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
While scouting the web for a mountain to climb in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, I stumbled upon the blog Earthline: The American West, where I saw the detailed description for a hike to McFall Crags and Rattlesnake Peak and the quote above. "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 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
– "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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