Friday, January 27, 2017

Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, Tucson, AZ

Essence: Join a deep field of Tucson residents launching into the Sonoran at the edge of their desert city. Enjoy the communal experience on an elaborate system of trails, from short and flat to long and steep. The Sabino tram will transport you to the Pusch Ridge Wilderness frontier. From there you may simply ride or walk back down the road, or hike for days in the Coronado National Forest. Families play in pools and waterfalls, birders abound, and saguaro lovers will discover an abundance that rivals the national park. In springtime, the desert is a riotous profusion of joy-inducing blossoms. Seven hikes are described.
Travel: Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is located at the northeast corner of Sunrise Drive and Sabino Canyon Road in Tucson. The sizable paved lot fills on weekends so arrive by 9:00 a.m. Overflow parking is half a mile north of the main entrance. At the entrance station, show your Coronado Recreation Pass, National Parks Pass, or pay $5 for the day. Tram and fee information.
Sabino Canyon Visitor Center: Water, bathrooms, and an informative park brochure are available at the visitor center gift shop and museum where you will find a large and helpful staff.
Time: Four hours to all day
Difficulty: Trail; navigation easy; no exposure
Map: Sabino Canyon, AZ 7.5 USGS Quad
Quote: One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.  William Shakespeare

Located in the recreation area, the Seven Falls of Bear Canyon are charged with snowmelt on a January day.

Routes: Seven hikes are described in order of difficulty, beginning with the easiest: Bajada Nature Trail, green-line; Sabino Canyon Tram to Shuttle Stop 9 with an option to walk down Sabino Canyon Road, black-line; Phoneline Trail to or from Stop 9, purple-line; Bear Canyon Trail to Seven Falls, blue-line; and Blacketts Ridge, red-line. The Esperero Trail and Sabino Canyon Trail to Hutch's Pool are discussed at the end of this post. Elevation at the visitor center is 2,725 feet. 

Bajada Loop Nature Trail
Distance and elevation gain: The flat, 0.3 mile loop begins 500 feet southeast of the visitor center. Plants are thriving on the bajada runout, sand and gravel washed from the Santa Catalina Mountains. (THW, photo)

Placards identify the state tree, blue palo verde, ocotillo, staghorn and chain fruit cholla, Engelmann prickly pear, white thorn and catclaw acacia, fish hook barrel, brittlebush, desert hackberry, and the ever-living creosote. The grand prize in the plant community at Sabino belongs to an elaborate crested, or cristate, saguaro with multiple arms growing from the rare anomaly.  

Sabino Canyon Tram
Distance and elevation gain: It is 3.8 miles to the end of Sabino Canyon Road. The elevation at Shuttle Stop 9 is 3,334 feet. The tram leaves the visitor center every half hour. Tickets are available at the shuttle hub, $10 in 2017. Ride the tram uphill to hear the driver's informative narration. (THW, photo)

The highest concentration of mountain lions in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness inhabit Sabino Canyon. Watch for badgers, bobcats, white-tailed deer, javelina, fox and coyote, elusive bighorn sheep, gila monsters, tortoises, rattlesnakes, and roadrunners dashing across the pavement. (THW, photo)

Snow and rain captured by the Santa Catalina Mountains creates a luscious oasis in Sabino Creek. Some leafy trees, such as Arizona sycamore, are remnants of much larger forests that existed over a million years ago when the climate was wetter. Only along perennial streams have these species been able to make the bridge to today’s desert. The riparian woodland is thick with walnut and alder, cottonwood, Arizona oak, and alligator juniper.

Sabino Canyon is famous for its swimming holes and stone water slides. Families frequent the pools between Shuttle Stops 1 and 2, shown below. In the early 1930's the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built the four-mile scenic road and made recreational improvements. At Stop 1 they built the masonry bathroom, a riverbed stone drinking fountain, and steps leading to the river, built of rough-cut stone taken from nearby canyon walls. The rusty hue of Sabino Creek is from tannin leached from the roots of Arizona oaks that grow in the canyon bottom. (THW, photo)

There are nine narrow, stone bridges over Sabino Creek each with a unique design built by the CCC. In the spring and during summer monsoons, water typically surges over the roadbed at the bridges. (THW, photo)

Exit at Stop 8 for the Anderson Dam where stone steps descend to the creek. Walk upstream to a big swimming hole, cascades, and water-scoured troughs. Search for prehistoric mortar holes formed by pounding stone pestles into the bedrock and boulders. Evidence of early Hohokam habitation is found throughout the region. Upstream of the dam, water pulses through The Crack, a cliff jumping destination. (THW, photo)

Shuttle Stop 9 is located at the end of the road, the wilderness door. The tram lingers here a few minutes before returning. Hiking options from here include the 4.1 mile (one-way) trek to Hutches Pool discussed at the end of this post. Or, walk 0.3 mile down to the water on the Sabino Creek Trail. Venture upstream for a mile to a set of renowned narrows. Or, take the Phoneline Trail back to the visitor center.

The most popular option is to walk down the road. Look to the skyline of towers as you begin the descent. Canyon scenery is intimate on foot and there is frequent, easy access to the creek.
The CCC constructed the Sabino Dam of smooth riverbed rock. To visit the dam, take Bluff Trail #51, located west of Stop 1 on the south side of the road. (THW, photo)

Phoneline Trail #27 to Shuttle Stop 9
Distance and Elevation Gain: It is 5.4 miles from the visitor center to Stop 9 with 1,250 feet of elevation gain. The Phoneline tracks high above Sabino Creek while traversing the east wall of the canyon. Allow two to three hours one-way.

From the visitor center, walk east on a wide and firm granular path. In March the blue palo verde is draped in yellow blossoms (below) and the chili-red torches of the ocotillo are in full, enthusiastic explosion. To see saguaros blooming, visit mid-May to mid-June. The desert floor is flashing with Mexican gold poppy, lupine, brittlebush, wild hyacinth, fairyduster, desert globemallow, verbena, trailing windmill, and purple twining snapdragon. 

In half a mile, turn right on the Bear Canyon shuttle road. At 0.7 mile there is a bathroom and drinking fountain. Turn right here and cross Sabino Creek. During the melt or after rain the crossing is a boots-off wade.

At 0.9 mile, the Phoneline Trail heads straight into the Sonoran.

The somewhat rocky trail is squeezed by vegetation.

In 1.4 miles, the Blacketts Ridge Trail veers off to the right. The Phoneline continues its consistent, gentle climb, Sabino Creek already far below. This image depicts water flowing over the first bridge.

In 1.8 miles the Phoneline Link Trail angles down to Shuttle Stop 2. Hikers are warned not to take this shortcut during periods of high flow because there is no bridge across the roaring creek.

Trail engineering is a marvel; walk on a generous platform exploded from the hillside. The trail is seen well ahead as it winds in and out of cliff undulations. Views are expansive into the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. Thimble Peak straddles the divide between Sabino and Bear canyons.

Contour under Acropolis Wall adorned with the towers and crenelations of Blacketts' northwest face. The first of three bedrock side drainages crosses the path at 3.7 miles. Catalina Gneiss has banded pegmatite clusters with crystalline nuggets of quartz and chunks of mica and feldspar. The unscalable cliffrock seen below is the escarpment of Saddleback Ridge.

Remain on the main track as the Historic Phoneline Trail veers down to Shuttle Stop 7 a mile shy of trail's end. The footpath initiates its descent from a highpoint of 3,700 feet, almost 400 feet above the road. The Phoneline joins the Sabino Canyon Trail at 4.9 miles. Switchback down this primary canyon trail half a mile to Stop 9. From here it is a pleasant 3.8 mile walk back to the visitor center. For those walking "down" the Phoneline, anticipate about 400 feet of elevation gain.

Bear Canyon Trail #29 to Seven Falls:
Distance and elevation gain: It is 8.6 miles roundtrip from the visitor center to beautiful Seven Falls with 1,200 feet of elevation gain. Allow three to five hours. The hike is 5.6 miles roundtrip from Bear Canyon Shuttle Stop 3. The Bear Canyon tram leaves the visitor center once an hour, $4 in 2017.

Warning: Flash floods are common in Bear Canyon, search and rescue operations, frequent. Do not attempt this hike after significant rain.

Follow directions from the visitor center to the Phoneline Trail. In a few paces, turn right onto the Bear Canyon Trail. It parallels the road in the Sonoran. Below, the footpath takes aim at Bear Canyon with Gibbon Mountain image-center.

As seen from the trail, Cathedral Rock and an exuberant stand of saguaros give little indication of the dominating riparian nature of this hike.

Step off the trail at Shuttle Stop 3 for water and a bathroom at 1.5 miles. From here either walk down an access road or the trail for 0.4 mile to road's end. The canyon has an immediate gorgeous appeal. On a hot day with a quiet flow, walk upstream on weathered bedrock, frolicking in pools and cascades.

The first crossing is at 2.2 miles with six more to follow over the next 1.7 miles. The fords vary from wide and shallow to narrow and thigh-deep. In low water it is possible to dry-hop across stones. Early winter sun illumines the southeast wall of Saddleback Ridge and a gathering of saguaros.

A stone staircase emerges from the seventh and final crossing at 3.9 miles.

The trail switchbacks high above the creek. Soon, careening and thundering Seven Falls are visible below. At 4.2 miles, a Bear Canyon Creek Trail sign is the only indicator for the unmarked spur trail to the falls. Do an easy scramble to the edge of the pool. If the falls are tame, people will be swarming all over the polished bedrock. If they are throbbing cataracts, it's too dangerous to make the leap across the breech.

Return as you came. Note: For a grand tour, consider a 9.3 mile addition. Upon exiting the spur trail, go left on the Bear Canyon Trail. More excellent swimming pools and waterfalls are a mile up the trail. 4.7 miles north of Seven Falls, go left/west on the East Fork Trail. In another 2.1 miles, turn south on the Sabino Canyon Trail and follow it 2.5 miles to Shuttle Stop 9.

Blacketts Ridge Trail #48
Distance and elevation gain: From the visitor center to Point 4,409' (image-center) at the end of the Blacketts Trail, it is 6.0 miles roundtrip with 1,800 feet of elevation gain. Allow one-and-a-half to three hours total. Blacketts rightfully deserves its devotees; it is the only ridge trail in Sabino Canyon Recreation Area.

Follow instructions for the Phoneline Trail. Stay on that track to a junction 1.4 miles from the visitor center. Here, the Blacketts Ridge Trail splits off to the right. The treadway is heavily trodden and steep. Ascend slabs of perfectly angled bedrock, stone steps, and a series of switchbacks. The sense of ridgecrest exhilaration on the divide between Sabino Canyon and Bear Canyon is amplified by premier views. Below, a hiker stands on Point 4,409', the turn-around for this hike. Beyond him the broken ridge continues to Point 5,001' and Thimble Peak.

The descent affords a step-by-step shifting vantage point of Tucson and sky islands punctuating the never-ending southern horizon. 

Sabino Extension Hikes: 
Two popular day hikes initiating in Sabino Canyon are the Esperero Trail, gold-line; and Hutch's Pool, yellow-line.

Esperero Trail #25: Walk up Sabino Canyon Road for 0.7 mile and go left at the sign. You will soon be enveloped in Sonoran reverie and solitude. Turn around at Cardiac Gap, 3.7 miles; Bridalveil Falls, 6.2 miles; or the junction with the Cathedral Rock Trail, 7.1 miles. For a detailed description of the Esperero Trail, please consult my Cathedral Rock post.

Hutch's Pool: From Shuttle Stop 9, Hutch's is 8.2 miles roundtrip with a total elevation gain of 1,600 feet. Switchback up Sabino Canyon Trail #23 for 400 feet to the 3,700 foot contour. The path is smooth and fast, unlike most Pusch Ridge corridors. There are a few pleasing interludes of rocky treadway as it winds in and out of scallops on Sabino Canyon's east wall. This remarkable passage has views of lofty Mount Lemmon, a sweeping panorama of the Santa Catalina front range, and a glimpse into the constricted, Sabino Canyon gorge.

Descend 120 feet to the junction with West Fork Trail #24 at 2.5 miles. Turn left and rock hop across the Box Camp Canyon tributary. Negotiate the rather tricky ford across the West Fork of Sabino Creek. These crossings can be dangerous in high water. At 4.1 miles, watch for the cairned spur to Hutch's Pool, the most spectacular, cliff-rimmed swimming hole ever! The image below was taken on a cool day in February when the pool was peaceful and reflective.