Mt Wrightson’s Old Baldy Trail

by Dave Baker Friday, June 18th 2010

The hike up Mt Wrightson is one of the very finest outings in southern Arizona.

At 9,453 feet, Mt Wrightson is the high point of the Santa Rita Mountains and also the highest of all the peaks surrounding the Tucson valley. The mountain is named in honor of William Wrightson who was killed by Apaches in 1865 on the east side of the range not far from present day Sonoita and Patagonia.

Mt Wrightson summit celebration

Enjoying Wrightson’s summit

Far and away the most popular way to approach Mt Wrightson is via Madera Canyon, a major north facing drainage that supports a rich and relatively cool, moist environment. Madera is a southern Arizona treat, with its great beauty, diverse ecology and excellent hiking. Many trails leave Madera Canyon Road and the canyon is known worldwide for its fantastic bird watching.

Two trails to the top of Mt Wrightson originate in the same parking lot at the end of Madera Canyon Road: the Super Trail and the Old Baldy Trail. The trails crisscross half way up the mountain at Josephine Saddle and finally join together again a mile below the summit. The Old Baldy Trail is the shorter and steeper of the two, and probably the most popular, especially during the warmer months of the year since its route favors north facing slopes that offer more shade on hot days.

Mount Wrightson

Mt. Wrightson, or “Old Baldy”, south of Tucson

A trip to the top of Wrightson via The Old Baldy Trail is strenuous, climbing nearly four thousand feet on the 5.3 mile trip to the top. The trail is often used by area hikers preparing themselves for trips to the Grand Canyon and other destinations with big elevation gains.

Find the trailhead at the very end of the Madera Canyon Road (31.71232 N, 110.87404 W, WGS84). The Old Baldy Trail leaves the upper-most parking lot at its southwest end. Walk southwest from the parking lot up a jeep road for two or three hundred yards, watching for the Old Baldy Trail junction on the left side of the path.

Above Baldy Saddle

The trail doesn’t mess around and immediately begins climbing steadily, early on passing many Arizona madrone trees mixed among oak, juniper and Ponderosa pine. In two and half miles one arrives at Josephine Saddle, an excellent destination and turn-around spot for those looking for a more moderate, yet rewarding outing.

Above Josephine Saddle the trail continues uphill as it switchbacks across the steep northern slopes of Mt Wrightson before reaching Baldy Saddle (8,700’), a fine place to rest and catch your breath.

Summit switchbacks

Descending summit switchbacks

From the Saddle it’s another mile of climbing and switch-backing to the top, and the panoramic views for which Wrightson is so well known: Mexico, Baboquivari Peak, Tucson, the Catalinas and Rincon Mts, the Huachucas, Sonoita and Patagonia, are just a few of the landmarks to be seen.

Season: This hike is done year round, but seasonal weather conditions must be taken into consideration. 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 is hot in the lower elevations, so early starts and an ample supply of water are recommended.

Water: There may be seasonal water at Bellows and Baldy Springs; but as always, bring plenty of your own and treat any water you might collect.

Difficulty: Strenuous. This hike is on the hard side with a 4,000 elevation gain and 10.5 mile round trip distance.

Note: This is a Forest Service fee area.

Maps: Green Trails Maps – Santa Rita Mountains.


Click map for larger image


Bug Spring Trail

by Dave Baker Friday, May 14th 2010

Relatively new, the Bug Spring Trial in the Santa Catalina Mountains follows portions of an old abandoned trail that once linked Prison Camp with upper Bear Canyon. In spite of its name, the trail does not visit Bug Spring, which was once the primary water source for the old camp.

View from Bug Spring Trail

Cathedral Peak and the Mt Lemmon Highway above the lower trailhead

Geographically, the hike has two distinct sections. The lower portion passes through a burned area from the big fires earlier this decade, and tends to stay on or near ridge tops, with interesting rock hoodoos and big views.

Rock Hoodoos

Ridge top hoodoos

The upper half wanders through a delightful, unnamed canyon that escaped the destruction of the big fires, decorated with ponderosa pine, madrone, oak, juniper and Schott’s yucca.

Two trailheads serve the Bug Spring Trail. Driving from Tucson up the Mount Lemmon Highway, the lower trailhead is clearly signed: "Bug Spring Trailhead" near milepost 7.6. The upper trailhead near milepost 11.6 is signed “Green Mountain, Bug Spring”.

Schott’s yucca

Schott’s yucca

Parties with two or more vehicles available have the option of arranging a one way traverse of the Bug Spring Trail by either planting a car at one trailhead and driving to the opposite trailhead to begin the hike, or by breaking into two groups and swapping keys in the middle of the hike. The one way hike from upper Bear Canyon down to the lower trailhead is generally very mellow, though at the beginning there is a pretty steep hill to climb.

Bug Spring water works

Abandoned water works below Bug Spring

Season: Fall, winter and spring. Lower portions of this trail can be very hot in the summer.

Water: Seasonal water is infrequently present in the un-named canyon along the upper portion of the trail; it is definitely best to bring plenty of your own water.

Difficulty: Moderate, though there are a few steep climbs. A one way trip is approximately 4.5 miles, with a 600 ft elevation gain traveling downhill from upper Bear Canyon; or a 1,400 foot gain from the bottom up. A round trip is about 9 miles long with a total gain of 2,000 ft.

Note: This is a Forest Service fee area. The Bug Spring Trail is popular with mountain bikers; be alert for downhill riders and be prepared to step off the trail quickly.

Maps: Green Trails Santa Catalina Mountains


Click map for larger image


Window Rock and Window Peak

by Dave Baker Thursday, May 6th 2010

Ventana Canyon is one of several beautiful and rugged canyons that penetrate the fantastic Front Range of the Santa Catalina Mountains, immediately north of Tucson. Ventana (“window” in Spanish) is aptly named for a large, natural hole punched clean through a tall cliff perched high above the head of the canyon – Window Rock.

Ventana Canyon

Window Peak rises above Ventana Canyon

What a hike! The first section of the Ventana trail is notable for a lavish, lush, tangled, almost jungle of Sonoran vegetation occupying the canyon bottom. Stark rock outcrops contrast with a saguaro, palo verde, and ocotillo forest that marches up the canyon sides. About a mile and half in, the trail switchbacks up a steep hillside for 600 vertical feet before leveling out at Maiden Pools, where seasonal water is forced to the surface by a white, polished rock cliff plugging the canyon bottom.

Ventana Canyon

Near the head of Ventana Canyon

Above Maiden Pools the canyon narrows and the trail climbs through oak, Manzanita, and later juniper, ponderosa and a few pinion pines. The trail’s final climb to Window Rock follows a high ridge which seemingly floats above Oro Valley to the north and Tucson to the south. The air thins, the sky takes on a deeper shade of blue, the path steepens, and it becomes distinctly harder to draw a full breath before finally reaching the Window. You’ll be tired after this 6+ mile and 4000+ foot ascent, but happy and satisfied – wild, rugged, remote.

Window Rock

The Window

A half mile along the trail above and beyond Window Rock sits Window Peak, the second tallest peak of the Front Range (7,456 ft). Infrequently visited, Window Peak requires a short section of rock scrambling to reach the summit.

I recently made a solo trip up Window Peak and found the summit register, but also noticed a nearby stand-alone rock spire that looked like it might be an inch or two higher in elevation than the rock pile I stood upon; it was very hard to tell for sure, especially since I was so doggoned tired. It was apparent that the rock spire would require rope, climbing gear and advanced skills to climb; and there was no evidence that anyone had ever been to the top.

Window Peak

Window Peak as seen from Window Rock (It is climbed from the opposite side)

Could it be that this detached rock spire was the true summit of Window Peak and had never been ascended? This question tormented me for a week before I returned to Window Peak with rope, climbing gear, skilled rock climber Chris Pruden, and a small bubble level. Chris and I set the bubble level on the highest rock point above the summit register and sighted along the top of it towards the rock spire.


The spire looked to be about two inches lower than the summit we were on! Chris and I had a good laugh over the rope and gear we had futilely hauled up, and spent a wonderful hour or so on top of Window Peak relaxing, chatting, watching a couple of soaring ravens, and taking in the rugged, drop-dead-gorgeous views surrounding us before heading back down.


Window Peak

The bubble level doesn’t lie …

Find the trailhead by driving north on Kolb Road about 1.3 miles beyond Sunrise Road, to the entrance of the Lowes Ventana Canyon Resort, where you turn right (east) onto the resort entrance drive. (An earlier intersection is confusing because a subdivision sign displays the word “Ventana” so prominently – stay on Kolb to the resort intersection.) Before reaching the resort on the entrance drive, turn left into a parking lot for employees and trailhead parking. The trail leaves the lot at its far west end.

The first 0.8 miles of trail traverses private land, and at the beginning of the walk passes quite close to condominiums and a few homes. The hiking public is extremely fortunate that this access was created through the work and commitment of Pima County and the Pima Trails Association, a local trail access advocacy group. Take care to stay on the designated trail in this area.

To reach Window Peak follow the trail uphill from Window Rock, first to a high saddle west of the peak, and then to a second saddle southeast of the peak. Leave the trail at the second saddle and bushwhack uphill and northwest to the final 3rd class rock scramble to the top.

Season: Fall, winter and spring. Ventana Canyon is south facing, and can be very, very hot in the summer.

Water: Seasonal water can sometimes be found along the canyon, especially at Maiden Pools, but these water sources are unreliable and highly dependent upon recent precipitation patterns. Purify any water you collect before drinking. As is almost always the case in southern Arizona, it is best to bring plenty of your own water.

Difficulty: The trip to Window Rock or Window Peak is difficult; 13 or 14 miles round trip, with up to 4,500 feet in elevation gain. Popular, and far less strenuous ways to enjoy the Ventana Trail include hikes along the first mile and half of the trail to the base of the switchbacks, or a climb of the switchbacks to Maiden Pools, about 2.4 miles from the trailhead. These shorter options are beautiful and rewarding.

Note: Dogs are not permitted in this area.

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



Click map for larger image


Mt Wrightson’s Quiet Side

by Dave Baker Wednesday, March 24th 2010

I would guess that Mt Wrightson’s summit receives a thousand or more visits annually, and for good reason. The Mt Wrightson Wilderness is a worthy attraction with its diverse landscapes, plentiful wildlife, and rich mining history. The views from Mt Wrightson’s summit and the surrounding high ridges are some of the best in southern Arizona. The vast majority of visits to Wrightson originate from popular and conveniently accessed Madera Canyon.

Mt Wrightson east side

Mt Wrightson from Gardner Canyon Rd

A far less-traveled option is to approach the east side of the range using the un-paved Gardner Canyon Rd. Various dirt roads branch off Gardner Canyon Rd, heading to the edges of the Mt Wrightson Wilderness, and a nice network of trails offer many hiking possibilities.

One of my favorite of these hikes is an 11 mile loop that leaves the road’s end in Cave Canyon, climbs to Florida Saddle, traverses the Crest Trail to the base of Mt Wrightson’s summit dome, and finally drops down the Gardner Trail to close the loop.

Log bench

Trail-side seating in Cave Canyon

Find the Cave Canyon trailhead (31.70994 N, 110.79898 W, WGS84), by driving Arizona Highway 83 to the junction with Gardner Canyon Rd about 21.5 miles south of I-10 (four miles north of Sonoita) and turn west. Drive Gardner Canyon Rd until a junction is reached with a sign directing you to continue straight to “Cave Can. Trail”. The trail leaves the end of the dirt road in Cave Canyon. The last mile or two of the road requires a high clearance vehicle, though not 4 wheel drive.

Walk west from the trailhead for about 0.2 miles to a junction (31.70906 N, 110.80197 W, WGS84) where you veer right onto an un-signed 2-track road which quickly swings west up Cave Creek. The 2-track soon gives way to a hiking trail which climbs smartly to Florida Saddle. From Florida Saddle head west, then south following the Crest Trail to Baldy Saddle.

Cave Canyon

Cave Creek viewed from the Crest Trail

Feeling good? If so, you may decide to make the 1.8 mile trip from Baldy Saddle up to the top of Mt Wrightson and back before completing the loop.

Back at Baldy Saddle, find the Super Trail and walk it for about 0.7 miles to a metal sign marking the junction with the Gardner Trail. Due to fire damage, the first mile or so of the Gardner Trail is quite difficult to stay on and adding to the challenge, I found that the trail alignment indicated on the USGS Mt Wrightson quad is not accurate for part of this section! Lower down, the trail becomes far easier to follow as you approach the junction with Walker Basin Trail #136. Past this junction stay on the Gardner Trail for another 2 miles or so to the Cave-Gardner Cutoff Trail. Turn left (north) here, walk down into Cave Canyon, and back to your waiting vehicle.

Fire damaged section of Gardner Trail

Fire damaged section of Gardner Trail

Season: Fall and spring preferred. Winter snow and 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: Bring plenty of your own. Seasonal water might be found in Cave Creek and Gardner Canyon, or at Baldy Spring. If you are able to collect water, purification is recommended before using.

Difficulty: Difficult. The full loop is about 11 miles long with a 3,400 foot elevation gain. If you make the side trip to the top of Mt Wrightson, figure 13 miles and a 3,800 foot elevation gain. Finding the top mile or so of Gardner Trail #143 is difficult because of fire damage, so a map, and compass or GPS are recommended. Adding to the challenge of this section is that some maps do not show the correct trail alignment.

Maps: Green Trails Maps – Santa Rita Mountains, USGS Mt Wrightson AZ, or National Geographic Arizona digital map software.



Click map for larger image


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!