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.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Mount Ajo, 4,808', Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Essence: Mount Ajo is located at the bottom of the country, the highest peak in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Remote, yes, but it is a premier Sonoran desert hike with so many enchanting features it is hard to make progress: smooth globs of tuff, a cylindrical arch to crouch in, clusters of stone cones to play amongst, and fluorescent lichen coating sheets of bedrock. The route showcases the western wall of the volcanic Ajo Range. During superblooms there are billions of buds and blossoms.  
Travel: The Estes Canyon Picnic Area and Trailhead is 10.9 miles out the 21-mile, one-way Ajo Mountain Drive, an improved dirt road suitable for all vehicles. Pick up a free interpretive guide from the visitor center. Then cross AZ-85 to begin the scenic drive. This is a mere five miles north of the Arizona border with Mexico. Pit toilet. Bring all the water you will need. No dogs or bikes on the trail.
Twin Peaks Campground: Reservations required year round. The peaceful village has 208 sites, solar showers, and starry starry nights. 
Distance and Elevation Gain: 9.0 miles; 2,700 feet of climbing
Time: 5:30 - 7:30
Difficulty: Trail; navigation moderate (carry your map); Class 2+; no exposure; best months are November through March. Beware--do not hike in the summer when the temperature can reach a scorching 118 degrees.
Maps: Mount Ajo, AZ 7.5' Quad; Trails Illustrated No. 224, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Latest Date Hiked: February 10, 2016
Quote: I’ve made an odd discovery. Every time I talk to a savant I feel quite sure that happiness is no longer a possibility. Yet when I talk with my gardener, I’m convinced of the opposite. Bertrand Russell 

Framed by saguaros, the beige symmetrical crest of Mount Ajo rises above a 800-foot vertical wall of welded rock. The peak is visible from the Estes Canyon Picnic Area.

Route: From the Estes Canyon Trailhead at 2,380 feet, take the established Bull Pasture Trail to the overlook. Circle the south end of Bull Pasture on a cairned social trail. Bear roughly northeast and penetrate the west wall of the Ajo Range. Continue north to the crest. On the return, complete the loop in Estes Canyon.

On a stone block staircase descend into Estes Canyon and cross the wash. In 0.1 mile the trail splits at a signed junction. Go right toward Bull Pasture leaving the slightly longer Estes Canyon Trail for the return trip. The path traverses a broad canyon. Healthy, plump, multi-generational saguaro partner with chainfruit cholla towering overhead.

The track switchbacks pleasantly up a west-facing bajada crowded with organ pipe cactus. The monument is the only place in the United States to see large stands of the columnar cactus. Bats pollinate the nocturnal blooming cream-colored flowers. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Turning southeast, walk up a gentle bedrock spine flanking the prow of a volcanic buttress. The Estes Canyon Trail joins at 1.1 mile. Visually, my favorite section of trail is the half-mile spur from here to Bull Pasture. The trail inclines steeply on a stairway of placed boulders as it probes an access cleft. Northeast is Mount Ajo with its perfectly vertical western face and cliff layers stepping down through a brown breccia band to smooth, yellow hued volcanic tuff embellished with dark striations.

The pathway runs alongside golden globs of ash-fall tuff. A westward views opens and then the trail swings east to ascend slabs of stone. (THW, photo)

Reach the Bull Pasture Overlook at 1.6 miles, 3,260 feet. The established trail ends on this suspended broad bench where early ranchers grazed cattle. The sharp-eyed can see the towers atop Ajo. If you'd rather not climb the mountain this is a worthy place to turn back. Return on the Estes Canyon Loop for a total of 4.1 miles, 880 feet of gain.
(THW, photo)

For those going on to the peak, the proper social trail crosses directly east beyond the sign. It is the most obvious amongst a myriad of wildcat paths. The trail curves around the south end of Bull Pasture before traversing under the cliffs, shown.

Faithfully follow cairns southeast. At 2.0 miles the trail pivots around a perfect blue agave. Walk a few paces south to look at Diaz Spire and Peak.

Bearing northeast, do a short climb then essentially hold the contour beneath the cliff band. The trail crosses the stone floor of Estes Canyon wash at 2.6 miles and then uses the draw to penetrate the armored divide. Look up to locate a circular arch. To stand in the window approach it off-trail from the east.

Pitch steeply, topping out momentarily on a slim saddle in bulbous cones composed of compressed volcanic ash. This is an outrageous and irresistible place to stop and play.

There is one final steep and loose segment. Pass beneath startling fountains of frozen rhyolite.

The route bends northerly to reveal a false peak at the south end of the summit ridge at 3.1 miles. We are now walking on sunshine. Blazing yellow lichen clings to welded tuff, igneous rock containing debris fragments from an explosive volcanic eruption. (THW, photo)

The path makes an ascending traverse to claim the top of the divide at 3.6 miles, elevation 4,380 feet. All the country to the east is property of the Tohono O'odham Nation. The slope dives to the floor of the Barajita Valley and a couple of dusty tracks can be seen crossing to the Gu Vo Hills. Stay on the sanctioned trail as it moves east to bypass the false summit and a problematic outcrop. The mountain comes into view at 3.8 miles.

It is great fun climbing the summit block. Follow the path as it wanders skyward on breccia, a volcanic conglomerate with large chunks of random rock picked up by flowing lava. Everything gets cemented together to form new rock as it cools. Jojoba, rosewood, and juniper thrive here.

Crest the peak at 4.25 miles. The summit register is inside an enormous metal box. The prominence is a linear series of breccia mounds. There are various structures scattered all over for one purpose or another which detracts from the natural order. Soaring ravens and raptors will remind you that you are in wild country. Over 270 birds have been identified at Organ Pipe.

The vista is unparalleled from the highest eminence in the 517-square mile park. To the west you can pick out our route, Estes Canyon, Ajo Mountain Drive, Twin Peaks Campground, the Diablo Mountains, Tillotson Peak, Pinkley Peak, and Kino Peak. (THW, photo)

Close by in the south is Diaz Peak and Diaz Spire, named for Captain Melchior Diaz, Spanish conquistador and leader of the Coronado expedition 1539-1542. Sonoyta, Mexico is 13 miles away as the crow flies. (THW, photo)

Walk to the northern end of the summit ridge to see Peaks 4,180', 4,220', and 4,088'. Hidden behind Peak 4,220' is the free-standing, cube-shaped Montezuma's Head, named in honor of the ancient O'odham deity, I'itoi. The Santa Catalina Mountains rise above Tucson and Baboquivari Peak claims landmark status throughout southern Arizona.

If a climber was standing on Peak 4,740' you could hold a conversation but passage to the second tallest mountain in the Ajo Range is prohibited due to a series of faceted cliffs and palisades. (THW, photo)

On the return, we left the trail to visit the arch located at 3,700 feet in elevation. From its vantage point, the cones were accentuated in afternoon light.

Inside the arch.

Retrace your steps and soon you will once again be alongside the tuff buttress which, from this side, looks like a fin. Turn right at the junction with the Estes Canyon Trail. It adds a half mile but enriches the experience. The beautifully crafted path switchbacks to the canyon floor. It is mostly flat from here to the trailhead. Walk through a lush arboretum of Sonoran plants. (THW, photo)

In 2005, I climbed Mount Ajo during a superbloom. My field notes indicate that in March the following plants were blossoming: brittlebush, buckwheat, triangle bursage, creosotebush (one of the oldest living organisms on the planet), desert chicory, ephedra, fairy duster, fiddleneck windflower, filaree, desert gilia, desert globemallow, hedgehog cactus, hummingbird bush, Indian paintbrush, jojoba, larkspur, Mojave lupine, desert marigold, Mexican gold poppy, ocotillo, palo verde, desert penstemon, phacelia, pincushion cactus, pink owl clover, ragged rock flower, sand lacepod, sedum, shrubby deervetch, trailing windmill, verbena, and yellow trumpet bush. 

Twenty-six cactus species live in Organ Pipe. By April the cholla will be blooming: chainfruit, staghorn, buckhorn, and teddybear. Wait until May for organ pipe, saguaro, Engelmann prickly pear, as well as agave, and yucca. It might be July before the barrels start blossoming but by then it will be impossibly hot.

Little curled up brown balls of innocuous spikemoss boarder the trail. After a soaking rain this groundcover aptly named resurrection plant turns a moist, vibrant green. Likewise, throughout this magnificent hike, I felt like I'd died and gone to heaven.

March, 2019 Superbloom, THW, photo