Travel: West of I-10, Speedway Boulevard becomes Gates Pass Road at the intersection with Camino de Oeste. Take Gates Pass Road up and over the pass. The David Yetman West Trailhead is 0.4 mile west of the pass at a sharp 15 mph turn. Pull into a small paved lot on the left. No facilities, no fees. Dogs are not permitted on trails.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 13.8 miles; 4,200 feet of climbing for the full tour. You will save about four miles by dropping a shuttle vehicle at the Cat Mountain Trailhead.
Total Time: This hike requires a full day, 8:00 to 10:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 3 scrambling with some exposure on the north-northwest ridge of Cat Mountain can be avoided; carry more water than you think you will need and hike on a cool day.
Maps: Trails Illustrated, Saguaro National Park, No. 237
Latest Date Hiked: March 25, 2019
Quote: We simply need wild country available to us even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope. Wallace Stegner
In this image Gates Pass bisects the Tucson Mountains at the midpoint. On the far right is Wasson Peak, the tallest summit in the range. The peaks south of the pass are in order: Bren Benchmark, Golden Gate Mountain, Peak 3,530', Peak 3,380' on Bobcat Ridge, Little Cat Mountain, and Cat Mountain. In the sky above a C-17 transport aircraft flies over the field at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
Route: Walk southeast on the Yetman Trail and take a spur west to climb Golden Gate Mountain. Continue on the Yetman and then divert onto the unnamed trail that traverses Bobcat Ridge and passes by Peak 3,380'. Climb the east slope of Little Cat. Scramble down the southeast ridge to the Cat Mountain saddle. Climb the north-northwest ridge of Cat and descend on the east-southeast ridge to the Explorer Trail. Hike back on the Starr Pass and Yetman Trails. The blue line represents a cairned route linking the Explorer Trail and Cat Mountain.
David Yetman Trail
The hike begins at the David Yetman West Trailhead, elevation 2,960 feet. The Yetman Trail runs along the west side of Bren Benchmark, shown, climbs the pass between Bren and Golden Gate Mountain, and then tracks along the east side of Bobcat Ridge and Little Cat before hooking north to the Camino De Oeste Trailhead.
While serving on the Pima County Board of Supervisors, David Yetman was a champion for the environment and protecting public lands in and around Tucson. He later became the Executive Director of the Tucson Audubon Society. He is a television host for the programs, The Desert Speaks and In the Americas with David Yetman.
Top the pass in just over 0.4 mile at elevation 3,182 feet. Signage in the park is excellent and here the Golden Gate Trail takes off to circle the north side of our first mountain, shown. It sounds promising but this is not our route. While people have ascended the mountain from various starting points this hike uses an established social trail to minimize impact in the popular park.
Later in the day Bobcat Ridge, Little Cat Mountain, and Cat Mountain radiate evening sun.
Golden Gate Mountain, 4,288'
The thin but reliable track up the mountain begins about 0.1 mile south of the pass. Descend a small flight of stone steps and in ten paces locate two gateway cairns on the right. The path heads west-southwest linking a plenitude of cairns, stacked and piled. The route ascends the swale below the rectangular block on the ridgeline.
Ajo lilies were blooming and this lyreleaf jewel flower was budding. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)
The trail weaves around thorny plants and boulders quickly becoming your friend. In this image there are tall standing rocks in the swale below the block. The route passes through a 30-foot opening in the outcrops and then makes for the ridge on the right.
Just before punching through the narrow opening look up to the north and find a cristate saguaro. The mountain across the way is Bren Benchmark.
The path goes over a northeast rib and then makes for the summit ridge at 4,150 feet. Golden Gate Mountain has a string of promising knobs. The highest is to the west. The challenge increases slightly toward the summit but it is never more than Class 2+.
Crest the mountain at 1.3 miles after 1,350 feet of climbing. Visible from this highest peak in the southern range is the complete ring of sky islands: Santa Catalina Mountains, Rincon Mountains, Santa Rita Mountains, and Baboquivari and Kitt Peaks. Wasson Peak lies in the north, shown. While we are tempted to explore every point on the weathered red stone ridge we have a long day ahead and save it for another time.
The geology of the Tucson Mountains is a jumbled mass of volcanics. Limestone, granite, rhyolite, and schist are found amongst volcanic ash-fall tuff and breccia. The pattern is so confusing and incongruous the formal geologic name for the region is Tucson Mountain Chaos. Examples of all these formations may be seen throughout the hike.
The oversized peak register held many notebooks but there were just a few signatures in the past weeks. The mountain drops sharply on its south side, Tucson Estates rests on the desert floor, and our hike rolls out before us to the southeast. (THW, photo)
Retrace your steps to the Yetman Trail hitting it just two miles into the hike. Head southeast avoiding all the many forks spinning off. The trail traverses a large flat between the ridges. The smooth bedrock slope on the left is inviting but getting there would be a challenge. In the wide open teddybears are out of control, proliferating like crazy, little upstarts taking hold below parent plants.
Bobcat Ridge, Peak 3,380' The Yetman runs up against the north end of Bobcat Ridge, heads to the east side, and begins climbing. At the top of a series of stone risers the trail hangs a sharp right. It makes a left where the Sarasota Trail joins. Stay on the Yetman another 0.2 mile. Just past the first knob on the ridge arrive at a flat spot and notice the obvious access draw going up to the divide. Make a right turn onto an unmarked trail at 3.5 miles.
The frequently-traveled trail gains Bobcat Ridge quickly, tracks along the east side then gets right up on top. It is an exhilarating experience with fabulous views back to the two mountains on either side of the pass and the maze-like trail system. It finally dawned on us that we were on the prominent and mysterious ridge we'd seen from town and we began to wonder whether it rose high enough from both saddles to be a ranked summit. We were just flying along admiring the chicory, fairyduster, and desert rosemallow when we noticed a spur trail heading up to the east.
Sure enough, at 4.3 miles we arrived on an ultra sweet little crest with almost 500 feet of lift from both saddles. The peak register was filled with notes from cheerful hikers, most of whom set out from their back doors in the Tucson Estates. We felt the elation of an unexpected treasure.
Little Cat Mountain, UN 3,330'
At five miles intersect an established trail that wraps around the north side of Little Cat and turn left to gain the saddle at 2,910 feet. Be on the watch for a faint use trail leaving the main at 5.1 miles. The image below shows both Cats; Little Cat is on the right. The access trail climbs steeply up the back slope to the summit ridge. Occasional cairns weave between the plants. Make every effort to stay on the faint track. For the full experience walk over to the north end of the summit ridge which makes a big arc. (THW, photo)
The highpoint is located at the arc's apex at 5.5 miles. The lead up to and away from the crest is solid stone, every hiker's dream. The capstone is a purple boulder resting on an overhung wall. (THW, photo)
It is great fun walking along Little Cat's rampart.
The downclimb from Little Cat is tougher than anything undertaken thus far. Most hikers will choose to descend as they came. For those staying on the ridge, drop off-trail to the base of a tuff outcrop at 3,000 feet, shown. The way forward is troubled with cliffbands and steeply angled bedrock slick with rubble. Looking at the image below, the objective is to reach the secondary trail at the base of the mountain, bear east to intersect the established trail, and take it to the saddle between the Cats.
This image looks up at the southern slope of Little Cat. The customary off-trail route descends along the left side of the outcrop, image-center. We chose instead to downclimb through a weakness in the cliffs, image-left.
Cat Mountain, 3,852'
It is 6.0 miles thus far from the trailhead to the saddle between the Cats, elevation 2,790 feet. The Explorer Trail comes up from the south and ends here at the Starr Pass Trail. If you've had enough for one day this is a good bailout. Simply follow the Starr Pass Trail west and take it back to the Yetman Trail. For those climbing Cat Mountain the loop described from this location is 3.2 miles with about 1,300 feet of climbing. You may make the climb considerably easier by taking the standard route both up and down. This is shown with a blue line on the map above.
Cat Mountain is a prominent landform seen from I-10, the Ajo Highway, and Tucson so it has an allure. The route described should be undertaken by proven scramblers only.
We will be climbing the north-northwest ridge ("the hard side of the mountain") and descending the east-southeast ridge. I've been up Cat twice. The first time in 2014 we started at the Sarasota Trailhead, took the Starr Pass Trail to this junction, and tracked along the east side of the mountain on the Explorer Trail. We took the standard route up to the peak and descended on the north-northeast ridge. We intersected the Starr Pass Trail just west of the main junction at the red metal posts, shown.
In 2019, we walked to the red posts and took a look at that climb. It is certainly possible (we did it) and will appeal to ridge purists. Work your way 400 feet up through the two sets of cliffs.
This time we found an excellent way to get to the ridge clear of the two lower escarpments, shown. We hiked south on the Explorer Trail for about a tenth of a mile. We barged up the slope, essentially on top of the second tier. It was unexpectedly good climbing on sheets of volcanic rock and resurrection moss.
We gained the ridge at 3,200 feet. Right away we came upon this weathered gendarme. It was too exposed on the west so we flanked it on the east and then regained the ridge. The backbone is both rugged and thrilling. We were frequently forced off the ridge by obstacles, always favoring the east side. (THW, photo)
Low Class 3 bouldering in bulbous volcanics was entertaining.
The most serious obstruction is a very steep and exposed stone chute at about 3,600 feet. I expect that some climbers go up the throat but both times we found safer passage on the east side. Start probing right away left of center. Don't be drawn off too far to the east where the cliffs only get taller. This time our bypass involved some solid Class 3 big block scrambling. Once back on the ridge the way is clear to the summit. This image was taken going down-mountain in 2014.
I have to admit that the crest of Cat Mountain has an unnatural feel. It serves as a radio repeater site for Pima County. The unit is hidden in a fake white boulder. But the view is every bit as good as the lookout on Golden Gate Mountain. The Ajo Highway is directly below the peak. The structure of the mountain is appealing with its massive rounded stones, a major drop-off on the west, and a plunge to the east.
The east-southeast ridge is a breeze compared with the upcoming route. It is easy walking on big boulders and where there is dirt, there are trail fragments. The spine is narrow enough to feel like a ridge but it is never scary. There is some minor Class 2+ scrambling.
Standard Route down to Explorer Trail
About 0.4 mile off the top, at 3,450 feet, cairns mark the junction with the standard route to and from the mountain. It is almost a 600 foot drop over 0.4 mile to the Explorer Trail. My field notes from 2014 state, "Cairns beautifully mark an excellent route to the ridge." It is one mile from the base of the blue-line route to the junction of the Explorer and Starr Pass Trails. This image looks back at the summit from the top of the standard route.
The standard route begins its descent to the left in front of this knob. In 2019, we decide to stay on the ridge. It was steep flanking the knob on the left.
Here's a look back at the knob.
We kept an eye out for the Explorer Trail and it was easy enough to intersect it. The trail goes roughly northwest tracking along the base of the mountain where this cristate saguaro lives right beside the trail. (THW, photo)
Return to David Yetman West Trailhead
Back on-trail territory rushes by; return to the junction with the Starr Pass Trail at 9.2 miles and turn left. From here the trailhead is 4.6 miles away with over 500 feet of gain. If you know the trail system you can be more efficient. For instance, past the red posts there are two short-cut trails that cut off the triangle. Look back and you will see the northwest side of Cat Mountain. Stay on the Starr Pass Trail passing the Sarasota Trailhead.
Walk under Little Cat Mountain. We were right there!
Track under Bobcat Ridge. At an open gate hang a right on a single track to stay in the park. The Starr Pass Trail swings under the toe of Bobcat Ridge and ends at the Yetman Trail, closing the loop. It is a relaxed and enjoyable walk back to the trailhead. Saguaros are illumined in evening light as you make the final climb of the day up the pass between the peaks.