Milagrosa Canyon

by Emily Monday, April 9th 2012

Milagrosa Canyon was the first place I ever experienced the magic of monsoons: my brother and I hiked out there under a sky going indigo and saguaros shining electric on the ridge. The first wash crossing drenched us to our knees with warm summer rainwater. Looking at the first sunbathed red cliffs is a view that always comes to mind with the first summer storm: the crazy hypercolor desert, that static tension before the wind picks up. I don't recommend standing out in the open desert like a lightning rod before a storm; but it's a vivid memory that comes up every time I visit this canyon. Which I did recently, to show some friends the awesome pools at the top.

This time of year when I hike, all I want to see is water. We began walking down the road to the trailhead with temps in the mid-70s, which is plenty warm in the sun. The trail over the first hill was lined with wild purple dalea bushes in bloom, as if some suburban gardener had been out transplanting.  We turned off the main trail (which I've actually never been on) to head into the wash, which at this spot marks the confluence of Milagrosa and Agua Caliente canyons. A monolith of red rock juts up from the Sonoran desert to separate the two. From here we head up Milagrosa, taking a climber's spur up the right side of the canyon. Like most climber trails, it's narrow, rocky, and a bit steep, and after a little while lands you right at the base of an enormous cliff band looking over the rocky canyon bed below. This cliff band is a climbing boon: cool, sometimes even chilly in the shade, and home to a collection of fun, challenging sport climbs on its bright orange rock. The easiest of these is Valentine Arete, nicknamed the Hardest Eight in the State, and gathered around it are 5.10s, .11s, and a handful of .12s. Just up the stream the creek bed rises to meet the bench we've been hiking along, and soon we're at the first of three pools, like a king's daughters, each more beautiful than the last.

The first pool is shallow at its edge and very deep where the water flows in, so deep that its clear-green hue goes dark and black. The first time my brother and I took our parents to this spot, he stripped naked without warning and ran shrieking into the freezing cold water. Even in the dead heat of summer, when the hike up here is a test of true desert residency, the water temperature is on a scale from uncomfortably-to-deliciously cold. This pool seems prize enough, until a scramble up the rock reveals a second pool above, shallower but equally amenable to hanging out, and a full-on hands and feet scramble above that, a third pool, my personal favorite. This last sits in a grotto, with high smooth granite walls. The water is crazy cold from being in the shade. And while I love being in the west for the sweeping scenery, the big rugged mountains, the views that stretch for miles, it's small nooks like this that make me feel at home in this landscape.

Our party scrambled up above this pool and found a fourth, the smallest, which was in the sun. It didn't make the water any warmer, but after splashing quickly in the cold, the rocks helped warm us all back up. We sat next to the water and snacked, and looked for canyon tree frogs in their perfect camouflage on the granite. And then we headed back down.

You can make this jaunt into a loop adventure by scrambling up and over into Agua Caliente canyon. From the bottom pool in Milagrosa, you can look across the canyon and see the steep bench and a faint path that will lead you over the ridge. My brother and I followed this idea one time out here, and were surprised upon dropping into Agua Caliente that the canyon walls were steep and rocky at the bottom, making it nearly impossible to parallel the wash on dry land. We ended up slogging through knee-high water and reeds as the sun went down breaking back out into the shallower confluence and back on the trail roughly half a mile later. A little more non-technical canyoneering than hiking, it's a fun way to get wet. There's an actual trail that loops around both canyons on high sunny ground, but this version, which includes a little bushwhacking, a lot of scrambling, and some careful stepping over slippery wet rocks, keeps you tight in the canyon bottoms (and a warning here: monsoons could mean nasty flooding) and is a more intimate trek with some beautiful water, worthy of exploration.


Trials and Tribulations of (Not) Heli-Skiing

by Dana Davis Tuesday, April 3rd 2012


A couple weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be invited on a 2 day heli-ski trip in the North Cascades of Eastern Washington.  Me?!  Heli-ski?!  You bet!  Now, I have no idea why they thought someone who spent the last 14 years in Tucson would be a good candidate for heli-skiing (I can rip it up lift skiing but have limited backcountry experience) but this was an opportunity of a lifetime and was not going to be turned down!

I flew into Spokane, WA to meet up with two other folks in my group- Paul Fish, from Mountain Gear, and our host, Aaron from The North Face.   (Michael, also from The North Face was going to join us a day later.)  From the airport we drove several hours to Winthrop, WA for late dinner and then we were off to bed to be ready for an early start the next morning. 

After breakfast we enjoyed a short walk to the ski center and were introduced to our guides and instructors for the day.  We spent the next hour picking out gear (big fat powder skis), made binding adjustments and became familiar with our packs and backcountry ski tools (avalance beacon, probe, shovel, radio, etc.).  We then spent half hour learning about backcountry safety, emergency procedures and helicopter safety rules. We then headed outside to put our skills to use; it was actually quite fun utilizing these tools as I haven’t had an opportunity before!


Finally it was time to send the first group off in the helicopter. (We were separated into 3 groups of 5 people- 1 guide with 4 clients.)  Paul, Aaron and I were in the second group.  It was pretty exciting to watch the first group take off knowing we were just 20 minutes away from the opportunity to go ourselves.  Unfortunately snow and cloud cover was not cooperating and the chopper was unable to land and had to bring the group of skiers and borders back.  So, it was time to wait.  And wait.  As with any weather dependent sport, often times it is all about “hurry up and wait”.  Then the weather got clear, we scrambled to get ready and the first group was off!  And then they came back…again.  This time it was the wind that was the challenge.  So we waited some more and called it a day.

While it was disappointing to not go skiing, we had another day and decided to make the most of what was left of the afternoon.  Paul went for a winter run and Aaron and I decide to go cross-country skiing.  I had never been before so it was quite fun enjoying the beautiful scenery while trying not to lose my balance on skinny little skis.  After our activities we had a great dinner, met up with Michael, and settled in for the night.

The next day the weather was clear and beautiful!  So off we went ready for a day in the powder.  This time we were in the third group.  After waiting around for a while (see a trend here?) it was our turn to head up!  The helicopter ride was exciting and fun.  The mountains were amazing and it was cool to see the skiers of the first group carving turns below.  But wait, why are they skiing in an area that was showing signs of a fresh avalanche slide?   Uh oh.  After circling a few times we touched down and waited to see if everyone was all right or if anyone needed help.  It turns out that even with extra precautions taken the third person in the group triggered a slide and got caught up in it.  She was fine but a bit shaken from the experience.  The pilot then took us back to the shop and due to obvious safety concerns that was the end of our heli-skiing adventures.

Not to be completely deterred from skiing, Paul graciously asked if I wanted to skin up Mount Spokane at 5:00 AM the next morning to get in some turns before my flight. So, off we went to pick up some randonnee skis from Paul’s shop and next thing you know, it is 4:30 AM and time to get rolling!  Having always done downhill skiing I have not experience much skinning uphill; it was actually way more fun than it sounds!  It was great to be outside and enjoying the fresh mountain air and to be on snow.  About an hour or so after skiing up we had a few fabulous minutes to really rip it up coming down; those Mountain Gear guys can really ski!  It was over all too soon but well worth the effort and it was time to head back to the warmer weather of the Southwest.  Maybe someday I will get a chance to use those big fat powder skis…   


A Long(ish) Walk in Southern Arizona

by Dave Baker Tuesday, March 20th 2012

Great long distance backpacking in southern Arizona? Have to admit I used to think not, but that was simply due to my weak imagination. It was the Arizona Trail that first opened my mind to the enormous possibilities Arizona holds for stitching together long distance backpacking trips.


Our route – about 95 miles of walking

The AZT changed another preconception of mine – that somehow it wasn’t really hiking if you were walking a 2-track jeep trail instead of a traditional hiking path or bushwhack. The AZT quickly drives home the lesson what a valuable resource the vast network of 2-track trails are to long distance walkers in Arizona. Further enlightenment about distance walks in southern Arizona came from the Sky Islands Traverse web page where the folks who brought us the Grand Enchantment Trail show off a beautiful long distance route in southeastern Arizona.

Turkey Creek alcove

Turkey Creek alcove

With all this in mind, friend Dave and I decided to cook up a long walk from the headwaters of Aravaipa Canyon down to our homes near Tucson. Wanting to learn more about the Galiuro Mountains we picked out a route that headed almost due south from the east end of Aravaipa Canyon, taking in three magnificent Galiuro drainages: Turkey Creek, Rattlesnake Canyon, and Redfield Canyon.

Wading pool bypass

Bypassing a wading pool

Our route then turned westwards across the San Pedro River to the base of the Rincon Mountains and the seldom visited upper reaches of Espiritu Canyon which drains the northeast side of that range. From the head of Espiritu we followed cowboy trails towards the Rincon high country and finally bushwhacked to the magnificent trail network that surrounds Manning Camp. Here we picked up the Arizona Trail and followed it down past Hope Camp and finally met a ride home near Old Spanish Trail.


Trail-side agave

About 95 miles long, the route was a fine mix of trail, 2 track roads, and many miles of off-trail walking as well. A few times we were happily surprised to stumble upon unexpected paths and fence line trails when the map showed nothing but bushwhacking ahead. I must add that in several locations the off-trail terrain was very rugged and at times hazardous as well.

Rincon bushwhack

Whackin’ manzanita

I for one love off-trail travel and found many of these sections some of the very best of the trip, especially wild and rugged parts of Turkey Creek and Redfield Canyon. However, the bit between the northeast boundary of Saguaro National Park and the Rincon Mt trail network was choked with manzanita and scrub oak, drawing blood and eliciting plenty of grunting and some cursing.

Rattlesnake Canyon mining equipment

Abandoned mining equipment in upper Rattlesnake Canyon

Nine and a half days were spent on the walk, many covering eight to ten miles, picking up more miles on days when there was plenty of trail or 2-track walking. We lingered a bit in the Powers Garden – Powers Mine area, devoting extra time to explore old cabins, mine sites, and work areas that tell a mute but very compelling story of the extraordinary human effort and toil that was expended extracting a living from these remote mountain hideaways so many years ago.

Redfield Canyon

Redfield Canyon

With a start at the beginning of March, 2012 we hoped that we would find plenty of water along the way and avoid late season winter storms. Indeed, we found collectable water each and every day of the walk. Major drainages all showed water, though intermittently, and many (though not all) spring sites indicated on the map were wet too. None-the-less, with a healthy respect for potential heat and thirst, we always packed plenty of water just in case - usually starting each day with 4 or more liters even though the map might show springs and big drainages ahead.


Matate in Pipestem Canyon

Fortunately, no winter storms occurred during the walk. Given our water concerns, we tried to lighten up other parts of the pack and decided to carry summer weight sleeping bags as one way to drop some weight out. While planning the trip we saw that most of our camps would be below 6,000’, so we figured our 35 degree bags would work fine. And mostly they did work well, though we had a few nights where temps fell into the mid 20’s, and one night the thermometer hit 16 degrees before climbing higher as the sun rose. By wearing everything we had to bed and wrapping chilly feet in empty stuff sacks, we managed to get some sleep.

Redfield Canyon

Redfield Canyon wall

A stand-out part of the trip? That’s a hard call, with each and every day of the walk presenting splendid backcountry surprises. But I have to say I was especially moved by a fantastic section of Redfield Canyon downstream from the Jackson Cabin trail. The canyon here narrows dramatically, pressed in by soaring and colorful rhyolite cliffs. Immense boulders have calved from the cliffs and piled into the narrow gorge below, seemingly ending hope for any forward progress, and it is tough going indeed. Flowing water and a riot of riparian vegetation, dominated by stately cottonwood and white barked sycamores, contribute to a profound feeling of wonder and remoteness. The leafy canopy makes it difficult to see the tops of the cliffs above, but deep, somber shadows cast on the jumble of titanic boulders give the impression of being in the bottom of something very deep indeed. No place to be during flood!

Well, back home and back to the drawing board – a perfect time to start sniffing out another long walk for next spring.

Rincon vista

Rincon high country

Trails | Trips

2012 Mesquite Canyon 1/2 Marathon Race Report

by Charles Thursday, March 15th 2012

With so many great opportunities to hike, climb and adventure around Tucson I rarely take advantage of the outdoor destinations outside of Phoenix. But this March I was tempted up to White Tank Mountain Regional Park to take part in the 1/2 Marathon length of Araviapa Running's Mesquite Canyon Race. The Mesquite Canyon Race has 50km, 30km, 1/2 Marathon and 8km lengths and is the sixth, and final, race in the Desert Runner Trail (DRT) Series.

I arrive at the start just after the 50km runners start and have plenty of time to get my number, take a few sips of coffee and see the 30km runners head off before I line up for the start of the 1/2 Marathon.

Start of the Mesquite Canyon Half Marathon

I start near the back, no need to go out too fast, and settle into an easy pace behind a runner in a pair of Vibram Five Fingers. The first few miles are relatively flat and wind thru the Saguaro and Cholla on the Ironwood, Ford Canyon and Waddell Trails - I don't really know the course and, even with other runners around, appreciate the ribbons and signs Araviapa Racing has placed to mark the course.

After a few miles the course turns west onto the Mesquite Canyon trail and the first climb begins - as the grade steepens the runners spread out.

Mesquite Canyon
Runners on the Mesquite Canyon Trail

At the Mesquite Aid Station the course turns onto the Willow Canyon Trail. A bit more climbing takes us up to a section of flat trail on the hillside above Willow Canyon, a chance to recover and take in the views of the canyon.

Willow Canyon
The Mesquite Canyon Trail along Willow Canyon

Too soon (for me anyway) we start to climb again - Ford Canyon Trail and then back onto the Mesquite Canyon Trail around point 3032 - and, after a bit more walking than I thought I would do, the course starts to head downhill! The views put a smile on my face and I pick up the pace - but soon faster runners fly by me, at first I am surprised by their speed, but eventually I realize that some of the lead 50k runners (including 50k winner and Salomon Team member Eric Bohn) are streaking by.

Long Downhill
Heading downhill!

By the time I am back to the last few miles of relatively flat trail thru the desert I am tired! I press on and on and eventually hear faint cheers from the finish that grow closer and closer until I finally come across the finish line! 2:32:59 - certainly not speedy, but a great time for me! I sit for awhile and enjoy the drinks and food, cheer for other runners and watch a few of the DRT Series winners collect their awards before heading back to Tucson.

Tired but happy after finishing!

I really loved my first experience at Mesquite Canyon - wonderful course in a location I am not sure I would have ever seen otherwise, Araviapa Racing does a great job running the race, nice variety of course lengths to choose from and plenty of friendly people to run with - I think I might have to go back next year!

Gear Notes:

Balega Soft Tread Quarter - Nice fit and feel, a bit of cushion but not too bulky - I have been using these for several months now and are my current favorite for trail running.

Salomon S-Lab Gaiters - Comfortable enough that I don't have to stop and adjust during a run, quick and easy to put on/take off and great at keeping dirt and debris out of my shoes!

Mountain Hardwear Mighty Power 3/4 Tight - Soft and stretchy with mesh panels that provide some extra breathability, almost too hot on this run (certainly not a summer item in Phoenix/Tucson!) but these have been great for me all winter.

The North Face Velocitee Short Sleeve Crew - Light, comfortable and a great price!

Head Sweats Summit Hut Race Hat - A quality hat with a nice fit.

Events | Gear

The Authors

Dave BakerDave Baker

I'm Dave Baker, founder of Summit Hut, an independent outdoor retailer based in Tucson, Arizona since 1969. As an experienced and passionate hiker, climber and backpacker, my blog is intended to be an informative and interesting look into the outdoors and the outdoor industry.

Dana Davis

Dana Davis

I’m Dana Davis, co-owner of the Summit Hut. I mostly enjoy hiking and road biking though I often do other things to keep it interesting (mountaineering, motorcycling, backpacking, climbing, you name it!) My biggest challenge is sometimes finding the balance between career, family, and fun but it’s working out so far!

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

I'm Dan Davis, after retiring from the National Park Service as a Ranger and manager, I worked for the Summit Hut until 2009, then retired for good (maybe). I'm now spending my time traveling around the southwest writing and working on my nature and fine art photography business.

Emily Gindlesparger

Emily Gindlesparger

I’m Emily Gindlesparger, a member of the Summit Hut floor staff. Since moving here from the Midwest, I’ve been taking advantage of all possible adventures in Arizona: rock climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, whitewater kayaking, caving and trail running; I’m always excited to see what’s next!