Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Catalina State Park to Sabino Canyon National Recreation Area Via Romero Pass, Pusch Ridge Wilderness

Essence: This classic Santa Catalina Mountain thru-hike goes from one iconic trailhead to another crossing a significant portion of the range. The distance and elevation gain make this a challenging but not a grueling hike for fit people. Plan to spend a nice long day out on the trail. Begin on the west side of the mountains on a gorgeous, constructed path of stone that twines through rock formations on a wedge of land between two canyon systems. Enter Romero Canyon at the Pools. Hike when washes are running to capitalize on the many water features. Romero Pass is the principal divide dictating the flow of the great canyons of the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. Given an early start, solitude is likely for most of the hike.
Travel: Leave one vehicle at Sabino Canyon National Recreation Area and drive to Catalina State Park. The large paved lot and trailhead is at the end of the road. Pit toilets, water, and campground. Click on the links for fee information.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 17.0 miles includes a short spur to Hutch's Pool and minor side trips to overviews; 4,200 feet of climbing. Add 3.8 miles if you miss the last tram and walk down Sabino Canyon Road. The Phoneline Trail adds 4.9 miles.
Time: 8:00 to 10:00
Difficulty: Trail; navigation easy; no exposure
Maps: Oro Valley, Mt. Lemmon, Sabino Canyon; AZ 7.5 USGS Quads, or Green Trails Maps: Santa Catalina Mountains, No. 2886S
Latest Date Hiked: March 1, 2017
Quote: The trail is wiser than he who walks it. Aramaic

This hike follows two major drainages. Hutch's Pool, located on the West Fork of Sabino Canyon, is famous for its swimming holes and cliff jumping. (THW, photo)

Route: Begin in Catalina State Park on the Romero Canyon Trail heading roughly southeast. Visit Romero Pools and top out on Romero Pass. Segue to the West Fork Trail; take a spur to Hutch's Pool. At a well-marked junction go south on the Sabino Canyon Trail. Catch a ride on the tram at Shuttle Stop 9 or walk down the road to the Sabino Canyon visitor center and parking lot.

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 penetrate the 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, elevation 2,717 feet. Go straight onto the Romero Canyon Trail.

Cross broad and lazy Sutherland Wash on stepping stones. The trail utilizes an old road as it rises gently to the east while skirting a knoll. (THW, photo)

In morning twilight the northern face of Pusch Ridge is imposing, especially square-blocked Table Mountain. Counterpoint in the north is pyramidal Samaniego Peak. The landscape is steeped in ocotillo, and prickly pear while breathless giants await horizontal shafts of first-light.

The Canyon Loop Trail branches left at 0.6 mile. Cross a mesquite and grass flat while advancing on a boulder-covered ridge between Montrose and Romero canyons. At one mile, a spur trail veers right to Montrose Pools; the best tanks are upstream. At the Pusch Ridge Wilderness boundary a hand stenciled steel sign directs toward the pass. Dogs are not allowed and bighorn sheep are protected from January 1 to April 30; stay within 400 feet of the trail.

One of the finest segments of this multi-faceted hike is between the boundary and Romero Pools. A beautiful stone passageway follows the dictates of the landscape, pitching up on stairs and bedrock. The artistically engineered footpath was blasted through alluring rock formations yet it feels perfectly natural. The granitic floor is impregnated with quartz crystals. It is akin to an ancient path wending to a mountain castle. (THW, photo)

The trail ascends the wild wedge favoring the Montrose Canyon side. Look down into the pools and hear frolicking water. Fairyduster, shrubby deervetch, penstemon, and wild hyacinth line the sides of the magical trail. (THW, photo)

Gain the divide at 2.0 miles, 3,620 feet. Shortly beyond is a point of vantage overlooking the cascades of lower Romero. The path contours north of Pt. 3,935' and then drops to the pools at 2.8 miles, 3,680 feet. Water-scoured slides, cascades, and deep tanks in polished granite extend both up and downstream. Water flows most of the year with the possible exception of June. Later in the day the trail will be busy with people visiting the classic Catalina waterworks. Below, the pools cling to fleeting twilight while the sun quickens Leviathan. (THW, photo)

The first of two stream crossings in this area is at 3.2 miles. An alternate high water ford lies upstream.

The trail crosses back to the north side of the wash where it initiates a steady climb to bypass a stone barrier wedge. The grassy hillside was ravaged by the 2003 Aspen Fire. Surviving mature Arizona oak cling to canyon slopes. An overview at 4.6 miles takes in three tributary drainageways and the Romero Canyon kink. (THW, photo)

Cross a contributing gully and then drop to the canyon bottom at Romero Spring, 5.2 miles, 4,680 feet. The spring runs about eight months of the year. A luxurious backpacker's camp is nestled in a grove of tall black oaks and over-sized Arizona juniper. (THW, photo)

Prehistoric bedrock metates are located on a streamside boulder.

The trail remains in the canyon bottom for the next 1.5 miles. Pay attention to cairns on the convoluted and bouldery path through the riparian environment. In places the trail is washed away by flooding and obscured by spill-over channels. Cross the creek several times. Clamber over fallen timber. Gigantic, old growth ponderosa taken down by fire lie beside the trail, the understory now recovered.

Cross the main channel for the last time at 5,340 feet and take direct aim at the pass. In 2017, the trail was overgrown; climb over deadfall. The grade steepens briefly before cresting Romero Pass at 7.3 miles, 6,080 feet. Elevation gain to this point is 3,780 feet.

While Romero Pass is not especially compelling aesthetically, it is a principal divide. The dome-like Mt. Lemmon massif rises to the northeast. In contrast, the craggy and edgy peaks of the Catalina Front Range are to the southwest. From the pass, water flows northwest into Sutherland Wash while the West Fork flows southeast into Sabino Canyon. On a clear day, the Rincon Mountains are visible in a broad sky wedge. In this image the pass rests below the runout of the northeast ridge of Cathedral Rock. While it is tempting to begin climbing from here, there are better ways to achieve the peak.

Three trails radiate from the pass. Leave the Romero Canyon Trail and head down the West Fork Trail. The footpath is shared with the Arizona Trail to Sabino Canyon Trail. Note: Linking from the Romero Canyon Trail to the Mt. Lemmon Trail is the most popular route to the crest of Catalina's tallest mountain. It is six miles from the pass to the summit gate at the Mt. Lemmon Sky Center Observatory.

The east side of the pass is considerably dryer resulting in a completely different world. The pathway is a thin, crushed granite track carved into the hillside suspended well above the canyon floor. Manzanita, yucca and grasses have made a comeback among the standing dead, pictured below. On the opposite side of the canyon, views of the east face of Cathedral Rock are superlative.

Enter the woods at the West Fork crossing; there was good flow in March, 2017. Drop another 200 feet to the junction with the Cathedral Rock Trail at 9.1 miles, 5,400 feet. There is a fabulous backcountry camp here. Continue along the canyon bottom in the shade of a healthy forest.

Woods give way to grassland accented with beargrass, oak, and juniper. The treadway curls sweetly in and out of minor drainages along the hillside above the West Fork. There is a huge sense of space as Sabino Canyon joins from the north.  

A large cairn marks the spur trail to Hutch's Pool at 12.6 miles, 3,860 feet. The side trip adds 0.2 mile and is an absolute must. A sandy beach, Olympic-size swimming hole, cliff jumping--it is spectacular!

Water careens around weathered boulders.

Back on the trail, cross the West Fork 0.3 mile below Hutch's. This crossing is tricky in high water. After that, the trail is businesslike to the next junction. Sycamore grows beside the stream, while saguaro, mesquite, ocotillo, and cholla are trailside once again.

Ford Box Camp Canyon just before the junction at 14.4 miles. The West Fork Trail segues onto the East Fork Trail. Our route turns south/right onto the Sabino Canyon Trail. This final segment is one of the choicest in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. Bust up a short incline and walk a few paces to a promontory looking out over the confluence of Box Canyon, the West Fork, East Fork, and the Sabino Canyon trench.

The popular trail zigzags in and out of scallops on Sabino Canyon's east wall, contouring at 3,700 feet. The trail 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 Mt. Lemmon deep into the narrow, gneiss gorge. Round a corner and see Sabino Canyon Road and the Phoneline Trail under Thimble Peak. (THW, photo)

The Phoneline Trail joins at 16.5 miles. Taking this beautiful trail back to the visitor center adds 4.9 miles to the trek. To take the tram, descend 400 feet on switchbacks. 

Stairs lead to the pavement at Shuttle Stop #9, elevation 3,334 feet. The last tram leaves about 4:45. If you make it in time, pay the driver for a ride. Alternatively, it is 3.8 pleasant miles down the paved road to the visitor center and parking lot. There are bathrooms and drinking faucets at some of the shuttle stops, including Stop 8.

Author's note: If I were a trail where would I go? It is a question I ask when I am off-trail attempting to penetrate a formidable landscape: mountain, canyon, desert. I enjoy foraging a route through challenging obstacles when I'm finding my own way. So like life! But I also adore the sweetness of a well-built trail. It frees me to be fully attentive to the rocks and the flowers, all the live things. I may trust the path to provide passage, linking distant points. The three trails described will capably serve your journey from one side of the range to the other.

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