Sunday, May 1, 2016

Cathedral Rock, 7,957', and Window Peak, 7468'

Essence: A two-day backpack utilizing two major corridor canyons. Climb Cathedral Rock and Window Peak, and stand beneath Window Rock. Almost every peak on Pusch Ridge is a difficult proposition. Most require over 4,000 feet of elevation gain. Even primary trails are beaten routes through a stony landscape. Cathedral Rock is the highpoint of the Pusch Ridge Wilderness and the Santa Catalina Mountain front range. Given its remoteness and the correct proportions of excitement, difficulty, effort, unobstructed vista, and pure pleasure, it is the grand prize for Pusch Ridge devotees. Expect an extraordinarily high degree of solitude adjacent to a significant city. Anticipate an unprecedented thrill and transcendent adventure in this mythic rock wilderness.
Travel: This trip requires a short shuttle. First, drop a vehicle at the Ventana Canyon Trailhead. From Sunrise Drive and Kolb Road in Tucson, drive 1.3 miles north on Kolb Road to a brown Ventana Canyon Trailhead sign. Turn right and in one block, go left and drive through the overflow lot of Loews Ventana Canyon Resort. Park on the other side of a chain link fence. No water, no facilities. Drive back down Kolb Road and at Sunrise Drive, turn left and go 1.2 miles to Sabino Canyon Road. Turn left and in 0.1 mile, turn right into the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area. Park in the paved lot, placing your Coronado Recreational Pass or National Parks Pass on your dash. Absent one of these, pay $5.00 for a day pass at the entrance booth or at the self-pay station. Water and bathrooms at the trailhead.
Distance and Elevation Gain: The two-day backpack is 22.2 miles and 8,100 feet of climbing; Cathedral Rock out-and-back via Esperero Canyon is 18.2 miles, 6,100 feet of elevation gain; Window Peak out-and-back via Ventana Canyon is 15 miles, 4,600 feet of climbing
Time: Two day backpack
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation challenging; Cathedral Rock has a 30-foot, very steep Class 5.0-5.2 crack with a fixed rope, and a Class 2+ move with considerable exposure; an arduous hike for skilled climbers; Window Rock, protected Class 3
Maps: Sabino Canyon; Mt. Lemmon, AZ 7.5 Quads, or Pusch Ridge Wilderness, Coronado National Forest, USDA Forest Service, 1:24,000
Dates Hiked: May 1-2, 2016
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. Cathedral Rock and Window Peak are off-limits during that time period. No dogs, ever.
Quote: You are what your deep driving desire is. As your desire is, so is your will. As your will is,
so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny.
The Upanishads

Cathedral Rock from Window Peak. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Route: Beginning in Sabino Canyon, take the Esperero Trail northward to the backpacker's camp at Bridalveil Falls. Leave the big packs in camp and do an out-and-back day hike to Cathedral Rock via the Cathedral Rock Trail and an off-trail route. The second day, from Bridalveil Falls, climb the Esperero Trail to a saddle southeast of Window Peak and make a short climb to the summit. Visit Window Rock on the way to Ventana Canyon, the exit corridor.

 This map is a closeup of the off-trail routes to the two peaks.

Esperero Canyon Trail To Bridalveil Falls Camp
From Sabino Canyon Trailhead 2,725', walk up the paved road. Cathedral Rock dominates other far-away prominences image-center. Go left onto Esperero Trail #25 at 0.7 mile.

Climb on perfectly angled rock runners and stone stairs enveloped in Sonoran splendor. At 1.4 miles Rattlesnake Trail heads off to the right. We are not getting to Esperero, the trail's eponymous canyon, any time soon. So many undulations! Drop to the floor of Bird Canyon at 2.2 miles. On another day, head up this canyon, plowing through the fountain grass and arrive at a  perfect shower fall in a couple of miles.

Next, the trail wanders back and forth across the floor of a canyon east of Mt. Miguel. It's darn steep for a canyon without a name. Another drainage comes in on the right at 3.1 miles. Our trail goes left at this juncture. However, if you want to climb Mt. Miguel another day, get on its east ridge here. It's just a blip on its own spine but a pleasant climb from the interior of this canyon.

Reach Cardiac Gap, Esperero Canyon's premiere viewpoint at 3.7 miles, 4,440 feet. Pause for a sobering view of today's quest and finally, see down into Esperero Canyon. The track stays on the east side of the canyon, achieving the floor in Geronimo Meadow at 4.7 miles, 4,640 feet. Altogether, the path loses 400 feet in elevation going in and out of canyons on its wandering way into Esperero. If you are climbing Cathedral in one day, the elevation stated above includes that figure. Crisscross the dry wash in the shade of alligator juniper and sycamore. The pale granitic bedrock is smoothed and softened by water. Tower cairns mark the crossings, mimicking the standing rocks that foretell the hike's future.

Reach Bridalveil Falls and the backpacker's camp at 6.2 miles, 5,320 feet. Beware! This moist region was thick with poison ivy in 2016. We are relieved to find streamlets of plentiful, clear water which we treat. The falls are not always running so be prepared with a fall-back plan. Either you hauled sufficient water, or it's game over. Stash the backpacks and exchange them for daypacks. The out-and-back to Cathedral Rock is 5.8 miles and will take four to five-plus hours.

Bridalveil Falls to Cathedral Rock:
The Esperero Trail steepens to gain an interior ridge. Turn right on Cathedral Rock Trail #26, 0.9 mile from camp, at 7.1 miles, 6,120 feet. It climbs right out of the gait into piñon-juniper country. Wrap around a corner for a vista all the way over to Rincon Peak, then follow the contour for a pleasant break. The thin track doesn't enjoy much use.

At 8.2 miles, gain Saddle 6,900' west of Pt. 7006'.  The summit of Cathedral Rock is clearly visible to the northwest. In this image there are two towers. The high point is on the right, the northernmost spire. The preferred route gains the summit ridge left of the south tower and right of the shaded cliff wall.

Leave the Cathedral Rock Trail and ascend a climber's path up the ridge to a flat spot at 7,100 feet with several small campsites. Here, the route turns northwest and holds that bearing to the summit ridge. Cairns in 2016 were dependable only to 7,440 feet, pictured below. The summit block itself is visible on the right.

The next goal is the summit ridge. Ideally, you will gain it just south of the south tower. Cairns in 2016 were intermittent and at times we were left stranded at impassible cliffs or other over-steep friction pitches. Work your way northwest up the slope. It is a bouldering experience with occasionally steep and moderately exposed friction climbing. There are multiple ways, some safer than others. If you get on a pitch that is too steep and exposed, find an alternative. For example, we didn't like the looks of this segment.

This alternative was better.

I pause to look at Mount Lemmon while climbing the pitch. (THW, photo)

At 7,800 feet gain the summit ridge. You will be somewhere in the region shown below. The next objective is the base of the northernmost spire on the ridge. The south tower is the prominence, image-right. Aim for the left side of it.
(THW, photo)

Pass west of the south tower while going down a dirt slope.

This leads directly to the base of the summit tower at a 30-foot crack (approximately) at 7,860 feet. In 2016 there was a fixed rope in excellent condition anchored to a piñon. However, be very careful using any rope you have not fixed yourself. We tested the rope with our full weight, but there is still some unavoidable risk in this. Some refer to this as a chimney but it really is a wide crack. Without the line, I would be out of luck. Given the rope, good arm strength, and powerful desire, the climb was quickly over. There is a small resting platform part way up. (THW, photo)

This image was shot from the ground as I near a chockstone that must be negotiated. I am not a technical climber. On the ascent I had one hand on the rope and was able to find holds for the other. The descent was more difficult and I "walked down the rope" with two hands. (THW, photo)

Once up the wall, go north and you will shortly arrive at the unmistakable summit block. Literally. It is one big chunk of solid granite. Here it is as seen from a companion boulder. So beautiful! (THW, photo)

Go around to the east side and make your last move. It is Class 2+ with solid holds on excellent rock with no-nonsense exposure.

I have dreamed of this moment for 15 years and I am ecstatic. (THW, photo)

Cathedral Rock is an arduous 9.1 miles from the Sabino Canyon Trailhead and we have climbed over 5,600 feet to this point. The crest is airy with room for about five people. It is on a slight slant and ferocious wind gusts keep us seated. The peak register is a useless wad of wet paper in a white pipe. We are most definitely higher than anything around us, 5,200-plus feet above Tucson. Look into the West Fork of Sabino Canyon and over to Romero Pass; only Mount Lemmon has this bastion on height, but not might. The see-forever view includes all the ranges of Southern Arizona. Looking at the image below, see the Pusch Ridge lineup from Window Peak to Table Mountain. Close by, the south tower stands out image-left, but there are clusters of standing rocks, rock stacks, rock spires all over looking so cool. I adore it when a mountain exceeds my wildest imaginings. (THW, photo)

Once off the actual summit it is fun to scamper around on companion boulders. (THW, photo)

Return to the Bridalveil Falls camp as you came and you will have hiked 12.0 miles and climbed 5,700 feet.

Day Two: Window Peak, Window Rock, Ventana Canyon Trail
The trek out of camp feels extra steep with the big packs. Upon reaching the junction with the Cathedral Rock Trail at 0.9 mile, stay left. Follow the contour on the underutilized track into the main drainage of Esperero Canyon. Boulders are massive, trees gigantic, towers look like castles, and clouds screech across the sky skimming the ridge. Once on the west side of the canyon, the trail climbs to the obvious saddle at 6,700 feet. It is brushy and faint in places.

The views on both sides of this short-lived saddle are ultra dramatic. Bearing southwest, the path hugs stone to climb a cliff formation, winding between clusters of standing rocks--a perfect trail. Top out on a little bridge with a view of Window Peak.

Continue south on the trail to a saddle southeast of the peak at 7,300 feet, 2.4 miles from camp. It sits between Window Peak and Pt. 7,395'. From here, the summit is twelve minutes and 0.2 mile away. Leave the trail and walk northwest, staying on the ridge as best you can. It should feel protected. Go between two giant boulder stacks and up a rock ramp into trees. This is the only non-technical route to the summit.

The rock ramp will funnel you to the first Class 3 move. It is easy for tall climbers but a considerable reach for short people who may need an assist.

 The second challenge is immediate and even more fun climbing a stout, multi-trunk oak.

As you emerge from the tree, watch the exposure while taking the last steps to the crest. (THW, photo)

Window Peak is my favorite summit along Pusch Ridge. It is unusual for a peak comprised of multiple towers to be so accessible. Sitting rocks are flat and friendly and you can scamper all over the top. It is pure delight. I come every year to stand among mythical towers and to feel as if I am living inside a legend. Today, clouds give the castles a 3D effect. (THW, photo)

Back on the trail, bear west and then, tucked right up against the peak, go around the base of the summit towers to the northwest. The Circle of Towers region holds ice and snow late in the spring. Large ponderosa give way to a view of the Window Rock structure and the creature we call the Paladin of Ventana. (THW, photo)

From this south vantage point, on a preceding day we climbed the broad fin that holds the arch in an unsuccessful attempt to stand on top of the sky hole. However, we got a dazzling view of the Paladin.

Reach Window Rock at 3.21 miles 7,000 feet. The window is a glorious, solid granite gneiss opening with a 200 foot drop on the west side. Today, a venturi effect is ripping wind through the opening. (THW, photo)

Descend northwest down stone steps and onto a ridge wonderland. Look over to the west side of Cathedral. The Esperero Trail drops well into Ventana Canyon before its terminus 4.5 miles from camp at 6,200 feet.  Finger Rock Trail #42 initiates here and goes west toward Mount Kimball. This is one of my very favorite sections of the Pusch Ridge trail system and it sees infrequent use.

Turn left on Ventana Trail #98. The upper portion of Ventana Canyon is graced with many Gothic rock spires. Come to a spring at 5.1 miles, 5,600 feet. A trickle of water flows over fluted rock. Gathering water would be a chore and there is no campsite. At 5,480 feet, there is a brief moment when you can see the sky through Window Rock.

Ventana is a rough and rugged drainage with humongous boulders. Our trail stays on the west side of the creek, at times well above. Then it dives back down into the depths on a ultra steep trail with more boulders than dirt. The track is engineered to avoid cliff structures while suspending itself above narrows with pools. Typical of Pusch Ridge canyons, the Ventana floor is impassible.

At 4400 feet, return to the grassland zone with gnarled Arizona oaks, sotol, and beargrass. Then comes sweet smelling bursage, massive prickly pear, and mesquite.

At 7.3 miles, 4,200 feet, turn off to the Maiden Pools carved into Santa Catalina Gneiss. A series of pools step down icy grey, white, and dappled rock before the water launches over a 60 foot cliff.

As an aside, if you wish to scramble to the base of Ventana Falls cross the stream and follow that trajectory for about 50 feet. Descend through a weakness in the cliff face. Then climb down a Class 4, 12-foot vertical wall with solid finger holds and small foot platforms. Looking at the image below, the climbing route is just to the right of the gneiss wall. (THW, photo)

Back on the trail, just beyond the pools is Ventana Vista at 7.7 miles. This premiere viewpoint is a turn-around landmark for day hikers.

The treadway takes an abrupt dive down a switchback series made of natural stone stairs. It is somewhat laborious with the big packs. Upon reaching the canyon floor at 8.2 miles, 3,780 feet, the path is bounded by a tower-forming formation common in the lower elevations of Pusch Ridge canyons. The metamorphic granitic gneiss is molted dark brown, black, and orange with streaks of horizontal veins. Its ledges house an impossibly large number of saguaros that provide a soothing and vertical linearity in a chaotic landscape.

Zigzag through a fence at the boundary of the Pusch Ridge Wilderness at 9.2 miles. In the runout, walking is practically flat. Approaching the Ventana Canyon trailhead, there's a bit of a disconnect as the trail takes the middle path between the resplendent wilderness and a condo complex.

Reach the Ventana Canyon Trailhead, elevation 3,000 feet, at 10.2 miles and a climbing accumulation of 2,400 feet for the day.

Cathedral Rock from Sutherland Ridge, March, 2017.
Window Peak from Window Rock, 2022.
The climbing crack of Window Peak from Point 7,395', 2022.


  1. Just discovered your blog. Excellent adventure journalism, wilderness wisdom...and courage!

  2. What a lovely compliment, Deborah, thank you.

  3. Great blog and photos, Debra. We're looking to do the Ventana / Esperero trails in one day next April. Which direction do you recommend? How long would it take you carrying light packs? (I realize this is subjective.) How is the weather?

    Again, enjoying your posts. Some places I've been, a lot I haven't. Thanks.


    1. Larry, I have hiked the loop with Window Peak (minus Cathedral Rock) several times but all my records are at home and I'm on the road. It is a long day hike for sure, about 15 miles. Ventana is considerably steeper and rougher than Esperero--direction is hiker preference. Thanks for reading. Debra

  4. We've been on Ventana up to Maiden Pools, and Esperero up to Bridalveil Falls. From my research it seems like both of these are much steeper past these points. I'm leaning towards taking Ventana first to get the climbing out of the way, and to be able to turn around later in the day instead of finishing the loop if things get too hairy. Mostly I wanted to make sure there weren't difficult scrambles etc. that really should be taken in a particular direction.

    Thanks for your quick reply. Looking forward to checking out some of your other destinations.

  5. Excellent trip report as always, Debra. Thank you for posting! I noticed that the trail crosses a drainage a number of times. Would you consider this a reliable water source in early May? If not, where would you suggest we stash our extra water for the descent?