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. Note: In 2021, we climbed Rattlesnake Peak via the south ridge, a more direct and less demanding route.
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 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.


  1. Debra,
    I really like your blog. My husband and I were just in Tucson and followed your directions for the McFall Crags hike. We got up to the second prominence and turned around due to time factor - we started late and spent more time than we should have route-finding - but we did have a topo. We are avid hikers and live in Boise and we go to Tucson every spring. We have done Rincon, one of my top 10 all time hikes! I have a website: and will be posting my breakfast ridge blog on it and giving you credit for directions and inspiration. I like your descriptions and your blog I feel is a good example of how an adventure blog should be written-Thanks! Sue Birnbaum

    1. Hi Sue,
      Thanks for reading. Your blog, Explorumentary, puts mine to shame. I'm blown away by the breath of your explorations, the artistry of your images, and the layout of your blog. Mine just kinda gets the job done. My intention is to document the American West as I pass through on foot. If people find it useful, that's wonderful. The intended audience is readers from the future so they can have some understanding of the glory of our planet as we experience it today. Debra

    2. Debra,
      I couldn't have said it any better. I can relate to your love of the American West - it comes through in your writing.
      Thank-you for your comments and especially thank you for your blog - it is bookmarked and I look forward to seeing what beautiful land you will write about in your future entries and consult it for future hikes! I referenced your blog in my latest post. Sue.

  2. I have to agree, once you get on the ridge, the going is pretty mellow by Catalina off trail standards. The 18 mile loop is awesome but out of my league. I loved being in oh so popular Sabino and not seeing anyone after leaving the road, all day.

    BTW, some day you should check out peak 5802 south of Mount Fagan in the northern Santa Ritas (sometimes called "Mount Fagan South"). Access from the east, park just outside the HudBay mine gates, hike forest service roads 4062 and 4678, then game trails get you to the summit rather nicely. If the Rosemont Mine ever is permitted, forget it, will be noisy and ugly.

    1. Thanks for the idea and directions, Ben. Mt. Fagan has been on my wish list for some time. We'll check out your companion peak as well. Debra

  3. I've been up Fagan a couple of times. You used to be able to do a wonderful ridge run from the west, but two years ago the starting point was being developed and there were private property signs menacing. The route from the east is a bit longer. You could drive to "The Lake" from 83 - to be legal you need to buy a state lands pass for something like $15 (you can do it on the spot at the unlocked gate at 83). The road has a rough spot half a mile in and it was too threatening for my rental SUV, even with 4WD, but you might have better. You don't need the permit for the AZT, so I'd be inclined to park at a big pullout on 83 and walk / poach in a short ways to Twin Tanks, then AZT to your jump off point. The only obstacle is a gully you have to cross and if you do at least one of the obvious routes there is a cairned little trail and crossing (I can send a gps track if you'd like). The whole way up you're seeing a false summit but it is much easier from that summit to the real peak, which is lovely.