I don't think I would have picked Buster Mountain out of the Santa Catalina skyline as a hiking destination without the help of "The Santa Catalina Mountains: A Guide to the Trails and Routes" by Pete Cowgill and Eber Glendening (this guide has been out of print for years, but it is a great resource and we try to keep a copy on our map table!). The summit of Buster Mountain has great views of Alamo Canyon, Table Mountain and other formations including Leviathan Dome. There are no maintained trails to the Buster Mountain summit, but the Cowgill and Glendening guide (in the description for Buster Spring) gives a brief description of an old horse trail that can be used to get to the Buster Mountain/Buster Spring area. For this trip I used the Cowgill and Glendening description - but I decided to loop back to the parking area via Montrose Canyon (rather than the Alamo Canyon route described in the guide).
The parking area for this hike is the last parking area on the main road in Catalina State Park (this is the parking for several trails including the Romero Canyon Trail) - entry into Catalina State Park currently costs $7 per vehicle with 1-4 adults (check the website for the current cost). From the parking lot cross the road to a well signed trail head and take the trail across the Sutherland Wash. Just after crossing the wash there is a signed junction - take a right onto the Birding Trail. After a few minutes bear left at the Birding Trail loop and cross Montrose Canyon. Just after passing Montrose canyon a faint trail starts on the left - take this trail.
The Trail Up
The route to Buster Mountain with the summit in the background.
The trail just beyond Montrose Canyon is - I believe - the horse trail mentioned in the Cowgill and Glendening guide. From here I lost and found the trail MANY times. But losing the trail is not too much of a concern - Buster Mountain is easy to locate on the skyline, navigation is reasonably easy and the terrain is somewhat forgiving - getting off trail might slow you down, but it should not be a major obstacle to getting to the summit!
An old National Forest Boundary sign - I think it means I was on the trail at this point...
At just under 3 miles I reached the summit - from the summit there are great views of Leviathan Dome and the upper reaches of Alamo Canyon. This is a nice spot to relax - and perhaps to find a camp site for a night...
Leviathan Dome and Alamo Canyon from the summit of Buster Mountain
After leaving Buster Mountain I headed downhill and contoured over to Buster Spring. The tank was still holding water, but it was low and the canyon near the spring was quite dry.
Buster Spring Tank
The Canyon Down
After visiting the spring I headed down canyon towards Montrose Canyon. Travel in the canyon alternates between working thru thick brush, easy walking on exposed rock and scrambling down cliffs and falls. The canyon bottom was fairly dry on this trip and that made the scrambling easier - with some water flow I can imagine having to bypass the canyon bottom (or rappel) in a couple of spots. Just a bit before mile 5 I entered Montrose canyon. Montrose is a beautiful and rugged canyon - this section is sometimes accessed by hiking up the Romero Canyon Trail and then going off-trail and dropping into Montrose Canyon when the trail/terrain allow. It is possible to travel down this section of Montrose by scrambling and finding paths up, out and around the obstacles - but for this trip I brought 100' of rope so I could stay in the canyon bottom.
Obstacle 1 - At just past mile 5 a large boulder blocks the canyon.
Obstacle 2: A rappel or scramble above several pools. The last pool is pictured above - even with the canyon fairly dry these pools were quite deep!
The last obstacle in this section of canyon is a small cliff band overlooking a pool. There are a number of ways to continue past the obstacle - on this trip I chose a short rappel. Below this point Montrose Canyon has many more visitors and you will begin to see fire rings and small side trails.
The pool below the last obstacle.
From here continue down canyon - my favorite exit is to hike up to a park bench on the right side of the canyon (the bench is both an easy marker of where to exit and a welcome excuse to sit for a minute). This bench is on the on the Montrose Pools trail and from here it is an easy walk back to the parking area. Your mileage at the end of this hike will be approximately 7.6 miles!
Shoes after a few miles of canyon hiking.
This hike is a great journey up to a great summit, over to an interesting spring and down a beautiful canyon! As always, be very careful when hiking off-trail in the Santa Catalina mountains.