Sunday, March 12, 2017

Catalina State Park to Mount Lemmon, 9,157', Via Sutherland Trail

Essence: Ascend from the desert floor to the crown of the Santa Catalina Mountains on the seldom traveled Sutherland Trail. Begin in lazy Sutherland Wash bottomland and rise to a poppy-laced bajada with ancient, venerable saguaros. Grassland yields to forest where boulder balls hold down the ground softened with pine needles. Strong hikers should not be deterred by the arduous nature of the route. Wonder accumulates along this fascinating tour while the hours, ascent, and miles flash by. Finish within 17 feet of the mountaintop at the Mt. Lemmon Sky Center Observatory gate. The trail is clear except for 1.5 miles on the ridge where the route is well-marked with cairns and flagging. Sure, if you do this hike in the downhill direction, elevated, gigantic views will be even better. But you will not have climbed the mountain! There are other approaches: Oracle Ridge is the oldest path up Mt Lemmon; Romero Canyon to the Mt. Lemmon Trail is the most popular. The Sutherland Trail will be a private, ungroomed experience. In 1881, Emerson Stratton, a local rancher, named the peak in honor of botanist Sara Plummer Lemmon.
Travel: This thru-hike requires a significant, time-consuming shuttle. For uphill hikers, leave a vehicle at Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley the night before: drive up the Catalina Highway to mile marker 24.6 and turn right on Ski Run Road. Drive 1.4 miles to the base of the ski area and park in the small lot on the right side of the road. The main lot on the left is locked after business hours. The morning of the hike, drive to Catalina State Park and park in a large paved lot at the end of the road. Pit toilets, water, and campground.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 12.3 miles to the Sky Center gate, plus 1.9 miles to walk down the paved road to your vehicle for 14.2 miles total; 6,800 feet of accumulated vertical
Time: 7:30 to 10:00
Difficulty: Trail; navigation moderate; no exposure; Class 2+ on the ridge; brush and thorns, wear long pants; carry all the water you will need.
Maps: Oro Valley; Mt. Lemmon, AZ 7.5 USGS Quads, or Pusch Ridge Wilderness, Coronado National Forest, USDA Forest Service, 1:24,000
Date Hiked: March 12, 2017 Note: The ideal season is spring soon after snow melt. Beware of summertime thunderstorms.
Quote: To walk, to be free of artificial constructs, to feel earth, sky, the forces of life through our feet, sun on our skin or maybe rain, it’s all one. Ace Kvale

Along the Sutherland trail: Pusch Ridge, from Cathedral Rock to Table Mountain, as viewed from the junction with the Samaniego Ridge Trail at 8,040 feet. (THW, photo)

Route: From Catalina State Park, elevation 2,717 feet, take the Sutherland Trail for 10.7 miles to its terminus at 8,520 feet. Take Mt. Lemmon Trail #5 to the paved road and proceed up to the Sky Center Observatory. Descend on the road to your shuttle vehicle at Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley. The trail is well marked but requires the ability to follow cairns. The route differs from maps while making its way from the Cargodera Canyon crossing at 4,540 feet to Pt. 7460'. The blue-line route is a side trip up Pete's Knob. The red-line trail visits historic Lemmon Rock Lookout.

Catalina State Park is located at the base of the western front of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Established in 1982, an elaborate maze of trails wind through 5,500 acres known for a diverse bird and floral population. From the north end of the parking lot, cross the road to access the trailhead. The Romero Canyon Trail to Romero Pools and beyond to Romero Pass commences from the same trailhead as the Sutherland. The paths diverge immediately.

We began walking in silhouette light. The north wall of Table Mountain was a formidable black block. Pusch Ridge has a strong, massive presence while desert lowland lies quietly to the west. Our goal is out of sight; it is sobering to realize we will be climbing higher than anything we can see. The image below was taken on one of two exploratory hikes. The Sutherland Trail is rumored to be hard to follow so we pre-hiked the lower five miles to nail it. This proved enjoyable but unnecessary. We also hiked the upper portion to check out snow depth.

Sutherland Wash cuts a broad, shallow swath through the river valley having consumed the waters of Romero Canyon. At 0.4 mile, cross to the east side of the ephemeral drainage on stones. Ford once again and Samaniego Peak is a spiking triangle that remains in view throughout this journey which takes us past and above its access route. The trail skirts just west of the first prominent knob on Sutherland Ridge, shown.

A green wall of geriatric saguaros signals the first trail junction. Descend on wooden steps to the confluence of Sutherland and Romero washes. At 0.8 mile, the Canyon Loop Trail bears right and crosses Romero Wash. The Sutherland Trail crosses its namesake wash and then turns left to stairstep up a wedge of land between the two principal drainages. To be technical, from here to the Powerline Road, we are on the Sutherland Cutoff Trail constructed by the Southern Arizona Hiking Club in 1984. It provides the link from the state park to the historic Sutherland Trail. (THW, photo)

Walk through one of the prettiest bajadas in Southern Arizona. In spring, the grassy plain is consumed by vast fields of Mexican gold poppies, still sleeping in morning twilight. But yellow evening primrose are wide awake. Lupine line the track, owl's clover add pizzazz, ragged rock flower emits fragrance, tackstem are sticky, and even the four-wing saltbush is gorgeous with pale green leaves. Fairydusters are everywhere but still manage to defy the ordinary.

The Pusch Ridge Wilderness boundary is at 1.3 miles. Dogs are not allowed and bighorn sheep are protected from January 1 to April 30, so stay within 400 feet of the trail. In a few paces, the spur trail to lower Romero Canyon forks right. At 2.1 miles the path leaves the wilderness briefly to cut across the eastern corner of Catalina State Park.

The track climbs gently through weathered granitic boulders, remnants that peeled off the western end of Sutherland Ridge.

Unhook a sturdy wire fence at 2.6 miles and exit the park. The Sutherland Trail skims outside the northern boundary of the wilderness until it climbs out of Cargodera Canyon. Jump across the lively Cargodera creek on exposed water-scoured granite. You can count on water up to six months of the year.

The Sutherland Cutoff Trail ends in 2.8 miles at Trico Electric Powerline Road. The line was constructed to supply power to the Mt. Lemmon Air Force Radar Station during the Cold War. From 1956 to 1969 it was the world's highest continuously operated radar station, scanning the sky for incoming enemy missiles and planes. The lower portion of the original Sutherland Trail became a construction road. The powerline is still maintained and the wires are live.

The junction is well marked. Turn right and walk up the road covered in apricot-colored baby heads and bowling balls. The road is used occasionally by serious four-wheelers. Below, it is taking aim temporarily at Samaniego Peak.

The Baby Jesus Trail comes in from the north, noted with a large cairn at 3.7 miles, 3,760 feet. We've picked up the first thousand feet without noticing. The topography is appealing and expansive, altogether more open than the east side of Pusch Ridge. Here's a shot back at the Tortolita Mountains just as the sun rises over the ridge behind us.

The road bears east paralleling Sutherland Ridge with its four distinctive knobs. Water leaches from the slope, the rocks gleam. A vertical channel scoured by debris flows characterizes the fourth prominence, Pt. 6,167', image-left. Cargodera Canyon grows even more beautiful as it narrows. Across the trench, there are vertical rock fins on the lower flanks of the ridge. (THW, photo)

Arizona oak and sotol take over where the saguaro leave off. A peacefulness pervades the landscape of tall grasses. The road becomes less stony, the walking easier, but only a rock crawler could negotiate the deep ruts and bedrock boulders. Pete's Knob is shown in the image below. It is named for Pete Cowgill, co-author with Eber Glendening, of The Santa Catalina Mountains, a renowned hiking guide that is sadly out of print. Access to the knob, noted with a blue line on the map above, is from the top of a small rise on the road at 4.8 miles, 4,420 feet. Come back on another day for a pleasant climb up the grassy knoll for great views of the Oro Valley, Tortolitas, and Baby Jesus Ridge. (THW, photo)

The track crosses Cargodera Creek once again at 5.4 miles, 4,540 feet, where vehicles dare not venture. Water is crystal clear, running strong after a wet winter. After hopping across the creek, buck up steeply out of the draw and enter a juniper and oak woodland. Manzanita and grass are overtaking the thinning road. Stones include big chunks of quartz. My favorite part of this richly segmented hike is the interval between Cargodera Creek and Sutherland Ridge. Watching the landscape unfold as we make progress is wondrous.

The trail bears south up a north-facing ridge. It passes through the beargrass and yucca world. At 4,860 feet gain the top of a small saddle east of Pt. 4,957', shown. The trench carries another tributary of Cargodera Canyon we will soon cross. From here, the path turns southeast. (THW, photo)

A steel Sutherland sign, hand stenciled with an acetylene torch, is located at the Pusch Ridge Wilderness boundary. Upcoming, is the longest stint in the wilderness, lasting until the trail intersects the powerline once again on the ridge at 7,760 feet. The coolest sign on the planet indicates that the Mt. Lemmon Hwy is 6.6 miles away. The road is replaced by a trail; its location often differs from what's indicated on the map. (THW, photo)

The image below was snapped near the sign. Shown, is the north-facing ridge the path climbs to gain Sutherland Ridge just east of Pt. 6,755', the small bump on the horizon left of center. There is a thin waterfall seen left of the tree. Descend to the east tributary of Cargodera Canyon set in a deep ravine with cottonwoods. It contributes as much water as the main canyon. Cross the stream at 5.9 miles, 4,840 feet. 

Switchback up the hillside on a constructed crushed granite footpath with a consistent incline. We clear three fallen madrone trees from the trail. Please do likewise to assist those who follow. The woods thicken with ponderosa at 5,400 feet, providing shade. The air cools. The path plows through spheroidal granite boulders. The trek is non-stop fascinating. If anything, it feels like we are going way too fast. This image shows Pt. 6,167' on Sutherland Ridge.

Cross a dry, stony drainage at 7.2 miles, 5,960 feet. Boulders are strewn on the face of the slope in a heavy forest with a thick mat of pine needles on the floor. The grade steepens.

At 7.7 miles enter a shallow draw just shy of the ridgetop. Keep your wits about you to stay on the subtle path. At 7.8 miles, 6,720 feet, gain the ridge. While this important location is obvious for uphill hikers, it was not marked for those going downhill and a wildcat trail continued west on the ridge. We blocked that with a log fence and placed a large cairn to mark the correct descent route. Look for the trail going just left of the twin ponderosas in this image.

Turn east and climb the west face of Pt. 7,460'.

For the next 1.5 miles, the Sutherland is a route, not a trail. It takes the path of least resistance, judiciously working its way around big boulders and obstructions. Don't get separated from the cairns and flagging. It's a bit of a puzzle and very fun with a few class 2+ moves in the huge boulders. Progress slows.

The ridge thins affording spectacular views. In this image, Cathedral Rock looks very much like its name implies. Romero Pass is to its left and Table Mountain is right of Pt. 7,460'.

Climbing Pt. 7,561' is a blast in gigantic boulders with rock pockets. The route goes just east of this highpoint.
(THW, photo)

The route transforms back into a trail and at 9.4 miles, 7,760 feet, it intersects the powerline and leaves the wilderness. The wires dive underground just beyond this point.
In 2003, the Aspen Fire burned 84,750 acres on Mt. Lemmon, destroying 340 structures in Summerhaven. Ponderosa are making a strong comeback and the trail plows through soft greenness. There is evidence of total burn-off approaching Samaniego Ridge. The trail ascends the small hill with a stand of old growth ponderosa, fire survivors, image-center. It then joins the Mt. Lemmon Trail on the rounded ridge at right.

Intersect Samaniego Ridge Trail #7 at 9.9 miles, 8,040 feet. The CaƱada del Oro is 0.6 mile north. The Arizona Trail shares the Sutherland Trail for 0.8 mile to the junction with the Mt. Lemmon Trail where it turns downhill toward Romero Pass.

There is a stand of aspen on the north face of the next ridge where we kicked steps in soft snow.

In 2017, there was a  blowdown just before the junction with the Mt. Lemmon Trail at 10.7 miles, 8,520 feet. The terminus of the Sutherland Trail is on a forested flat. The route to the mountaintop now joins the trodden path coming up from Romero Pass.

An abandoned bulldozed road heads east on a narrow ridge with dramatic views south into the Wilderness of Rocks, the Santa Catalina front range, and the Rincon Mountains. The four climbers on this dome did a technical climb up an east crack.

At the junction with Meadow Trail #5A at 11.5 miles, bear right staying on #5. You can certainly go that way but it holds snow deep into spring and is a slightly greater effort.

If you have the energy be sure to make the side trip to Lemmon Rock Lookout. It is indicated with a red line on my map. To do this add-on, at a marked junction at 11.8 miles, follow a road to the right. The Lookout Tower is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was erected in 1928 and is the oldest lookout still in use in the Coronado National Forest. It is a magical little building on a stone perch with an ancient tree beside a rock staircase. From the Lookout, a wildcat trail goes up a small ridge to rejoin #5.

Deep pine and fir woods surround the Mt Lemmon Trail, an easy finish up a gentle grade. Upon intersecting the paved road, walk up just another 0.1 mile to the locked gate at the Mt. Lemmon Sky Center Observatory, 17 feet shy of the crest. This is as close are we are going to get to the top of our mountain. Reach the gate at 12.3 miles, elevation 9,140 feet, after a whopping 6,800 feet of total vertical.

Since 1970, the Steward Observatory Field Station has operated seven telescopes on the summit. The largest is a 61-inch telescope built in the early 1960's to survey the moon in preparation for upcoming lunar missions. Pictured is the Air Force Radar Station. Microwave and television towers are in the vicinity.

The official Mt. Lemmon Trailhead is located a few steps down the road. A small fee is charged to park here, or display an interagency pass. Once the snow melts on the summit road the upper lot is opened. Check ahead. Because the lower gate has never been open in all my years of biking and hiking up here, I consider this trailhead a non-option for parking. It is 1.9 miles between the upper and lower gates.

In contrast to our trail of solitude, the road is likely to be crowded with people escaping the heat in Tucson. There are expansive views through openings in old growth fir and large aspen covered in arborglyphs. The final hairpin overlooks Oracle Ridge and Samaniego Ridge. Lose 800 feet to the gate at elevation 8,340 feet. The stroll is a pleasant finish to a glorious and deeply satisfying day.


  1. Thanks for this walk through! Really enjoyed reading!

    1. Thank you for reading and for your comment, Daniel. Debra