Sunday, November 29, 2020

McCleary Peak, 8,357'; Peak 8,853' (88 Mac); Peak 9,146' (Mount Ian), Santa Rita Mountains

Essence: Climb three rhyolite summits radiating northward from Mount Wrightson on the Santa Rita Crest. This circuit eliminates the need for a shuttle by linking six trails beginning with the Super Trail and finishing on Old Baldy Trail. The climb begins with McCleary Peak, the most challenging of the three, an unranked summit at the far north end of the range. Progress south, rising for each successive peak. Informally named 88 Mac (the most fun) and Mount Ian (practically a freebie) are legal summits. Be prepared for long miles, hefty elevation gain, forays off-trail, and navigation challenges. The hike is within the Mount Wrightson Wilderness managed by Coronado National Forest. 
Travel: There are three Green Valley exits from I-19. Watch for a brown sign for Madera Canyon Recreation Area and exit on Continental Road, measuring distance from the stop. Turn east under the interstate and cross the Santa Cruz River. In 1.2 miles, turn south on White House Canyon Road which transitions to Madera Canyon Road. Cross three one-lane bridges. The paved road steepens sharply and ends in 12.8 miles at a multi-layered parking lot at the Madera Canyon Picnic Area. Loop around and park near the Super Trail located off the upper lot by the outhouse. Pay the day use fee or display your National Interagency Pass.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 13.2 miles; 4,800 feet of climbing
Total Time: 7:30 to 9:30
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail spurs to peaks; navigation challenging; Class 2+; mild exposure; snow on north-facing slopes shuts this hike down for the season; dress defensively; springs are intermittent so carry all the water you will need.
Map: Mount Wrightson, Arizona 7.5' USGS Quad
Date Hiked: November 29, 2020
I feel the inescapable pull of the earth
the deep old Earth pulling me back to her.
But now as the changeable colors of days
wheel with increasing velocity past my sight
these eyes of mine grow steadier,
my heart grows stronger,
and from the deep old Earth I know knowledge of things,
wonderful things I could never have known before.
 Maynard Dixon

A hiker contemplates the series of stone domes emerging from the deep forest and extending southward from McCleary Peak to Mount Wrightson, sentinel of the Santa Ritas.  (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

 This description reflects a clockwise loop but the hike may be done in either direction. Begin hiking east on the Super Trail and segue to the "Pipeline Trail." Transition to the Kent Spring Trail and then the Four Springs Trail. Upon gaining the 88 Mac (Peak 8,853')--McCleary saddle, do an out-an-back on the south ridge of McCleary. Continue on the Four Springs Trail to the Crest Trail and head south. Climb the south ridge of 88 Mac. Back on the Crest Trail, hike south and do the short spur to Mount Ian. Proceed to Baldy Saddle and descend on the Old Baldy Trail back to Madera Canyon. 

The Approach
There are multiple approaches to McCleary Peak including the Florida Canyon and Bog Springs trails. This is the most efficient route for those doing the full loop. From the trailhead, elevation 5,420 feet, walk east on the Super Trail alongside an unnamed tributary of Madera Canyon through a forest featuring alligator juniper. The chunky stone on the footpath mimics the surface on the Old Baldy Trail. The lower mountain is composed of a crystalline igneous granitic. At 0.3 mile, cross the creek on a left hook. It was running dry in late autumn but this stream and the next two are capable of carrying large volumes of water so use caution. 

At 0.4 mile, transition left onto the informally named Pipeline Trail. The Super Trail makes a sharp turn to the right at this location. Notice the steel pipe under the log in the image below. The historic pipeline is severed in many places. The secondary, non-maintained trail is a narrow but trodden thread zigzagging steeply up the slope.

Turn right at the T junction, 0.6 mile. The first view of Green Valley and Sahuarita on the desert floor opens as the rock-reinforced path climbs the west wall of the Santa Ritas.  
The trail crosses a second, larger tributary of Madera Canyon at 1.0 mile. (Lucky Ledge Mine on the Mount Wrightson quad.) This is a confusing place. A trail remnant continues straight but you must cross the creek bed and make a hard left onto the unsigned Kent Spring Trail coming up the canyon from Bog Springs Campground. Now on an abandoned jeep track, the trail bends around the hill into yet another streamway with stately sycamores. Arrive at Sylvester Spring, 1.2 miles. Of the three springs we encountered, only Sylvester had water and it was earnestly overflowing its cement catchment. (THW, photo)

The road mounts steeply up the drainage to Kent Spring, 6,580 feet, at 1.7 miles. The Bog Springs, Kent Springs, and Four Springs trails all converge at this three-way junction. While the Bog Springs Trail is nicely signed, the Four Springs Trail is not. Turn right onto a single track bearing west for a short distance before switching sharply to the southeast.
The trail enters a ponderosa wood with needles blanketing the path. There is a profound sense of spaciousness with an open vista into the western reaches. Enter the Mount Wrightson Wilderness at 1.9 miles. Appropriately, there is a glimpse of the eponymous summit cone at the boundary. There was evidence of recent trail maintenance but since then, a herd of large hoofed animals thundered down the mountain and busted off the edge of the platform. At 7,100 feet, the treadway crosses a river of gigantic boulders. This impressive talus field is composed of rhyolite volcanics in the Mount Wrightson Formation. In contrast, the purple, sandstone conglomerates seen frequently on this hike were deposited within the volcanics in quiet times between eruptions.  

Switchbacks initiate at 7,480 feet. We saw a white-tailed buck while ascending through the forest to gain a westward interior ridge at 7,980, 3.5 miles. In 2005, the Florida Fire burned the eastern slope of the range and ripped through the gap south of 88 Mac, shown. In this pleasant and peaceful setting, incinerated trees tend a ponderosa nursery.  
The Four Springs Trail goes straight over the ridge and contours northward. The platform is cleaved into a ridiculously steep slope. Standing rocks jut up from a fir and oak woodland, animals leave tracks in the soft soil. 

Unobstructed in the west are forested Pete Mountain, thrusting Elephant Head, and the granite monolith without rival, Baboquivari Peak.

McCleary Peak, 8,357'
The north spur to McCleary leaves from its saddle with 88 Mac at 4.2 miles, 8,140 feet. I know plenty of people who only climb legal summits. With a prominence of 217 feet, this one doesn't make the 300-foot cut. Do not deny yourself this delightful experience. It is only a quarter mile to the far north crest of the Santa Ritas. Locate a social trail in the grass on the other side of the log, shown. The scant path barges up through shrubs and outcrops. In 2020, there were no cairns but the trail helps immeasurably. In its wild state this climb would be difficult.

We did a short, low Class 3 scramble right on the ridgetop but the trail skirts this red-purple rhyolite obstacle on the east. You needn't exceed Class 2+ scrambles. 

In this classic shot of bulbous McCleary Peak, the spine narrows as shrubs enclose and protect. The crag-studded ridge is a little tricky and demands some patience but the final dash to the summit is on pure rock. (THW, photo)

Arrive on the small crest at 4.55 miles after 3,000 feet of climbing. The peak register is enclosed in the tall summit cairn. This climb is popular with hiking clubs: Huachuca, Green Valley, and Southern Arizona. It's hard to know where to feast your attention given the peak's unique perspective on the countryside. To the north, the landscape dives abruptly for nearly 5,000 feet to Florida Canyon Wash at the base of the sky island, and then punches up to the Santa Catalina and Rincon mountains. (THW, photo)

To the south, barren domes of stone grow ever taller on the northern crest of Mount Wrightson. Below, 88 Mac resides beyond the McCleary access ridge.

Peak 8,853', 88 Mac 
The standard route up Peak 8,853', informally and widely known as 88 Mac, is via the south ridge. That might seem like the long way around but it sets the climber up for Mount Ian and creates a stellar circuit.  (There are no trip reports of successful climbs on the north ridge.) From the saddle, the Four Springs Trail gives up 180 feet on a winding descent to the east. The Florida Fire created an opening for opportunistic graythorn which threatens to take over wherever it takes hold. Smart engineering winds the trail around cliffs and through outcrops. The low point is Armour Spring, 7960 feet. It was dry when we passed the pretty stone crevice with its bare hint of water in a burned out forest. 

The Four Springs Trail ends at the Crest Trail at 5.5 miles. This is 200 feet above Florida Saddle on the northeast ridge of 88 Mac. Turn south on this boot-worn passageway and ascend gradually and consistently. At one dramatic place the trail tracks along a cliff face that insists on being touched. Arrive on the north crest ridgeline once again at 8,540 feet, 6.2 miles. From the grassy flat expanse the second peak is 0.8 mile roundtrip with a rise of 313 feet. Walking north, sporadic cairns guide as you enter the rock. 

The summit climb is a pure and simple pleasure. The multi-colored rock is fascinating; the palette features a mix of brown, orange, yellow, even purple. 

Walk out the broad rocky crest to gaze down on McCleary and onward into the land of the Sonoran. The peak register dates back almost thirty years. (THW, photo)

Mount Hopkins, 8,586', is three miles west as the crow flies. The Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory, in various locations on the mountain, is owned and operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. The MMT Observatory mirror was cast and polished by the University of Arizona in Tucson. (THW, photo)

Peak 9,146', Mount Ian 
Continuing south on the Crest Trail, it stays east of the ridgeline to Baldy Saddle. Along the way it traverses yet another steep hillside, threads through a notch in outcrops, and emerges from dark woods to wade through shimmering grass. Along this stretch you will ascend 650 feet to the tallest peak of the day. The trail does most of the work so Mount Ian is practically effortless. As the ridge draws close enter a youthful, post-fire aspen forest. Leave the trail at about 8.0 miles, 9,080 feet. From here the peak is only 0.1 mile afar. We did not see a social trail so we simply made the most of grassy openings. In a few moments, we were on the ridge.

We gained the spine slightly south of the small summit, image-center, and scrambled over a couple of knobs. The narrowest section can be skirted on the east. 

Standing on this peak was incredibly satisfying. I'd been looking at Mount Ian for decades from Wrightson, wondering and wishing. To visit three mountains on the ridgeline crest was beyond my dreams. This hike enhanced my understanding of the Santa Rita landscape neighboring the highpoint loved and frequented by so many. We were tempted to take the south ridge to Baldy Saddle but the day was short so we let the trail carry us there. Walk toward Wrightson through a mythical landscape. The rocks have powerful shapes, colors, and presence.

Old Baldy Trail to Madera Canyon
Reach Baldy Saddle at 8.7 miles, 8,780 feet, and begin the familiar westward plummet to Madera Canyon on Old Baldy Trail.

In the unlikely event this is your first hike in the Santa Rita Mountains, please link to Mount Wrightson for a detailed description of this final 4.5 mile segment. As you descend, a mile off the saddle look back at the north crest and you will see the west faces of all three peaks.

At Josephine Saddle, 10,7 miles, 7,100 feet, the footpath makes a turn to the northwest. This hike remains on the Old Baldy to Madera Canyon for a total of 13.2 miles. If you have the time and stamina, you could extend your hike by returning on the Super Trail, adding 1.2 miles.


  1. Doing all those peaks is a long day! Beyond my pay grade at this point. Just a note that there are cairns generally well placed if you have sharp eyes on the ridge out to McCleary, as of last week. And don't under estimate the ridge - it is slow going. But sitting at the end of the ridge as it does, this peak has awesome views on three sides.

    I don't like the old jeep road approach (after the end of the pipeline trail). Instead you can turn right on the unofficial Fern (local name) trail, which goes up a beautiful drainage, take a left when another trail (also unofficial) crosses on the way down from the Super trail, follow this over to Roger's Rock, and continue up past the Rock to hit the 4 springs trail at just about its eastern most point.

  2. Glad you made it to McCleary, Ben. Thanks for your note about the Fern Trail. Sounds like a good alternative.