Elephant Head Pilgrimage

by Dave Baker Friday, January 30th 2009

Cruising along I-19 from Tucson towards Nogales, I often risk becoming distracted and taking my attention off the important task of driving safely along the interstate. The problem is not a preoccupation with the car stereo, jabbering away on a cell phone or texting messages.

Nope, the issue along this stretch of highway is Elephant Head, a massive granite peak that sweeps majestically skyward at the western end of the Santa Rita Mountains. Elephant Head is hard not to look at! And, the climb to its summit makes for a classic southern Arizona outing.

Elephant Head

Elephant Head from the mouth of Chino Canyon

Two routes are described here to Elephant Head; one from the mouth of Chino Canyon and a shorter route starting in Agua Caliente Canyon. The trailheads for both of these hikes are on dirt roads.

The drive to the Chino Canyon trailhead requires a high clearance vehicle; though with four wheel drive, one might be able to drive further than this description suggests, depending upon current conditions of the rough road snaking up Chino Canyon. On my last trip there, we took a look at the first four wheel drive obstacle and decided to park and walk the full distance.

Reaching the Agua Caliente trailhead is easier; medium clearance vehicles should not have problems.

2nd class scrambling

Elephant Head summit ridge

The two hiking routes join at the head of Chino Basin, and then follow a decaying road bed that once served the abandoned Quantrell Mine, high up in Chino Canyon. Roughly a mile short of the mine, an unmaintained hiker’s route to Elephant Head leaves the road and plunges steeply into upper Chino Canyon and then climbs to the broad saddle east of the peak. From the saddle, it is a short walk to the beginning of the rocky summit ridge with its 2nd and sometimes 3rd class terrain. The summit ridge drops dramatically away on both sides, but one can usually avoid undue exposure during the scramble to the summit. Once on top, Elephant Head rewards hikers with its famed “Elephant Shrine”, and sweeping views across southern Arizona.

The "Elephant Shrine"

The “Elephant Shrine”; with Baboquivari Peak in the distance.

From Chino Canyon: The Chino Canyon hike is about 5.8 miles one way with a 2,200 foot elevation gain to reach the summit, and a 400 foot gain on the return hike for a total 2,600 foot climb. To reach the trailhead (31.74189 N, 110.95335 W, WGS84), leave I-19 at Exit 56, Canoa Road, and turn south on the frontage road on the east side of the interstate. After 3 miles, turn left (east) on Elephant Head Road and drive for 1.6 miles turning left (north) onto Canoa Drive. Drive 2.1 miles, then turn right (east) on Hawk Drive and follow this road till it ends near a sign that says “Elephant Bike Trail 4”. Behind this sign, follow a dirt road for 0.8 miles where you bear right; 0.8 miles later bear left through a gate. About 0.4 miles later watch for a Carsonite post marked “4073” where you turn right. A short distance later the dirt road crosses Madera Canyon wash; we parked short of the wash and began our walk, continuing along the dirt road into Chino Canyon. Following the jeep road up Chino Canyon, walk high up into Chino Basin where the road finally swings north, traversing a steep mountainside. Look for a rock cairn (31.71369 N, 110.93517 W, WGS84) on the side of the road, which marks the beginning of the hiker’s route taking off downhill towards Elephant Head.

From Agua Caliente Canyon: This hike is about 3 miles one way, with a 1,600 foot elevation gain to reach the peak, and the same 400 foot gain on the return walk for a total 2,000 foot climb. Drive I-19, exiting at Canoa Road (Exit 56), then turn south on the frontage road on the east side of the interstate. After 3 miles, turn left (east) on Elephant Head Road and drive for about 1.5 miles before turning right onto Mount Hopkins Road. 5.5 miles later watch for a dirt road (Forest Service Road 183) which turns left into Agua Caliente Canyon. About 2.5 miles up FS 183, watch for a Carsonite sign on the left side of the road, “TRAIL 930”, marking the trailhead (31.69549 N, 110.929 W, WGS84). After walking Trail 930 for about a mile you will run into the Chino Canyon road described above. Turn right (north) on the old mining road and walk to the rock cairn (31.71369 N, 110.93517 W, WGS84), marking the start of the hiker’s route to Elephant Head.

Walking the hiker's route

On the hiker’s route

Season: Fall, winter and spring. This hike can be hot, especially in the summer.

Water: Seasonal water in upper Chino Canyon; bring plenty of your own.

Difficulty: Advanced. Moderately strenuous. The hiker’s route described here is not a constructed trail, but it is pretty well beat in. One does need to be somewhat attentive and watch for numerous rock cairns marking the way. The summit ridge involves non-technical 2nd class and occasionally 3rd class rock scrambling. Exposure can generally be avoided on the summit ridge; if you find yourself making an exposed move, you are probably off route. But do take care, there is potential for long, dangerous falls on this route.

Maps: USGS Mt Hopkins AZ, Green Trails Santa Rita Mountains, or National Geographic Arizona digital map software. (The Green Trails map shows the hiker’s route.)


Click Map for larger image


SPOT Revisited

by Dave Baker Monday, January 26th 2009

Last month I reviewed the SPOT Satellite Messenger in a blog entry titled “See SPOT”. In the review I reported that while using SPOT on the Arizona Trail, I experienced an 80% transmission success rate, speculating that the failed transmissions were due to hillsides or foliage blocking SPOT’s view of the sky.

Last week I attended the major trade show of the outdoor industry, the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, in Salt Lake City. I stopped by the SPOT booth and talked to Donnie Hatch of Spot, Inc. about the transmission success rate I had experienced using SPOT.

Donnie was instantly interested, and asked “How did you orient your SPOT during transmissions?” I told him that I typically propped my SPOT up in an upright position, assuming that the antenna was located at the top of the device.

Donnie then told me that SPOT’s antenna was located under the face of the device, below the SPOT logo. He went on to say that for best transmission results it is very important to set SPOT on its back, with the face of SPOT oriented skywards. Though this information is not currently available in the materials that are packaged with SPOT, a tech article about this topic is available online here.


Right (above);   wrong (below)



Little Rincon Mountains

by Dave Baker Monday, January 12th 2009

The Little Rincon Mountains lay just east the Rincon Mountains, separated from their much larger sibling by Ash Creek and Happy Valley. These “little” mountains offer a wonderfully scenic hike up a rugged, unnamed canyon, through a maze of spectacular granite rock formations, to a perched valley called Hidden Pasture. Hidden Pasture is tucked between North Star Peak and the range’s high point, Forest Hill.

Weathered rock formationis

This hike is considerably more challenging than the vital statistics would suggest, with a one way distance of about 3.5 miles and an elevation gain of 900 feet to Hidden Pasture. Though a trail has been constructed to Hidden Pasture, it has been a very, very long time since it has been regularly maintained, and it has fallen into a state of disrepair. For the first mile or so, the trial is relatively easy to follow, but higher up it is quite challenging to stay the course in the many sections where it has become obscured by washouts and brush.

Challenging as it is, the old trail offers a better route to Hidden Pasture than one finds bushwhacking through several sections of the canyon, which present a series of obstacles including waterfalls, pour-offs, huge boulders, cliff barriers, brush, cat-claw and the like.

Granite pools

This cannot be considered a trail hike. It is definitely a wilderness route and as such requires cross-country navigation skills and good judgment. Take care!

The wild granite canyon is quite beautiful, and the oak studded, grassy bottom of Hidden Pasture is a contrast to the rocky terrain leading up to it. Once at Hidden Pasture, you might decide to bushwhack the additional mile to the top of Forest Hill adding another 1,200 feet of elevation gain. Nice views of Rincon Peak, the San Pedro River valley, the Dragoons, and Paige Canyon are ample rewards for this effort.

Hidden Pasture and North Star Peak 

Hidden Pasture and North Star Peak

Park your car in a small circular pullout on the east side of Mescal Road (32.08924 N, 110.45779 W, WGS84), about 10 miles north of Exit 297 on I-10. Pick up the trail due east of the parking circle, about 20 or 30 yards uphill from the bottom of Ash Creek. Turn north on the trail, which soon swings to the northeast above a canyon heading towards Hidden Pasture. Early on, the trail passes through a gate (32.09125 N, 110.45779 W, WGS84), giving confirmation that you are on the route. At about 2.5 miles, the trail climbs high above the canyon on the right (southeast) side to avoid a few waterfalls and huge jumbled boulders in the canyon bottom. The trail passes through another gate near the beginning of this climb (32.11126 N, 110.43573 W, WGS84). After climbing steeply for a while above the gate, the trail turns and wends its way to Hidden Pasture past several large weathered rock formations.

Season: Fall, winter and spring. This hike can be hot, especially in the summer.

Water: Seasonal and intermittent. Bring plenty of your own

Difficulty: Advanced. 3.5 miles one way with 900 feet of elevation gain to Hidden Pasture; 4.5 miles one way with 2,100 foot elevation gain to Forest Hill. Moderately strenuous. Route finding is challenging; map, compass and/or GPS are very useful. Brushy, so long pants are recommended. The trail described here is faint and difficult to follow in many places, so consider this a wilderness route rather than a trail walk. Negotiating boulder piles, cliffs and waterfalls along the route demands care and good judgment.

Maps: USGS Galleta Flats West, AZ (Route to Hidden Pasture) and USGS Happy Valley, AZ (Forest Hill); Green Trails Recreation Map - Saguaro National Park; or National Geographic Arizona digital map software.


Click map for larger image

Trails | Trails

Light Emitting Diodes

by Dave Baker Monday, January 5th 2009

Light Emitting Diode I sometimes muse, “What have been the best advances in outdoor gear?” There are plenty of candidates. Developments in material, fabrics and design have led to plenty of innovation in packs, outerwear, clothing, cooking systems, tents, and much more. And how about GPS units and digital mapping software, or the introduction of trekking poles?

But trip after trip, I find myself most appreciating the positive change that LED lights have brought to outdoor pursuits. Why do I like LED’s so much? Two words: battery life. You don’t have to go crazy worrying about how many extra batteries to bring along, even for multi-day trips. Nor do you have to obsess about rationing your use of light. No worries if you want to read books or study maps after dark for hours at a time. Others things to like about LED’s are that they are light weight and tough. A few downsides: LED’s aren’t as good at forming strong beams like the old incandescent flashlights did so well, and the light quality isn’t quite as good either.

There are a lot of great LED flashlights and headlamps out there. My current favorite is a headlamp from Black Diamond that’s been around a few years, the Spot Headlamp. I really like this headlamp because of its versatility. In proximity mode the 3 AAA batteries will run for up to 140 hours, but a super bright mode is available that I have successfully used on long night hikes. Even in super bright mode, Spot is rated to run 50 hours before exhausting the batteries.

What's your favorite LED light?


LED image from Wikipedia used under Creative Commons Attribution license.


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!