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 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 10, 2018
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)
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.
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.
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. I highly recommend climbing both crests. Begin with Pretend Thimble. From the top you can confirm whether the ladder is in place. If this scramble is not to your liking or is beyond your skill level do not attempt the west summit. 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.
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. Before the ladder was placed, this technical wall was the standard route up Thimble. Click on the image to enlarge it.
West Summit: Thimble Peak (For Real), 5,323'
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. You will know right away whether this is for you. 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 in the pre-ladder era.
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) if the ladder is not available. In 2018, the ladder was securely placed. No guarantees for the future! I used stone holds to heave myself over the top. Then it's an easy scramble to the crest. Note: only two of the five people in our party summited--the ladder is not to everyone's liking. (THW, photo)
Whomever put up that ladder, thank you. Thimble Peak has long been a missing piece for many. Unlike the subsidiary summit, 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.
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.