Arizona’s Southwestern Desert

by Dan Davis Tuesday, April 20th 2010

If the Colorado Plateau is Rachmaninov, Arizona’s far southwestern desert is pure Black Sabbath.  This country is so intense you swear you can smell the heat and the dramatic sepia tones of the landscape.  Your ears ring in the silence of midday.  At first glance, you are convinced that there is simply no life here at all, save for a few skinny saguaros, ocotillos and bushes that just fade into the ground and may as well not be there at all.  Maybe the occasional peep of a small bird you can never see.  There’s not a lot of subtlety out here.

Dark Head (Cabeza Prieta)… 120°… Unexploded bombs all over the ground… Small groups of people walking north, always north, close to your camp at 2 AM… Sidewinders under every rock in every wash…  Water, well, there really just isn’t any… Bad dirt roads.  The best campsites are in the middle of an active military bombing range.

This area along the Mexican border in the Cabeza Prieta NWR and the Barry Goldwater Range is hands down my favorite place anywhere.  Well, one of them…

There’s just something flat out wrong with a person who wants to go in there.

So, if there’s something wrong with you, a 4WD vehicle and a free permit (both required) will get you there.  The main access from the east, El Camino Del Diablo, is closed to traffic from March 15 – July 15 (exact closure dates may vary from year to year) for the endangered Sonoran Pronghorn fawning season, so I’ll leave this even more remote and fascinating region to chat about in the cooler fall months.

The town of Wellton, on I-10 between Gila Junction and Yuma in western Arizona, is an ideal jump off point to the Tinajas Altas, Gila and Cabeza Prieta Mountains. Take the dirt road south out of town through the Lechugilla Desert and down to the Devil’s Highway and it all unfolds in front of you. 

The Tinajas Altas (“High Tank”) and Gila Mountains are granite ranges that jut straight up out of the sea-flat desert plains.  Although only a bit more than 2500 ft. in elevation, they are every bit as impressive as the east face of the Sierras.  They are full of beautiful and intimate side canyons, each one inviting you to explore.  The canyons in the Tinajas Altas and Cipriano Passes offer excellent camp sites.

Tinajas Ocotillo

They come out here just about every day late in the afternoon.  Most of the time you hear them after they’ve passed by, or you may catch a silver or black flash through a break in the granite cliffs.  Fighter jets seem out of place in the largest de facto wilderness area south of Alaska, but I look forward to them each day.  Politics and environmental concerns aside, there is something about seeing a jet screaming in just off the ground and making an abrupt turn straight up and out of sight in just a few seconds.  The bombs and missile parts in this area are from earlier times – shooting at targets with laser beams is more common now.  They head back to the east after a short time and then the place is all yours again.

Tinajas Missile Part

It suddenly springs up and startles you like a huge dark snake in front of you as you pick your way south along a small dirt road on the west side of the Tinajas Altas.  There is no denying that the border fence is impressive.  What used to use a braided complex of vehicle tracks is now a single road.  I visited with a Border Patrol agent who told me this is now one of the most boring stretches of the border to be working, as the fence has virtually stopped the northbound vehicular traffic in this section. These routes are the ones that have been used for centuries by peoples wandering north from the Sea of Cortez to trade with the Ancient Ones in central and northern Arizona.

Perhaps the darkest place you will ever see, this is not a place to have a campfire on a moonless night.  The sparkling canopy that stretches from one horizon to the other over the great Tule and Lechugilla deserts shames even the most spectacular nighttime urban skylines. 

After a few days of exploring these borderlands, you realize that there is actually an abundance of life here, animate and inanimate.  Peek one eye out of your sleeping bag and watch the morning sun bring the granite to life and the dramatic transformation from black to deep orange.  There are ravens winging around the rocks and up and down the canyons, so you know it’s a good place.

If you are heading east on I-10 on your way out, there is the mandatory stop at Dateland, just east of Wellton, for a freshly made date shake.

Travel Notes:  Required free permits to enter the Cabeza Prieta and Goldwater Range are available at the Fish and Wildlife office in Ajo, AZ or may be obtained by calling (520) 387-6483.

A second vehicle in your party is recommended, as there is no cell phone service in the area and the cost of towing or vehicle repair can significantly cut into your life savings.  Make sure you fill up with gas before heading into the region, and carry extra water.

Fall, Winter and Spring are the ideal times for a visit, as summer temperatures commonly soar above 115°.

The wildlife out here exists on the edge and is dependent on the few tanks (water holes) in the area.  Don’t camp near these water sources and avoid approaching and stressing them at any time.

Trips | Trips

Mt Wrightson’s Quiet Side

by Dave Baker Wednesday, March 24th 2010

I would guess that Mt Wrightson’s summit receives a thousand or more visits annually, and for good reason. The Mt Wrightson Wilderness is a worthy attraction with its diverse landscapes, plentiful wildlife, and rich mining history. The views from Mt Wrightson’s summit and the surrounding high ridges are some of the best in southern Arizona. The vast majority of visits to Wrightson originate from popular and conveniently accessed Madera Canyon.

Mt Wrightson east side

Mt Wrightson from Gardner Canyon Rd

A far less-traveled option is to approach the east side of the range using the un-paved Gardner Canyon Rd. Various dirt roads branch off Gardner Canyon Rd, heading to the edges of the Mt Wrightson Wilderness, and a nice network of trails offer many hiking possibilities.

One of my favorite of these hikes is an 11 mile loop that leaves the road’s end in Cave Canyon, climbs to Florida Saddle, traverses the Crest Trail to the base of Mt Wrightson’s summit dome, and finally drops down the Gardner Trail to close the loop.

Log bench

Trail-side seating in Cave Canyon

Find the Cave Canyon trailhead (31.70994 N, 110.79898 W, WGS84), by driving Arizona Highway 83 to the junction with Gardner Canyon Rd about 21.5 miles south of I-10 (four miles north of Sonoita) and turn west. Drive Gardner Canyon Rd until a junction is reached with a sign directing you to continue straight to “Cave Can. Trail”. The trail leaves the end of the dirt road in Cave Canyon. The last mile or two of the road requires a high clearance vehicle, though not 4 wheel drive.

Walk west from the trailhead for about 0.2 miles to a junction (31.70906 N, 110.80197 W, WGS84) where you veer right onto an un-signed 2-track road which quickly swings west up Cave Creek. The 2-track soon gives way to a hiking trail which climbs smartly to Florida Saddle. From Florida Saddle head west, then south following the Crest Trail to Baldy Saddle.

Cave Canyon

Cave Creek viewed from the Crest Trail

Feeling good? If so, you may decide to make the 1.8 mile trip from Baldy Saddle up to the top of Mt Wrightson and back before completing the loop.

Back at Baldy Saddle, find the Super Trail and walk it for about 0.7 miles to a metal sign marking the junction with the Gardner Trail. Due to fire damage, the first mile or so of the Gardner Trail is quite difficult to stay on and adding to the challenge, I found that the trail alignment indicated on the USGS Mt Wrightson quad is not accurate for part of this section! Lower down, the trail becomes far easier to follow as you approach the junction with Walker Basin Trail #136. Past this junction stay on the Gardner Trail for another 2 miles or so to the Cave-Gardner Cutoff Trail. Turn left (north) here, walk down into Cave Canyon, and back to your waiting vehicle.

Fire damaged section of Gardner Trail

Fire damaged section of Gardner Trail

Season: Fall and spring preferred. Winter snow and slippery ice can impede or halt progress altogether at the high elevations, especially on the summit dome of Mt Wrightson. During summer months this hike can be very hot in the lower elevations, so early starts and an ample supply of water are recommended.

Water: Bring plenty of your own. Seasonal water might be found in Cave Creek and Gardner Canyon, or at Baldy Spring. If you are able to collect water, purification is recommended before using.

Difficulty: Difficult. The full loop is about 11 miles long with a 3,400 foot elevation gain. If you make the side trip to the top of Mt Wrightson, figure 13 miles and a 3,800 foot elevation gain. Finding the top mile or so of Gardner Trail #143 is difficult because of fire damage, so a map, and compass or GPS are recommended. Adding to the challenge of this section is that some maps do not show the correct trail alignment.

Maps: Green Trails Maps – Santa Rita Mountains, USGS Mt Wrightson AZ, or National Geographic Arizona digital map software.



Click map for larger image


Picacho Peak

by Dave Baker Thursday, March 18th 2010

Picacho Peak is many things to many people. It has been a traveler’s landmark for thousands of years; Don Juan Bautista de Anza traveled past the peak during his trip through the area in 1775. Arizona’s one and only Civil War battle occurred around Picacho, and an annual reenactment of the skirmish is very popular. Thousands visit Picacho in favorable years to witness one of southern Arizona’s most accessible and magnificent spring wildflower blooms. Many visitors stop to ponder an ostrich ranch located near the base of the peak.

Picacho Peak and I-10

Picacho Peak

And then there is hiking. Three trails around the base of the peak join together on the south side of the summit tower and follow steel cables and catwalks through weaknesses among steep cliffs to the top. The Hunter Trail, starting on the north side of the peak just off I-10, is the most convenient of these trails to access. Just under 4 miles roundtrip and with a 1,800 foot elevation gain, most hikers spend three and half to four hours making the trip up and down the Hunter Trail. Some will be intimidated by the steep sections that are negotiated with the help of steel cables and catwalks anchored into the volcanic cliffs. A sign at the trail head warns that “children under ten and dogs are not recommended” on the trail. Sturdy gloves can be a welcome aid for gripping the steel cables.

Desert plain south of Picacho

Desert panoramas near the top

Hikers start the walk with the steady roar of I-10 traffic at their back, so it’s a bit surprising to see big sections of untrammeled Sonoran desert flanking the south side of the Peak upon reaching the saddle on the high ridge. On the summit, the juxtaposition of big empty spaces with the surging civilized artery of I-10 is fascinating and thought provoking. Another unique feature of this hike is the rather elaborate network of steel cables and catwalks that make the climb to the top possible.

Picacho's steel cables

Steel cables

To find the trailhead, leave I-10 at Exit 219 between Tucson and Casa Grande. Enter Picacho Peak State Park just south of the interstate (a $7 per vehicle fee is required). Past the entrance station, turn left (south) onto the Barrett Loop road and drive to the trailhead parking area.

The trail quickly steepens as it climbs the lower flanks of the peak and then switchbacks onto a prominent saddle on a high ridge crest. It then plunges down the south side of the mountain before traversing to the base of the final climb towards the summit.

Season: Fall, winter and spring. This hike can be dangerously hot in late spring, summer, and early fall.

Water: None, bring plenty of your own.

Difficulty: Though not very long, this is a demanding hike. The 1,800 elevation gain in the four mile round trip walk leaves many short of breath. The steel cables ease the way through many steep cliffs, but some will find the exposure and steepness intimidating.

Maps: USGS Newman Peak, AZ or National Geographic Arizona digital map software.



Click map for larger image


Thimble Peak

by Dave Baker Wednesday, February 24th 2010

Well named, Thimble Peak looks a lot like a giant sewing thimble placed high on the big ridge that separates Sabino and Bear Canyons in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. Thimble occupies a prominent position, and once recognized can be seen from most places in Tucson as well as from some sections of the Mt. Lemmon Highway. None the less, Thimble’s summit is not often visited. No trails reach the peak, it is guarded by tall cliffs on many sides, and reaching the true summit requires a few sections of rock climbing.

Beginng the bushwhack to Thimble Peak

Thimble Peak from the Bear Canyon Trail take-off

Not obvious from a distance, the peak is cleaved in half. The north summit is the easiest to climb via a 3rd class crack on the north side, but unfortunately is ten or fifteen feet lower in elevation than the south summit. Though not very difficult by rock climbing standards, the south summit presents challenges that must be taken seriously and treated with caution. Climbers should take extreme care as they negotiate a steep rock gulley choked with a few large and loose boulders before reaching the notch between the north and south summits, and a vertical step just below the top. Once in the notch, we roped up and bypassed the vertical step by traversing right (west) past a climbing bolt, into a big crack leading to the summit. But the exposure here is dangerous; so some climbing gear and an experienced party member with rock climbing skills are recommended for the rock climb to the top.

Start of Thimble Peak rock climb

Beginning the summit rock climb

Thimble is often approached from Sabino Canyon using steep bushwhacking routes that take off from the end of the tram road, but here we describe a mellower, though longer route which leaves the Gordan Hirabayashi campground (also known as Prison Camp), just off the Mt. Lemmon Highway.

At milepost 7.3 on the Mt Lemmon Highway, turn west and drive to the trailhead at the west end of the Gordan Hirabayashi campground. This is a fee area. Follow the Sycamore Reservoir Trail west for about 3 miles, past Sycamore Reservoir to the trail junction (32.33618 N, 110.71981 W, WGS84) with the Bear Canyon Trail. This trail junction is marked with several rock cairns. Cross Sycamore Creek and walk southwest on the Bear Canyon Trail for about 0.8 mile to a point (32.34636 N, 110.76287 W, WGS84) where the trial begins its descent to the bottom of Bear Canyon. Leave the trail here and begin the bushwhack towards Thimble Peak. Work west for a ways, and then swing south towards the crest of the high ridge that Thimble rests upon. You are likely to find a few cairns and a faint hiker’s path in this section. Once at the base of Thimble, the climbing route begins on the west side of the peak, at the bottom of a cleft that separates the north and south summits.

Thimble Peak summit

Summit view: Sabino Canyon, Blackett’s Ridge and the Tucson valley

Season: Fall, winter and spring.

Water: Seasonal water is sometimes found in Bear and Sycamore Canyons. Purify before drinking. As always, it is best to bring plenty of your own.

Difficulty: The hike to Thimble’s base is moderately difficult, a little over 10 miles round trip with about 2,500 feet of total elevation gain from the trailhead to the peak and back again. A few miles of bushwhacking and the attendant cross country route finding are required. The rock climb to Thimble’s summit should only be attempted by those with appropriate gear and experience. Loose rocks, unstable blocks and the potential for falls are real dangers on this climb.

Maps: Green Trails Santa Catalina Mountains; or National Geographic Arizona digital map software.



Click Map for larger image


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!