Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Mount Kimball, 7,258': Pima Canyon to Finger Rock Canyon, Pusch Ridge Wilderness

Essence: Mt. Kimball, the pine-topped prominence of the Santa Catalina Mountain front range, is the perfect Pusch Ridge viewpoint. Intimate look at two equally dominant canyons; together, they offer a complete experience of the west end of the ridge. Travel through five life zones, from saguaros to evergreens, during this rugged and premiere hike.
Travel: This route requires a short shuttle between the Finger Rock and Pima Canyon trailheads. In Tucson measure distance from Sunrise Drive and Swan Road. Drive north on Swan for 0.9 mile to Skyline Drive. Turn left/west and travel to Alvernon Way at 1.9 miles. Turn right/north. The Richard McKee Finger Rock Trailhead parking is on the left at 2.8 miles. Drop a vehicle here. Zero-out your trip meter and go south on Alvernon Way for 0.9 mile to Skyline Drive; turn right/west. Sunrise merges with Skyline at 1.7 miles. In 3.5 miles, Skyline turns into Ina Road. Avoid Pima Canyon Drive and turn right on Christie Drive at 4.4 miles. There is a brown sign for the Pima Canyon Trailhead. At 5.8 miles, turn right on Magee Road. The parking lot is on the right at 5.9 miles. There is a drinking faucet but no other facilities.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 12.5 miles; 4,800 feet of climbing includes optional side trips to Pima Saddle and Linda Vista Saddle
Time: 7:00 to 9:00
Difficulty: Trail, steep and rocky; navigation easy; no exposure; carry all the fluids you will need, five liters recommended.
Maps: Tucson North; Oro Valley, AZ 7.5' Quads; or, Pusch Ridge Wilderness, Coronado National Forest, USDA Forest Service, 1:24,000
Date Hiked: January 28, 2015
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. No dogs, ever.
Quote: Under a sapphire sky, the inland desert fills a broad valley in all directions, hemmed only by mountains that rise so abruptly from the flats, you would knock your forehead on them if you walked toward them blindfolded. Ellen Meloy, Eating Stone 

Regarding Cathedral Rock and Window Peak from Mount Kimball. (THW, photo)

Route: Hike can be done in either direction but the visuals are best by beginning in Pima Canyon. Take a break at Pima Vista, Pima Saddle, and Mt. Kimball. Descend on the Finger Rock Trail. Take the short spur to Linda Vista Saddle, and pause at Linda Vista.

Pima Canyon Trail: The trek is moderately difficult with giant vertical and some steep sections. Unlike Finger Rock, the canyon is convoluted and narrow with tight turns and big walls that frequently force the trail to cross the wash. Occasionally, the path is suspended above the drainage on ledges. Look down on gorgeous pools formed by Santa Catalina Gneiss. In winter months, walk in the shade most of the way to Pima Saddle.

From the Iris O. Dewhirst Pima Canyon Trailhead, elevation 2,920 feet, walk through private land on a thin easement. The treadway is admirably constructed, a pleasant mix of bedrock, stone, and dirt. Walking is easy as the path threads its way through a lush jumble of typical Sonoran plants: ocotillo forests, congregations of the mighty saguaro, agave, back-lit golden spiky grass and Indian rice grass, staghorn cholla, sotol, turpentine bush, and prickly pear.

In March, flowers are phantasmagorical. Goldenrod brittlebush predominate at knee height. Spikes of sweet-smelling lupine contrast with Mexican gold poppy fields. Delicate, creamy evening primrose compete with fairyduster puff balls. Dark orchid verbena win over dusky apricot globe-mallow.

At 0.4 mile, turn left on Trail No. 62, following the sign for Kimball "Peak," seven miles distant.

On a slope 100 feet above the trail stands a cristate saguaro, easily missed.
The first of numerous wash crossings is at 1.1 miles. During a wet winter, Pima Canyon's drainageway is flush with surface water but often it is intermittent at best. Below, the trail crosses a gneiss streambed and Table Mountain appears.
The track takes aim at the prominences at the head of Pima Canyon, climbing almost too gradually. (2023 Note: This is an early Earthline post on the Pima Canyon Trail and I neglected to note the five bedrock mortar holes and dam at 3.0 miles. Please link to Valentine Peak for photos and information.) At 3.5 miles the trail becomes embedded with large boulders but there are plenty of cairns and navigation is not an issue. In 2023, Outslope Trail Solutions did a major overhaul of the Pima Canyon and Finger Rock corridor trails after 20 years of neglect. They realigned, improved the platform, cleared downed trees, and trimmed brush. Traverse beneath Table Mountain's southeast face. Fishhook barrel cactus, beargrass, and shin daggers are common at this elevation.

Approaching the head of the canyon, multiple crags are visually dramatic. Point 5,985', one of the "Wolves Teeth," is a technical climb. At 3.8 miles, 4,340 feet, the trail crosses the canyon and bucks up suspended above the alluring creek on the southeast side. In 2023, we walked in the creek on slabs of Catalina gneiss for 0.4 mile to the next trail crossing.

Every Pusch Ridge canyon has an exceptional vantage point where people gravitate. Pima Vista rests on a mid-canyon ridge at 4.5 miles, 5,060 feet. Rock stacks and towers add to the charm, manzanita is common. Prominent Point and Point 5,646' (Valentine Peak), are in the southeast, Tucson in the wedge. (THW, photo)

The route is exciting, revealed as you go. Pass a massive, soaring gneiss cliff, then tread the canyon bottom, thin and tight. The markedly cool drainage has tall pines and the biggest alligator juniper on the planet! Pima Spring at 5.1 miles, 5,580 feet, funnels through a concrete encasement built into a verdant grotto. Generally, it is a disappointing trickle so don't count on topping off your water supply.

Scooch under an orange, bubble-wrap wall and reach the Pima Saddle sign at 5.5 miles, 6,180 feet. This optional spur goes left. It is 0.2 mile roundtrip and a steep 160 foot climb to the saddle.

From the saddle Table Mountain in all its distinctive glory is nearby in the west. Companions on the Pima Canyon headwall are Table Tooth (the airy slice of stone), the Wolves Teeth, and The Molar. While you are on the saddle don't miss out on the Class 2 stroll to Point 6,500'. The spur is 0.3 mile roundtrip with 160 feet of vertical. The payback from this little prominence is immeasurable.

Return to the main trail at the Pima Saddle sign and veer left. The track climbs about 100 feet and then contours at the base of an extensive stone bulwark below Point 6,953'. It bears southeast and makes a gentle climb up a draw to gain Kimball's northwest ridge. At 6 miles, catch your first glimpse of the summit. Upon reaching the ridge at 6.6 miles, 6,700 feet, the grade eases. Through a break in the trees is an unparalleled look at Finger Rock Guard, Finger Rock, and Prominent Point. The pines thicken as Kimball approaches. Will there be a view? 

Meet the trail (still officially the Pima Canyon Trail) coming up from Finger Rock Canyon at 7.1 miles, 7,200 feet and bear left/northeast on the summit spur. At 7.2 miles, pass a small view opening, the first of two crests on the peak at 7,240 feet. Keep going! The path descends slightly and then climbs easily to the true summit at 7.3 miles, 7,258 feet. You'll know when you are there. While Kimball is perhaps 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 unexpected and welcome. You can see peaks from the west end of the ridge (even Pusch Peak!) all the way to the east. More immediately, towers soar above treetops below. (THW, photo)

The comfortable perch has the best view anywhere of Cathedral Rock and Window Peak.

Finger Rock Trail: Finger Rock Canyon has a more uniform shape than Pima. It is the most open of Santa Catalina Mountains' major front range corridors. Expansive views to the southwest are one of the great features of this descent. It is a somewhat challenging treadway. Half of the route is steep and crumbly the other half is steep and rocky with big steps down boulders. Sure, it is relentlessly steep but for a few, brief stretches; it is also the fastest way off the mountain, and the most popular.

From the peak, return on the summit spur to the Pima Canyon Trail and turn left/southeast. On a consistent descent, in half a mile reach the junction with Finger Rock Trail, #42 (Kimball Saddle). This is the official end of the Pima Canyon Trail. Turn right/southwest. The path cuts through ponderosa and more massive, ancient junipers. The route crosses the canyon making for the southeast side. It stays on that aspect all the way until it crosses the drainage once again at 3,520 feet.

The route hugs the base of cliffs on a platform just wide enough to allow passage. It slithers around crenelations so closely you can drag your fingers along the smooth rock as you walk. (THW, photo)

At 8.8 miles, go left on a spur to Linda Vista Saddle. This optional side trip adds 0.5 mile roundtrip and about 50 feet of climbing. It's worth it to stand on the saddle between Pontatoc and Finger Rock canyons. See Mount Wrightson seemingly across town.

From here, it's a short hoof down to Linda Vista at 9.8 miles, 5,200 feet. This is Finger Rock's equivalent to Pima Vista. It is perfectly located for a mid-descent break on sitting rocks. I think of it as the launch pad to magic for this is where the route to Finger Rock Guard departs from the standard trail. It's pretty magical just being here oohing and aahing over Baboquivari Peak, Kitt Peak, and the Tucson Mountains. 

Tear yourself away and scurry down rock runners.

Look over your shoulder at the Finger Rock cluster and vow to climb The Guard sometime between May first and December 31.

The trail maintains a southwest, descending traverse, the canyon bottom ever nearing. It clings comfortably to the edgy hillside, a middle path threading between cliffs above and below. 

The author returns to the lush Sonoran, conifers but a memory. (THW, photo)

Cross Finger Rock Canyon's wash at 11.5 miles, 3,520 feet. The pitch eases considerably and into saguaro heaven you go. These signature cacti living on the southeast face of Pusch Ridge are easily as robust and plentiful as those in Saguaro National Park. You will intuitively understand why the Tohono O-odham Nation respect saguaros as members of their tribe. Take a final look back at Mount Kimball rising over the head of the canyon.


  1. thank you so much! This gives me inspiration to go further up than I've been before.

    1. Hi Patrick, Sometimes I fail to get comment notifications. I just happened upon your note today! I am delighted to get your response. Onward and upward, so good for body and soul. Debra