Travel to King Canyon Trailhead: Measure from the intersection of Camino de Oeste and Speedway Blvd. which becomes Gates Pass Road. Drive west up and over Gates Pass on a narrow road with a twisting, steep descent. Enter the saguaro realm. Following directions to Saguaro National Park, at 4.6 miles turn right on Kinney Road. Ascend a little hill while passing the left turn into the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. At the top of the rise, turn right into King Canyon Trailhead parking, 7.3 miles. The large dirt lot fills early. Parking is within Tucson Mountain Park and managed by Pima County Parks and Recreation. No water or facilities and no fee. Posted no dogs.
Travel to El Camino del Cerro Trailhead (Sweetwater Trail): From I-10 take Exit 252, El Camino del Cerro/Ruthrauff Road and drive west. The gorgeous, narrow road weaves up into the hills. Stay straight at Tortolita Road, 2.6 miles, where a sign directs left to the Sweetwater Preserve. Enter the parking lot 5.6 miles from the freeway. Parking is managed by Pima County Parks and Recreation. No water or facilities and no fee. The trail is open sunrise to sunset. Posted no dogs.
Distance and Elevation Gain: The King Canyon Trail and loop is 8.3 miles with 2,100 feet of vertical. The circuit is 7.9 miles without optional side trips. It is 9.2 miles from the El Camino del Cerro Trailhead to the peak and back via the Sweetwater Trail. Elevation gain is roughly the same, 2,100 feet.
Total Time: Either route will take 3:00 to 5:00
Difficulty: Trail with off-trail options; navigation easy (good signage); no exposure
Map: Trails Illustrated No. 237, Saguaro National Park
Latest Date Hiked: January 29, 2019
Along the mountain ridges,
Across the desert floor;
Arms like verdant armor,
Stalwarts guard our door.
Shading for the lizard,
Haven for the wren,
Source of inspiration,
For past and present men.
--Earl Bloss, “Saguaros,” Arizona Highways, March 1973
Visitors stand on the spacious cylindrical summit of Wasson Peak. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)
Route: The counterclockwise circuit begins at the King Canyon Trailhead. Ascend on the King Canyon Trail northeast to the pass where the Sweetwater Trail comes up from the east. Bear northwest to the junction with the Hugh Norris Trail and hike northeast to the summit. To descend, take the Hugh Norris Trail west to the junction with the Sendero Esperanza Trail and turn south. Turn right on the Gould Mine Trail and take it back to the start. The three knobs are located on the southeast ridge. Amole Peak is north of the Hugh Norris Trail. The Sweetwater Trail, the blue-line route, bears southwest as it ascends to the pass and its terminus at the King Canyon Trail.
The Circuit, King Canyon Trail
The trailhead is located on the north side of the parking lot, elevation 2,910 feet. In just a few steps enter Saguaro National Park. According to the trailhead placard the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed a roadway in the 1930s to the Mam-A-Gah picnic area, named for a Tohono O'odham Indian chief. The beautifully crafted road was chiseled out of bedrock and is supported by a mortarless stone wall.
The track climbs gently to a rise at 0.8 mile and then drops into the King Canyon wash. Walk a few feet off the trail to look at a relic from a bygone era. In 2001, I could still make out, "Men's." This gorgeous stone building was a bathroom! (THW, photo)
Alternatively, instead of starting out on the trail, at the trailhead drop into the wash and meet back up with the King Canyon Trail at the picnic area turnoff. Shortly before rejoining the trail there are very faint Hohokam petroglyphs on a wall upcanyon-right. (THW, photo)
The trail stays on the sandy canyon floor for a short distance. Below, the drainageway is aimed straight for the summit of Wasson Peak.
The footpath leaves the draw and rises into the foothills of the Tucson Mountains on a stone staircase. The grade is remarkably steady all the way to the pass, a trademark of CCC construction.
The only thing missing in this charming lineup of saguaros is a multi-armed elder. Throughout the park saguaros are multi-generational. Watch for youngsters popping up at the base of adult plants. Also prevalent are paloverde identified by smooth, bright green trunks; yellow fruit clinging to the crowns of fishhook barrel cactus; positively ancient creosotebush; chainfruit, buckhorn and purple-stemmed staghorn cholla; whitethorn acacia; manzanita, and Engelmann's prickly pear.
It is January so the full-on blossoming prized in the park has not yet begun. But a few ocotillo are throwing flames, trailing windmills flash in brilliant fuchsia, and there is an occasional Arizona lupine. (THW, photo)
By March, 2019, there was a superbloom of gold poppies. (THW, photo)
Looking back on the journey thus far, on the western horizon is the free-standing Baboquivari Peak spire, and on the mountain to its right, the Kitt Peak National Observatory.
The King Canyon Trail hooks northwest to access the southeast ridge of Wasson Peak. The trail curls under the white outcrop seen below, one of the knobs accessible to off-trail hikers.
In southern Arizona trails to the very top of mountains are few so expect to encounter numerous locals and visitors taking advantage. The trail stays on the east side of the divide and the sweeping vista expands to reveal three more sky island giants accessible by trail: Mount Kimball in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Rincon Peak, and Mount Wrightson in the Santa Rita Mountains.
The footpath steepens somewhat after the pass. The track was incomparably engineered with stone steps and switchbacks blown out of the mountain to moderate the grade. Retaining walls ensure a flat surface. It is friendly all the way to the summit.
Option: Three Knobs, Southeast Ridge
The three knobs are a distinguishing feature of Wasson Peak, especially when viewed from Tucson. To climb them, leave the trail at about 3.2 miles, 4,520 feet. A faint social trail leaves the standard path for the short jaunt to the ridge. Climb the north slope of the south knob, weaving around thorny plants and sotol. Resurrection moss creates lovely foot platforms. In January, lyreleaf jewelflower was blooming profusely as well as brilliant orange desert globemallow and purple verbena. From the south knob you will see the white outcrop at the end of the ridge, the Tucson Mountains, Mount Wrightson and Mount Hopkins.
Follow the ridgeline to the middle knob, the tallest at 4,630 feet. A radio repeater is located on the crest. The image below was shot from the south knob looking north to the middle and north knobs, Wasson Peak, and the standard trail. (THW, photo)
Take a social trail down the north ridge of the middle knob, cross the Hugh Norris Trail (HNT), and climb the north knob. Retreat on the south side and locate the junction of the HNT and the King Canyon Trail, shown.
Hugh Norris Trail to Wasson Peak
This image looks back on the three knobs and trail junction from the southwest ridge.
The route curves around to the east side of the mountain where the peak register is posted at 4,660 feet. Ascend west to the summit of Wasson Peak reaching it at 3.8 miles (3.6 miles via trail). Everything is spacious and voluminous about this mountaintop. It is broad enough to hold crowds of people, surrounding mountains circle off into the absolute blue distance, and the face of the sky is endless. Having seen this mountainscape from a great many others, now we look out upon their familiar profiles with satisfaction, here at the center of the world.
Option: Amole Peak, 4,422'
From Wasson, retrace your steps back to the HNT and King Canyon Trail junction. Turn right, staying on the HNT. The sign is a little confusing because the HNT isn't mentioned. But it does point to the Sendero Esperanza Trail, our next turning point. The trail climbs about 20 feet to the pass and then switchbacks down the west side of the divide. Amole Peak is due west, shown.
Where you begin climbing isn't critical. We headed off-trail 0.4 mile from the pass at about 4,260 feet. There is only a 200 foot lift from the saddle so the little peak is not ranked. Climb it anyway! It is only 0.3 mile extra and the pitch is easy on a crushed granite hillside. The Amole ridge is adorned with fabulous weathered granite blocks, not seen elsewhere on this hike. This image was taken from the crest shooting back at the HNT switchbacks, Wasson Peak and the three knobs at skyline. (THW, photo)
From the prominence it is great fun to continue out the boulder festooned west ridge and then angle back to the trail.
The HNT has a reputation for carrying more traffic than the King Canyon Trail--perhaps because it is a buff, smooth dirt path. Below, it weaves through patches of brittlebush and around saguaros. Everything about it is pleasing.
The ever cheerful and hearty brittlebush. (THW, photo)
It is a little disconcerting when the trail sweeps under a hill on the north but it straightens out and aims back west soon enough. A shallow staircase begins at 3,970 feet and continues for a substantial distance. Just prior, watch on the left side of the trail for this cristate fishhook barrel cactus. While saguaro very occasionally develop crests I have never seen a barrel perform such a feat. (THW, photo)
Leave the HNT and turn left/south on the Sendero Esperanza Trail 2.2 miles from the pass (1.9 miles if you did not climb Amole Peak). The trail surface is roughed up with chipped rock but it makes up for it by traversing through a teddybear cholla forest. While these cacti are as cute as cute can be they have a way of spawning babies as humans walk by so don't tangle with the teddybears. Notice the nursery on the ground.
The Sendero Esperanza is especially lovely at sunset when the saguaro on the west-facing hillside are glowing and casting extra long shadows. In 1.0 mile, turn right on the Gould Mine Trail. The copper mine was in operation in the early 1900s. The trail tracks above an appealing dry waterway and then crosses it in half of a mile. Notable are exceptionally large ocotillo clumps and saguaro with multiple side arms.
In one mile, the Gould Mine Trail passes out of the park and comes very close to the road. It is easiest to just hop on the road (go left) and take it back to trailhead parking. Or, walk up the wash and cut over to the King Canyon Trail. This image was taken at sunset on the Gould Mine Trail. Saguaro sentinels were holding down the earth while the astronomers on the summit of Kitt Peak were gazing into the furthest reaches of our galaxy.
The Sweetwater Trail provides the only access to Wasson Peak from the eastern front of the Tucson Mountains. The route weaves into and around foothills often following ravines cut by tributaries of the Santa Cruz River. The Sonoran flora is just as thick and lush here as on the west side. The prickly pear is, if anything, even more massive. Saguaro of every stature encroach on the footpath.
From the El Camino del Cerro Trailhead, elevation 2,800 feet, Wasson Peak is visible and remains so with only periodic disappearances. Which rounded mound is Wasson? The biggest and tallest bastion on the horizon. Cross into Saguaro National Park at 0.1 mile.
The trail register is located at the junction with the Thunderbird Trail, 0.2 mile. Turn left, staying on Sweetwater. The wide track is a meticulously constructed staircase with stone curbs and leveling lines chiseled into the top surfaces of the risers. Already locals will be able to discern individual peaks in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness, Agua Caliente Hill, and the three tallest peaks in the Rincon Mountains: Mica Mountain, Tanque Verde Peak, and Rincon Peak.
It would be easy to miss one of the most memorable features of this hike, an iconic crested saguaro. It is located 1.3 miles from the start of the hike on the uphill/west side of the path. The candelabra-crowned cristate has two arms and a symmetrical crest.
The Tucson Mountains are low in elevation relative to surrounding mountain ranges. Saguaros not only thrive on the hillsides, they grow on the flanks of the mountain almost to the very summit.
The trail stays south of the main drainage in Sweetwater Basin. It gently rises to meet the King Canyon Trail on the pass which is off-image to the left. But you can see the ridge arcing above the basin, the three knobs, and Wasson Peak over on the right. The Sweetwater joins the King Canyon Trail on the pass at 3.4 miles. The peak is just 1.2 miles further and unless you shuttled a vehicle to the west side of the range, retrace your steps to the trailhead.