GPS Favorites

by Dave Baker Wednesday, August 5th 2009

I have long been fan a of Garmin® handheld GPS units. Most all of the Garmin units I’ve tested have been accurate, reliable, light, rugged, and well designed.

Our most popular models are in Garmin’s “Mapping Handhelds” product category, designating units that can display optional maps and usually with built in base maps. As of this writing Garmin has an overwhelming 25 different models in this category, with prices ranging from around $150 all the way to $600.

Like any gear geek, I am influenced by my own biases when trying to pick out what I think are the most desirable units, so I might as well tell you up front what those biases are. With backcountry foot travel my primary activity, I prefer units that are light, compact, have long battery life, can store a lot of waypoints, and offer a useful topo map display.

My favorite units in this Garmin grouping are the recently released Dakota™20 and the now venerable eTrex Vista®HCx and eTrex Legend® HCx models.


Dakota 20

There is a lot to like about brand new Dakota 20. Priced at about $350, its most obvious feature is a slick and responsive touchscreen with color output that is reasonably easy to read. Weighing a mere 5.3 ounces (including lithium batteries), it is packed with features including an altimeter/barometer, an electronic compass, turn by turn routing on roadways (with optional software), the ability to transmit data wirelessly with other compatible units, and a wireless receiver that interacts with optional heart monitors or bicycle cadence sensors. The list goes on. The touchscreen and menu system is not as sophisticated as that found on an iPhone, but is very effective and satisfying to use. Battery life isn’t bad at 20 hours, but to achieve this, power hungry features like the electronic compass must be turned off. (The compass can be easily turned off or on using menu commands.) It stores a thousand waypoints and accepts a micro-SD™ storage card which can be used to install vast amounts of optional mapping software.

The Dakota 20 works with a bunch of optional map products, but I use the “TOPO U.S. 24K” series from Garmin which are similar to 7.5 minute, 1:24,000 scale USGS maps. These digital maps scale well and are readable enough to be quite useful in the field. Garmin publishes them on micro-SD cards which slip into the SD port in the GPS unit and on DVDs.

A few caveats are in order however. This map series lacks some of the fidelity and rich detail typical of USGS maps, and though they present trails and roads, I have noticed some errors with road and trail locations, naming, and incomplete information. However, I continue to use USGS maps (via TOPO! software) and I find the on-board GPS topo map a valuable supplement. I usually carry my GPS clipped on an accessible pack shoulder strap, and like having the topographic information readily available on the unit screen, since my paper USGS map is often stashed away in the pack.

VistaHCx LegendHCx

eTrex Vista HCx and eTrex Legend HCx

The eTrex Vista HCx and eTrex Legend HCx have been around for a while now, but are still units I recommend. They weigh about 5.5 ounces and are about the same size as the Dakota. These units do not have a touch screen, but instead use buttons and a small cursor stick to navigate a sensible and well featured menu system, displayed on a readable color screen. The battery life is outstanding on both units at 25 hours or so, and both accept a micro-SD storage card, so they are well suited for use with optional mapping products like the TOPO U.S. 24K maps. Both models can store up to 1,000 waypoints, just like the Dakota 20. The Vista HCx sells for about $300 and includes an altimeter/barometer and electronic compass; but as with the Dakota 20, the compass should be turned off to maximize battery life. Without the altimeter/barometer and electronic compass, the Legend HCx is a lean, mean, GPS map machine, selling for around $250.

Compact, light, and powerful, I like and recommend these three Garmin models for backcountry navigation.

Garmin belt clip

Using an optional belt clip


Sycamore Groves in the Santa Rita Mountains

by Dave Baker Monday, June 29th 2009

Mt Wrightson looms large on the drive up Madera Canyon Road in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson, and the hike to this towering summit from the end of the road is the signature outing in the area.

So, it can be easy to miss some trailheads near the mouth of Madera Canyon that access a loop trail which visits two of Madera’s side drainages. Graced with several springs and tangled groves of white barked sycamore trees, oak, pine and fir - this is a lovely area to spend time in.

Near Bog Springs

Sycamore cathedral near Bog Springs

A direct hike to Bog Springs requires a round trip of a little over 3.5 miles with an elevation gain of a just less than a thousand feet. The cathedral grove of sycamore trees around the spring is exceptionally beautiful and serene.

Walking the complete loop takes in Sylvester Spring, Kent Spring, and Bog Springs, adding another 700 feet of elevation, for a about a 6.5 mile round trip hike from the trailhead; a distinctly harder hike than the in-and-out trip to Bog Springs. On the loop hike, there are some nice long views out Madera Canyon as you traverse the steep slopes between Kent and Bog Springs.

Trail to Sylvester Spring

Tramping uphill towards Sylvester Spring

Two trailheads serve this loop. The first trailhead (31.72681 N, 110.8803 W, WGS84) is on the east side Madera Canyon Road just past the turnoff to Bog Spring Campground. Marking the turn into the parking lot, a sign declares “Madera Trailhead, PICNIC AREA”. In the parking lot, the trailhead is conveniently marked with another sign: “BOG SPRING TRAILHEAD”.

The second trailhead (31.72225 N, 110.87943 W, WGS84) is just a few hundred yards up Madera Canyon Road, but here one parks in a parking lot on the west side of the road identified by a sign stating “Amphitheater and Nature Trail”. The trailhead here is on the opposite (east) side of the road from the parking area.

Once on the trail, the loop junction is reached after a little more than a mile; turn left (east) towards Bog Springs, or continue straight (south) towards Sylvester and Kent springs.

Season: These hikes can be done year round. During summer months it can be hot here, so early starts are recommended.

Water: There is often water at Bog Springs, Kent Spring, and Sylvester Spring, but best to bring plenty of your own.

Difficulty: Easy to moderate if you choose to hike to Bog Springs and back; a little over 3.5 miles round trip with just less than a 1,000 foot elevation gain. Moderate if you walk the complete loop; just over 6.5 miles round trip with a 1,700 foot elevation gain.

Maps: Green Trails Maps – Santa Rita Mountains.


Click Map for larger image


Southern Arizona Hiking Groups

by Dave Baker Thursday, June 18th 2009

Looking for people to hike and backpack with in Southern Arizona? Check these groups out:

Southern Arizona Hiking Club

Green Valley Hiking Club

The Ramblers (University of Arizona's Hiking Club)

Tucson Hikers

The Tucson Hiking Meetup Group 

Tucson Backpackers

The X Hiking Club

Tucson Alt Hikers

What is your favorite hiking group?

Rattlesnake - Cathedral Pk, Jeremy, Ed


Stop the Rosemont Copper Project

by Dave Baker Thursday, June 11th 2009

Arizona congressional representatives Gabrielle Giffords and Raul Grijalva have turned up the heat on the Forest Service in an effort to stop the disastrous Rosemont Copper mining project south of Tucson in the Santa Rita Mountains.

Read about their recent efforts in an article in The Green Valley News.

View the approximate location of the proposed project on Google Maps at,-110.75&z=13&t=h&hl=en.

Check out these links to learn more:

Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, a volunteer-based, non-profit organization fighting the proposed mine.

The Forest Service Environmental Impact Statement home page for the Rosemont Copper Project.

The Rosemont Copper public relations site.

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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!