The Butterfly Trail

by Dave Baker Thursday, August 20th 2009

An hour’s drive or so out of Tucson near the top of Mt Lemmon, the Butterfly Trail has long been a popular hike. Is the Butterfly Trail nice? Well, here are quotes from the National Forest web page about the trail:

“This is a delightful trail that passes through an area of such diverse biology that part of it has been designated a Research Natural Area. … You’ll be hard pressed to find a more enjoyable outdoor classroom than this. … Along the trailside, a variety of trees are mixed and matched in diverse communities that include ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir and southwestern white pine in the high, cool areas; Arizona madrone, box elder and bigtooth maple in the more moderate areas; and alligator juniper, various species of oak and yuccas in drier, more exposed areas. Moist ravines are decorated with columbine and butterfly weed, while south facing slopes provide an appropriate habitat for prickly pear and hedgehog cactus. … Views along this trail are as diverse as the biology …”

“Diverse biology” along the Butterfly Trail

Yep, the Butterfly Trail is surely nice. I love how quiet it is along the Butterfly, and since the trail is on higher, north facing slopes, this trip is a good choice during the warm months of the year.

An unusual attraction along the trail is the wreckage of an F-86 fighter jet that crashed in 1957, in the canyon bottom upstream from Novio Falls. The Butterfly Trail enters this canyon from the west just above Novio falls, and leaves the canyon bottom a quarter of mile upstream as it begins to climb towards Mt Bigelow. Just as the Butterfly leaves the canyon bottom towards Bigelow, a beat-in hiker’s path leaves the trail, heading up-canyon another tenth of a mile to the crash site. (This junction is at approximately 32.42549 N, 110.71816 W, WGS84.)

F-86 Wreckage

There are many ways to construct an enjoyable hike along the Butterfly, depending upon how ambitious and fit you are feeling. Two trailheads just off the Mt Lemmon Highway serve the trail: one across the road from the Palisade Ranger Station and the second near Soldier Camp.

One of the easiest ways to enjoy the area is to walk the Butterfly for about a mile and a quarter from the Soldier Camp trailhead and then return the way you came.

Or, arrange to have two cars, one parked at each trailhead, and you can hike the trail 5.7 miles end to end. Hiking from Soldier Camp to Palisade is the hardest direction to go, with 1,920 feet of elevation gain, compared to about 1,280 feet of gain when you travel in the opposite direction.

An in-and-out hike from one trailhead to the other and then back again, is about 11.5 miles. I have also created a nine mile loop by walking dirt Forest Service roads that snake from Mt Bigelow down towards Soldier Camp (this requires walking a half mile beside the Mt Lemmon Highway to close the loop).


Hikers climb towards Mt Bigelow

From Tucson, drive the Mt Lemmon Highway towards the little town of Summerhaven. The first of the two trailheads for the Butterfly Trail is at the Palisade Ranger Station (32.41105 N, 110.71525 W, WGS84), and the second is further up the Mt Lemmon Highway at a trailhead parking lot in the Soldiers Camp area (32.42736 N, 110.7408 W, WGS84).

Season: Spring, summer and fall. Snow obscures many sections of the trail during winter cold spells. This hike can be warm in the lower elevation portion.

Water: As always, bring plenty of your own. Water is usually present near Novio Falls, though the flow can slow or cease in the driest months of the year. If you do collect water, purification is recommended before using.

Difficulty: From easy, to moderate, to hard; depending on how you plan the hike. Popular choices include an easy in-and-out trip from the Soldiers Camp trailhead, for a 2.5 mile round trip with a 500 foot elevation gain; a 5.7 mile end-to-end trip; or an 11+ mile back and forth trip with a 3,200 foot elevation gain.

Notes: This is a Forest Service fee area.

Maps: Rainbow Expeditions Santa Catalina Mountains, Green Trails Maps Santa Catalina Mountains, or National Geographic Arizona digital map software.


Click Map for larger image

Trails | Trails

An Arizona Trail Horse Expedition

by Dave Baker Thursday, August 13th 2009

One of the quiet success stories in the history of the Arizona Trail is the way that three distinct groups of outdoor enthusiasts came together and pooled their efforts to make the Trail the wonderful reality it is today. Those three main groups are hikers and backpackers, trail bikers and equestrians. Dave Hicks, Executive Director of the Arizona Trail Association, has told me that without this energetic collaboration, the Arizona Trail may never have come into existence.

During my walk of the Trail I came into contact with trail users from all these groups, and enjoyed hearing their perspectives on what the Trail meant to them. I ran into a man attempting an equestrian thru-trip and was very impressed when I learned how challenging it is to handle the problem of re-supply on long horse trips. Apparently, horses require a lot of water, food, and surprising to me, rest. I was told that a fit human thru-hiker generally requires far fewer rest days to complete the trip than horses do. Figuring out how to accommodate these needs, especially at remote and hard to reach trailheads can be a logistical nightmare. Another significant challenge for horses is navigating those sections of the Trail where deadfall from large forest fires can be stacked like giant pick-up-sticks, greatly impeding progress.

This fall there are plans afoot at Prescott College to traverse the Arizona Trail using horses and mules. Read about it here. This will be an interesting expedition to follow.


National Parks Free Weekend

by Dave Baker Wednesday, August 12th 2009

This weekend, August 15 - 16 is the final of three entry-fee-free weekends offered by the government in all national parks and monuments this summer. Though entrance fees will be waived, other fees such as campground fees remain in place. Hit the road and enjoy. Here is a sampling of a some parks and monuments to consider:


Chiricahua National Monument


Grand Canyon National Park

Montezuma Castle National Monument


Saguaro National Park

Sunset Crater National Monument


Walnut Canyon National Monument

Wupatki National Monument


Canyonlands National Park


Hovenweep National Monument

Natural Bridges National Monument


Zion National Park


Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks



The Aspen Loop

by Dave Baker Monday, August 10th 2009

Mt. Lemmon is understandably a very popular destination for outdoor recreationists of all stripes. It’s about a one hour drive from the Tucson valley to the little village of Summerhaven near the top of the mountain. Cool, accessible, beautiful!

One of the best payoffs for making the trip up Mount Lemmon is a relatively short and easy hike known as the Aspen Loop. About 4 miles long, the route circles non-descript Marshall Peak, a high point on a forested ridge which separates the Wilderness of Rocks from the headwaters of Sabino Creek. This short hike has plenty to offer: rich conifer forests, aspen groves, fern gardens, a lush and mossy riparian area, and some fine, sweeping views of the Pusch Ridge Wilderness Area.

Aspen Loop

On the Aspen Loop

The massive 2003 Aspen Fire started in this area, and though the devastation is very evident along many sections of the trail, I can’t help but be impressed and awed by the vigorous signs of rejuvenation obvious everywhere. This remains one of the most delightful hikes in southern Arizona.

For reasons unknown even to myself, I prefer to walk this loop in a clockwise direction, striking first up the Aspen Trail as it leaves the southern end of the parking lot diagonally up a steep hill. A mere quarter of a mile away from the road, one enters a lush stand of trees and ferns, dominated by what seems like hundreds of aspen trees. During most summer months, this area sparkles with green.

The trail soon climbs out of the aspen grove and begins to swing around the southern side of Marshall Peak. At about 1.5 miles from the trailhead, look for a trail spur heading more-or-less west from the main trial. This little spur is about a quarter of mile long and ends at a small rock outcrop known as Lunch Ledge, which sports a grand  view of Cathedral Peak in the heart of the Pusch Ridge Wilderness.

Fern & conifers

Conifer and ferns on the flanks of Marshall Peak

Next, the Aspen Trail continues on to Marshall Saddle where there is a five-way trail intersection. Here, the loop leaves the Aspen Trail and turns east down the Marshall Gulch Trail back towards the parking lot. Marshall Gulch is lovely. The creek bed almost always shows water and the luxuriant green growth is soothing for the heat-weary soul.

Reach the trailhead (32.42782 N, 110.75556 W, WGS84) by following the Catalina Highway from the Tucson to the small settlement of Summerhaven. Drive through Summerhaven and continue about half a mile to trailhead parking at the very end of the road. The Aspen Trail angles up a hillside near the far southern end of the parking area, while the Marshall Gulch Trail heads up the canyon behind a poorly located outhouse on the west side of the parking lot.

Cathedral Peak

Cathedral Peak seen from Lunch Ledge

Season: Spring, summer and fall. The trailhead is closed to vehicular access for much of the winter, and snow often obscures many sections of the route. This hike can be warm on the exposed ridges during summer months.

Water: As always, bring plenty of your own. Water is usually present in Marshall Gulch, though the flow can slow or cease in the driest months of the year. If you do collect water, purification is recommended before using.

Difficulty: Moderate. The full loop is about 4 miles long with a 720 elevation gain. An even easier and shorter outing is the lovely walk part way up and down Marshall Gulch.

Notes: This is a Forest Service fee area.

Maps: Rainbow Expeditions Santa Catalina Mountains, Green Trails Maps 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!