Summit an ancient caldera remnant in the "Tucson Mountain Chaos" just south of Saguaro National Park - just be careful of the "jumping cholla".
Related: Tucson Mountains Tour: Golden Gate Mountain, Bobcat Ridge, and Little Cat Mountain
Elephant Head Peak - Santa Rita Mountains, Southern Arizona
We started on the Yetman Trailhead, not far from Golden Gate Mountain, instead of the Sarasota Trailhead which is closer to Cat Mountain so we could spend as much time as possible walking through this beautiful Tucson Mountain Park encompassing much of an ancient caldera, and weave around thorny saguaros and jumping chollas. We had also started at the Yetman trail a few days before, when we hiked three high points in this park: Golden Gate Mountain, Little Cat Mountain and Bobcat Ridge. All four peaks could be summited in one long day.
Golden Gate Mountain's southeast slopes and jumping cholla.
Fred and Scott near Yetman trailhead under the north cliffs of Golden Gate Mountain
Reach the saddle between Golden Gate Mountain and Bren Peak at 0.4 miles from Yetman trailhead, an excellent place to get a perspective on three high points: Bobcat Ridge, Little Cat Mountain and Cat Mountain. A textured green carpet sweeps down valley and up the slopes of these brooding, rugged mountains. The only thing that distracts from this scene is the housing development in the valley to the west.
This pleasant view makes it difficult to imagine the sudden event of a magma chamber spewing the searing ash that formed this ancient caldera landscape. Tucson Mountain Chaos is the term given by geologists to the valley rocks that underlie the Cat Mountain Tuff, the compacted ash that forms these peaks. There is no definite answer to the thousands-feet thickness of this Cretaceous-age tuff. Were these rocks below the Cat Mountain Tuff rafted from deeper levels by the rising magma? Or, was this rock caused by a landslide in a caldera that had accumulated the tuff? To make the geologic puzzle even more complicated, spreading of the Earth during Basin and Range faulting makes the geologist's task of identifying the age relationship of the rocks more difficult.
Yetman Trail heads to three summits from left to right: Bobcat Ridge, Cat Mountain in middle horizon with Little Cat in front of it.
At 1.6 miles, Yetman intersects with Sarasota Trail. Bobcat Ridge is gained by going left and staying on Yetman Trail. For Cat Mountain, turn sharp right (south) onto Sarasota. In 1.4 miles, Explorer Trail intersects with Sarasota. You can hike on either trail to get to Cat Mountain. On our approach, we took Explorer Trail which wraps around the base of Little Cat Mountain for 0.8 miles to meet up again with Sarasota and also Starr Pass Trail.
The worn-out "You are Here" red dot marks the intersection of Sarasota and Explorer Trails. Our route: Explorer (pink) trail to pass under the north flank of Cat Mountain.
Arizona Barrel Cactus
Cat Mountain from Explorer Trail on its north side. We went up low saddle to the left of the summit block to gain lower ridge.
From our vantage point on the Explorer trail, we could see the gentler rise of Cat Mountain's east ridge. The three-trail intersection (Starr Pass, Explorer and Sarasota) is well-marked as are other intersections in this well-cared-for park. We continued on the Explorer trail for 0.6 miles until we saw a manageable route to the ridge, leaving it earlier than the standard cairned route (1.0 miles past 3-way junction), making our own path. A sea of detached teddy bear cholla branches, those little mobile yellow ovals armored with extremely sharp spines made us pick our footsteps carefully. However, I wasn't careful enough; one jumped up and stuck my pant leg to my calf. I remembered a hike many years ago when we used a metal comb to remove a cholla piece from a dog's leg. Scott and Fred somehow got the prickly thing off me and we resumed our cross-country hike with no serious injury except for a few red spots on my skin.
The day grew colder and cloudier. The broken dark red and tan rocks deposited on the slopes from the tuff cliffs above crunched under our boots. The occasional cactus spine scraped against our packs and in some cases grabbed on.
Three-way intersection. From here, exit Explorer Trail for more difficult ascent up Cat Mountain's northwest ridge. "Standard" and less difficult route leaves Explorer 1.0 mile after this intersection.
"Teddy Bear Cholla"
After getting off Explorer, we looked for the best way up. Rocks formed a natural staircase. Four or five Coues Whitetail deer perched far above on steep cliffs stopped to watch us, curious at three humans stumbling through the cacti. The ridge walk was straightforward and it felt good to follow its natural route and rhythm, using hands when needed. We came upon cairns marking the final ascent to the summit and a complete change of view of the open sky and the sprawl of Tucson far below us. There's just one Class 3 crack with mild exposure to navigate, with just enough ledges to place feet and hands. Frequent rock cairns mark an obvious path.
Picking our way to Cat Mountain's east ridge.
Saguaro and cholla garden below last summit approach
Scott ascending the last part of ridge climb
Sweet cactus garden before final ascent.
Fred on the summit of Cat Mountain
Golden Gate Mountain on the right; Yetman Trail goes through the saddle to its right.
Every ridge scramble, every summit has its own unique personality. The scramble up Cat Mountain's east ridge is challenging yet not scary, exposed but safe, with the right amount of rocks and cactus gardens making it aesthetically friendly. You're never bored with looking at saguaros and chollas because with each one, there is a different size or form. This summit has one very unusual feature - a plastic white boulder that houses a radio repeater. Looking at Cat Mountain from Tucson area, you would not suspect the spacious flat areas on its summit. A steady cold wind cut short our time lounging on the top, but we got a good look at Golden Gate Mountain to the northwest and the steep drop-off to the south.
As we walked down, the clouds closed again, the temperature dropped, and the wind chilled. We hiked back via Sarasota Trail at the three-way intersection. We added another summit to our "three friends who like to hike" resume', and more stories for reminiscing. This will go down in the books as one of our more mellow hikes together. Never stop climbing mountains!
Scott and Fred
Looking at Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson and Rincon Mountains on right horizon.
Fred and Sue on Cat!
Parting shot of Cat Mountain from Sarasota Trail.
Our GPS tracks to Cat Mountain from Yetman Trailhead
Red line is our Class 2 ascent route; blue line is cairned trail and our descent.
Elevation profile over entire 11.5-mile hike.
With a second try, we made it to the lonesome summit of Elephant Head in the sparsely traveled Santa Rita Mountains, south of Tucson.
Related: Tucson Mountains Tour: Golden Gate Mountain, Bobcat Ridge, and Little Cat Mountain
Cat Mountain, 3,852' - Tucson Mountain Park
Elephant Head Peak summit - Santa Rita Mountains
"Mountains complement desert as desert complements city, as wilderness complements and completes civilization."
- Edward Abbey - from Desert Solitaire
On our first attempt at summiting Elephant Head Peak, a huge winter storm was blowing into southern Arizona, so by the time we reached the saddle just below the exposed ridge to the summit, we staggered against a roaring wind bent on toppling us over. We had to go back down. The storm produced a thick white blanket over the tops of the Santa Catalina and Rincon Mountain ranges overlooking Tucson. Six days later we reached Elephant Head summit on a warm, calm and sunny day, but the Santa Rita Mountain range behind us still held large patches of snow.
The almost ghostly figure of bare Elephant Head Peak stands out in stark contrast against the base of the dark brown and green Santa Rita Mountains in the Santa Cruz Valley near the southern Arizona border. The Cretaceous-age Elephant Head formed much later than the Triassic-age Mt. Wrightson rocks at the higher elevations of these mountains.
Elephant Head Peak, 5, 641' in Mt. Wrightson Wilderness in the northwest Santa Rita Mountains
First attempt: bracing against the wind on saddle beneath Elephant Head Peak, 5,641'.
On the way to the bottom of Chino Canyon looking at Elephant Head Peak. Hike to saddle on the right following cairns.
This hike packs in a wide variety of plants, views and terrain for its relatively short distance and manageable elevation gain. Begin by crossing the stream in Agua Caliente Canyon to walk through knee-high bunch grasses, then pass by the intersection for Little Elephant Head (Peak 5,139'). Catch the first glimpse of Elephant Head Peak on the horizon. Magenta and red fruits of huge Santa Rita prickly pear cacti dot the sides of the trail. Tall rock walls that support an old mining road still stand looking down Chino Canyon. Suddenly, around a corner, an enormous view of the pinkish-tan hulk of Elephant Head Peak overlooks deep Chino Canyon, its rounded rocks and southern cliffs dotted with green shrubs and a few trees. A steep drop with occasional Arizona Rainbow cacti growing in moss brings you to a soothing waterfall. The final ridge climb is the funnest part of the hike, as it requires using old oak tree branches and plenty of rock hand-holds. The rock affords great traction as the ridge drops on both sides for a huge view of all the major ranges to the north, including Baboquivari Peak, the native Tohono O'odham peoples' most sacred place. A close-up to the east of the rugged Santa Rita Mountains provides a beautiful backdrop.
One mile into the hike, intersect with mining road built in the early 1900's and an old Santa Rita prickly pear and take a right past sign.
Cairn marking cross-country trail that crosses Chino Canyon to ascend to saddle to the right (southeast) of Elephant Head Peak.
Chino Canyon at creek crossing
This elevation is too high and cool for saguaros to grow. This hike travels through the transition between desert grassland and oak grassland biomes of Arizona's Sky Island region. The ocotillo "forests" are remarkable and so are the mature Santa Rita Prickly Pears; they tolerate the cooler winters. Their pads can turn purple during the winter.
So many things make this a repeat-hike in the future: solitude, desert wilderness, route-finding, fun Class 2-3 climbing, and views. Plans: Elephant Head Peak plus Little Elephant Head (Peak 5,149').
On Elephant Head's east ridge looking at the final climb: trail goes around just to the right side of ridge.
Yep! This is the trail! See the cairns......
Summit of Elephant Head Peak - Santa Rita Mountains - Mt. Wrightson highest peak.
Near the summit looking down the east ridge to saddle (top of image) where trail ascends.
Santa Rita Prickly Pear
Devils's Cashbox - limestone butte south of Elephant Head Peak
Ocotillo and Santa Rita Prickly Pear
Our GPS tracks from Trail #930 Trailhead (south) to Elephant Head Peak (north) Contour intervals = 40'.
click on map for larger image
Profile for ascent: 3.4 miles with 2,000' net elevation gain
Point at which you leave Quantrell Mine Trail and descend into Chino Canyon - there may or may not be a cairn at this point.
An Archipelago in a Cordilleran Gap - The Sky Islands of Arizona and Sonora. Brusca, R., Moore, W.
Ganesha: Hindu Diety. Doniger, W. Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ganesha
Geologic Map of the Mt. Wrightson Quadrangle. https://ngmdb.usgs.gov/Prodesc/proddesc_9405.htm
Mesozoic Stratigraphy of the Santa Rita Mountains, Southeast of Tucson, Arizona. Drewes, H. 1971. https://pubs.usgs.gov/pp/0658c/report.pdf
Plutonic Rocks of the Santa Rita Mountains, Southeast of Tucson, Arizona. Drewes, H. 1976. Geological Survey Professional Paper 915. https://pubs.usgs.gov/pp/0915/report.pdf
Quantrell Mine Trail. Coronado National Forest. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service.
Summit three scenic high points in the "Tucson Mountain Chaos" using a combination of established trails and off-trail climbs through exquisite Lower Sonoran desert ecosystem.
Saguaros at Golden Gate Mountain summit
Golden Gate Mountain Summit, 4,288 feet- located on the right side of trail.
Yetman Trailhead and Golden Gate Mountain
It's not every day you can hike through valleys with rocks formally called "Tucson Mountain Chaos" and climb mountains made of compacted ash spewed from a huge volcanic eruption that created a 12-mile wide caldera whose floor collapsed onto an emptied magma chamber. At least this seems to be the current theory of the geologically complex Tucson Mountain Park. Geologists still debate and puzzle over the formation of this area. If you do this hike that I describe here, you will travel on the caldera floor through a beautiful Sonoran desert ecosystem.
On this yearly Tucson visit, Fred and I were looking for different peaks in the area to summit. Not that we are tired of peaks in the Santa Catalinas and Rincon Mountains. A winter storm had dumped a lot of snow at elevations above 5,000 feet, so we opted for a warmer experience instead. Tucson Mountain Park is managed by Pima County. Its great website has an interactive map and lists features and activities in this 20,000-acre park that is "one of the largest natural resource areas owned and managed by a local government in the U.S." Outdoor activities range from picnicking to hiking, mountain bike riding and wildlife viewing. On Cat Mountain (a few days after this hike), we were lucky to see five grey Coues whitetail deer, atop steep and rocky rust-colored cliffs.
I love celebrating holidays on the trail. There is a certain fellowship that occurs with greetings of "Merry Christmas" or "Happy New Year!" On this Christmas morning, the chill wind stung our faces, but it wasn't long before we felt warmth from the winter sun.
The north walls of Golden Gate Mountain, the first summit of our Tucson Mountain Park tour
Golden Gate Mountain
At the Yetman trailhead, we set out to discover a new area with hike directions from Earthline. At the saddle between Golden Gate Mountain and Bren's Benchmark, 0.4 miles from the trailhead, we oriented ourselves and looked southeast to mountain summits, not yet knowing which ones we would be climbing. We took a right 0.1 miles past the saddle at the cairned trail that gains the Golden Gate through a break between cliffs, and began our climb to Golden Gate Mountain, our highest summit at 4,288 feet (see photo below).
The golden color of the rocks perhaps gave this peak its name. Cat Mountain Tuff, a thick layer of consolidated ash, makes up the bulk of these peaks.
Tucson Mountain Chaos is the term given by geologists to the rocks that underlie the Cat Mountain Tuff, seen in the valleys. There is no definite answer to the thousands-feet thickness of this Cretaceous-age tuff. Were these rocks below the Cat Mountain Tuff rafted from deeper levels by the rising magma? Or, was this rock caused by a landslide in a caldera that had accumulated the tuff? Of course, when you throw in the geometry of faulting that occurred later when Basin and Range was spreading, it makes the geologist's task of identifying the age relationship of the rocks more difficult.
Dodging teddy bear chollas and barrel cactus spines, we marveled at a rare cristate saguaro thrusting up from a steep, south-facing slope under orange cliffs. Theories for the abnormal crest growth range from genetic mutations to lightning strikes. The trail threads between welded tuff towers and tops out, weaves to the left following cairns to the summit. Tucson spreads below, mountain ranges surround on the horizon. Below us, a white cloud moved across the valley and swept over us, briefly covering the peak with fog that created a rare, softly illuminated desert scene. Light rain produced vivid oranges, yellows and greens. Return to Yetman Trail via the same path.
Cristate saguaro on left. Bren Benchmark across valley.
Scenes from the summit of Golden Gate Mountain, Tucson Mountain Park
View of Golden Gate Mountain from Yetman Trail (looking west).
Peak 3,380' on Bobcat Ridge
From return to Yetman trail, hike down-valley 1.15 miles to the intersection with the Sarasota Trail. Stay on Yetman to the left (east) for 0.2 miles to arrive at a flat saddle. Bobcat Ridge trail (not marked with signs but obvious) takes off to the right (southwest). The views of Tucson open up as you near the top, Peak 3,380'. It is a relaxed summit with beautiful vegetation, a favorite local hiker destination. From this summit, the steep northern walls of Little Cat Mountain comes into clear view; there's a lot of descending before the climb. To its left (southeast), the dark, enormous hulk that is Cat Mountain will have to be summited another day. Total mileage = 4.3 miles.
Bobcat Ridge near Peak 3,380
From Bobcat Ridge looking northwest to saddle between Golden Gate Mountain (left) and Bren's Benchmark (right).
The Yetman Trail traverses the saddle.
Bobcat Ridge Trail leading away from Peak 3,380 toward Little Cat Mountain behind saguaros. Cat Mountain on the left.
Little Cat Mountain
From Peak 3,380, continue southeast on Bobcat Ridge Trail 0.7 miles to intersection with Explorer Trail; total mileage = 5.0 miles. Turn left (southeast) to climb to saddle in a short distance. At top of saddle, at arrow sign for Explorer Trail, hike up to saddle of Little Cat Mountain to the right (south). Fewer cairns than those of Golden Gate mark this off-trail approach which climbs a quick 400' to the summit, passing a relatively flat grassy area once the trail tops the saddle. From this summit, look to your left; an outrageous view of dark orange and black volcanic Cat Mountain appears as you stand on a cliff overlooking Tucson. The lowering sun and long shadows made this scene even more dramatic.
We returned via our ascent to Explorer trail (signs with pink arrow), then made a loop around base of Bobcat Ridge by following Sarasota Trail (signs with maroon arrow), then finally on Yetman Trail to trailhead. Total distance: 9.25 miles. We vowed to climb Cat Mountain, then returned to its summit a few days later with our friend Scott, to celebrate the New Year and plan for hikes together in the beautiful southwestern deserts.
Saddle near summit of Little Cat Mountain - faint trails ascend from this saddle between Bobcat Ridge and Little Cat on Explorer Trail
View of Cat Mountain from summit of Little Cat Mountain
Cat Mountain on the left (we did that peak a few days later)
Little Cat is behind the saguaro
Our GPS tracks - click on map for larger image
Trails in southeastern Tucson Mountain Park
click on map for larger image
Lipman, P.W. 1994. Tucson Mountains Caldera: A Cretaceous Ash Flow Caldera in Southern Arizona. USGS Research on Mineral Resources 1994: Part B, Guidebook for Field Trips. U.S. Geological Survey.
Tucson Mountains Geology: Complex and Controversial.
Lipman, P.W. Geologic Map of the Tucson Mountains Caldera, Southern Arizona.
Tucson Mountain Chaos. Arizona State Geology: Blog of the State Geologist of Arizona. Retrieved from internet. http://arizonageology.blogspot.com/2009/04/tucson-mountain-chaos.html
On this exceptional 18-mile round-trip hike, experience remarkable biological diversity beginning in the saguaros and desert scrub, ending in the evergreen oaks and alligator juniper of the pine-oak woodlands. The reward is an immense view of mountain ranges in southern Arizona.
Tanque Verde Peak - Saguaro National Park East - Rincon Mountain District
Biome - "A large community of plants and animals that occupies a distinct region. A complex biotic community characterized by distinctive plant and animal species and maintained under the climatic conditions of the region."
Tanque Verde Ridge in background
If I had to pick only one word that best describes the essence of the hike to Tanque Verde Peak in the Saguaro Wilderness, I would choose "diversity". This nine-mile portion of the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail that begins at the Javelina trailhead in Saguaro National Park east of Tucson and ends 4,000 feet higher at Tanque Verde's summit treks through four biotic communities, each containing its characteristic plant and animal species. These "life zones" -Sonoran desertscrub, semi-desert grassland, Madrean evergreen woodland, and temperate forest overlap, so that prickly pear cactus grows alongside bunch grasses in transition zones.
An evening of April thunderstorms and light rain the previous night had created a chill and freshness to the morning air. Fred and I had hiked this trail 6.9 miles to Juniper Basin the year before. This year, we were determined to hike the full nine miles to the peak.
The trail, initially hard and rocky, winds through stately saguaros, barrel cactus and prickly pear cacti filled to the brim with new flower buds (in April), straightens and gains elevation through tall bunchgrasses, bear grass, and finally oak trees. Leaving the desert scrub behind, the trail rises and falls through an ever-increasing amount of oaks. It goes through lovely Juniper Flat, through the cool shade of Ponderosa and Pinyon pines along with Alligator juniper toward the summit of Tanque Verde Peak where the tread is soft with accumulated pine needles. Grasping the rough and weathered granite on the last few feet of the summit block, you hoist yourself up a huge boulder to see the dark, immense summit of Rincon Mountain on the south ridge and the breathtaking view of southern Arizona's mountain ranges.
The only bad part is the sore feet after this 18-mile hike; however, a small price to pay for this unique experience.
Tanque Verde, or "green tank" refers to the green algae present in a large tank of water used for stock in the 1800's. It is now the name given to the valley east of Tucson that is bordered by the Santa Catalina Mountains to the north and the Rincon Mountains to the east. The Pima Indians lived there in the 1600's, and Tanque Verde Ranch was established in the 1800's.
Biomes of Sonoran Desert Network Parks
Symbols courtesy of the Integration and Application Network, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (ian.umces.edu/symbols/).
-Taken from Sonoran Desert Inventory and Monitoring Network - National Park Service
Sonoran Desertscrub (a.k.a. Thornscrub)
This hike begins at the Javelina picnic area in East Saguaro National Park - elevation 3,100 feet, in the creosote-scented Sonoran desertscrub biome. A great biome because plants are tough yet beautiful at the same time. Tough because plants have devised strategies to help them survive, such as thorns as a physical defense against predators, and hair on leaves to shield the relentless sun. Thorns and bristles act to shade and insulate certain crucial parts of cacti. Thorny saguaros dominate this community, along with cacti of various forms, such as the flower bud-studded prickly pear. Bright colors of wildflowers in spring line the path: coral/red claret cup flowers of the hedgehog cactus, yellow prickly pear flowers, pink fairyduster, bright orange ocotillo, and peach-colored globemallow flowers. Mesquite and Palo Verde trees are present in the Sonoran desertscrub biome which is intermediate between the desert and tropical forest biomes. The cheerful yellow flowers of Encelia farinosa, or brittlebush add bursts of color among the red-brown rocks and green cacti.
After the trail register, the trail begins to climb, with sweeping views of Tucson basin. Before emerging out of the desertscrub biome into grassland, at about two miles, the trail provides unobstructed views of the mountain ranges west and south of Tucson. From here, the trail stays on the wide ridge, rounding hills at some intervals, or heading straight up and then down, causing mild losses in elevation. It gains 700 feet in the 1.4 miles after the trail register. Just after 4,000 feet elevation, saguaros become more scarce, and grass more prominent, as it transitions into semi-desert grassland ecosystem.
Trail head sign at Javalina Picnic area - Saguaro National Park East
9 miles and 4 biomes ahead of us!
Ocotillo and prickly pear in Sonoran desertsrub biome
Brittlebush - Encelia farinosa
Scolopendra heros - giant desert centipede (we saw one of these on our way back)
- taken from Wikipedia
Near Javelina picnic area - Saguaro National Park East
Desertscrub (recently named Thornscrub) biome in Sonoran desert about 3,000 - 4,000 feet elevation
Green lynx spider on prickly pear blossom
Prickly Pear Cactus with buds on leaves in April
Saguaro near Bridal Wreath Falls with holes probably made from nesting cactus wrens, Arizona's state bird
On trail system north of Tanque Verde Ridge in Saguaro NP
As the trail climbs just past 4,000 feet, a noticeable change in vegetation occurs: saguaros become scarce as the ridge is dominated by ever-increasing fields of bunchgrasses, oak and juniper. Calming, muted and soft neutral grey/greens replace bright primary colors of the lively, unrestrained desertscrub. Sotol, creosote and agave mix with a diverse array of grasses. As the trail gradually climbs, junipers become more prevalent. Tanque Verde Peak is still six miles away and not visible. The manzanita and oak species are prevalent in the oak savannah community as the trail ascends, transitioning into pine/oak woodland.
Transition between Sonoran desertscrub and semi-desert grasslands
Oaks begin to appear in semi-desert grassland biome
Santa Catalina Mountains, north of Tucson on horizon
Madrean Evergreen/Pine/Oak Woodland
At about four miles, at mid-elevation that is between the desertscrub and the temperate forest biomes, the trail ascends and descends through ever-increasing oaks. At 5.9 miles, the trail drops to make its long entrance into Juniper Basin Campground, crossing beautiful Box Canyon with rock cairns to guide you through stretches of rock floors. At 5,940 feet elevation, Juniper Basin Campground is an airy and spacious place with towering Pinyon pines and oaks and my favorite - the alligator juniper with its scaly square-patterned bark. There's an outhouse and food box for overnight campers.
Evergreen oaks such as Emory oak and Arizona white oak along with Mexican pinyon pine dominate this biome, named after its origin in the Sierra Madre mountain range that runs through Mexico and along the Gulf of California. Understory perennial grasses rustle, adding to the peace of this place.
The elevation gain to Juniper Basin Campground is 2,840 feet in 6.9 miles. Tanque Verde Peak is another 2.1 miles and 1,100 feet in gain. Such a long, arduous adventure; it's tempting to turn back and call it good, but the additional effort to get to the summit is worth it. We summon our motivation and resume our quest not knowing at this time how we would quickly forget our tired legs once on Tanque Verde summit, and how the forest and view would exceed our expectations.
Signs indicate the trail continues northeastward from Juniper Basin. Finally, Tanque Verde Peak comes into view, but seems far away. Orange blazes on trees occasionally mark the trail, easy to follow.
Oak in Madrean Evergreen Woodland biome - near Juniper Basin Campground - 6,000 feet
"Madrean" is the word taken from the Sierra Madre Mountain range in Mexico
Huge alligator juniper (Juniperus deppeana) along trail between Juniper Basin and Tanque Verde Peak.
The checkerboard-patterned bark is distinctive in this large evergreen which is used for fenceposts.
Yucca on the left and alligator juniper share space in the Madrean Evergreen Woodland biome
A unique characteristic of the Sonoran temperate forest biome, officially beginning at around 6,000 feet elevation, is the cohabitation of lower-elevation desert plants, such as the yucca with spruces, pines, firs and maples. Species diversity reigns, although seemingly not to the degree of the desertscrub biome. Temperate forests are very cold-hardy and confined to cooler sites above the Madrean evergreen woodland.
We catch glimpses of Tanque Verde Peak as we climb on a well-traveled path through the shade, scent and rough texture of this forest. Emerging out of the dense forest into an open wide ridge, Tanque Verde's many columnar rocks and crevices comes into sharp view at about 6,500 feet. The trail weaves around large boulders and manzanita: the metal summit sign is seen to the east at about 8.7 miles. Reach an old signed intersection that points the way to Cow Head Saddle which is another 2.5 miles on the ridge; continue straight ahead to Tanque Verde. Somehow I forget my tired legs when we reach the summit, where the spectacular scene doesn't reveal itself until you scale a looming boulder that stands in your way, a short climb that feels like the final test for this summit conquer.
Forest opens near summit of Tanque Verde in temperate forest biome
Old sign near trail intersection with hike to Cow Head Saddle continuing on Tanque Verde Ridge.
100 yards from the summit!
The view is spectacular. It takes a few seconds to fully comprehend how high this peak rises above the surrounding desert floor and the layers of mountain ranges visible. Mexico is to the south, the Santa Rita and Galiuro Mountain ranges to the southeast. The Santa Catalina Mountains thrust up rocky prominences to the northwest. Rincon Peak is just across the valley to the east, its massive hulk in the shadow of clouds.
We relish the view and accomplishment and the wonder and beauty that the Sonoran desert brings. The wind is brisk and cool, but by the time we get down to the desertscrub and walk through the saguaro stands, seven miles away, it will be warmer, even with the sun setting. There are about four or five hills to climb on the long walk out, scaled with a bit more determination than on the way in. Glad we are getting back at sunset, for above the golden Tanque Verde Ridge slowly becoming covered by shadows, a nearly full moon is rising.
Tucson Basin to the southwest from summit of Tanque Verde Peak - 7,047 feet
Rincon Peak southeast of Tanque Verde Peak in eastern Rincon Mountains - also a great hike!
Fred and Sue - 7,047 feet - if you've got the endurance (and plenty of water), we recommend this hike!
Nine miles done and nine more to go!
Close to Javelina trailhead, Saguaro National Park East
Getting back to trailhead at moonrise - ocotillos in foreground
Always a Frost gelato after a Tucson hike
Tanque Verde Ridge Trail (in red) from trailhead at Javelina picnic area in Saguaro NP East to Tanque Verde Peak
click on map for larger image
Buckley, Steve, ed. 2011. Common Plants of Saguaro National Park
Levengood, Betty. Tucson Hiking Guide. 2012. West Wind Press, Portland, Oregon.
Natural Resources Monitoring at Saguaro National Park. https://www.nps.gov/im/sodn/sagu.htm
Sonoran Desert Network Ecosystems. https://www.nps.gov/im/sodn/ecosystems.htm#CP_JUMP_5423053
USGS - Southwest Biological Science Center. 2006. Vascular Plant and Vertebrate Inventory of Saguaro National Park, Rincon Mountain District rincon_vegetation.pdf.
Tanque Verde Ranch website, https://www.tanqueverderanch.com/
U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Saguaro. Geology of the Rincon Mountains. https://www.nps.gov/sagu/planyourvisit/upload/Geology%20of%20the%20Rincon%20Mountains.pdf.
Hike through beautiful Upper Sonoran chaparral ecosystem to a distinguished Tucson landmark with steep rock chutes in the Santa Catalina Mountains.
Thimble Peak with penstemon and native thistle
Pusch Ridge Wilderness - Santa Catalina Mountains - Tucson
Thimble Peak (second peak from the right), a prominent landmark seen from Sabino Canyon Trail (far left) and Phoneline Trail (faint, winding trail on slope under ridge). We hiked to Thimble Peak from the opposite direction and approached it from "behind".
Final approach to Thimble Peak on the section that turns off of Bear Canyon Trail
Elevation profile from 0.4 miles from trail head to peak.
Bear Canyon to the left (southeast), Sabino Canyon to the right (northwest), Blacketts Ridge upper right.
Full GPS tracks map below
On a warm and lush April day in Tucson, Scott, Fred and I hit the trail to Thimble Peak with two main goals: summit the peak via a climbing class 4 vertical crack, and leave upon it a rock that we had found on Pinto Mountain's summit in Joshua Tree four months earlier. The rock, painted with a cartoon image of a cat, belongs to the Jamestown Kind Rocks Project, whose goal is to "promote random acts of kindness to unsuspecting people by painting and dropping inspirational rocks or some other cool way to bring kindness." Scott had found it in Pinto's summit register box and kept it. Now it was time to pass on the kindness.
"Lush" and Tucson don't normally go together in the same sentence, but as I stood at four different high-points overlooking the Tucson basin a few weeks ago, a carpet of forest green spread below. Tucson received above average rainfall this past winter and spring, and now the wildflowers were robust and plentiful, bursting with buds and flowers. All of the space atop each prickly pear cactus leaf pad was filled to maximum capacity with new flower buds. This ramble through juniper and oak was colored with the purples, pinks, reds, and oranges of penstemon, globe mallow, thistle, and pink fairy duster.
Signs at Gordon Hirabayashi trailhead. This hike initially follows the Molino Basin Trail #11 to the Sycamore Trail #39 which is part of the Arizona Trail.
From the Gordon Hirabayashi Trailhead we hiked west and quickly came to our first intersection with Soldier Canyon Trail #53 and the remains of the Tucson Federal Prison Camp that housed Japanese Americans during WWII that built the Catalina Highway (Sky Island Scenic Byway). In the next few miles, we saw the remains of structures: foundations and rock towers in Sycamore Canyon that may have been used to hoist pipes for the water supply to the camp from Sycamore Reservoir below.
From the intersection, the sandy and wide trail to Shreve Saddle is pleasant with a subtle beauty, with just the right mix of bunch grasses, oaks, yucca, manzanita and juniper - the Upper Sonoran Life Zone that includes oak woodland and chaparral.
The top of Shreve Saddle seems to hang on the horizon; as the trail reaches it, an expansive view westward of beautiful Sycamore Canyon and ridges and peaks of the Sabino Canyon area opens up. A sign for Sycamore Reservoir Trail #39 indicates the trail descends Sycamore Canyon on the left (south) side. At this point the trail enters the Pusch Ridge Wilderness; it feels like wilderness except for a few prisoner-constructed cemented rock towers. Further down the trail, a bedrock grinding mortar sits on a high, smooth boulder next to the trail, evidence of ancient peoples' production of mesquite and palo verde seed pods and other plants. These represent an important food resource for prehistoric people, and also sites for social interaction.
The descent from Shreve Saddle to Sycamore Reservoir is one mile through a perfect balance of views, beautiful chaparral vegetation, and occasional sparks of color from wildflowers as it gently lulls you to Sycamore Creek. It's great to descend, but the knowledge that you will have to make up for this pleasure on the way back– in this case, a 600- foot climb out of the canyon after a summit hike is an added challenge. Luckily, we had drifting clouds that created an ever-changing landscape of shadows and light on the mountains ahead.
A large rock cairn sits near the sign at the bottom of Sycamore Canyon. For a short side trip, turn left and check out the remains of Sycamore Reservoir and the impressive rock dam wall. To continue onto the trail to Thimble, turn right (northwest) at the sign and rock cairn (as you face the reservoir) and walk through the shade of towering trees and along the banks of the creek toward the northwest. The trail is marked by rock cairns. From this intersection, it’s a 0.6-mile walk along the north side of Sycamore Creek to a large rock cairn marking the “v” intersection where a well-marked trail that goes to the left short-cuts onto Bear Canyon Trail. Take the left. Our boots didn’t get wet as we crossed low-water Sycamore Creek at this intersection. The creek bottom is boulder-strewn, broad and dry.
This was a great place for lunch, so the three of us sat in the shade of an oak and took a break. Great time to compare what snacks we brought - Scott usually has the more interesting ones, like salmon jerky or a Trader Joe's salad.
From here, the trail climbs steadily, another 0.6 miles to meet up with the popular Bear Canyon Tail through pretty country of oak and Manzanita and tall stands of fuschia and purple penstemon (in April). A huge green racer skimmed across the trail in front of me and slithered its way up a tree. From the flanks of a an eroded hill, Fred pointed across the arroyo to a huge stand of purple penstemon, looking more like a shrub than a perennial forb. At the "t" intersection, turn left (south) onto Bear Canyon Trail.
Once on Bear Canyon Trail, climb up along a gentle grade 0.2 miles to Thimble Saddle at 4,800 feet, turn a corner and finally, the unmistakable shape of Thimble Peak comes into view, 3.7 miles from the trailhead. It looks like, well, a thimble on a long rocky ridge thrust up between two deep canyons. Thimble Flat and the grassy and rocky ascent to the base of its summit can be seen from Bear Canyon Trail. A pile of branches in April 2019 marked the junction of the spur trail to Thimble Peak and Bear Canyon Trail, its purpose to steer Bear Canyon hikers away from the Thimble Peak trail. From the saddle, descend to Thimble Flat and turn right onto the Thimble spur trail right before the Bear Canyon Trail descends steeply into the canyon.
Delights abound on this 1.2-mile trail to the base of Thimble. Sharp and toothy yucca leaves contrast with soft, billowy bunch grasses. The light, chunky spires of Thimble Peak seem small compared to the immense dark walls of Bear Canyon and the towering Gibbon Mountain to the east. The trail has just the right steepness as it passes through grass and boulders, and is thin but easy to follow with cairns to mark the way. Reach the base of Thimble at ~ 5.2 miles. Another 110 vertical feet to climb to top of Thimble.
Last approach to the base through grassland, yucca and Arizona Oak
Did we make it to the top?
Once at the base, walk 70 or so feet to the right (west) to the easily-recognizable cleft with a large boulder imbedded close to the bottom on the north side of Thimble. This is the route to the highest point that includes a Class 4 pitch, according to sources I read. Scott climbed the lower spires of Thimble, its cleft route to the left (east) of the main Thimble approach. He looked across to the highest point and saw the chain ladder that was placed there recently. I found the main rock chute too intimidating from the start; was able to start climbing the second chute, but I didn’t top out. What I would have seen had I made it to the top is, "the full-circle, ridgetop view from Thimble is spectacular...Pusch Ridge, the Santa Catalina Mountains, Tucson, endless sky islands. They are all about. It is heart-rattling to look west, right down the remarkable (and ultra familiar) ridgeline over which Thimble Peak presides: Saddleback, Blacketts, the desert floor,“ according to the blog post from Earthline: The American West. Still, this hike was worth seeing the dramatic perspective of canyons and peaks and the Tucson basin even if I didn't get to the very top. Impressive Rattlesnake Peak which lies to the west is another goal that will have to wait until our next Tucson visit. So, no one in our party made it to the highest part of the summit - but that's o.k.
Final Class 4 climb to the western-most and highest summit of Thimble at 5,323 feet. As of April 2019, there is a chain ladder placed at the top where there is a sheer 10-foot wall that otherwise requires a rope.
Jamestown Kind Rock we found on Pinto Mountain and now placed on Thimble Peak
We hadn't forgotten about the Jamestown Kind Rock painted with a white cat wearing a pink bow. Scott placed it carefully on a rock shelf under a protective overhang, tilting it up so the next Thimble climber would see it. Not only is it a gesture to remind us how important "kindness" is, it also represents the enduring friendship that we three hikers - Scott, Fred and I have. We had found it together four months earlier on Pinto Mountain in Joshua Tree, now together we were placing it on another mountain in hopes that the next discoverer(s) would do the same. I wonder where it is now!
We retraced our steps back as the sky was darkening, climbing out of Sycamore Canyon bottom 600 feet up to Shreve Saddle. I tried to find the grinding mortar again, but didn’t. We returned to the Hirabayashi trailhead as rain drops pelted. That night we celebrated with a delicious home-made chicken curry and spring roll dinner with friends as some initial lightning and then a steady rain descended upon Tucson for most of the night. The next morning, clouds hung midway up the Rincon Mountain range as we looked at our goal for that day arising above the clouds – Tanque Verde Peak. Stay tuned for the blog post about the trip to that fabulous summit. We made it to the top of that one!
Foliated gneiss - Rocks are beautiful!!
Opuntia - Prickly Pear Cactus
This one was huge!
Google Earth image of trail from Gordon Hirayabashi trailhead to Thimble Peak, due west via Sycamore Canyon. Tucson basin upper left in image.
Geology and History
Bezy, John. 2004. A Guide to the Geology of Sabino Canyon and the Catalina Highway. Arizona Geological Survey. http://repository.azgs.az.gov/sites/default/files/dlio/files/nid1526/dte-17_sabino_canyon-red.pdf
Dickinson, William R. 1992. Geologic Map of Catalina Core Complex and San Pedro Trough. Arizona Geological Survey, Contributed Map CM-92-C.
Kreutz, Doug. 2011. Ancient Grinding Holes Offer Hard Clues to Past. Arizona Daily Star. https://tucson.com/news/local/ancient-grinding-holes-offer-hard-clues-to-past/article_14cbc931-f23c-5aba-9101-779322043849.html
LocalWiki: Tucson. Catalina Federal Honor Camp. Taken from internet 5/9/19.
Richard, S.M., Reynolds, S.J., Spencer, J.E., and Pearthree, P.A. Geologic Map of Arizona. 2000. Arizona Geologic Survey, Map 35.
Sabino Canyon: Our Desert Oasis - Through Our Parents Eyes. Taken from the internet 5/2019.
Takami, David. 2/17/99. HistoryLink.org Essay 2070 - Hirabayashi, Gordon K. (1918-2012). Taken from internet 5/9/19.
A rugged and beautiful off-trail trek up Breakfast Ridge in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness through a saguaro, palo verde and ocotillo "forest".
Sabino Creek follows the deep cut of the Sabino Canyon Fault in metamorphic core complex rocks of Mylonitic Oracle Granite (gneiss) and Mylonitic Wilderness Suite Granite (gneiss) that formed 25-35 million years ago.
On Breakfast Ridge parallel to Sabino Canyon facing north
McFall Crags on most distant left horizon. This route treks over the first major rise (4,000 feet) between two large saguaros in this photo
"As for me, I am tormented by an everlasting itch for things remote."
-Herman Melville, from Moby Dick
We used route directions detailed in Earthline: The American West. "Remote" is a relative term: this hike takes you into the spectacular canyon country of the Pusch Ridge Wilderness where you will not likely see anyone else, however it starts among the throngs of visitors at the Sabino Canyon Visitor Center. As the ridge climbs higher, the view of the Tucson metropolis opens up to the south, but to the north loom rugged crags, canyons and domes. The reward for charting the best route around tangles of thorny Palo Verde trees and long prickly pear spines on a trek with little or no signs of human impact is a more intimate connection with and a greater awareness of this rugged land.
A rare Crested (cristate) Saguaro
Following the detailed directions from Earthline's McFall Crags and Rattlesnake Peaks blog post, we set out with quick pace on the Esperero Trail from the visitor's center for 1.3 miles and entered Rattlesnake Canyon wash. The map below shows our route ascending the east flank of Breakfast Ridge and then a parallel route of our descent off Breakfast Ridge and into Rattlesnake Canyon wash to the west of Breakfast Canyon. Next time, I would just ascend and descend the wider Rattlesnake Canyon to the west - it is a beautiful and easy walk marked with footprints and cairns. Or, get onto Breakfast Ridge sooner out of the wash for more firm footing, as described in Earthline blog.
Figuring out which wash to go into and which ridge to mount can be confusing; experience with using a topo map is necessary.
As we walked up the ridge, Fred noticed a saguaro with a weirdly-shaped crown (photo above). Crested saguaros are relatively rare and are caused by an unusual mutation where cells divide outward instead of in a circular pattern. The Crested Saguaro Society has counted ~ 3,000 cristate saguaros.
Our GPS tracks. We ascended Breakfast Ridge on its east side and descended it on its west side
Our route to second major rise (4,420 feet) on Breakfast Ridge
Shown is our ascent to the east up onto Breakfast Ridge and our descent to the west off the ridge and into Rattlesnake Canyon wash.
I recommend using Rattlesnake Canyon wash to the west of Breakfast Ridge to climb east onto the ridge.
Knowing we had a Frost gelato as our reward, we continued up the ridge, trying to avoid thorns and spines, but getting scratched anyway. I should know to wear pants when bushwacking in Arizona, but Idaho hiking is a whole different animal, and long pants aren't required unless it's cold.
This is a trek of beauty everywhere you look. Breakfast Ridge is a route to many intriguing places to experience and summit, with pretty steep canyons on either side. At the top of the first major rise at 4,000 feet, we found ourselves at eye-level with a blooming saguaro. Go straight up and over the first rise with occasional hand holds onto gneiss for balance. Rocks are stable on this short and steep section.
Gneiss cairn on Breakfast Ridge
From the first rise, walk down to a saddle and then up again toward the second major rise, with somewhat more open routes to take around clumps of prickly pear, palo verde and ocotillos. From the second rise at 4,420 feet, we could see Rattlesnake Peak and McFall Crags. Sabino Canyon Trail #23 traverses down the wall of Sabino Canyon to the east. I didn't see any hikers on that trail, adding to the feeling of "remoteness". Unfortunately, we were running out of time and turned back at this point. Next time we will start much earlier so we can summit Rattlesnake Peak.
First major rise at 4,000 feet on Breakfast Ridge facing south (return hike)
On the descent, we got off Breakfast Ridge and into Rattlesnake wash - a great way to observe geology: foliated gneiss cliffs and rounded boulders while walking through soft sand. Ending our "remote" hike, we walked down the tram road to the Visitor Center - Frost gelato, here we come!
Route-finding on ridge around thick vegetation
Quartz vein in mylonite
Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) blooms
So much to climb!
On Breakfast Ridge near second main rise at 4,420 feet
Descending Rattlesnake Canyon
One of Tucson's highlights and reward for tired and scratched legs - a Frost gelato
Bezy, John V. 2004. A Guide to the Geology of Sabino Canyon and the Catalina Highway, Coronado National Forest. Arizona Geological Survey, Tucson, AZ. 56 pp.
Cristate Saguaros. 2013. Resource Brief - National Park Service - Saguaro National Park, Resource Management Division.
Our "get out of the cold and get to the desert" 4-day sojourn to the rugged and rocky trails of the Santa Catalina Mountains in Tucson, Arizona. We don't mind the Frost gelatos, either.
Day 1: Pima Canyon warm-up hike - 8 miles, 2,000 foot gain
Day 2: Finger Rock Canyon Trail to Mt. Kimball - 10.2 miles, 4,138 foot gain
Day 3: Tanque Verde Ridge Trail to Juniper Springs, Saguaro National Park, Rincon Mountain District - 14 miles, 3,000 foot gain
Day 4: Pontatoc Canyon, 7.4 miles, 2,000 foot gain
Finger Rock (left skyline) and Mt. Kimball (forested peak) from Finger Rock Canyon, Tucson
After the dust settled and Fred had recovered himself from skidding down the steep bank on the Finger Rock Canyon Trail, I found myself face to face with a coiled and ugly-looking rattlesnake, it's rattling causing me to stop dead in my tracks. First on the trail down, Fred had jumped away from the snake's warnings which caused me to run forward, thinking Fred was falling off the trail. But instead, he yelled, "Stop!". My first thought was how clever this snake was, its coloring the very same as the vegetation it lived in. Afraid that it might strike, I stood frozen, carefully getting my camera ready. As we stood gawking, the rattlesnake was finally satisfied we were no longer a threat, so it slowly uncoiled and moved away.
What kind of rattlesnake was that? When I consult the "Rattlesnake Poster" on the Arizona Game and Fish Department's website, it looks most like the Mohave Rattlesnake, "widely considered the most toxic rattlesnake in the U.S.". Or, it could be the Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake. Anybody out there who knows which rattlesnake this is, let me know!
Pontatoc Canyon, Pusch Ridge Wilderness, Tucson
The rocky terrain of the Santa Catalina Mountains makes Tucson hikes tough and challenging. A 4,000 foot climb in New Hampshire, for instance, takes less toll on my legs than the schist and gneiss steps of the Finger Rock Trail. During the 4,000 foot climb up Finger Rock Canyon to Mt. Kimball, you will experience several life zones, starting at low desert zone with its brittle bush, saguaros and ocotillos. Vegetation dramatically changes as you top off at Mt. Kimball with Pinyon pines, manzanita shrubs, alligator junipers, and oak being dominant. The first mile of the trail is relatively flat, then switchbacks up to traverse along the east side of Finger Rock Canyon to Linda Vista saddle. From there, the trail rises more steeply, and is especially demanding near the junction with Pima Canyon Trail #62. There are a fair amount of people on the trail during the first 2 or 3 miles, but few make it all the way to the top. We like to do a "warm-up" hike the day before in one of the other Pusch Ridge Wilderness canyons so we can get our legs ready for the climb. A little bit of training beforehand and plenty of water makes this spectacular hike even more enjoyable.
Another advantage of Tucson hiking, besides the spectacular beauty of the Santa Catalina canyons, is the reward of a Frost gelato after a challenging hike. I wonder if we could get a Frost Gelato in Boise?
El Presidio Historic District, Tucson, Arizona
Saguaro National Park East
Creosote bush at Tucson Botanical Gardens
Tile plaque at the Tucson Botanical Gardens
About this blog
Exploration documentaries – "explorumentaries" list trip stats and highlights of each hike or bike ride, often with some interesting history or geology. Years ago, I wrote these for friends and family to let them know what my husband, Fred and I were up to on weekends, and also to showcase the incredible land of the west. I hope to hear about your adventures!
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