Saturday, February 21, 2015

Ragged Top, 3,907', Silver Bell Mountains

Essence: Small in stature, imposing in nature, this acicular, cliff-riddled mountain offers an enchanting half-day hike north of Tucson in Ironwood Forest National Monument. Scale volcanic rock riddled with climbing features up a steep prominence with a generous, flat top. Unsullied view of the Sonoran from this little sky island, an outlier in the Silver Bell Mountains.
Travel: From Tucson, drive north on I-10 to the town of Marana and take Exit 236, Marana Road. Zero-out your trip meter at the bottom of the exit ramp and turn left. The road curves to the south. Immediately, turn right/west on Marana Road. While driving, see the peak draw ever closer. Cross the Santa Cruz River in a broad S turn. Marana becomes Trico-Marana Road. At 6.1 miles, turn right on Silverbell Road. Enter Ironwood Forest National Monument at 9.6 miles. Pavement transitions to dirt at 13.9 miles. Stay right at the first fork. At 17.0 miles, cross a pipeline and at 17.6 miles, turn left onto an unsigned track. It is narrow and curvy but not rocky. Brush will scrape the vehicle. The Sonoran is especially beautiful here, the road wending through saguaros. Park in a generous lot at 18.9 miles, 30 minutes from the freeway. 2WD with decent clearance should be able to reach the trailhead.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 3.0 miles; 1,663 feet of climbing
Time: 3:00 to 4:00
Difficulty: Off-trail; navigation moderate; short stretch of Class 3 scrambling with mild exposure
Map: Silver Bell East, AZ 7.5 Quad
Latest Date Hiked: February 21, 2015
Quote: Desert bighorns may bring you to places where they live, but they may not show themselves to you. This does not matter. What matters is this: Look. Ellen Meloy, Eating Stone

Solitary Ragged Top stands guard over an intricate and abundant world of flora and fauna flowing out in all directions. There is so much to see!

Route: A clockwise loop utilizes a sequence of three primary gullies and three saddles. A short, steep spur scales the peak.

From the trailhead, visually locate the saddle between Wolcott Peak, shown, and Ragged Top. Walk southwest, briefly on an old road. Cross an iron fence and head cross-country. There are stray fragments of social and game trails, but no standard treadway.

Cross several small ravines, the ground littered with granitic boulders. The plant community is diverse and its own pleasure. In February, we identified 30 flowering species, listed below. We passed two packrat middens made from thousands of teddybear cholla babies, shown. Ironwoods are characterized by blue-green leaves, gray bark, and purple blossoms in springtime. They are a legume with hard and heavy wood; trunks can persist for up to 1,600 years! All the while, ironwoods provide nursery shade for baby saguaros and other flora.

I have crossed the ridge between Ragged Top and Wolcott in three places. The standard route gains the low point in the saddle between the two peaks. However, it is great fun to play around in the rock outcrop located to the right of the saddle (left in the image below). Or, there is an easy gully just right of the rock outcrop. Take your pick: all three routes are shown on the map above. Reach the ridge at about 0.7 mile. At this elevation the rock is volcanic, Ragged's primary formation.

From the southeast ridge, locate the south ridge saddle, shown below. Walk west, giving up some elevation. Do a descending traverse in broken and awkward terrain. Game trails are scant help. Eventually, get into the gully proper where sections of bedrock assist.

In February, the declivity was aflame with hummingbird bush. Nearing the saddle, watch for a barely visible track leaving the left side of the gully. Crest the prominent south ridge of Ragged Top at 1.14 miles, 3,270 feet. Further south, the ridge is peppered with appealing rock spires. The image below shows the towers and people approaching the saddle.

This image looks back on the saddle between Ragged Top and Wolcott and the terrain rising to the south ridge.

Locate the prominent south gully, the next objective, shown in the very center of the image below. The easiest way to gain the gully is counter intuitive. Turn north and climb the rock outcrop as these friends are doing. The passage leads to a shelf that transitions into the left side of the rift. There are no cairns. While the gully looks somewhat intimidating from the saddle, it is straightforward, a Class 2 ascent on talus. Brush is of little concern.

The uncommon, chlorophyll-lacking desert broomrape, is growing in a few clumps at the base of the gully.

At 1.4 miles, 3,670 feet, reach the third saddle, really a notch between the south and north gullies. From here, locate a social trail heading east. It swings into a northeast weakness. The material is rather loose, a potential hazard for large groups. However, there is plenty of stable rock in this Class 2+ section. In the image below, hikers have left the notch and are moving east.

The Class 3 scramble begins fifty feet below the summit. Free-climb up solid rhyolite loaded with features and firm holds. This is by far the most jubilant part of the climb. It is over way too soon.

Reach the surprisingly broad and welcoming summit at 1.5 miles. While Ragged Top is not the highest peak in the Silver Bell Mountains (shown), it certainly is the most beguiling. Typical of well-situated western peaks, gaze into extreme distance to the true horizon. Or content yourself with the familiars such as Pusch Ridge or Baboquivari Peak (center, below). The peak register was always amusing. Sadly, in 2015 it was missing. Judging from the lack of cairns and sparsity of footprints, solitude is virtually assured.

Return as you came to the notch between the south and north gullies. Enjoy the downclimb, picking your careful way on trustworthy rock.

Climb over the stony hulk in the center of the notch. From the west side of the saddle, locate a safe passage into the north gully. We found bighorn sheep scat carpeting this breach. The Silver Bell Mountains have a substantial resident herd. Be watchful; perhaps they will show themselves to you.

While we did not see sheep, we did find this nest protector: Anna's hummingbird.

The north gully crashes steeply down the mountain in its direct manner. (If this does not appeal, return as you came via the south gully.) There are several drop-offs to negotiate in this restricted area. This image looks up at a challenging boulder.  We dropped through the tunnel in the rock.

The gully widens toward the base of the cliffs. Still well above the valley floor, at about 2.7 miles, pick a pleasing descending traverse, working your way around to the east/right. Expect to cross a few shallow ravines. At this elevation, granite dominates, out-shown only by teddybear cholla. A birthing area for this endearing plant, little cholla balls cover the ground. Shortly, you will see your vehicle.

Flora: Typical Sonoran flora flourishes on the flanks of Ragged Top along with a robust ironwood forest. Naturalist John Bregar identified the following blooming plants in February: filaree, brittlebush, fairy duster, yellow trumpet bush, buckwheat, triangle leaf bursage, jewel flower, desert gilia, sand lacepod, jojoba, wolfberry, Mexican gold poppy, rock hibiscus, phacelia, desert globemallow, shrubby deervetch, Texas stork's bill, desert chicory, blackfoot daisy, trailing-windmill, rosy desert beardtongue (penstemon), creosote bush, verbena, hummingbird bush, desert broomrape, ragged rock flower, bedstraw, larkspur, fiddleneck, windflower, and the sweetest smelling of all, brownfoot.

Birds: John Bregar identified 12 birds: ash-throated flycatcher, Anna's hummingbird, black-throated sparrow, canyon wren, rock wren, black vulture, white-throated swift, common raven, red-tailed hawk, house finch, gilded flicker, and a large falcon species.


  1. Excellent writeup and directions. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Tom. I'm pleased you found Earthline helpful. Debra