Saturday, February 10, 2018

Thimble Peak, 5,323'; and Thimble East, 5,310', from Hirabayashi Trailhead

Essence: Thimble Peak is a highly visible and distinctive landmark seen from Tucson and the Santa Catalina front range. Located within the Pusch Ridge Wilderness it is a compelling draw for local hikers and climbers. The approach route from Thimble Flat may be accessed from Bear Canyon, Sabino Canyon, or Sycamore Canyon via the trailhead at Gordon Hirabayashi Campground. The latter is the most efficient route. The pleasant trail passes through the old prison camp and two beautiful valleys, Soldier Canyon and Sycamore Canyon. Thimble Peak has two crests separated by a no-nonsense cleft. The slightly higher west summit is a technical climb that must be protected. Nimble and experienced scramblers may climb the east stack known locally as Pretend Thimble.
Travel: In Tucson, drive east on Tanque Verde Road and turn left on the Catalina Highway. Measure from here. Drive past Molino Basin and turn left in 11.7 miles (mile marker 7.3) at the sign for Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Area. Drive through the shaded campground (tables, fire grates, food boxes, pit toilets, trash, no water) and park at the trailhead in 0.3 mile.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 10.8 miles; 2,400 feet of climbing
Total Time: 5:00 to 6:30
Difficulty: Trail; navigation moderate; Class 4 scrambling with exposure
Pusch Ridge Wilderness: This hike lies east of the desert bighorn protection area so those restrictions do not apply. Dogs are not allowed in the wilderness.
Maps: Agua Caliente Hill; Sabino Canyon, AZ 7.5 USGS Quads or Pusch Ridge Wilderness, Coronado National Forest, USDA Forest Service, 1:24,000
Latest Date Hiked: February 25, 2021
Quote: Racing the flamboyant plain of sunset, these rocks are antelope, hurtling toward the edge of the world. I race with them and anticipate that gorgeous leap into knowing everything. Joy Harjo

Thimble Peak crowns the narrow divide separating Sabino and Bear Canyons. Multiple routes merge in Thimble Flat where the approach begins.

Route: From the Hirabayashi Trailhead, walk northwest through the old prison camp in Soldier Canyon to Shreve Saddle, the wilderness boundary. Pass Sycamore Reservoir and traverse lower Sycamore Canyon to the Cut-Off Trail. Go west to the Bear Canyon Trail and south to Thimble Flat. Take a social trail to the base of Thimble Peak. If you have all day and enjoy long miles, climb Thimble as a spur from the classic Sabino Canyon Recreation Area grand tour: Bear Canyon Trail, Seven Falls, Thimble Peak, East Fork Trail, Sabino Canyon Trail, finishing on the Phoneline Trail.

The trailhead, elevation 4,840 feet, leaves from the west side of the large parking lot. Our route is on the Arizona Trail (AZT) as far as the Cut-off Trail in Sycamore Canyon. Initially, the AZT is doubling with Molina Basin Trail #11.

The Molino Basin Trail ends in 0.2 mile at a signed junction under a giant oak. This is the location of the now abandoned Federal Prison Camp. Prisoners labored to build the Mt. Lemmon Highway. During World War II, some of the prisoners were conscientious objectors. In 1942, Dr. Gordon Hirabayashi challenged the constitutionality of incarcerating Japanese Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. He was convicted and sentenced to serve at the prison camp now named in his honor. Structures have been removed but some foundations remain.

Head north on Sycamore Reservoir Trail #39. The 3.5 mile trail ends on the divide between Sycamore and Sabino Canyons.

The sandy footpath rises gently through open grassland slipping in and out of the stone-dry upper Soldier Canyon waterway, shown looking back from Shreve Saddle. (THW, photo)

Shreve Saddle
Enter the Pusch Ridge Wilderness at Shreve Saddle, elevation 5,020 feet, 1.1 miles. It is located on the divide between Soldier and Bear Canyons. A beautiful place of contrast, on the skyline is Cathedral Rock, the sentinel bastion of Pusch Ridge. Blocking an abandoned road is a robust steel gate with a weathered barn-red sign made with an acetylene torch, NO RUBBER TIRED VEHICLE. 

The 600 foot descent into Sycamore Canyon is on a classic trail built a long, long time ago adhering to best principles. The grade is carefully managed, interspersed with staircases. Half hidden in the brush are historic stone pillars that once supported the water line running from the reservoir to the prison camp.

To the east is the multi-tiered Mt. Lemmon Highway. Thimble Vista pullout is visible in the image below. Windy Point is located on the upper road wrap near skyline on the prominence, center-left. Image-center is "Tower Stack" and Peak 6,191'.

Sycamore Reservoir
Reach a signed turnoff for Sycamore Reservoir at 2.3 miles. It is located at the confluence of Bear and Sycamore canyons. The spur trail leads shortly to the dam built in the 1930's. The reservoir, pinched by the walls of Bear Canyon, is now filled with sand and silt but stone and cement structures and sections of the water line remain.

Cover territory quickly on the flat bottomland of Sycamore Canyon. The watercourse is broad, trees are big, the trail smooth. At 3.1 miles, a big-stack cairn marks the unsigned Cut-Off Trail. This is the original Bear Canyon Trail but it is now easy to miss. If you blow by the turnoff, in half of a mile you will have another opportunity to turn south on the Bear Canyon Trail at the junction with the East Fork Trail.

After a dry winter crossing the braided drainage was a non-issue. However, when the wash is running the ford is tricky. The secondary trail is more pronounced across the waterway. It clips right on up the 300 foot hill staying north of an east-facing ridgelet. It is quite gorgeous walking on sloping bedrock beside grasses, manzanita, and resurrection moss (sound asleep, alas).

Hit the Bear Canyon Trail at 3.5 miles at a T and go left/south. You are likely to have company on this well-loved trail. Truck along on the perfectly nice treadway passing over Thimble Saddle at 4,820 feet, our quest now visible.
(THW, photo)

Thimble Flat
Just before the trail dives into Bear Canyon, 4.1 miles, 4,700 feet, arrive at Thimble Flat. Leave the Bear Canyon Trail here. Locate a social trail that runs southwest. This trail was built decades ago by students of the Southern Arizona School for Boys. On my first solo (grand tour) hike to Thimble in 2011, this track was decidedly obscure but now it is well-trodden. The trail swings around a south-facing ridge and then descends into and across a draw at 4.5 miles. The track is slightly rough in here (pictured below looking back) but not the challenge it was a few short years ago.

The path rises to the southwest, tracking the rim of Bear Canyon. The massif across the canyon is Gibbon Mountain located on a ridge separating Bear from Soldier Canyon. On our right are Thimble Peak's minions, themselves captivating minarets, snaggletooths, obelisks, and even a small arch. (THW, photo)

Thimble Peak looks out over a bucolic grassy plain enlivened by sotol, beargrass, multi-clumped yucca, and Arizona oak.

East Crest: Pretend Thimble, 5,310'
Reach the base of Thimble Peak at 5.3 miles, 5,200 feet. On my solo trip, I had no information about Thimble and so I didn't located Pretend's climbing crack. The trail stops at the base of the massive rock stack. Walk a few feet to your left, toward Bear Canyon. The seam is located on the northeast side of the peak. Looking at the image below, the scramble is visible toward the left side of the face with a tree at the base. (THW, photo)

The initial move in the Pretend crack is rated Class 4 for verticality, sparsity of holds, and exposure. The rock is excellent, holds solid. The upper portion of the crack, shown, is Class 3+.

The seam divides. Straight ahead is more protected, shown looking down.

The left-hand route (Bear Canyon side) is more airy (and exhilarating) on a good ledge. My partner is descending and will go through the slot, shown with a dead tree.

Pretend Thimble is actually more scraggly than the west summit. Boulders are tossed about haphazardly. There is a sense of being on an aerie--as if your perch might hurl itself off into the abyss momentarily. I have a great affection for this standing-up-rock. You will find a peak register and if this is your final destination for the day, it is righteous and tough enough. Visible to the northeast is Thimble's parent, higher by 97 feet, Peak 5,420'.

The image below was taken from Pretend looking over at the west summit. In the center of the photo is a sheer wall with a steel ladder placed in 2017. It has since been removed by climbers who felt it didn't belong in the wilderness. This crux is the standard technical route up Thimble.

West Summit: Thimble Peak, 5,323'
Technical climbers: scramble to the base of Pretend and walk maybe 25 feet to the north crack. This Class 4 seam leads to the cleft between the summits. I initiate the climb using the wall on my right as my friend is doing. Once past the chockstone, there is a jumbled boulder series, shown at the top of the image. Exposure is constrained but serious enough. This image was shot in 2012.

The standard vertical climbing wall is about ten feet high. It is essentially featureless and must be assisted with a top rope (lead climber gets a short belay). I am not a technical climber so in 2018, I took advantage of the ladder. I used stone holds to heave myself over the top. Then it's an easy scramble to the crest. (THW, photo)

The taller crest is surprisingly expansive, flat, and grassy. The peak register is in an A-box. (THW, photo)

This image looks over to Pretend, Thimble's companion. The rift between them is just wide enough that breaching the gap is impossible.

The full-circle, ridgetop view from Thimble is spectacular...Pusch Ridge, the Santa Catalina Mountains, Tucson, endless sky islands. They are all about. It is heart-rattling to look west, right down the remarkable (and ultra familiar) ridgeline over which Thimble Peak presides: Saddleback, Blacketts, the desert floor. I feel profound gratitude to be alive in this precise Earth moment when the rocks are in this state of utter perfection, holding their ground, for now.

Here are a sampling of the blossoms you are likely to happen upon in flower-time: sundrop evening primrose, white Mexican gold poppy, desert sand verbena, larkspur, lupine, desert globemallow, shrubby deervetch, Santa Catalina prairie clover, fairyduster, and monkeyflower.

Just for fun: horse corral at the Hirabayashi Trailhead.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Peak 4,540', Ajo Range, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Essence: This is the third highest of 23 ranked summits in the Ajo Range. The rugged and difficult five-mile hike easily feels double the distance. Arch Canyon is a linear boulder field with splashes of bedrock. The peak should be attempted only by those with off-trail experience in the desert and strong navigation skills. See the end of this post for a short description of the half-day hike up the Arch Canyon Trail to a viewing platform--suitable for strong hikers.
Travel: The Arch Canyon Trailhead is 9.2 miles out the 21-mile, one-way Ajo Mountain Drive. 2WD is sufficient on the improved dirt road. Pick up a free interpretive guide from the visitor center. The scenic drive begins directly across AZ-85 from the park turnoff. The trailhead has a pit toilet and picnic table but no water. No dogs, no bikes on the trail.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Entrance Fee
Distance and Elevation Gain: 5 miles; 2,040 feet of climbing
Total Time: 4:00 - 6:00
Difficulty: Trail, mostly off-trail; navigation challenging; Class 2+, Class 3 ten-foot wall; no exposure other than the wall; carry all the water you will need; this hike must be done in cool weather.
Map: Mount Ajo, AZ 7.5 USGS Quad
Date Hiked: February 6, 2018
Quote: If we are to hunger, let it be a hunger of the senses, not material desire. Let it be a surrender to the instinctive pull of remoteness and the intimacy of beauty. The Anthropology of Turquoise, Ellen Meloy

Palisades flow south from Peak 4,540' and to its left is the cube-shaped monolith Peak 4,088' on the Tohono O'odham Nation. This image was shot from less than a mile away on Peak 4,740', the second tallest summit in the Ajo Range.

Route: Walk east on the Arch Canyon Trail. When the trail turns south, continue east on the black-line route and descend to the canyon floor. When the main canyon swings due south, exit via a break in the cliffrock. Climb a west-facing slope to the north-south running ridge. Ascend north-northeast to the summit. The blue-line route is an extension of the Arch Canyon Trail to a viewing platform at elevation 3,780 feet.

The eponymous arch is clearly visible from the trailhead at elevation 2,560 feet. The large skylight is directly below a much smaller aperture with a ribbon of roof-rock that looks ready to disintegrate any day now. The trail climbs, drawing closer to cliffs on the right. Volcanism is capable of creating fascinating structures and you will see fountains of rhyolite standing on bright yellow ash-fall tuff. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Leave the footpath at 0.7 mile at a directional sign for Arch Canyon Trail. A cautionary sign warns that smuggling and migrants are common--do not hike alone. Within Arch Canyon we saw considerable trash: clothing, empty water bottles, and food wrappers. A social trail descends to the canyon floor and disappears.

Look back upon the arch alight with the morning.

 Curve with the main waterway to the right beneath a stone sentinel.

Scramble up the narrow channel jumping from one water-smoothed boulder to the next. On a February morning the inner canyon was dark and cool shaded by barrier walls, turbinella oak, and encroaching vegetation.

Massive breccia globes are spectacular, a wild mix of cemented color scavenged by flowing rhyolite.

On the north rim the sentinel now appears as an earth pillar with organ pipe cactus and saguaro rooted on microledges.

At 1.3 miles, a south fork enters upcanyon-right. Stay in the main canyon bearing east. After passing under a large cave a short bypass trail on the left avoids a snarly troubled section. The inner canyon narrows and is blocked by a chockstone. If the ten-foot wall is dry you may climb it on the left. There are plenty of small ledges for feet and hands. It presented little problem up or down and we were glad for the one playful pitch.

In 2019, we were back in the canyon to climb Peak 4,740' and the wall was wet and slippery. We found an even better bypass upcanyon-right. At the proper level the platform and holds are stable and exposure is mild. This image was shot on the return.

Walk on a distinctive sheet of sloping rhyolite, a horizontal bedding plane. On the north wall is a feeder dike, a vertical lava neck, image-center. Flowing magma cut at a right angle through the formerly deposited rhyolite layers. The tower, image-right, signals that we are closing in on the exit.

Where the main canyon curves distinctly south, shown, look for the one break in the cliff upcanyon-left at approximately 1.8 miles.

Climbing out we went up the west side of the break and it was nasty--seriously choked, super steep, and boulder-filled. On the way down we experimented with the east side and that was fabulous. So, from the canyon floor look for a passage through the rock band on the right side of the weakness. It may seem unlikely but there is a good crack to the right of the saguaro, pictured.

That will place you at the bottom of this chute.

Cross left over the drainage to get an assist from a stone slab.

At about 3,600 feet, leave the draw and climb due east aiming for the north base of a large breccia outcrop. It is a lot of work but it's workable.

Gain the north-south running ridge at 4,100 feet and go left/north up an accommodating red knoll, shown. From the top you will see the peak for the first time. A buckhorn cholla protectively held a cactus wren's nest assembled with teddybear cholla babies.

This shot, taken on the descent, is looking back from the red knoll. Right of the massive ridge buttress is pyramidal Point 4,740' and its companion Point 4,700'. (THW, photo)

Meanwhile, upward on mustard yellow tuff and breccia extrusions.

The approach over, the summit ridge is broad, the grade gentle. 

Crest Peak 4,540' at 2.5 miles. On the mountaintop we found a beautiful large black and red obsidian orb. Two golden eagles soared mightily. A mysterious, sturdy metal foundation is bolted down on the large summit platform. This brings to mind Mount Ajo which has an industrial feel. It can be seen in the image below with the antenna. The peak sees few visitors. Bob Martin signed on February, 1, 2001 at age 81. The author of Colorado's High Thirteeners died just seven years later. (THW, photo)

Look northwest to Peaks 4,180' and 4,220'. We did a circuit that was nothing short of magical to those mountains the day before. (THW, photo)

Retrace your steps to the Arch Canyon Trailhead. The arch is visible from the summit ridge. It's a little hard to spot in this image but that's often the nature of sky windows. (THW, photo)

Arch Canyon Trail to Platform 3,780'
We did a half-day hike on the Arch Canyon Trail in 2016 and again in 2019. It is about three miles round trip with 1,250 feet of elevation gain to a spectacular viewing platform.

At the base of the trail a sign warns, "Caution, steep rocky route ahead." Head south into a side canyon walking on sheets of bedrock, solidified flowing volcanic stone.

While the route is technically unmaintained there has been some trail work done in the past three years. Rock chips and chunks have been deliberately placed on the footpath to maintain its integrity. There are frequent cairns all the way to the top.

After passing beneath the arches the primitive track ascends vigorously. Climb over boulders and up a slab on a friction pitch. Reach a saddle at 1.3 miles, elevation 3,680 feet. Follow a social trail south to the Boulder Canyon overlook. Return to the saddle and ascend another 100 feet west to the viewing platform. We wandered freestyle all over the platform. Look down on Ajo Mountain Drive and north to Peak 4,158', shown. (THW, photo)

On the way back we left the trail in an attempt to get under the arch. We did some Class 3 scrambling, cutting up to the northwest. While we couldn't get over to the arches, we were rewarded with a stellar view. (THW, photo)