Saturday, January 24, 2015

La Milagrosa and Agua Caliente Canyons: 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 Point 3,776'
Time: 5:00 to 6:30
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 3 scrambling with moderate exposure; this trek would be dangerous, if not impossible, in high water.
Maps: Agua Caliente Hill, AZ 7.5 Quad, or Green Trails Maps: Santa Catalina Mountains, Map 2886S
Latest Date Hiked: January 30, 2023
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 northeast 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 Point 3,776'. Scramble southwest down Agua Caliente to meet the incoming route. The blue line represents a bypass trail in lower La Milagrosa Canyon.

From parking, 2,790 feet, pass a gate and walk east on Horsehead Road through a neighborhood. 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. The La Milagrosa Trail to Molino Basin takes off to the northeast at 0.8 mile.

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.

Lower La Milagrosa Bypass Trail
In February, 2019, the creeks were running high so we were unable to do the full circuit. 

However, we were able to see the first fall series via a pronounced social trail that tracks above La Milagrosa on the southeast side for about half a mile. It begins just above the confluence of the two canyons on the northwest side of the outcrop. Here's a look at this path from La Milagrosa Trail.

The bypass trail ends where 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 four waterfalls connected by deep pools. The first is simple. Climb the high angled slope of stone to the right of the lower falls, shown. Holds are good. Note: this image was taken at high water in 2019. Even if you were able to climb the lower falls, passage through the "inner sanctum" that follows would be impossible.

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.

In 2023, at the top of the first fall, we crossed the stream and bypassed the rest of the falls upcanyon left. This takes advantage of a crack at the far left.  It is still Class 3 and exposed, but perhaps a little better protected.

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. 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, shown below. This is the first pool obstacle and the beginning of the Agua Caliente narrows. We bypassed downcanyon left. There is one airy, exposed move on this bypass. Return to the 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 just below the first pool and bypass by crossing its outlet. 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.


  1. Walked this area the other day, all on trail. First up to the AZT on the broad trail (La Miligrosa tr?) then crossed over and down the trail that goes down the south side of the gorge. The crossover is so beautiful, we even saw otter tracks. We had decided not to follow the drainage descent due to a bunch of rain in the last couple of weeks, but this deserves a return trip to try that out. A really scenic and little used area!

  2. I really like this area and went back today. We went up the main (north side) trail to the crossing of La Milagrosa, and then went up canyon. It is non-technical with a bunch of variety of walking conditions. Our goal was to walk up to the trail crossing, and back out the trail via the cut over through Agua Caliente canyon (which is beautiful when wet, though it was dry today). Some unforecast showers got the rocks wet, and they are very slippery in the wash bottom when wet, so we bailed out cross country up to the trail 1/2 mile before the upper end. It is fun in there and that's a relatively easy way to see some pretty and lonely canyon. Thanks again for this post!

    1. Ben, You are covering the territory. I'm back in Durango after three weeks of blissful hiking in the Sonoran. Planning to publish some new posts after the holidays. Happy Solstice. Debra