Seven Cataracts of Willow Canyon

by Dave Baker Monday, November 8th 2010

Canyoneering in southern Arizona? Well, maybe nothing like the deep, dark slots and long rappels of Zion and other areas on the Colorado Plateau but yes, there are many canyons scattered about that present challenging scrambling and sometimes require rope and rappels to successfully navigate.

The idea behind canyoneering is simple really; find an interesting canyon and explore the water course, most often heading downstream. Usually trail-less, these outings involve lots of boulder hopping and sometimes technical rope work. Given the arid climate in southern Arizona, canyons feel like very special places – rugged, cool, shady, big trees, quiet grottos, big drops, with the buzzing, busy, green backdrop of plant and animal life that inhabit these moist mountain corridors.

In Willow Canyon

Boulder hopping in Willow Canyon

Most local canyons do not require rappelling and rope work to descend, but many enthusiasts are drawn to those that do. Admittedly, on some southern Arizona technical canyoneering routes you will ignore the fact that many drops can be bypassed by simply traversing out onto the steep, but walk-able canyon sides on either side as you launch off on a rappel, but what-the-heck, there’s a lot of technical fun to be had out there!

First rappel

Descending the first cataract

The Seven Cataracts of Willow Canyon is one such technical canyoneering route, and it is surprisingly accessible -- located just off the Mt Lemmon Highway in the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. This adventure typically begins at Windy Point Vista with a scramble down a steep slope which deposits canyoneers in a lovely section of Willow Canyon that often shows water and is graced with impressively large Arizona Cyprus trees. The first cataract and rappels are not far downstream.

Seven Cataracts

Above the 3rd rappel; Mt Lemmon Highway in the distance

On our trip down the Cataracts, we negotiated the next 4 drops using five rappels. (It usually makes sense to break the first drop into two rappels.) Our fifth rappel ended at a swimming hole that hikers access from the Seven Cataracts Vista (mile post 9.1) on the Mt Lemmon Highway.

Two more, but less impressive drops remain between the swimming hole and the confluence downstream with Bear Canyon, so we left Willow Canyon here using a faint hiker’s trail on the east side of the canyon. We followed the trail into Bear Canyon and then walked upstream to a second vehicle which had been left at the Green Slabs parking pullout (mile post 9.9) on the Mt Lemmon Highway. This section of Bear Canyon was delightfully beautiful. A few of the rappels in the Seven Cataracts are longer than 100 feet, so we brought two – 200 foot ropes and were glad we did. A more detailed description of the route and its variations can be found here.

5th Rappel

The 5th rappel

Difficulty: It’s a little over 1.5 miles from Windy Point to Seven Cataracts Vista, and 2.1 miles from Windy Point to the Green Slabs pullout. None the less, allow plenty of additional time for the rappels.

This route involves technical rope work and conditions can vary tremendously depending especially upon how much water is flowing in Willow Canyon. Sometimes just a trickle moves down the Cataracts, but rain and melting snow can and do produce much greater flows of water. The more flow, the more treacherous conditions become. Don’t hesitate to abandon plans to descend the canyon if water flows seem unmanageable.

Approach this and other canyoneering routes with caution and respect -- all the hazards of canyoneering can easily come into play, including the dangers associated with moving water, hypothermia, hyperthermia, wet slippery rock surfaces, unstable footing, and flash floods. A solid background in rappelling, anchor safety, rope handling, rescue technique, pack management, specific canyoneering skills, and hazard recognition is a must.

Maps: Green Trails Santa Catalina Mountains


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Activities | Trails

Aliso Spring

by Dave Baker Monday, October 4th 2010

Established in 1984, the Rincon Mountain Wilderness provides a protective buffer on three sides of Saguaro National Park East in southern Arizona. With few trails and often remote access points, this wilderness area is rugged, steep and blissfully neglected. One of the few trails in the wilderness area climbs the broad southern flanks of Rincon Peak to Aliso Spring , perched in a remote canyon bottom among pinion and juniper trees. This is a nice area to tramp about, with interesting countryside and fine vistas.

Rincon Mt Wilderness & Rincon Peak

Rincon Mountain Wilderness along the southwestern slopes of Rincon Peak

The Aliso Spring Trail was most certainly established by cattlemen who installed steel and concrete tanks near the spring to provide water for their bovine charges. (During a visit to Aliso in March 2010, the water system was in disrepair and all tanks were dry even though the spring showed plenty of water.)

Steel water tank

Steel tank near Aliso Spring

References to the Aliso Spring Trail are hard to come by, appearing on very few recreation maps of the area. I learned of the trail thanks to the Rainbow Expeditions “Rincon Mountains” map, last published in 1994. It has been decades since the trail may have received maintenance; it is overgrown with brush and is especially tough to follow in the upper reaches. Helpfully, much of the route parallels a fence line, but we failed to find any sign of the final section of trail and bushwhacked the last half mile or so to the spring. This often feels like a cross country hike, so bring a map and compass or GPS, and be prepared for off-trail navigation.

A little over half a mile south of Aliso Spring and far from any trail maintained or otherwise, the wreckage of a World War II bomber is scattered several hundred yards along the flanks of a lonely, remote ridge (at approximately 32.08216 N, 110.55523 W, WGS84). The ill-fated A-20 Havoc careened into the mountainside on a stormy summer day in 1945. Reaching this crash site involves full-on rugged, brushy cross-country travel.

A-20H crash site

A-20 Havoc bomber plane wreckage

Find the trailhead by driving to the junction of Old Spanish Trail and Pistol Hill Road southeast of Tucson. Turn north on Pistol Hill Road (unpaved), drive 1.4 miles and turn right (east) onto an unmarked dirt road. Now drive east for about 1 mile to a fork in the road; bear left (east) onto the less traveled of the two forks, and drive about 0.7 miles and park near corrals. A high clearance vehicle is desirable for this final 0.7 mile segment.

Step through a gate on the far side of the corrals and walk east on a jeep road for about 1.4 miles to the windmill and steel tank at Papago Spring. From Papago Spring, first a jeep road and then a sketchy trail climbs hillsides to the southeast for 0.4 miles to a prominent saddle on a long ridge. At the saddle step through a gate to the east side of a fence line. For the next 1.7 miles the trail closely parallels this fence as it follows a long ridge northeast towards the Rincon high country. It is easy to lose the trail in this section, but by staying near the fence, it can usually be picked up again in short order. Unable to find an obvious trail heading towards Aliso, we left the fence at some rock cairns piled up near the 5,480’ elevation contour (approximately 32.09081 N, 110.55762 W, WGS84), and struck out cross country in an easterly direction to Aliso Spring and the cattle tanks.

Fence line trail

The faint fence-line trail climbs a long ridge.

Season: Fall, winter and spring. These south-facing slopes of Rincon Peak can get hot.

Water: Water might be found at Papago Spring with its windmill, and Aliso Spring shows seasonal water as well. However, as always, bring plenty of your own water in case these and other sources are dry.

Difficulty: Difficult. The one way trip to Aliso Spring from the corrals is about 5 miles and involves roughly 2,100’ of elevation gain. The trail described here is often faint and hard to follow, and near the end pretty much disappears altogether. So, this is more a wilderness route than a trail walk. Map, compass or GPS, and cross-country route finding skills are needed.

Note: The hike as described is all on Forest Service property. Reaching the trailhead however, requires passage across State Trust Land. At the turn off of Pistol Hill Road, a sign states: "State Trust Land ... Enter only with valid lease or permit ... No Trespassing". Information about obtaining State Trust Land permits can be found here.

Maps: Rainbow Expeditions “Rincon Mountains”


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Finger Rock Canyon and Mt Kimball

by Dave Baker Monday, September 6th 2010

The top of Mt Kimball, a wooded summit that sits at the head of Finger Rock Canyon, is curiously non-descript considering its magnificent location. The headwaters of several rugged canyons in the Santa Catalina Mountains originate on the high slopes of Mt Kimball, including Montrose, Pima, and Finger Rock Canyons.

Finger Rock Canyon is one of the more spectacular “Front Range” canyons in the Catalina Mountains; narrow, steep, and decorated with huge cliffs and the unmistakable classic spire of Finger Rock. And, the mouth of Finger Rock Canyon is imminently accessible from the Tucson area.

Finger Rock & Mt Kimball

Finger Rock with Mt Kimball’s wooded summit behind and right

The trip up Finger Rock Trail is one of the great hikes in southern Arizona, and also one of the more demanding and strenuous ones. The first mile of trail is relatively flat as it snakes through thick stands of Sonoran vegetation near the canyon bottom. But then the trail begins a steep and relentless ascent on the slopes above the rocky gorge. This hike requires heavy breathing!

Finger Rock Canyon

Steep walls in Finger Rock Canyon

The vistas and rugged scenery are stupendous from bottom to top of Finger Rock Canyon, and the ecological transition from the saguaro forest below to the juniper and oak woodland in the higher country is fascinating.

A little shy of three miles up the trail watch for Linda Vista, a prominent saddle just off the path which shows a fine view of the Tucson valley. Linda Vista is a popular turn around point for hikers wanting a shorter outing on the Finger Rock Trail; not a bad idea since by this time you have seen the most spectacular reaches of the canyon and have gotten a nice work-out to boot.

After investing the considerable effort required reaching Mt Kimball’s summit, one can’t help notice that potential views are completely blocked by resident trees and vegetation. Take heart! An excellent lookout is available on a rock outcrop just 30 or 40 yards to the east.

View from Mt Kimball

Cathedral and Window Peaks from the view point east of Kimball’s summit

To reach the trailhead, drive to the very northern end of Alvernon Way. You can’t follow Alvernon all the way from Tucson as there is a big gap north of River Road. Pick up the final northern spur of Alvernon Way by turning north off Skyline Drive; the trailhead parking lot at the end of Alvernon is obvious and well marked.

Just a few hundred feet past the trail head continue straight north past a junction with the Pontatoc Trail, which heads east towards Pontatoc Canyon. A mile in, Finger Rock Trail leaves the canyon bottom and begins a steep and steady climb up the east side of the gorge towards Mt Kimball. About 2.8 miles up the trail, watch for a spur path heading south towards the saddle known as Linda Vista, with its sprawling view of the Tucson valley. At 4.2 miles a signed trail junction is reached – turn left (north) onto the Pima Canyon Trail which initially works uphill in the general direction of Mt Kimball. The Pima Canyon Trail avoids Kimball’s summit, and you have to be alert for an unsigned junction (32.37582 N, 110.88026 W, WGS84) where a spur trail heads right (northeast) towards the top. Kimball’s summit doesn’t offer much in the way of views because of a thicket of trees and brush -- walk just a little further east to reach a good viewpoint.

Finger Rock Trail

Upper reaches of Finger Rock Trail

Season: Fall, winter and spring. With its south facing aspect and narrow, heat-absorbing canyon walls, summer heat in Finger Rock Canyon can be ferocious – avoid this hike on hot days.

Water: Generally scarce: bring plenty of your own.

Note: Dogs are not permitted on this trail.

Difficulty: The trip to Kimball’s summit is difficult – about 4.8 miles one way with a nearly 4,200 foot elevation gain. After the first mile, the trail is continuously steep. Hikers looking for an easier outing will enjoy the scenic lower sections of trail. The first mile has little elevation gain, while a trip to the Linda Vista saddle is about 3 miles one way with a 2,500 elevation gain (still pretty challenging!)

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





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Mt Lemmon’s Meadow Trail Loop

by Dave Baker Monday, July 12th 2010

Short and sweet, this little hike is a pleasant 2.2 mile walk very near the top of Mt. Lemmon, the high point of the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. It’s a great place to stretch the legs and enjoy a quiet walk among the cool pines after a drive up the Catalina Highway, and you’ll still have plenty of time to visit Summerhaven and Ski Valley.

Mt Lemmon's Meadow Trail

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.

Aspen Fire deadfall

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 very soon reaches a signed junction with the “Meadow Tr. #5A”, which splits off to the right. The Meadow Trail first wanders near the observatory and old Air Force facility occupying the true summit of Mt Lemmon, and then heads into the woods down a broad and gentle ridge line. Before rejoining Mt Lemmon Trail #5, the trail passes through an area charred by the 2003 Aspen Fire, where burned trees have toppled across the path. At the junction with the Mt Lemmon Trail, turn left (east) to head back towards the parking lot. A few tenths of a mile later, the junction with the short trail out to Lemmon Rock Lookout is encountered.

Lemmon Rock Lookout

Lemmon Rock Lookout

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 hike.

Water: Bring your own.

Difficulty: Easy. The full loop including the side trip to Lemmon Rock Lookout is about 2.2 miles long and involves about 350’ of elevation gain. One section of trail has been damaged by fire and is littered with deadfall.

Notes: This is a Forest Service fee area.

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


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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!