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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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