Pima Canyon to Finger Rock Canyon. If you are unfamiliar with this beautiful pathway, please consult the link. You can trim the mileage by 0.2 and elevation gain by 50 feet if you do not visit Linda Vista Saddle on your way home. The lighting is superb every evening on the Finger Rock Trail. This is the golden hour when delicate grasses are backlit and the massive ridge ablaze.

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