My favorite Sky Island trails are those that take you from prickly pear to pines. There are quite a few in the Santa Catalinas, Rincons, and Santa Ritas, but my dog likes Florida (flor-EE-dah) Canyon in the northern Santa Ritas.
Actually, she has done very little hiking in mountains other than the Santa Ritas. Much of the western Santa Catalina Mountains, and virtually all of the Rincon Mountains, are closed to dogs. To the best of my knowledge, the Santa Ritas are Fido friendly. The other factor favoring Florida Canyon is its proximity to Madera Canyon and the ever popular Old Baldy and Super Trail trails, which tend to draw people away from Florida.
Now, when Gita the Wonder Dog and I go afield, we are either leashed or unleashed depending on the activity. When hiking on established trails, we are leashed. I can offer a couple of good reasons.
The first is courtesy. Though it may seem strange to some, not all hikers are enamored by strange dogs charging down the trail at them, or bursting out of the underbrush, barking or not. On one trip, I encountered a mounted ranger who made a point of stopping and thanking me profusely for having the dog on a leash and stepping off the trail on the downhill side.
The second is bears. All the Sky Islands are home to bears. I recall telling my friend Donald that I was glad I had my Rottweiler on a leash when he smelled, then saw a bear about eighty yards up the hillside on the Baldy Trail. I told him that I try to foresee the worst possible outcome, and knew that had the dog charged the bear, the bear could have ended him with one swat of his paw. Donald said, “That’s not the the worst outcome.” “No?”, said I. Donald continued, “No, your dog could have engaged the bear, and realizing that he made a big mistake, come running back to you for safety with the bear in hot pursuit - and don’t forget, both the dog and the bear can run a lot faster than you can.” I contemplated this.
We saw no bears on a Thursday in mid-April when we made our first visit of the year to Florida Canyon. It was a beautiful day indeed, sunny, with temperatures in the 80’s and a light breeze. The dirt road ends at the Santa Rita Experimental Station. Parking and trailhead are on the left just before one enters the facility. A sign at the trailhead says the distance to the saddle is 4.7 miles. The trail skirts the facility on the left, then continues up the bottom of the canyon.
The beginning elevation is around 4200 feet, well above saguaros but you’ll still see prickly pear among the grasses. Soon the trail leads through scrub oaks and leaves the canyon bottom. The trail is well planned and constructed. Though steep, the long switchbacks make it far less so than the canyon sides. All the expansive views are back toward the desert floor, until the top of a ridge offers a great view of McCleary Peak.
The trail moves up into the pine trees. Our favorite part is a series of very long switchbacks under a tall canopy of pines. Alas, since the fire of 2005, it is not the same. While it is still a pine forest, there is no longer a canopy. The dark, cool quiet has been replaced by breezy patches of light and shadow. The trail that was once compacted dark earth surrounded by beds of pine needles is now lightly colored gravel surrounded by tall dead grass.
The dog and I reach Florida Saddle which is quite the trail hub. From it, the Crest Trail leads to Baldy Saddle and the Baldy and Super Trail trails. Down the other side, a trail goes to Cave Creek. There is even a trail that heads north to Sawmill Creek. The slope down the other side suffered much more fire damage than the one we just traveled. The charred, bare tree trunks looked like black bristles on a big brush. At about 7800 feet elevation, the air was cool and fresh, and we breathed deeply.
The descent back to the desert floor was abnormally pleasant. It was down hill all the way, but never so steep that I felt that jarring feeling. Back at the truck, the little dog had one last drink, then rested her head in my lap as we drove back to town.