Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Samaniego Peak, 7,715', Santa Catalina Mountains

Essence: A distinctive peak both for its conoidal contour and location on a long and prominent ridge running parallel to Oracle Ridge. The headwaters of Cañada del Oro are entrenched between the divides. On the west, the mountain slides sharply into the Sonoran desert in Oro Valley. Visually appealing from a great population center, the peak is magnetic. Be forewarned. In 2003, the Aspen Fire scorched the region and subsequently the opportunistic graythorn has become a scourge. On our first unsuccessful attempt, we turned back 150 vertical feet from the peak, slashed as if by dragon talons. We returned armored in jeans, heavy cotton shirts, and a better approach route, described below. Success! This is a nonconventional mountain trek. Start on the Mt. Lemmon Trail and hike downhill for almost 2,000 feet before initiating the climb. Note: A friend did this hike in August, 2022 and reported, "In the aftermath of the 2020 Bighorn Fire there is not much left of the Samaniego Ridge Trail."
Travel: In Tucson, drive up the Catalina Highway to mile marker 24.6 and turn right on Ski Run Road. It is 1.4 miles to the base of Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley. If the upper mountain gate is closed, park in the small lot on the right side of the road. If the gate is open, drive another 1.8 miles on a windy and narrow paved road and park on the left at the start of the Mt. Lemmon Trail (shortly before the observatory).
Distance and Elevation Gain: 12.8 miles; 3,350 feet of climbing. If you must park at the ski area, add 3.5 miles roundtrip and 800 feet of vertical. In the spring, the upper gate opens March 15 if the road is free of ice and snow.
Time: 7:00 to 9:30
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation challenging; mild exposure on the summit pinnacle; wear jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. Carry all the water your will need; it is unreliable at Walnut Spring.
Fees: Pay the fee at the trailhead or display an interagency pass.
Map: Mt. Lemmon, AZ 7.5 USGS Quad or Apogee Mapping.
Latest Date Hiked: March 21, 2018
Quote: It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun. Barry Blanchard, alpinist

Stone capped Samaniego Peak. (THW, photo)

The sublime zenith of Samaniego Peak. (THW, photo)

Route: From the crest of the Santa Catalina Mountains, hike southwest downhill on the Mt. Lemmon Trail. Transfer to the Sutherland Trail and then the Samaniego Ridge Trail bearing northwest and then north. At Walnut Spring leave the trail and climb southwest in the drainage until you are just shy of the peak's south ridge. Plow up the slope staying slightly east of the ridge. On our first attempt we headed due west from the spring but got repelled by graythorn and did not summit. Contrary to that experience, there is rumored to be a westward social path marked with cairns, the graythorn chopped away. If you locate that pot of gold, please attach a comment. 

Mount Lemmon Trail #5 initiates from the northwest corner of the parking lot, elevation 9,100 feet, and passes alongside an electrical substation.

The trail directs onto an abandoned dozer road shared by casual hikers getting away from valley heat and more serious trekkers accessing Romero Pass. Wind rushes through a deep fir and pine forest. At half a mile, a spur branches left to the Lemmon Lookout. The image below looks back on the trail and the fire lookout perched on a stone outcrop. Make a point to visit this astonishing historic site some day. Note: near the metal building is a pipe with potable spring water. (THW, photo)

The vista opens to the Santa Catalina front range, the Rincon Mountains, nearby Wilderness of Rocks, and Cathedral Rock, pictured. (THW, photo)

Watch for climbers on Rappel Rock.

At 0.9 mile, Meadow Trail #5A joins on the right. Here, the old road turns to traverse a lofty westward ridge.
(THW, photo) 

At 1.6 miles, 8,520 feet, the ridge splits from a forested flat. This is a momentous place for those intimate with the Santa Catalina Mountains. The Mt. Lemmon Trail continues to Romero Pass dropping 2,500 feet on the southwest ridge. This is the southbound route of the Arizona Trail (AZT). To link to Samaniego Ridge turn right onto Sutherland Trail #6.

Switchback down a north-facing slope through a grove of young aspen that took advantage of the 2003 fire to generate. Samaniego Peak comes into view and Mule Ears further down the ridge.

At 2.4 miles, there is a signed trail junction where the ridge divides once again. The Sutherland Trail carries on to the west, dropping down, and down some more to Catalina State Park. The epic climb from the valley floor to the summit of Mt. Lemmon is one of my favorite hikes in the Santa Catalina Mountains. This image looks down the Sutherland to Pusch Ridge, spanning Cathedral Rock to Bighorn Mountain.  (THW, photo)

Turn north on Samaniego Ridge Trail #5 (SRT). The trail bears north for 8.4 miles to Charouleau Gap to meet Forest Service Road 736. We gave some thought to approaching the peak from the gap but FSR 736 is a technical 4WD road for modified vehicles. A short way out the trail, turn around and you will be able to see through the Window.

In this area thickets of graythorn, Zizyphus obtusifolia, threaten to overrun the trail. Botanists associated with Sabino Canyon Recreation Area were able to identify the plant by the Mercedes-Benz symbol on the flower bases.

Skirt west of Point 8,046'. The trail passes through a shady forest of old ponderosa that escaped the flames. Sizable weathered boulders lie beneath the trees. (THW, photo)

At 3.0 miles, 7,700 feet, reach the junction with the Cañada del Oro Trail #4 (CDOT) shared with the AZT. This is the headwaters region of Cañada del Oro. As can be seen by the sign, not long ago there were two options for hikers going out Samaniego Ridge. If you went north down the CDOT past Shovel Spring, you could take the Short Cut Trail back to the ridge and save 0.1 mile. We did this only to see the Short Cut Trail scratched out on the sign at the next junction. We got lucky and found traces of the deprecated trail guiding us back to Samaniego Ridge. Save yourself some wandering sans trail by going left.

One of the loveliest segments of this trail awaits. Walk through piney woods festooned with elder alligator junipers and madrone. North of Point 7,781', hikers pause to look at our quest.

The now defunct Short Cut Trail joins from the right at 4.1 miles, elevation 7,180 feet. This is the low point of the hike, over 1,900 vertical feet below the start. From here to Walnut Spring the ridge presents in a series of shallow rollers. The trail never strays far from the ridge crest which rolls off softly on both sides. Walk amongst weathered boulder balls, massive and silent.

In places, the crushed granite footpath is perfectly decipherable and pleasant. Elsewhere, the track is obscured by deadfall and vegetation. No longer maintained, the trail is just visible enough as it passes through a thriving woodland and regal tree skeletons.

Parallel the Reef of Rock, a secondary spine just west of Oracle Ridge.

A good mile before Walnut Spring graythorn has taken over the track. There is no choice but to plow through the thorny thickets. 

About 0.4 mile south of Walnut Spring the SRT moves east off the ridgetop. At 5.8 miles, 7,280 feet, watch for a metal sign tacked to a tree. Almost all the lettering is gone but know that the spring is just a few steps further out the trail.

Walnut Spring is located in a drainage that flows east from the saddle south of the peak. There is telltale green grass and a steel circular catchment with stagnant water. We found a trickle of water flowing freely upstream of the tub on both occasions. (THW, photo)

Samaniego Peak is half a mile west of the spring. On our first attempt we made a valiant effort to summit. Pushing west toward the ridge punishing graythorn took all the fun out of the hike. Totally trapped and enveloped by the scourge, we conceded to the thorn forest.

Published literature and websites (from some years ago) make no mention of graythorn. Thus, I suspect the shrub invaded after the fire. Our initial meanderings in search of a route took us further out the SRT. The trail only gets more obscure as you travel north. This is a shame because the SRT was once favored by mountain bikers. Mule Ears, a mile north of Walnut Spring, requires considerable free-climbing experience. Carry a rope.

Perusing Google Earth from home, we located a route that appeared free of graythorn and it was. Follow the trouble-free drainage feeding the spring to the southwest. 

Enter a ponderosa forest and angle north before reaching the saddle. The map above shows two routes. Going up we stayed right on top of the south ridge to the summit block. Our down-coming route was much better. The prominent block, shown below, is just south of the summit obelisk. Aim for the boulder shown on the horizon part way down the slope.

The image below was taken from the crest of the south ridge. We enjoyed the scramble but there was an almost impenetrable entanglement of oak, madrone, desert holly, and manzanita.

Whatever route you favor, as you approach the summit block, swing east around to the north ridge for the final few steps. 

Most people who have gotten this far will be able to sit, if not stand, on the summit monolith. After walking through forest all this way, the actual peak is delightfully spectacular and airy, the view an immense span. At the base of the standing rock the crest is a jumble of granitic slabs.

Over 6.4 miles, only 1,000 feet of climbing is accomplished. The peak register was placed in 2012 and four to five parties have signed in each year. In this image, the entire route can be seen. (THW, photo)

We got lucky and dialed the descent route. Walk a few paces out the north ridge.

Swing around to the south staying east of the ridgetop. Gravity was working for us and it was an easy trek back to the spring. From there we simply retraced our steps to the trailhead.

On Point 7,781', fire-hearty ancient ponderosa stand guard over the young. (THW, photo)

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