Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Wasson Peak, 4,687', Saguaro National Park, Tucson Mountain District

Essence: Wasson Peak is the highest point in the Tucson Mountains and the focal point of Saguaro National Park West. My first exposure to the Sonoran Desert was in 2001 when I hiked the circuit described. I hope to convey the incredulity and jubilation I felt while walking through this sublime and surreal landscape. The peak is accessed by an excellent trail so I encourage all hikers, especially those unfamiliar with the Sonoran, to venture forth. While saguaros are understandably the primary allure, all the flora is diverse and riveting. For the adventurous, leave the trail to climb three prominent knobby landscape features that characterize the summit ridge from afar, and Amole Peak. I conclude with a brief discussion of the Sweetwater Trail, the only access to Wasson Peak from the east side of the range.
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 24, 2023
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)

The trail platform is comprised of chipped rock, a construction technique used to preserve popular treadways. After skirting east around a hill the pass on the Tucson Mountain divide comes into view. Arrive on the pass, elevation 3,860 feet, at 2.4 miles. As the sign indicates Wasson Peak is 1.2 miles by trail. Passes reveal new worlds. To the east is Pusch Ridge, the city of Tucson, and the Sweetwater Trail.

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
The King Canyon Trail ends at the junction with the HNT which comes up from the west. From here, it is just 0.3 mile to the summit. The ridge swings in a semicircle to encompass the Sweetwater basin. The southwest ridge is one of the most remarkable and beautiful segments of the hike. The path is flat and right on the ridgecrest with an astonishing opening north to Panther Peak and Safford Peak (informally known as Sombrero), shown. Further off is Picacho Peak, and the Tortolita Mountains. (THW, photo)
2023 Note: Roundtrip, the hike from the Hugh Norris Trailhead, elevation 2,570 feet, to Wasson Peak is 10.0 miles with 2,450 feet of elevation gain. Enjoy a quiet ascent through highly textured and weathered intrusive granite formed in the Crystalline Basement.

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.

Sweetwater Trail
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.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Elephant Head, 5,641' and Peak 5,139' (Little Elephant Head)

Essence: In the northwest corner of the Santa Rita Mountains lies one of Southern Arizona's classic peaks. Elephant Head is an improbable, thrusting, bare-boned granitescape. Approach on a trail then scramble up the east ridge and arrive at the shrine to the elephant. Little Elephant Head is a worthy goal in itself. It mimics its larger companion yet is attainable by a wider range of hikers. Enjoy comparable views and the same appealing weathered granite. Both companion peaks are ranked summits. This is a hike to repeat for its relative ease and intense pleasure. The entire hike is in the Coronado National Forest. Elephant Head is within the Mount Wrightson Wilderness.
Travel: From Tucson, drive south on I-19 passing the town of Green Valley. Take Exit 56, Canoa Road. Start measuring from the bottom of the ramp. In the rotary, go around and under the freeway. At the stop sign turn south on the frontage road. At 3.2 miles, turn left on Elephant Head Road. Turn right on Mount Hopkins Road at 4.7 miles. At 10.3 miles, go left on FSR 183. 2WD vehicles with decent clearance should be adequate on the graded gravel road. Park under a large oak in a circular lot 12.7 miles from the interstate.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 8.9 miles with 3,200 feet of vertical for both peaks. Roundtrip to Elephant Head alone is 6.8 miles with 2,500 feet of elevation gain. Little Elephant Head adds 2.1 miles and 700 feet of climbing.
Total Time: 6:00 to 8:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 2+ with one, low Class 3 wall on the east ridge; mild exposure; carry all the water you will need.
Map: Mount Hopkins, AZ 7.5' USGS Quad
Latest Date Hiked: February 8, 2023
Quote: There are some famous peaks in the Santa Ritas south of Tucson...Wrightson, Hopkins. None have the mystique of Elephant Head. The almost impossibly steep monolith crashing out of the western Santa Ritas into the desert seems to defy logic. fricknaley, Hike Arizona

The playful east ridge of Elephant Head will appeal to hikers who love to scramble on sticky rock with dependable holds.

Route: From the trailhead in Agua Caliente Canyon hike generally north on Forest Service Trail 930. Transition onto an abandoned mining road. Leave the wagon road and plunge via trail into Chino Canyon. Cross the creek and climb to the east ridge of Elephant Head. Scramble west to the summit then retrace your steps. Either going or coming, be sure to take the west spur trail to Little Elephant Head. At the end of the description is a brief summary of the alternative off-trail loop up Chino Canyon and down the north-northeast ridge.

The Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory is seen from the parking lot. It is located on the summit of Mount Hopkins at elevation 8,585 feet. It is operated jointly by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the University of Arizona for solar system, galactic and extragalactic astronomy. 

To locate Trail 930, walk a few paces back down the access road. It is on the north side of the track at elevation 4,580 feet. The trail crosses Agua Caliente Canyon then bears northwest while rising gently.

Mesquite, ocotillo, turpentine bush, agave, shindagger, and sotol grow in the desert grassland ecosystem. Santa Rita pricklypear is common on rocky hillsides.

Elephant Head comes into view from a low saddle at 0.7 mile, 4,700 feet. Note the cairn marking the westward trail to Peak 5,139'. I will discuss this spur to Little Elephant Head later. From here, the passage gives up 180 feet as it drops into Chino Basin.

The footpath dead ends at an old mining road that comes up through Chino Basin at 1.0 mile. Turn right, following the sign for Quantrell Mine. Make a note of this location so you don't blow by it later on. The image below shows hikers transitioning from the road onto the trail on their return trip.

For the next mile, we will be following the abandoned roadbed that accessed the Quantrell Mine located in Chino Canyon at elevation 5,100 feet. The mine was one of eleven claims held by the Elephant Head Mine Group. In 1902, Ben Daniels, a  Madera Canyon resident, began mining operations. He had become friends with Theodore Roosevelt while serving with the Rough Riders, the first volunteer cavalry in the Spanish-American War.

The mine worked a quartz fissure vein in an area of intrusive granite and porphyry associated with the Elephant Head Fault, a young range-front fault. The miners extracted gold, silver, lead ore, and copper. The granitic stone is coarse grained and highly textured which accounts for the great climbing rock on the Elephant Head summit ridge.

Pass a mine shaft at 1.1 miles. The small, steeply inclined hole looks very dangerous so we dismissed any thought of crawling in. The old wagon road, vigorously shored up with scrounged blocks, thins to a trail.
(Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Enter the Mount Wrightson Wilderness at 1.4 miles. Both peaks are visible from a beautiful rise at 1.7 miles. Below, is a look back at the cliff profile of Little Elephant Head.

The trail rounds a corner and bears northeast. When Chino Canyon comes into view watch for a tall cairn on the left marking a social trail that plunges into the gulch. This important juncture is 0.2 mile past the vista point. The image below was taken from the trail descending into the canyon. Notice the saddle to the right of Elephant Head's summit ridge. From the canyon bottom the trail switches up the slope to the saddle. (THW, photo)

Leave the mine track, elevation 5,000 feet, and begin a 500-foot drop over the next 0.3 mile. The terrain is difficult so make every effort to stay on the informal trail. It is scrabbly, steep, and loose. In January, water was running over polished bedrock in Chino Canyon. (THW, photo)

Make sure you find the trail as you exit the creek. The path braids as it heads up the hillside; attempt to stay on the primary treadway. Elephant Head has a fair number of visitors and yet the crushed granite footpath is thin and plants, especially sotol, encroach. The image below looks south into Chino Canyon, over to the steep access slope, the Chino Basin depression, and Little Elephant Head.

Gain the east ridge of Elephant Head at 2.8 miles, 5,100 feet. The approach now over, before us is a magnificent ridge of solid stone. Roundtrip to the summit from here is 1.3 miles. It will take anywhere from half an hour to a full hour to summit. Scrambling is primarily Class 2+ and exposure is mild. If you get into anything over Class 3 or find yourself on a highly exposed pitch, you are off route. Social trail fragments leaving the saddle are followed by cairns that mark the route all the way to the summit. Follow them mindfully.

The initial slabs are great fun to scale. Stone clothed in pink, orange, and tan pigments contribute to the enchantment. (THW, photo)

Climbing is primarily just north of the ridgeline. There is a feeling of protection within troughs. The crevices are sometimes steep but the stone accommodates with natural steps and solid holds. Trees provide additional climbing aides.

A gathering flat at 5,260 feet effectively divides the climb into two segments. (THW, photo)

The standing rock is irresistible.

From the flat, the cairned route skirts the initial rock face on the left and then moves toward the right side of the formation.

The ridge narrows but still, exposure is mild.

Arrive at the crux, a small Class 3 wall on your left. There are at least two options. This climber is making a slightly difficult move but there is no exposure. (THW, photo)

I came up at the lower end of the cliff. The maneuver is easier but it is more exposed. In the background, Pete Mountain hides Mount Wrightson. Mount Hopkins is on the right. (THW, photo)

Above the crux, stay right on top of the ridge. The route is as sweet as it can be.

The crest is surprising--roomy, broad, and flat. Arrive at the shrine to the elephant at 3.4 miles. From its location on the western perimeter of the Santa Rita Mountains, the view swings south to the Atascosa and Tumacacori Mountains, west to Baboquivari (shown) and Kitt Peaks, north to Pusch Ridge and Mount Lemmon, and northeast to the Rincon Mountains. Walk to the western edge of the summit to see the west-northwest ridge which a member in our group successfully climbed previously. (THW, photo)

Note: In 2021, the Nogales Ranger District removed the elephant artifacts. There is a notice posted at the trailhead asking hikers to preserve the wilderness character by applying Leave No Trace practices. Please leave nothing and pack out any objects you find on the summit.

Peak 5,139', Little Elephant Head
The standard route bypasses the spur trail to this ranked summit, known informally as Little Elephant Head in a nod to its remarkable likeness to its taller companion. Having visited once, I'll never pass by charming Peak 5,139' again. The roundtrip distance is 2.1 miles with 700 feet of elevation gain. One and a half hours will get you there and back with some top time.

Recall that the spur to Little is located after the minor climb out of Chino Basin (heading south). Look for the cairn marking the footpath and turn right. On a somewhat steep and rocky well-defined trail, climb almost 400 feet to Point 5,079', shown. (THW, photo)

The ocotillo forest is so thick I vow to return in the springtime when the torches are throwing flames.

From the rounded hilltop, drop to the base of the mellow summit climb at elevation 4,900 feet. The solid stone structure of Little Elephant Head is as beguiling as its counterpart but it lacks the difficulties and exposure--the peak is approachable for all hikers.

The Class 2 trail climbs up through bedrock and boulders on crushed granite. Approaching the top, ascend a stone ramp flanking a broad fin with a vertical face.

Little has something Elephant Head does not--a window to Mount Wrightson seen here in the wedge between Pete Mountain and Mount Hopkins. (THW, photo)

The weathered granite summit is linear and comfortably broad. (THW, photo)

Walk out to the north end of the summit ridge to get a feel for the true dramatic and precipitous nature of the mountain. There is a vertical cliff on the west side and the ridge ends in a sheer drop.

Alternative Loop: Chino Canyon and the North-Northeast Ridge
I first climbed Elephant Head in March, 2012 via a nonconventional route. We ascended through Chino Canyon until it intersected the trail at 4,500 feet. From there, we took the standard route to the peak. The gully had some nice bedrock but it was complicated by large boulders and choked brush, notably catclaw and ocotillo. This image looks down into the canyon from the peak.

On the summit that day we saw a golden eagle chasing around both a prairie and peregrine falcon. We descended from the peak on the east ridge and then transitioned onto the north-northeast ridge, taking it to the flats. Of note, one of my companions had preciously climb Elephant Head from Madera Canyon via the same ridge, shown. While the ridge was considerably less troubled than the gully, this circuit was more difficult than the standard route.

We enjoyed a look at Elephant Head's seldom seen dramatic north face.