Keeping Cool in the Wilderness of Rocks

by Dave Baker Tuesday, May 12th 2009

When it’s time to cool off, the Wilderness of Rocks is a popular destination for Tucson area hikers. At an elevation of over 7,000 feet, the Wilderness of Rocks stretches across a broad, rocky bench perched beneath the high summit ridge of Mt. Lemmon. The headwaters of Lemmon Creek gather here, and the small stream almost always shows water. Shaded in most places by trees and cliffs, this riparian zone can be a delightful reprieve from the hot deserts far below.

The loop hike described here begins almost from the very top of Mt. Lemmon. Heading west from the trailhead, the route works down Mt Lemmon’s broad summit ridge, and then turns south onto a prominent spur ridge which shows great views of Oro Valley, the headwaters of Romero Canyon, and the high peaks scattered along Pusch Ridge.


Weathered formations in the Wilderness of Rocks

Once in the Wilderness of Rocks, hikers wander among stately stands of Ponderosa pines, fern gardens and untold numbers of gleaming white rock formations and gargoyles. It’s great hanging out beneath the tall pines that line Lemmon Creek’s shallow pools.


Lemmon Creek

Finish the loop by hiking up the Lemmon Rock Lookout Trail. This steep section climbs 1,800 feet in under 2.5 miles, a tough climb! Watch for rock climbers on the long 400 foot south ridge of Rappel Rock, easily seen from several sections of the trail. No surprise, the Lemmon Rock Lookout Trail ends near Lemmon Rock Lookout, a small building listed in the US National Register of Historic Places and which is still staffed from May through September. The short side trip to the lookout with its fantastic views of the Catalina Mountains and much of southern Arizona is very worthwhile.


Lemmon Rock Lookout

Reach the trailhead (32.44036 N, 110.7858 W, WGS84) by following the Catalina Highway from the Tucson valley towards the small settlement of Summerhaven. Just short of Summerhaven, turn right (west) onto “Ski Run Rd”. Continue on Ski Run Road past the ski facility through a gate (often closed during winter months), and on up the narrow winding road to the trailhead parking lot near the top of Mt Lemmon.

The Mt. Lemmon Trail #5 leaves the west side of the parking lot right next to a fenced electrical facility, crosses a dirt road and then joins an old jeep trail heading west along the broad summit ridge. A few tenths of a mile later, the junction with the Lemmon Rock Lookout Trail is reached, which marks the beginning and end of the loop route. Clockwise or counter-clockwise? The route is described in a counter-clockwise direction above, but take your pick.

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 quite warm on the exposed ridges during summer months.

Water: Water is usually present in Lemmon Creek, though the flow can slow or cease in the driest months of the summer. If you do collect water, purification is recommended before using. Make sure you have plenty of water for the more exposed hiking getting into and out of the Wilderness of Rocks.

Difficulty: Somewhat difficult. About 8.5 miles long with a 2,000 elevation drop and then gain. Some sections of trail can be hard to follow, so map and compass/GPS are recommended.

Notes: The trailhead is in a Forest Service fee area. The area was impacted by the 2003 Aspen Fire.

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 | Trails | Trails

Pack Rats and Mice and Ringtails, Oh My!

by Dave Baker Thursday, April 23rd 2009

Even when bears are not a threat to the outdoor traveler’s food, mice, rats, ringtail cats, and other small mammals can be relentless in their effort to dine on back country food stores. Garbage and empty food wrappers also attract the attention of hungry critters. This is especially true at often-used campsites. And perhaps just as bad, these animals can cause significant damage to packs, tents and other gear as they energetically chew and gnaw their way to the food.

What to do? Metal or hard nylon cans are heavy, bulky and difficult to pack. Fiber reinforced bags can succumb to sharp teeth given enough time. In arid areas like the Grand Canyon there are often no trees large enough to successfully hang food bags out of reach.

Check out the chew resistant Outsak™. Made of stainless steel mesh, the Outsak™ is flexible, reasonably light, and very packable. The webbing backed loop closure is animal resistant yet easy to open. It is outfitted with a sturdy grommet to facilitate hanging from trees or overhangs.

Outsak™, size small

Outsak™ bags are offered in three sizes, with weights ranging from 8 to 10.5 ounces. The small size, at 18 x 14 inches is pictured here. Prices range from $32.99 to $44.99.

These bags are extremely useful, but should not be considered fail proof. Though the steel mesh offers a lot of protection at a reasonable weight, the bags are none-the-less vulnerable to many animals, even small ones given plenty of time. Bears certainly have the strength to tear them apart, and so may coyotes and other large mammals. Ravens can defeat the mesh by virtue of their strong beaks and persistent intelligence. (The manufacturer recommends hiding the sack or stacking heavy rocks around it when ravens are a threat.)  And don’t forget tiny animals like ants, which can simply crawl through the protective mesh.

I’m not sure there is a totally foolproof and lightweight answer to the problem of protecting food from animals in the outdoors, but the Outsak™  is one of the most practical solutions for keeping small animals away from food that I know of.


A Mount Wrightson Loop Hike

by Dave Baker Monday, April 13th 2009

Loop hikes are wonderful. It can be exhilarating to take in a big sweep of country without retracing steps. You usually see more and get to enjoy a feeling of fresh discovery the entire way.

A few years ago I stumbled upon a great loop hike which starts in the bottom of Madera Canyon and passes through Baldy Saddle, just below the top of Mt Wrightson.

Rising to an elevation of 9,453 feet, Mt Wrightson is the high point of the Santa Rita Mountains and also the highest of the peaks surrounding the Tucson valley. The vast majority of visits to Wrightson’s summit are made hiking the very popular Old Baldy and Super Trails which start at the end of Madera Canyon Road.

Arizona Gray Squirrel

Arizona Gray Squirrel near Bog Spring

The loop hike described here is a more demanding way to reach the top of Mt Wrightson, but is very scenic and visits some less travelled areas of the Santa Ritas.

Find the trailhead (31.72681 N, 110.8803 W, WGS84) on the east side of 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”.

Mt Wrightson

Mt Wrightson from the Four Springs Trail

Early on, the route passes the lovely sycamore grove at Bog Spring, then climbs and traverses to Kent Spring and the beginning of the Four Springs Trail. Above Kent Spring the Four Springs Trail enters some of the vast area that was ravaged by the 2005 Florida Fire. The trail traverses the head of Florida Canyon past the seasonal water seep at Armour Spring, in an area where the devastation was particularly intense.

Head of Florida Canyon

Burn near Armour Spring

The Four Springs Trail is followed all the way to the Crest Trail, which runs 3.2 miles south along a high crest ridge to Baldy Saddle and the base of Mt Wrightson’s summit pyramid. From Baldy Saddle, you might as well scamper up to Mt Wrightson and back before following the Old Baldy Trail down to Josephine Saddle and on to the trailhead at the end of Madera Canyon Road. To close the loop, walk about 1.3 miles along side Madera Canyon Road to the original trailhead.

Season: Though this hike can be done year round, there are seasonal considerations. Winter snow and dangerously 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: There may be seasonal water at or near Bog Spring, Kent Spring, Armour Spring, Baldy Spring, and Bellows Spring; but as always, bring plenty of your own.

Difficulty: Strenuous. This hike is long and hard. There is a 4,600 elevation gain. According to my GPS odometer, the loop is 17.5 miles long, but a Forest Service map at the trailhead suggests a mileage closer to 16.3 miles. No matter, this is a hike for those in good physical condition, and one should allow a full day to complete it. I recommend bringing along a map of the route.

Note: The trailheads are in a Forest Service fee area.

Maps: Green Trails Maps – Santa Rita Mountains.


Click Map for larger image


You've Been Warned!

by Dave Baker Monday, April 6th 2009

Check out this pair of warning signs, displayed back to back on a sturdy wood post near a popular southern Arizona trail head. Many thanks to "The Curmudgeon" for a hearty laugh, and thought provoking warnings.

Leaving the road head, this sign with its dire warnings is prominently displayed as you head into the back country:



Leaving the back country, as you approach the road head, this sign with its somewhat different set of dire warnings is prominently displayed on the back of the same sign post:



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!