Climbing Moby Dick

by Emily Tuesday, January 18th 2011

The day began with a long drive down a deeply rutted dirt road into the far reaches of the Cochise West Stronghold. I swear I have car-narcolepsy; sometimes no matter what the circumstances, I completely bonk out in the passenger seat, and this was happening to me as the truck bucked down the road: despite the beautiful views of open desert ranch land and bald, towering domes, and despite the truck bunny-hopping small boulders in the creek, I managed to fall asleep with my head resting on the back of the bench seat for at least a few seconds between bumps of my head against the window. Eventually Clare pulled my head to her shoulder so she wouldn't have to listen to it bang against the glass. She didn't even tease me, though the boys certainly did.

 Moby Dick, first pitch

Lift off: first pitch of Moby Dick

Pulling closer to the trailhead, the canyons unfolded like granite ribbons. We parked and got out and slung on our packs and dropped into the wash, laid out at the bottom of the canyon like a street cobbled with polished white boulders. I had been here before, so I was the acting guide, which would have made our party irrevocably lost if not for the paved river bed. I knew at least that on the approach to Moby Dick on the Whale Dome, it's not time to turn up the gully until you're directly under the dome. You can recognize the dome because it looks like a whale, kind of. There's a crack forming the smile of the humpback mouth. I also knew we wouldn't be directly under it until we had passed a large fallen tree whose branches curved up from where they cross the trail. The first time I picked through the branches I got the eerie feeling of crawling through whale ribs to get to Moby Dick.


There's something magical about the whole days I've spent out here. The approach is beautiful, with lush tree cover in the desert, and after the ribbed branches, after breaking away from the stream bed and a short jaunt straight uphill we found ourselves at the bottom of the climb, two open cracks that would be the wrinkles of whale underbelly if we were to believe the dome still looked like a whale, which it really didn't from there. In any case, we stepped into our harnesses.

I conceded the first pitch lead to Logan. I told him it was because I'd already climbed it and I thought the pitch would be fun for him; in actuality I was nervous about the first awkward and unnerving moves. I didn't think they would be a problem for him, but just like on my first time up the climb, he got into the first strange off-width crack the wrong way, and about eight feet up, right before putting a piece of gear in the rock to hold a fall, his foot slipped. I gasped sharply, imagining a split second where the slip turned into a fall and my boyfriend came tumbling to the rocky ground. In the next split second he had caught himself and placed his foot more firmly on the rock, clipping a cam as he moved over to the next crack system.

Moby Dick, second pitch

Crack system on Moby’s second pitch

Crack climbing is a somewhat rare treat in southern Arizona, and there's a fair bit of it on the first two pitches of Moby Dick, as the climb follows a couple of cracks up the side of the whale. Sometimes they're just used for protection pieces, but often you can wedge a fist in the gap and pull yourself up, or layback up more open cracks, pressing your feet against a wall while grappling the edge of the crack for counter pressure. I like climbing along cracks because it's more physical; you're using your body like you would hexes or cams, locking limbs in and moving up from there.

Pitch three reveals an amazing rock feature as you climb up this big gaping flake and at the top you can look down and see open air through the side; it's one big slice of rock just leaning on the side of the dome. At the top of the pitch you get to pitch a belay on chickenheads, big plates of rock poking up from the surface of the dome. Some people find this absolutely terrifying, but I think it's neat--it's so amazing to me that these features exist, and even better that they can be so useful.

The next two pitches go like a choose-your-own-adventure book. There's a given direction to go, and there are a few sections of slab, but much of it is climbing over big plated chickenheads, which is great because you have a thousand holds and a similar number of movements you can make. It's like a jungle gym.

Whale Dome Summit

On top of Whale Dome

We summited Whale Dome and drank in my favorite view anywhere while we munched dried mango and cinnamon almonds, compliments of Clare. The canyon continues cutting steep gorges, driving northeast toward the other side of the Stronghold. We prepared our ropes for the descent, which involves anchoring them in and then tossing them down a 170 foot abyss where they get tangled in trees at the bottom. One by one we take on the rappel, edging over the whale's lips and lowering ourselves into nothing: for 170 feet the rope dangles away from the rock wall as the whale recedes into the canyon bed.

(A logistical word to the wise: a windy day can whip ropes all over the wall, tangling them in chickenheads. I've heard of more than one person who's spent the night hanging from a harness while the ropes were hopelessly tangled on the wall. This descent--and the climb, for that matter--are not for beginners.)

And then, the climb done all in a day's work, we headed home. The fading light turned the rocks magenta as we hiked out, stopping in the middle for an acorn fight, girls against boys. We boulder-hopped back to the truck, and I stayed awake the whole way home.


Sweetwater Trail

by Dave Baker Thursday, January 6th 2011

One of the four mountain ranges that cradle the Tucson valley, the Tucson Mountains are home to Saguaro National Park West and the world renowned Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The range is a showpiece for the Sonoran Desert and its exotic ecosystem of desert-adapted plants and animals.

Wasson Peak from the Sweetwater Trail

Wasson Peak and the Sweetwater Trail

The Tucson Mountains are relatively low elevation and therefore blistering hot in the summer as well as in early fall and late spring, so winter is the best time to take advantage of the Park’s trail network and enjoy the unique scenery and landscapes. The range is a very popular hiking destination during winter months, attracting out of town visitors as well as locals.

Located on the east side of the range, the Sweetwater Trail is very easy to access from the Tucson metro area. The trail ends after 3.2 miles, when it joins the King Canyon Trail at a high saddle on the crest of the range. From the saddle many hikers choose to walk the additional 1.2 miles up the King Canyon Trail to the high point of the Tucson Mountains -- Wasson Peak. The 360 degree panorama at the top of Wasson makes the extra effort well worthwhile.

Saguaro and Barrel cactus

Young saguaro and barrel cactus

The Sweetwater Trail presents a great display of Saguaro cactus, the Sonoran Desert’s signature plant species. You’ll also see many specimens of Ironwood trees and Jojoba plants. Easy to access, wonderful views, and a fine experience of the ecology of the Sonoran desert -- sorry for taking advantage of too-obvious play on words, but this is a sweet hike!

Sweetwater Trail

Sweetwater Trail

Find the trailhead by exiting I-10 at the Ruthrauff exit. West of I-10, Ruthrauff becomes El Camino Del Cerro which is simply followed west to the end of the road, and trailhead parking. A hundred yards or so up the trail a junction is reached – the left (south) fork is the Sweetwater Trail. The trail weaves its way south for a while, up and down across a few drainages, before finally swinging west and settling into a steady uphill climb to a prominent saddle and the junction with the King Canyon Trail.

Wasson Peak

Approaching Wasson Peak summit on upper King Canyon Trail

Season: Fall, winter and spring. The Tucson Mountains are low elevation and very, very hot during summer months, late spring and in early fall. This hike is most enjoyable on cool winter days.

Water: None: bring plenty of your own.

Note: Dogs and pets are not permitted on this trail. Though fees are not collected at the trailhead, Saguaro National Park is a fee area.

Difficulty: The trip to trail’s end at the saddle is 3.2 miles one way with a 1,100 elevation gain. Those who continue to Wasson Peak will walk 4.4 miles one way and take on 1,900 feet in elevation gain. Moderately difficult.

Maps: Green Trails Maps Saguaro National Park


Click map for larger image


50 Year Trail

by Emily Monday, December 20th 2010

The 50 Year Trail on the west side of the Santa Catalina Mountains is a magical place. It's hard to explain why really; this network of trails does not go up one of the many scenic and rugged canyons, but rather loops around on the shallow ridges and washes below the range. It was cloudy on the morning that two girlfriends and I went out to shred through the trail on our mountain bikes, and the clouds broke up the sun as it crested over the summit, making huge rays scatter over the valley. When I described how pretty this was to my boyfriend and my brother, both avid mountain bikers who have lived in Tucson much longer than me, they said they had often seen the same thing out here. The late-blooming sun keeps the valley below cool until midmorning, and in the past few weeks the wildflowers have had a second run, filling the valley with California poppies one week, bird's foot morning glories the next, and raging pink barrel cactus flowers throughout. The morning of our ride it was raining in Oracle and in Tucson, forming dark curtains around our slice of the mountains.

Sunrise On The 50 Year Trail

Sunrise On The 50 Year Trail

Kristen invited her friend Terri, who was from Australia and spoke with the most adorable accent in the world. Kristen and Terri are trail builders, and often ride mountain bikes in to work sites, loaded down with a day's worth of water and heavy tools, but Terri had never been mountain biking for fun. Kristen and I got to play the role of guides, leading her through the loops and twists of the trail. We got to a section called the chutes, where the trail is rutted down to a smooth channel. Terri had heard about this section of the trail, which is more intermediate because of the steep drops and turns, and we told her she didn't have to ride it; it loops back to the starting point and she could wait until we got back. But she dropped into it right behind us, taking on the downhill as if it was as easy as... well, as riding a bike.

Heading through the chutes

Riding the chutes

I love the chutes. This section is definitely best appreciated on a mountain bike: on foot it's dusty, steep and rutted, but on a bike it's transformed into a roller coaster. The track is narrow and packed, the downhills are steep enough that you barely ever have to pedal, and you can just ride on the spine of these little ridges, feeling the momentum zooming you around the desert.

The first time I went mountain biking, my brother took me out to Fantasy Island and within the first ten yards I hit a small little rock and went flying over the handlebars, opening up my knee and my elbow; I have scars to show. He laughed at how I just went barreling down the hills, too scared to hit the brakes. It was fun and terrifying at the same time, because the desert housed so many things to scratch and stab you if you fell over, but it was exhilarating to find the right balance through the tough parts. I was always happy to be out in the desert, but also a little relieved when we got back to the trailhead.

Coming out of the chutes

Exiting the chutes

The same kind of relief showed on Terri's face when broke back onto the road, heading toward the car. I wanted to go another round.

Beginners and novices might only be separated by this one detail: when you're ready to go home, and when you still want more

Activities | Trails

Santa Catalina Island

by Jonathan Monday, November 29th 2010

Located about twenty miles off the California coast, Santa Catalina Island offers visitors one of the best preserved marine environments in the world. The kelp forests that surround the rocky coast support a vast community of marine life, including local fish, seasonal pelagic predators, lobster, and marine mammals.

The island itself is twenty-one miles long, eight miles at its widest, with a fifty-four mile coastline. The steep hills are covered with brown grass and some scrubby trees. There is an extensive trail network for the hiker, and more than a few dirt roads for the cyclist. There are two small communities, Avalon and Two Harbors, where the intrepid backcountry adventurer can resupply, find a place to stay, eat out, or party hearty at a bar.

It is the marine environment, however, that makes Catalina Island an irresistible destination. I go there at every opportunity.

You might ask, “Isn’t that a little far away for a quick vacation?” Well, the coast is no farther away from Tucson than is The Canyon, and it is closer than Utah or the Arizona Strip.

The sea has a special appeal, as does the desert. In fact, they are both all about water, though in different ways. You might say that they are two sides of the same coin.

Anyway, there are a number of ways to get to Catalina Island form the coast. Ferries leave from Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana Point. In two to three hours you can be in either Avalon or Two Harbors. If that is not fast enough, you can take an airplane or helicopter and be there in fifteen minutes.

Since I love to sail, I use a sailboat to get there. A good sized sailboat is like a floating RV. It not only gets you from the coast to any part of the island, but it is also your place to stay once there!


At one point on our last trip, we anchored in Rippers Cove - a few miles down the coast from Isthmus Cove at Two Harbors. When we had everything squared away, I donned my wetsuit, mask, snorkel, fins and weights, grabbed my speargun, and slipped into the water.

We were in eighteen feet of water and I could see the bottom. In fact, I saw a good sized bat ray resting on the sand. I dived for a closer look and it slowly flew away. I made my way over toward the the rocky cliffs where I found a wall of kelp. I slowly worked along the kelp keeping an eye both on the kelp forest and the open water.



It was mid-September and I was hoping for some late season yellowtail, which I was hoping to find doing what I was doing - hunting the edge of the kelp forest. I figured it more likely that I might find a good sized calico sea bass in the forest, so I would occasionally dive and poke around in the stalks. Mostly I slowly kicked my way along the surface, breathing through the snorkel, feeling like I could go on forever.

While the game species were disappointing (there were plenty of calicos, but none big enough to shoot), there were plenty of other fish to see - opaleye, halfmoon, kelp clingfish, leopard shark, bat rays, halibut, and the ubiquitous bright orange girabaldi, to name a few.

I noticed the visibility had declined. I could no longer see the bottom form the surface. I looked to my left, to the open water, and saw a school of fish swimming in the opposite direction. Their tails were bright yellow, far brighter than they appear when out of the water. These were the yellowtail I sought. I was mesmerized, as most novice hunters are when the game comes in to view. The now somewhat cloudy water gave them a ghostlike appearance. They moved in unison. I thought them small based on the jerkiness of their swimming, but were they? In the open water, there was no frame of reference. They could have been small and close, or large and further away. I tried to close them, but they managed to keep their distance, eventually fading away. Ham sandwiches for dinner.

That night the moon and the distant glow from the mainland lent a soft dim light to the boat and the shore. There was a hint of phosphorescence when I leaned over the side and stirred the water with my hand. The air was almost still, and I could almost hear the small waves lapping the beach. There was a bare hint of swell which caused the boat to rock gently.

The next day we sailed until the wind died, then motored the rest of the way to Avalon. The community of a few thousand was more charming than I expected, it had an almost Mediterranean flavor - and of course, food and liquor. In back of the casino is a fenced-in, I should say “netted-in”, marine park. I spent an hour or so diving there without the burden of the speargun. They actually built steps so you can walk down into the water.


We left Avalon and set a course for Long Beach. There was absolutely no wind, and the sea was like glass, so we motored. What would otherwise have been a long slog was saved by a large pod of dolphins who crossed our path. When we met, we turned to their course and they swam and played by our bow and on either side of the boat. With the water like glass, we were treated to a close view of them swimming underwater as well as breaching the surface. What a treat!

I never mind the drive back to Tucson. The feelings of joy and fulfillment last well beyond it.


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!