Baboquivari, The Golden Years

by Jonathan Friday, July 19th 2013

Baboquivari Peak is a desert peak about 45 miles southwest of Tucson, Arizona. You can actually see it from many parts of Tucson. If you were to look to the southwest (left of the Tucson Mountains), you will see a low mountain range in the far distance. At the north end (right side of range), you’ll see a flat spot where the top of a mountain should be. That is where the famous Kitt Peak Observatory is located. Following the range to the south (left), you will eventually see what looks like (metaphor alert!) a large incisor tooth jutting up from the gum of the ridge line. That is Baboquivari Peak. 

Early morning view of Baboquivari Peak from the east.  The South East Arête follows the shadow line from Lion Ledge.

It is a true peak in that gaining access to the summit requires some actual climbing. It is one of the few true peaks in southern Arizona. 

The history of climbing on Baboquivari goes back over 100 years to the first recorded ascent in 1898. On July 12 of that year, University of Arizona professor Dr. Forbes and his associate Mr. Montoya made it to the top. They used grappling hooks to aid them in the climbing sections. They had with them enough provisions, including sauerkraut, to camp out on the summit. Legend has it that they built a huge bonfire that night on the summit, and people in villages as far away as Altar, Sonora, Mexico, thought the peak was erupting. 

To this day, the Forbes Route remains the route of choice for descent, and is generally considered the easiest way to gain the summit. The only other route that would arguably be easier is the trail from the west side which joins the Forbes Route at the base of the ladder pitch. However, there are two downsides to choosing the route from the West. First, there is no spectacular cliff on the west side visible from the trail; rather, the longer, less steep trail meanders along toward the distant crag until it meets a large rock slab (the Great Ramp) that leads to the bottom of the ladder pitch. Second, to get to the trailhead, one must drive past Robles Junction all the way to the town of Sells on the Tohono O'odham Reservation. At Sells, one must then head south, then turn left (east) and drive a long dirt road along the valley floor to the base of the mountains. At the end of the dirt road is a small park with parking, picnic tables, and the trailhead. 

Summit Hut President Dana Davis ascending the Ladder Pitch.

There is an interesting history associated with the west side park and the trail. Back in the 1930s, Congress passed a bill that funded a series of forest fire lookouts to be built on Indian Reservations. Though there were no forests on the then Papago Indian Reservation, Southern Arizona still got its slice of the pork. A forest fire lookout was built on the summit of Baboquivari. What is now a park was originally the base station for the fire lookout. The trail was built by federal government crews, and a wooden ladder was constructed on what is now called the "Ladder Pitch". You can still see pieces of iron protruding from the rock on the Ladder Pitch, and on the summit, along with a few weathered pieces of lumber from the shack that housed the lookout. 

Looking at Baboquivari from the east, one can see a horizontal green line, rising slightly from right to left, near the bottom of the cliff face. This is Lion Ledge. It runs from near the North saddle all the way to the southeast arête - the beginning of the climb by the same name - and beyond. Rated at 5.6, with a five star aesthetic rating, the Southeast Arête is one of the most beloved rock climbs on the mountain. Established in 1957, it was the first route to the summit since Forbes and Montoya achieved the summit in 1898. It was the first real multi-pitch climb, and it was put up by climbers. Names associated with the first ascent are Don Morris, Joanna McComb, Rick Tiorick, Dave Ganci, and Tom Wale. 

Babo was then (metaphor alert!) in the embrace of two loving arms, the Forbes Route and the Southeastern Arête, but there remained the alluring blank face of the wall. 

A view of the east face from the trail that goes to the north saddle. The line of vegetation at the bottom of the wall is Lion Ledge. The book on the left is Don’s Crack. The faint vertical black stain near the center marks the Spring Route. The actual spring is close to the intersection of Lion Ledge and the stain.

The allure was strong enough to draw some big-name climbers from Colorado. Dave Baker, local climber and founder of the Summit Hut, recalls the events: 

Bill Forrest and George Hurley came down from Colorado looking to climb the East face of Babo. Joanna Macomb (now Joanna Coleman) and Dan Jones got wind of their ambitions and tried to beat them to the punch. They ended up making the first ascent of Don's crack (honoring Don Morris, I believe) – at the time an incredible achievement by Tucson locals.

Dave Baker belaying at the top of the Ladder Pitch.

Baker cautions that his statements are from memory, and that these events happened over 40 years ago, but his statements are consistent with other accounts. He also supplied the author with a copy of an article by Forrest that appeared in the November 1968 issue of Summit magazine. For those who might scoff in my use of the term "alluring" in regards to the east face, consider the first paragraph of Forrest's article: 

In May, 1966, Gary Garber showed me the east face of Baboquivari peak. I was deeply impressed; the wall was massive and overhanging, smooth – imposing. It featured not cracks, ledges, and gullies, but color – black water streaks and yellow – green lichen scattered on vast expanses of tan and golden rhyolite. 

It was Forrest who named Lion Ledge, and Cougar Cave - a small grotto just passed the perennial spring located on Lion Ledge near the center of the cliff face. He was also the first to find the best route to the ledge by heading up Thomas Canyon, then contouring up to the right to the north saddle, then straight south to the ledge itself. 

Forrest returned a number of times after that initial trip, but it wasn't until he returned with George Hurley in 1968 that they completed an aide to route up the middle of the face that they named "The Spring Route". His fascination with Babo, and the dicey route they were following, had not lessened over the years. Here is another excerpt from the Summit magazine article that paints a picture of part of that final, successful attempt: 

The morning found us Jumaring up our fixed rope as the desert sun flamed into the sky – breathing life, warmth, and color into the enormous rhyolite wall. The desert, in full bloom, rose in multicolor to meet the bluest of skies as we worked up the overhang. It took us all day Friday to climb at the third and fourth pitches. The nailing was thin – discontinuous and rotten, overhanging and bottoming. George passed blank sections of the third pitch by tying off the tips of angle pitons forced into small, windblown holes.

On their way out, Forrest and Hurley visited Shorty and Irma Riggs at the ranch house at the mouth of Thomas Canyon. The Riggs were very interested in hearing about their successful climb, and presented them with a bouquet of peacock feathers from birds who lived there at the ranch. 

Baker provides a little history of the ranch, again from memory: 

Shorty and Irma Riggs homesteaded the Riggs Ranch at the bottom of Thomas Canyon. When they left the ranch because of Shorty's health, their friend Francis Edwards stayed on to watch the place for many years until her death. Not sure I have the name right, but I believe a rancher named Cummings bought the property and built the trail from the ranch house up to the North Saddle. Francis continued to watch the ranch for Mr. Cummings during this time.

Today the ranch is owned by a Tucsonan from whom the nature Conservancy has purchased a usage easement which keeps the property from being further developed. The border of the Tohono O'odham Reservation runs along the ridge of the mountain range and extends to the west. Baboquivari itself is of significant culture importance to the Tohono O'odham people. The east side of the range is Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wilderness, the ranch property, and some State Trust land closer to the main road.

The gate to the ranch with Baboquivari in the distance. The approach starts here.

By the early 1970’s, advances in technology and ethics opened the Golden Age of rock climbing. Nuts and hexes replaced pitons as the tools with which lead climbers were protected. These were quicker and easier to place, and much quicker to clean. They also left no scarring on the rock.

Along with these advancements, a new generation of Tucson locals took to the crags establishing levels of technique and style that rivaled the heroes of the Yosemite Valley. This new generation was composed of high school kids including Mike McEwen, Dave Baker, Mark Axen, Jake Bender, Dennis Coffee, Gary Hervert, Kem Johnson, Scott Williams, and Marti Woerner. They were followed closely by Rich Thompson and Steve Grossman. 

Many in this new generation were as deeply affected by Baboquivari as Forrest and Hurley, and like them, befriended the Riggs and returned time and time again to the mountain. They climbed its classics, and attempted a few new routes of their own on the east face. For whatever reason, the west side of Babo was not a big draw for them, and it was not until the 80’s and 90’s that routes went up on the west side. 

To many of these locals, the allure of Baboquivari persists. Many will pause and gaze to the southwest when the peak catches the eye. Baker leads a small group of friends on an almost annual pilgrimage up the Forbes Route. Another local had his wedding held in the Signal Hill picnic area of Saguaro National Park West so that Baboquivari would be visible in the background during the ceremony. 

Perhaps the grandest expression of love was Fig’s solo ascent of the Spring Route back in the 70’s. He spent three days and nights on the face. 

Baboquivari’s superb climbing delights the body, the spectacular scenery inspires the mind, yet there is also an intangible that enters the heart and does not leave. Perhaps it is this feeling, or “presence” as one local described it, that compels Baboquivari climbers to return again and again with able bodies, sharp eyes, and open hearts. 



More information regarding Baboquivari can be found in Bob Kerry’s “Backcountry Rockclimbing in Southern Arizona”, posted online here: 

More general history of early Tucson climbing can be found in John Steiger’s “Climber’s guide to Sabino Canyon and Mount Lemmon Highway” posted online here: 

An interesting interview with Steve Grossman which provides a first person account of the golden years is posted here:


Product Review: Buff

by Jonathan Friday, February 3rd 2012

If there were a Ten Essentials list for garments, the Buff would definitely be on it. The Buff website describes it as a “multitasking bandanna”. It is its versatility that makes it a nearly indispensable item.

The versatility is a result of a combination of high tech material and design simplicity. What could be more simple than the seamless tube of fabric? The fabric itself is a lightweight stretch polyester microfiber that offers excellent moisture management and insulation against both cold and hot environments. For those who prefer natural fiber fabrics, merino wool versions are also available. A note of caution regarding the wool products, some insects find fine wool products an irresistible source of food – something to keep in mind when storing.

Like the traditional bandanna, the Buff is worn primarily in the area of the head and neck. Just a few minutes of playing around with the Buff reveals its potential. A diagram on the packaging (also on the website) shows seventeen of the more common configurations. From cap, to hair tie, to neckerchief, the Buff has you covered.

A wool base layer, and Buff neck gaiter are perfect for a cold morning hike in the desert.

Those of us who live in Tucson are used to heading out in the early morning on our hike or bike ride with temperatures in the low 40’s, then finishing our trip in the afternoon with temperatures in the upper 70’s. We like garments that can be worn over a broad spectrum of temperatures, but we really like garments that functionally adapt to wide temperature swings. It’s nice to have a jacket that can be worn across a wide temperature range, but it’s even better to have the cool-weather jacket that turns into a warm-weather shirt. The Buff will do that. Wear it as a neck gator in the morning, then as a headband in the afternoon. Wear it as a cap over the head and ears in the cool morning air, and over your nose and face as a mask against the sun in the afternoon.

On approach on a cool morning

I always wear a buff under my bicycling helmet. It not only dramatically increases the comfort of the helmet, but it keeps perspiration out of my eyes and off my sunglasses. It also keeps my head warmer in the morning and cooler in the afternoon. I find that it performs well under a climbing helmet too. For women cyclists who may want to stop for a cup of coffee or a meal, the buff can be employed in a number of stylish ways to mask the dreaded “helmet hair”. Actually, the use of any helmet can be enhanced with a Buff.

Preparing to don the helmet over the Buff

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Helmet hair? No problem!

During some recent experimentation and brainstorming, I thought of a new application. If you turn the Buff inside out, then slide it over your head down to your neck, then pull the top down over and carefully tuck it into your button-down collar shirt, it can double as an ascot! Now, I know that not many people are familiar with the ascot tie, and even fewer have ever worn one, but is it not nice to know that if you ever needed an ascot, and you did not have one, that, in a pinch, you could use your buff? Hey, you never know.

Buff doubling as ascot tie

Gear | Gear

Bear Canyon Trail to Seven Falls

by Jonathan Tuesday, January 3rd 2012

Sabino Canyon is a spectacularly beautiful place to hike. Halfway up the side of the canyon, the Phone Line trail contours along length, offering great vistas. Other trails include Blacket’s Ridge. A paved road runs along the bottom, along which runs a tram.

Bear Canyon, the next canyon over from Sabino Canyon, while not as spectacular, has its own treats for the avid hiker. With the exception of the trail, the canyon is undeveloped. Like Sabino, water flows year-round. Many hikers enjoy rock hopping back and forth across the stream as they follow the trail. Many find the bear Canyon trail a more natural riparian experience compared to the paved road in Sabino.

Sycamore trees, boulders, and water in Bear Canyon

The boulders, sycamore trees, and water make bear Canyon worth the trip. The coolest feature, however, is Seven Falls. About two and one half miles in from the mouth of the canyon (four miles from the parking lot), there is a fork in the trail. The fork that goes down to the left, will take you to an area of slickrock with waterfalls both above and below. While none of these seven waterfalls are particularly tall (the largest not more than about 20 feet), but they are all pleasing to the eye and ear. The water flows across the slick rock forming a number of small pools. The place is ideal for sunbathing, sitting quietly and listening to the mantra of the water, or if you are so inclined, climbing up the rock cliffs to the next fall. A note to parents: kids love this place, and opportunities to slide or fall off cliffs abound.

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Falls, pools, and slickrock at Seven Falls

The other fork in the trail, the one to the right, will take you further up the canyon eventually joining the trail that runs from the Prison Camp area to Upper Sabino and Hutch’s Pool. The upper part of the trail provides access to Thimble Peak, the distinctive and aptly named high point on the ridge that separates Sabino and Bear Canyons. Ambitious hikers and trail runners make a loop combining the trails of the two canyons.

To get to Bear Canyon, park at the Sabino Canyon recreation area parking lot (permit or fee required). Take the dirt path from the parking lot to the road, then the road to the bridge over Sabino Creek - the crossing of which will put you face-to-face with the trailhead for both the Phone Line and bear Canyon Trails. Soon after stepping on the trail, there will be a sign pointing to the left for the Phoneline Trail, and right for the Bear Canyon Trail. It will be about another mile to the actual mouth of Bear Canyon.

There is, for those who prefer, a road that parallels the trail for that one mile segment. I generally prefer taking the trail, having already done some pavement walking from the parking lot. In fact, on our last hike there I saw three white tailed deer foraging not far from the trail.

White Tail deer foraging near Bear Canyon Trail

The relatively low elevation makes Bear Canyon a good choice for winter hiking. Remember, however, that canyons such as Bear Canyon often active as drains for cold air in the higher elevations, making the bottom of the canyon somewhat cooler than the surrounding area. Summertime can be enjoyable to, as long as the water is flowing and peak high temperatures are avoided.

The traffic in both Bear and Sabino Canyons is substantial - they are just north of town. However, Bear Canyon is still an excellent choice for those who like to hike along a stream, and experience waterfalls, while avoiding long drives.

The mouth of Bear Canyon


Tilley Hats

by Jonathan Thursday, October 27th 2011

In the great Southwest, sunshine is one of our greatest natural resources. Here, hats are not an accessory, they are a necessity.

Over the years, I've collected a couple of dozen hats, but when I go afield or a float these days, I always grab a Tilley.

Backpacking in southern Arizona

My general purpose “go to” hat is the venerable LTM3. It's a lightweight nylon fabric hat with a medium brim and the ventilated crown. The brim also snaps up “Aussie-style”. This hat works anywhere, and for just about any occasion. The width of the brim is a good balance between sun protection and wind resistance. It is so light, I often forget that I am wearing it.

Climbing Weaver’s Needle in the Superstition Mountains

For those summer days when the cicadas are singing, and you can't see the horizon for the heat aberration, I pull out the trustee T2. This wide-brimmed hat is made from a breathable cotton duck. The “natural” color is actually an off white that does a good job of reflecting much of the sun's energy. Wearing this hat is like wearing a beach umbrella.

A hot day on the A.B. Young trail north of Sedona

Both of these hats, have a dark olive underbrim (to minimize reflected light), and they are washable. In fact, you can machine wash them on the gentle cycle. Tilley recommends washing them often, because it does prolong the life of the products, and in my opinion, makes them much more pleasant to wear. Sometimes, even the nylon fabric LTM three will shrink some; however, by hooking the hat on your knee, you can tug it back to a perfect fit.

Once I was sailing near the mouth of San Diego Bay. A wind gust came around point Loma, separated me from my LTM3, and overboard went the hat. This was a case of operator error, as the hat had retention cords both for the chin and the back of the head which I failed to employ. We gave up the search after about half an hour and turned back toward the bay. A few minutes later, we spotted it dead ahead, waterlogged but still afloat. It was still floating thanks to the layer of closed cell foam in the top of the crown–a feature immune to operator error.

Sailing out of San Diego Bay. Point Loma in the background

The features, the quality materials and manufacturing, make Tilley a superb line of products. As if that were not enough, the warrantee includes normal wear and tear. If your hat wears out, send it to the Tilley folks and they will replace it free of charge. Dude, that's awesome!

Try a Tilley hat. You will love it, and it may be the last hat you ever buy.


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!