Sky Island Dreaming

by Charles Monday, May 6th 2013

The Sky Island Traverse is one of the most inspirational hiking routes that I have ever come across - Brett Tucker, the author of the route, described it this way in March of 2011:

"A route of my own making along ten of the region's standout ranges and across the adjoining valleys, with an eye toward finding a rewarding adventure, a workable travel corridor, and a "repeatable experience"...mile for mile arguably among the most scenic and biologically diverse long walks in the United States"

Since becoming aware of the route I have occasionally dreamed about hiking large sections of the traverse - or even a thru hike. But one morning while at work with my friends at the Summit Hut, still without solid plans to take time off and work out a long distance adventure, it occurred to me that with even the most distant parts of the traverse only a few hours drive from Tucson why not section hike this adventure with friends!?!

The Sky Island Traverse Page states that the Sky Island Traverse allows "for a way of experiencing the untamed beauty of the region in a more engrossing way, without the mind-affecting limitations that come with long road trips out from the city and a vehicle forever beckoning back at the trailhead" - certainly a section hike was not the original vision, inspiration or intent... But for us an excuse to adventure, visit old haunts and new locations, get a glimpse of the interconnected Sky Islands and do something now (rather than sometime in the nebulous future) was too much to pass up - two weeks later we coordinated days off and got started...


Section 1 - Cochise Stronghold East Campground to the Slavin Gulch Trailhead - Alison, Charles, Devin, Ryan, Traci

The East Cochise Stronghold Campground is our starting point - after a quick 'getting started' picture Ryan, Devin and I start across the Stronghold and Traci and Alison head to the Slavin Gulch Trailhead to hike in and meet us.

Starting in the East Stronghold Campground

We cross the bridge and start on the Stronghold Nature Trail (a right after the bridge) which quickly reaches a junction with the Cochise Trail. The day is a bit hotter than hoped for and we alternate hiking and running the gradual uphill of the Cochise Trail - a nice break at Halfmoon Tank - short pauses to admire the stunning Rockfellow Group - chatting about the chicken heads on the Cochise Dome - and then the Stronghold Divide.

Devin enjoying the break at Halfmoon Tank

On the Cochise Trail with the Rockfellow Group in the background.

Stronghold Divide

From the Stronghold Divide we pick up the pace, enjoy the plunge downhill to the end of Forest Road 687 and then continue running along FR 687. Years ago I would have been unhappy including a dirt road on this adventure, but I am smarter now - the scenery is beautiful!

Running on Forest Road 687

We have to backtrack a few minutes along the road to find a good entrance to the off-trail section - it will take us east of the Whitehouse Ruins and across the Council Rocks area. At first we find an encouraging path, but it soons disappears and steep wash sides alternate with patches of Cat's Claw that always seem to be easier to avoid 'just over there', but never actually are...

North of Council Rocks pondering the best route...

The shade of a boulder stops us for a few minutes - the terrain has slowed us and it is nice to get out of the sun - it looks like we are headed into the nastiest section of Cat's Claw yet but a small trail appears - faint at first we tease it's intention from the sand and as we pass thru first one parking area and then another it becomes better and better! None of us have ever been on this trail but as we come over a small ridge and into the drainage that will take us down to the Slavin Gulch Trail we are all smiling - beautiful trees push into and over the wash and the running is joyous!

The wash down to the Slavin Gulch Trail

We pause to take a break from running in the soft sand - minutes later we find Traci and Alison perfectly positioned on the trail to intercept us!

Alison on the Slavin Gulch Trail

All together at last we finish off the day under the hot sun on the Slavin Gulch trail. Great company and a fun adventure - what a great day!

Slavin Gulch Trail Head - our stopping spot for the day!

Map of the day with comments - High Resolution JPEG (3.62 mb) or High Resolution PDF (4.51 mb)


-The Sky Island Traverse is a route and an adventure - while some sections are on well traveled trails many sections are not - it is imperitative that you excercise caution and good judgement when following this route!

-DO NOT MISS the excellent resources on the the Sky Island Traverse Page - map information, databook, links to Brett's photo journal and more!

-We are taking the Sky Island Route as we believe it was intended - from the Sky Island Traverse Page - "We're not actively encouraging others to hike the exact route layout as described, and are less interested in fielding specific questions about planning and hiking it. On a route as undeveloped as this, your hike should be your decision and responsibility, and this information should only serve as a catalyst for having a rewarding and ultimately unique journey across this remarkable Sky Island region. Happy adventuring!" - for example, in the off-trail section we made no attempt to follow the exact route, and certainly would not encourage anyone to follow our exact route!

-Brett Tucker is also the creator of another incredibly inspiring journey - The Grand Enchantment Trail!

Hiking Report

Review: Salomon Skin Pro 10+3 Set

by Charles Sunday, April 21st 2013

I love the way the Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 Set Pack (our review) fits/feels/carries for faster on-trail adventures - but for longer (unsupported) journeys, especially where the weather demands extra layers or (frequently here in Tucson) extra water, I just need more room. The Salomon Skin Pro 10+3 Set is an interesting option that has a similar suspension/harness but with more storage space.

A snowy day in the Tucson Mountains - on the Sweetwater Trail on the way to Wasson Peak with the Salomon Skin Pro 10+3 Set

Fit: This pack comes in a single size with adjustable shoulder straps - there is a good range of adjustment but it will not fit everyone. Like the Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 Set Pack the shoulder straps wrap around your rib cage and the pack bag/weight is higher and closer to your center of gravity than it would be in a traditional pack. This combination helps the pack stay comfortable and stable when running. The stretch built into the pack harness is a great detail allowing the pack to hug your body without constraining your  breathing/movement.

Side view of the Salomon Skin Pro 10+3 Set showing the shoulder straps wrapping over the ribs. Also note the red and black zipper (closed in this picture) that can be used to adjust the volume of the main storage pocket.

Storage: A U shaped zipper gives good access into the main pocket and another zipper around the main pocket allows you to adjust the volume. This pocket provides quite a bit of space - in the 'less volume' configuration (pictured above) I can easily fit everything I can fit into the Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 plus an extra 1.5 liter reservoir and additional (thin) layering piece - see the pictures below for some details about what you can fit into the pack in the 'more volume' configuration.

The Salomon Skin Pro 10+3 Set - note that the red and black zipper is open adding more volume to the main pocket - quite a bit of space in this configuration!

Gear for my snowy Wasson Peak run/hike laid out on the summit - I didn't know what conditions would be like so I took advantage of the space in the Skin Pro 10+3 Set to take gear for pretty much anything I could imagine!

Other pockets include: Rear Zippered Pocket (this pocket has some stretch and is a great spot for small items you want quickly when you stop (not accessible without taking the pack off)), two open side pockets (slightly awkward to reach into on the run but great for holding items that you need occasionally and want access to without removing the pack - easily large enough for a wind jacket), two chest pockets (great spot for food or Salomon Soft Flasks for extra water) and a small inner pocket (nice spot for a 1-person Heatsheets Emergency Blanket).

Reaching into the side pockets is (for me anyway) slightly awkward but certainly possible - I like these pockets for items like gloves and headlamp that I want access to but that I am not going to be constantly getting in and out of the pocket.

The chest pockets - I often have a small camera in one and extra water in the other (two 8oz or one 16oz Salomon Soft Flask will fit).

Rear view of the pack - the longest white vertical zipper in the picture belongs to the smaller rear pocket, a great spot for items that you want to keep easy to find when you take your pack off.

Hydration: The pack comes with a 1.5 liter Salomon/Hydrapak reservoir in a lightly insulted sleeve. I like the Hydrapak reservoirs - large top opening for easy filling/cleaning, nice material and easy to seal securely . The hose runs from the bottom of the reservoir under your arm/along the shoulder strap. This configuration helps put the bite valve in a great 'ready-to-use' position. While it is not difficult to get the reservoir in and out of the pack it is not as quick/easy/convenient as it is with the Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 Set Pack.

The Salomon Skin Pro 10+3 Set Set does not carry/fit/feel quite as well as the Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 Set Pack does, but for some adventures having more space is critical and the Skin Pro 10+3 Set provides a nice way to have more storage space while still having a run friendly 'vest' style pack. For me the genius of this compromise was shown by a snowy run/hike to Wasson Peak in the Tucson Mountains - I don't spend many days in the snow, was unsure about what the conditions would be and was not sure how long it would take... So it was great to be able to load extra layers/gear into my Skin Pro 10+3 Set and head out knowing I had everything I could possibly need - and still get a decent carry when running!

Gear | Gear

Review: Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 Set Pack

by Charles Thursday, April 18th 2013

Over the past couple of years I have become more excited about running and moving quickly in the backcountry has become something that I enjoy/dream about/work towards. If - like me - you want to move fast/run on the trails and still carry a bit of gear and extra water with you the Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 Set Pack is an option worth considering!

The author taking a break on the Pontatoc Ridge Trail with his Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 Set Pack.

Fit: The Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 Set Pack is a 'vest' style pack. It is designed so that the shoulder straps wrap around your rib cage and the pack bag/weight is higher and closer to your center of gravity than it would be in a traditional pack. This combination helps the pack stay comfortable and stable when running (be careful not to fit this pack like a traditional pack - getting a larger size than you need WILL cause excessive bouncing). Once you find your size the consensus from our staff is that it feels great and has minimal bounce when running! An important part of the feel of the pack comes from the stretch built into the harness. This is the first pack that I have used with significant stretch in the harness and I was skeptical at first - but I have to say that it really works - the pack stays pleasantly snug/secure without restricting my movement/breathing.

In this side view you can see the pack harness/shoulder strap wrapping around the ribs - quite different from the shoulder straps on a 'traditional' pack and an important detail that helps keep the pack stable and comfortable on the run. The side pocket is holding a pair of light fleece gloves.

We have had questions from women about whether the fit/style of this pack will work for them - while no pack/style is going to work for everyone we recently had a number of our female staff try this on-trail and it worked well for almost all of them!

Emily with the Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 Set Pack on the Ventana Trail during a demo run - the pack worked well for her!

Storage: The pack's main storage pocket has a single vertical zipper and is made of a stretch fabric. I can fit my first aid kit, Montane Slipstream GL Wind Jacket, Montane Featherlite Wind Pants and just a bit more. 

The main pocket - the vertical zipper is a change from the 2012 version of the pack and allows easier access to your gear. Note my Black Diamond Sprinter headlamp fitting nicely into the right side pocket.

Wind Jacket and Pants along with a small first aid kit fit comfortably in the main pocket - the stretchy material certain allows you to fit more in (and holds it securely - a great detail!), but it does get challenging to add too much more...

There are also quite a few smaller pockets to take advantage of including: two chest pockets (water bottles, Salomon Soft Flasks, camera, extra storage), an optional pocket that attaches with velcro to the shoulder harness (great for gels), two side zippered pockets (slightly awkward to reach, I use them for headlamp and gloves since I only need those occasionally/infrequently) and a small inner pocket (the pack comes with a emergency blanket in this pocket). By taking advantage of all of the pockets this small pack can carry quite a bit!

There are plenty of pockets on this pack to take advantage of - here the chest pocket has 2 8oz. Salomon Soft Flasks and the zippered pock has a gel and several Saltstick Plus Caps.

Hydration: A 1.5 liter Salomon/Hydrapak reservoir in a lightly insulted sleeve is included with the pack. The reservoir slips into a pocket next to your back. The insulated tube runs from the bottom of the reservoir, under your arm and along the shoulder strap. This configuration helps put the bite valve in a great 'ready-to-use' position. The reservoir is very easy to get in and out of the pack while leaving the hose in place - a great feature at an aid station but also nice for everyday cleaning and filling.


This pack has a list of small features/details not even touched on in this review - but to me the most important feature is the amazing fit/feel/carry - certainly something special. At a glance the small amount of storage space may seem too restrictive - but after using this pack for more than a year I have been surprised by how much I can do with it by taking advantage of all the pockets and being very thoughtful about what gear I take with me.



-I like the bite valve that comes with the pack but I switched it out for a Camelbak Big Bite Valve on a Camelbak Hydrolink Filter Adapter - this configuration is slightly bulky but I like flow from the Camelbak Big Bite Valve and the Hydrolink Filter Adapter gives me an on/off valve and makes it very easy to take the bite valve off for easier cleaning.

-The Emergency Blanket that comes with the pack is great and very compact - if you loose/destroy yours we have found that the 1-person Heatsheets Emergency Blanket is slightly larger but fits nicely into the same pocket.

-The 2 front chest pockets are small for most 'hard' bottles - but two 8oz Salomon Soft Flasks or one 16oz Soft Flask fit into the pockets very nicely and are a great way to add some extra water (it takes a little effort to get the two 8oz Soft Flasks in - easier to do before you put the pack on).

-The first two pictures in this review are of the 2012 version of the Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 Set Pack that I started using in March of 2012 - I like the changes made to the 2013 version (different mesh for the harness, different chest pocket material, vertical zipper on the back) but functionally the 2012 and 2013 versions are very close.

Gear | Gear

Sycamore Reservoir Trail

by Charles Wednesday, January 16th 2013

Have you hiked on the Arizona Trail? If not you might be surprised to learn that there are great opportunities to experience a day hike on the AZT that are only a short drive from Tucson! One of my favorite sections of the AZT is the Sycamore Reservoir Trail.

Looking down into the Sycamore Reservoir area - the stripe of green marks Sycamore Canyon with the most prominent green area marking the Sycamore Dam and Reservoir.

This hike starts from the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site just over 7 miles up the General Hitchcock Highway. The Recreation Site is named for Dr. Gordon Hirabayashi who was imprisoned during WW II for resisting the relocation and internment Japanese Americans - a conviction that was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1987. A sidewalk between two foot bridges near the entrance will take you past a several signs with information about the history of the area.

After turning into the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site take the dirt road past the campsites and restrooms to one of the parking areas near the corrals. The trail begins from the south side of the parking lot - a sign near the beginning of the trail shows the surrounding area and trails - standing in front of the sign you are on the Molino Basin Trail and the Arizona Trail! Follow the trail to the right and down the hill to a signed junction with Soldier Trail - the Molino Basin Trail continues to the right. At just over a mile you will arrive at Shreve Saddle - at the saddle the trail becomes the Sycamore Reservoir Trail and you enter the Pusch Ridge Wilderness.

Shreve Saddle - Arizona Trail sign and gate blocking access to an old road. Beyond this point you are in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness

From the saddle the trail heads steadily downhill - note the junction at 2 miles (it can be slightly confusing on the way back...). At 2.2 miles there is a sign and trail leading off to the left - the trail to the left is an unofficial route that will take you on a short side trip to the dam that was constructed to create Sycamore Reservoir. The reservoir was created to provide water for the Prison Camp - the dam traps water from both Sycamore Canyon and Bear Canyon. While it I don't think anyone would currently describe the area behind the dam as a reservoir the dam does, at times, provide water for an impressive seasonal display of green! Of course, use caution around the old dam.

The dam is hidden by the trees - while the hillside is often green note the change in the right side of the picture form September of 2011 (Green!) and December 2012...

After returning to the main trail you will soon cross Bear Canyon and then notice Sycamore Canyon on your left. At 3.1 miles a large cairn on the left marks the junction with the Bear Canyon Shortcut trail (useful if you are heading to Thimble Peak). At 3.5 miles the trail reaches its end at a junction with the East Fork Trail (the AZT continues down into the Sabino Canyon area - see Dave Baker's AZT entry from this area in 2008) and the Bear Canyon Trail (which will take you to Seven Falls). From this junction there are great views – look carefully and you will see the Palisade Trail winding down to its junction with the East Fork Trail! There are quite a few hiking options from this junction - but one of the simplest is to return the way you came.

The author with Sycamore Dam in the background - be very cautious if you decide to go off trail and scramble to the base of the dam - steep cliffs, loose rock and slippery footing...

Season: Fall, winter and spring.

Water: There is often water near the dam and sometimes in both Bear and Sycamore Canyons. Purify before drinking. As always, it is best to bring plenty of your own.

Difficulty: The hike to the junction with the Bear Canyon Trail and East Fork Trail is just under 7 miles (round trip) with close to 1,000 feet of total elevation gain - moderately difficulty.

Maps: Green Trails Recreation Map - Santa Catalina Mountains.


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!