Thursday, December 3, 2015

Agua Caliente Hill, 5,369', Coronado National Forest

Essence: The fringed western slopes of Agua Caliente Hill roll into eastern Tucson. The prominence is dead center between the Rincon Mountains and Santa Catalina Mountains. Diverse sampling of Sonoran vegetation. Treadway rises to the rounded crest where soft grassland ridges emanate in all directions. Gentle grade suitable for all hikers. Optional off-trail return route with unavoidable shindaggers will appeal to ridge purists.
Travel: In Tucson, zero-out your trip meter at Sabino Canyon Road and Tanque Verde Road. Go east on Tanque Verde and as it narrows to one lane, turn left/north on Houghton Road at 4.4 miles. At 5.4 miles, turn right/east on Fort Lowell Road. Cross Soldier Trail, continuing east. Fort Lowell turns into Camino Ancho at 8.4 miles. Turn left on Camino Remuda at 8.8 miles. At 9.1 miles, the road swings left onto Camino Cantil. At 9.4 miles, turn right into the paved parking lot. Pima Country refers to this as the Agua Caliente Hill South Trailhead. No water, no facilities.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 9.2 miles; 2,700 feet of climbing
Time: 4:00 to 6:00
Difficulty: The standard peak hike is on-trail and navigation is easy, no exposure. The loop option is off-trail with moderate navigation and a brief Class 2+ segment; carry all the water you will need; dogs permitted on leash
Map: Agua Caliente Hill, AZ 7.5 Quad
Date Hiked: December 3, 2015
Breathless, we flung us on a windy hill,
Laughed in the sun, and kissed the lovely grass. 
Rupert Brooke

Agua Caliente Hill summit and optional return ridge from the standard trail. Grasslands roil with gladness. (THW, photo)

Route: The standard trail bears roughly northeast to the summit. Most travelers will return as they came. The loop option descends off-trail on a west-southwest ridge, rejoining the main track 1.6 miles from the trailhead.

Agua Caliente Hill Trail #46, elevation 2,900 feet, is well signed. Step to the side of a historic Western gate and enter the Coronado National Forest.

The roomy, crushed granite trail with railroad tie risers climbs immediately. At once hikers are intimately enclosed by beautiful stony foothills. A view corridor opens west to the home valley we left moments ago.

Trails can be so liberating. Teddy bear and staghorn cholla delight but keep a respectful distance. Barrel, or compass cactus, lean as always to the southwest, nestled under paloverde and ocotillo. An unusual number of ghost saguaros cohabit with infants. We are privileged to walk among them. The saguaro's range is limited to the Sonoran desert of southwestern Arizona and northern Mexico. There are no others...anywhere. Grand prize goes to this flamboyant saguaro who lives beside the trail and delights in making us smile.

At 0.7 mile, 3,300 feet, top out on a low ridge. Views are continuous and expansive from now on. Already, enjoy a grand sweep from Tanque Verde Ridge to Cathedral Rock.

At 3,580 feet, 1.3 miles into the trek, the peak comes briefly into view, image-center, looking very far away. Glimpse it now for there are legions of false summits that play gotcha.

The footpath winds through hillocks embellished with intriguing rock features. The stone is a highly textured granite, bright and shiny. Pegmatite clusters have clumps of feldspar, mica, and quartz crystals. Give up some elevation and pass by Cat Track Tank at 1.7 miles, 3,550 feet.

At 2.5 miles, cross the drainage that bifurcates the two hiking ridges. There is intermittent water in the potholes. Climb a short hillside. Switchbacks with excellent footing make the ascent effortless, well, nearly.

Gain the principal ascent ridge at 2.7 miles, 4,000 feet. As the sign indicates, Forest Road 4445 joins here having punched up from Agua Caliente Canyon. The summit is within reach, 1.5 miles distant.  

Finish the climb on the expansive, grassy ridge. For just a moment, you can look deeply into La Milagrosa with its telltale sheer cliff walls. The Santa Catalina Mountains track our progress. Think of the contrast between this smooth dirt pathway and the trails of Pusch Ridge, so steep and cluttered with boulders. The treadway aims at rock-banded Point 4,773', shown. (Spoiler alert--false summit!)

Ascending, the saguaro fade out, giving way to evergreens. Contour 200 feet below the hilltop and return to the relatively flat ridge, the summit in full view. Whisking through native grasses I feel elated and recall Henry David Thoreau. In youth, before I lost any of my senses, I can remember that I was all alive.

Half a mile before the summit, at 4,800 feet, the trail swings southeast. It steepens while plowing through manzanita thickets and boulders. It is uniformly pleasant climbing in a suddenly disorderly landscape.

Crest the crown at 4.6 miles and proceed to the alligator juniper which guards the popular peak register. The softly rounded summit is peaceful and beautiful with subtle ridges flowing away in all directions. The eminence is so overly large and powerful it feels sublime.

Agua Caliente Hill is in its own world, residing between mountain ranges. The full-circle panorama is boundless. You will see just the tip of Rincon Mountain, Mica Mountain, Tanque Verde Peak, Mount Wrightson, Baboquivari Peak, the Tucson Mountains, Pontatoc Ridge, the Pusch Ridge Wilderness, Mount Lemmon, Bassett Peak in the Galiuro Mountains, and Mount Graham in the Pinaleño Mountains.

The loop road in Saguaro East is visible way below to the south. On the other side, the Mount Lemmon Highway cuts its straightforward way to Molino Basin. The peaks of the Santa Catalina Mountains, so close, are clad in forest green. The stone slopes of Cathedral Rock, rise above all else on Pusch Ridge.

Most hikers will want to return to the trailhead as they came. However, if you wish to get a sense for the unadulterated, truly natural Agua Caliente Hill, traverse the off-trail ridge. Beware of thick patches of shindaggers and tall yucca with two foot spears. When annoyed, I remind myself that humans are the most dangerous creatures on Earth. By contrast agave spears are pretty good company.

From the summit, follow the ridge due west and then curve with it southwest. 

At 5.3 miles, arrive at playful stone obstacles, shown. Go straight over the first one, Class 2+. Bypass the next gendarme on the right.

The ridge is never steep. Surprisingly, there is no wildcat trail but then the grass is too thick to see your feet so an infrequently used path doesn't stand a chance. The ridge splits several times but the primary rib is easy to cipher. Stay on it. As indicated on the 7.5 topo, an old trail crosses Point 4,473' at 6.3 miles, left of center in this image. The trail is long gone so simply stay on the ridgecrest.

Return to the saguaro zone at 4,000 feet. Hedgehogs and pincushion cactus add to the ground cover mix. The image below shows Cat Track Tank center-right and the standard trail tracking down our ridge. Soon after passing above the tank you will rejoin the trail at 7.6 miles, 3,640 feet. The ridge is not a shortcut in time or mileage. And yes, the shindaggers are irritating. However, positive ridge qualities include open views all the way, beautiful native grasses, gentle undulations, and pleasing aesthetics.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Prominent Point West, 6,628', Pusch Ridge Wilderness

Essence: This monumental hike has three elements of a great climb: a sensational and sustained ridge, an idyllic park, and an enchanting summit. Visit two of the most visible landmarks seen from Tucson, Prominent Point and The Tombstone. This climb has a reputation for being masochistic. It is not. However, wear protective clothing and be familiar with strenuous off-trail climbing on Pusch Ridge. Peak baggers: Prominent East is slightly higher than West. Climbing suggestions for East and The Tombstone are at the end of this entry.
Travel: From Tucson, drive north on Oracle Road, AZ-77. Pass Ina Road and turn right on Magee Road. Go 1.5 miles to the Iris O. Dewhirst Pima Canyon Trailhead. Or, from Ina Road take Christie Drive north for 1.4 miles and turn right on Magee. The generous, paved lot is on the right. There is a drinking faucet but no other facilities. 
Distance and Elevation Gain: 9.5 miles; 3,900 feet of climbing
Time: 8:30 to 10:00
Difficulty: Pima Canyon Trail, primarily off-trail; navigation challenging; Class 2+ with mild exposure for a short distance on summit ridge; carry more water than you will need
Maps: Tucson North, AZ 7.5 Quad; or, Pusch Ridge Wilderness, Coronado National Forest, USDA Forest Service, 1:24,000
Date Hiked: December 1, 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. Prominent Point is off-limits during that time period. No dogs, ever.
Quote: What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.  
Henry David Thoreau

The northwest ridge of Mount Kimball affords a rarely seen glimpse of Prominent Point. From the left: Finger Rock Guard, Finger Rock, Prominent Point East and West.

Route: From Pima Canyon Trailhead 2,920', walk up the trail passing under Rosewood Point. Leave the trail when opposite The Cleaver. Walk south up a drainage which soon curves sharply to the northeast. Hold this bearing to the summit. Pass by The Thumb; climb it if you wish. The oldest name I have found for this feature is actually The Tombstone. A note on the North Campbell TH follows this entry.

The Pima Canyon trail is at once exquisitely beautiful and pleasurable. Begin on a welcoming broad dirt path that soon transitions to slanted bedrock. At 0.4 mile, go left at the sign, staying on Trail No. 62 toward Mount Kimball, 7,258', seven miles distant. This is a classic, essential Pusch Ridge hike for another day.

Descend to the canyon floor and cross the wash at 1.1 miles. Pima Canyon's drainageway is generally dry and while surface water may be intermittent, don't rely on it. Walk under the northern terminus of Rosewood Point. See The Cleaver to the north and then at 1.9 miles watch for a line of stones (which may not be there) framing the trail on the right intended to keep travelers from wandering onto our wildcat track.

2021 Note: The old standard route is hopelessly choked and no longer advisable. Instead, at 1.8 miles, watch for a tributary of Pima to intersect the established trail. The wash was blown out by heavy monsoons in the summer of 2021.
Turn south and simply step up the (usually dry) drainage on the stone staircase. This is infinitely easier than the 2015 route.
In just half a mile, at 2.4 miles, about 3,860 feet, reach a 15 foot wall. The Rosewood Point route goes off to the right and makes for a saddle between it and Point 5,173'. The wash hangs a 90 degree turn here and goes northeast. Go with it, passing by the wall on either side.

The next goal is the ridge, shown below, at 4,800 feet. The best strategy for dealing with the spines and spears is to work the bedrock slabs in the drainage. There's enough rock to keep the climbing pleasurable and slash-free.

The dry watercourse becomes more of a bowl at 4,300 feet where it steepens. The rim is edged with a minor cliff band on the right. It is easily avoided just to its left. Gain the ridge at 2.9 miles. The view will blow you away. Table Mountain and Bighorn are in your face.

Note: On the return, curiosity propelled us down the ridge that parallels the drainageway on the north. It started out lovely and smooth. After dropping 300 feet, we encountered intimidating gendarmes, the ridge steepened precipitously and it wasn't fun any more. So, as indicated on the map, we bailed into the gully.

The next objective is "Tombstone Park" which resides between The Tombstone and its monolithic companion, opposite. We went up the interior rib, shown below, right of the shallow defile. It was absurdly nice, practically a sidewalk made of resurrection moss ledges. It is impossible to improve on this route. I tried. On the return, I went along the outside ridge edge. It was seriously snarled with shindaggers.

Parks are unusual; not every mountain has one. Tombstone Park features a perfect rest stop on beautiful rocks. Reach it at 3.2 miles, 5,140 feet. The Tombstone is in full view, image right.

From here, you can walk up the draw adjacent to The Tombstone. Or, to stay on the ridge edge as we did, use a rock rib that leads to Tombstone's companion. Shindaggers hamper progress on this steep slope.

The Tombstone sits on a secondary spine that radiates away from our climbing ridge. The landscape is rather jumbled in here. Make for the juncture of the two ribs.

The view of Pusch Peak, The Cleaver, and Bighorn Mountain is continuous from the ridge above Tombstone Park.

Cross the ridge that laterals to The Tombstone at 3.6 miles, 5,600 feet. Now see heart-stirring Prominent Point West for the first time. Free of a false summit, from here you will see the wooded crown over most of the ensuing climb.

The next half mile or so is one of the nicest chunks of ridge anywhere in the Catalinas. It is exhilarating with premiere views. The grade is gentle, undulating without obstruction. It is absolutely beautiful. Below, my climbing companion traipses lightly along one side of Pima Canyon while heavyweight Table Mountain holds down the other.

The ridge narrows and so naturally there are fragments of a social trail, fleeting and marginal at best. "Porcupine Towers" are north of Prominent Point. At 5,700 feet, stand at a wondrous precipice. The rewards far outweigh the effort.

At 5,800 feet, encounter some class 2+ scrambling. Stay on the spine for block play, shown below. Go right of two gendarmes and promptly return to the ridgecrest each time. There is a cliff on the right creating some exposure. Past these obstacles, go up the center of the divide to the summit.

The ridge is bifurcated by numerous gashes. We are fortunate there are little passageways over the tops of them. It is almost miraculous. The one instance where a rift has no bridge is between Prominent West and East. Alas. For most of us, it is impossible to get from one to the other.

Vegetation remains an impediment. Those pesky shindaggers! At 6,250 feet piñon-juniper and oak prevail. The ridge steepens, but not markedly. Stand on the zenith at 4.7 miles. The summit is enhanced with blocky, squat towers. The obvious highpoint is easy to scale. Elation! There is a sheltered flat spot for lunch. In the image below, I am looking at Mount Kimball. Prominent East is shrub-covered, image right. (THW, photo)

The best view of East is from the south tower. It can't be more than a stone's throw away and three feet taller than West. A friend who summited it recently found only one name in the register in the past 18 months. He seriously wanted the true highpoint. (THW, photo)

Prominent Point has the widest view sweep of any mountain on Pusch Ridge. Spin from Mica Mountain to the northern end of Oro Valley. Drop from the blocks onto an extensive lower platform and walk around to see for yourself.
(THW, photo)

We intended to climb The Tombstone on our return but daylight is fleeting in December.

On the return, as you near the Pima Canyon Trail simply follow the drainage until they intersect. After being off-trail for most of the day, the established track is a pleasant, relaxing wind down. The canyon positively glows in the golden hour. Fountain grass at the wash crossing is backlit. Indomitable Saguaros stand tall over all the live things. I feel an earned sense of kinship with them after this deeply satisfying day in the Sonoran. (THW, photo)

Prominent Point East Climbing Instructions: A determined and highly skilled friend recently scaled the peak. He left the Finger Rock Trail at 3,800 feet and crossed to the west side of the canyon. This route is troubled with cliffs, choked with spiny plants, and exposed. Meanwhile, I climbed Finger Rock Guard and took a few photos of his efforts. We descended on the Finger Rock Guard social trail, rejoining the main at Linda Vista. He recommends ascending from this position.

From the Finger Rock Guard--Mount Kimball Saddle, find the social trail heading around the north side of the Guard. Stay next to the cliff and gain the east saddle between Finger Rock Guard and Finger Rock. Just for fun, here's a picture of the west saddle between Finger Rock and Prominent East taken on an earlier exploration.

Descend southwest, keeping the near cliffs on your right. Drop about 500 feet, or until the bench starts to cliff out. As soon as possible, climb up through short cliffs on your right onto a higher bench. Continue on that bench, climbing about 0.2 mile. Climb the gully between Prominent East and a substantial fin. The image below was taken from the Finger Rock trail. Looking at the sunlit structures, from the left are Prominent West, Prominent East, the fin, Finger Rock, the east saddle, and Finger Rock Guard.

Here's a look at Prominent East from Finger Rock Guard. At the top of the gully, you will emerge about 100 feet below the summit. Walk east on the tree-lined ledge, shown.

My friend scaled the second crack (on the right), a Class 4+ chimney that leads to the top. Click on this image and you will see the climber in the fissure behind a tree.

North Campbell Trailhead:
My hiking partner has used this trailhead to access Pt. 5,173'. The route is well cairned to the saddle southeast of Rosewood Point. Cairns lead to the lowest point in the cliffs below Pt. 5,173'. Do a Class 3 scramble with considerable exposure for 50 feet. Cairns cease. Contour southeast on a steep and very spiny hill for about 150 yards above the cliff band--more exposure. The vegetation is moderately bad most of the way. The crest is wonderful. If you use this trailhead and rejoin the standard Prominent Point route north of the Rosewood saddle, it will not save you time.

The Tombstone:
We attempted to scale The Tombstone in 2016 but I was not comfortable free-climbing. Here are a few images that may prove helpful if you want to give it a try. From Tombstone Park, walk along the base of the north-facing wall, depicted in the shadow in this image. The ascent pitch is the hefty, vertical crack on the left side of the capstone.

Maneuver between a fin, shown, and the wall. Do a Class 3 scramble up a narrow 20-foot pitch. The holds are good, the rock solid. I got as far as the small landing perch.

My partner explored from here. It is not difficult to enter the crack but the exposure is serious. Climb up through two trees. Next, you must climb a vertical wall with one to two-inch ledges. At the top of the wall, a chock stone complicates the passage. That's as far as he got. I do know of people who have scaled The Tombstone without a rope but a slip would be costly and I don't recommend it. Below, I'm standing on the landing looking up at my friend in the crack.