Sweetwater Trail

by Dave Baker Thursday, January 6th 2011

One of the four mountain ranges that cradle the Tucson valley, the Tucson Mountains are home to Saguaro National Park West and the world renowned Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The range is a showpiece for the Sonoran Desert and its exotic ecosystem of desert-adapted plants and animals.

Wasson Peak from the Sweetwater Trail

Wasson Peak and the Sweetwater Trail

The Tucson Mountains are relatively low elevation and therefore blistering hot in the summer as well as in early fall and late spring, so winter is the best time to take advantage of the Park’s trail network and enjoy the unique scenery and landscapes. The range is a very popular hiking destination during winter months, attracting out of town visitors as well as locals.

Located on the east side of the range, the Sweetwater Trail is very easy to access from the Tucson metro area. The trail ends after 3.2 miles, when it joins the King Canyon Trail at a high saddle on the crest of the range. From the saddle many hikers choose to walk the additional 1.2 miles up the King Canyon Trail to the high point of the Tucson Mountains -- Wasson Peak. The 360 degree panorama at the top of Wasson makes the extra effort well worthwhile.

Saguaro and Barrel cactus

Young saguaro and barrel cactus

The Sweetwater Trail presents a great display of Saguaro cactus, the Sonoran Desert’s signature plant species. You’ll also see many specimens of Ironwood trees and Jojoba plants. Easy to access, wonderful views, and a fine experience of the ecology of the Sonoran desert -- sorry for taking advantage of too-obvious play on words, but this is a sweet hike!

Sweetwater Trail

Sweetwater Trail

Find the trailhead by exiting I-10 at the Ruthrauff exit. West of I-10, Ruthrauff becomes El Camino Del Cerro which is simply followed west to the end of the road, and trailhead parking. A hundred yards or so up the trail a junction is reached – the left (south) fork is the Sweetwater Trail. The trail weaves its way south for a while, up and down across a few drainages, before finally swinging west and settling into a steady uphill climb to a prominent saddle and the junction with the King Canyon Trail.

Wasson Peak

Approaching Wasson Peak summit on upper King Canyon Trail

Season: Fall, winter and spring. The Tucson Mountains are low elevation and very, very hot during summer months, late spring and in early fall. This hike is most enjoyable on cool winter days.

Water: None: bring plenty of your own.

Note: Dogs and pets are not permitted on this trail. Though fees are not collected at the trailhead, Saguaro National Park is a fee area.

Difficulty: The trip to trail’s end at the saddle is 3.2 miles one way with a 1,100 elevation gain. Those who continue to Wasson Peak will walk 4.4 miles one way and take on 1,900 feet in elevation gain. Moderately difficult.

Maps: Green Trails Maps Saguaro National Park

Map

Click map for larger image

Trails

Comments (3) -

3/6/2011 11:10:37 AM #

We hiked the Sweetwater Trail yesterday (March 6, 2011). Unfortunately, because of the lack of rain, the desert is very dry. During the entire hike, we saw one flower, a globe mallow. We connected up with the King Canyon Trail and went to the top of Wasson Peak. It's a wonderful hike.

Betty Leavengood

5/11/2011 1:01:46 PM #

I ascended to the summit via this trail on the beautiful cool day of May 10, 2011. It was forecast to be partly cloudy with a high of 74. This was so unusual and unexpected that I called in 'under the weather' and made my way out Camino Del Cerro to the trailhead. There were only 2 other cars in the lot, and I didn't see a single person on the mountain all day. It was an amazingly delightful experience, with Saguaro blossoms blooming along with Ocotillo buds and a variety of other cacti.

I welcomed each and every cloud that covered the intense sun and brought a welcome coolness to the air. I was wearing my new Sunday Afternoon hat ($35 at the Summit Hut)and highly recommend it. The second half of the climb from King's Canyon saddle is always strenuous, but the coolness of the day made conditions considerably easier. I reached the summit in about 2.5 hours and 4.7 miles of moderate climbing.

The winds blew gusty and strong on the peak. I could see dust devils in the valley below sweeping in from the north near Eloy and Picacho Peak. To my surprise, these carried a small amount of rains. I could see the virga falling on the valley below. To my surprise and delight, these stormclouds moved towards me, and soon it was raining lightly.

Rain in May. And I was somewhat chilled, even wearing long sleeve shirts and pants. I was standing in brisk winds at almost 5000 feet, but still, wow!

I jumped up and down doing a rain dance as much to keep warm as to express my total delight and enthusiasm for the opportunity to be here now, with absolutely noone else on the mountain. I could smell the pungent creosote (Sarcobatus vermiculatus)in the air as it released it's familiar summer monsoon scent. I breathed deeply and celebrated the amazing rarity of this climatological event.

I've climbed this mountain at least a dozen times from every trailhead and love this approach. I usually go with friends, but this solo hike was very special and rewarding. Note that the trail condition leaves much to be desired, especially during the descent, where the loose rock and sinuous turns of the trail pound the feet. I was glad I brought my hiking poles and was wearing my new thick Smartwool expedition socks ($20).

Highly recommended, especially on a weekday when you can have the whole mountain to yourself, even more so if blessed by puffy clouds that will baptize you with the first rains of the season.

Geo Melville

5/11/2011 1:10:08 PM #

Thank you Geo!

--Dave

dave

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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!

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