Established in 1984, the Rincon Mountain Wilderness provides a protective buffer on three sides of Saguaro National Park East in southern Arizona. With few trails and often remote access points, this wilderness area is rugged, steep and blissfully neglected. One of the few trails in the wilderness area climbs the broad southern flanks of Rincon Peak to Aliso Spring , perched in a remote canyon bottom among pinion and juniper trees. This is a nice area to tramp about, with interesting countryside and fine vistas.
Rincon Mountain Wilderness along the southwestern slopes of Rincon Peak
The Aliso Spring Trail was most certainly established by cattlemen who installed steel and concrete tanks near the spring to provide water for their bovine charges. (During a visit to Aliso in March 2010, the water system was in disrepair and all tanks were dry even though the spring showed plenty of water.)
Steel tank near Aliso Spring
References to the Aliso Spring Trail are hard to come by, appearing on very few recreation maps of the area. I learned of the trail thanks to the Rainbow Expeditions “Rincon Mountains” map, last published in 1994. It has been decades since the trail may have received maintenance; it is overgrown with brush and is especially tough to follow in the upper reaches. Helpfully, much of the route parallels a fence line, but we failed to find any sign of the final section of trail and bushwhacked the last half mile or so to the spring. This often feels like a cross country hike, so bring a map and compass or GPS, and be prepared for off-trail navigation.
A little over half a mile south of Aliso Spring and far from any trail maintained or otherwise, the wreckage of a World War II bomber is scattered several hundred yards along the flanks of a lonely, remote ridge (at approximately 32.08216 N, 110.55523 W, WGS84). The ill-fated A-20 Havoc careened into the mountainside on a stormy summer day in 1945. Reaching this crash site involves full-on rugged, brushy cross-country travel.
A-20 Havoc bomber plane wreckage
Find the trailhead by driving to the junction of Old Spanish Trail and Pistol Hill Road southeast of Tucson. Turn north on Pistol Hill Road (unpaved), drive 1.4 miles and turn right (east) onto an unmarked dirt road. Now drive east for about 1 mile to a fork in the road; bear left (east) onto the less traveled of the two forks, and drive about 0.7 miles and park near corrals. A high clearance vehicle is desirable for this final 0.7 mile segment.
Step through a gate on the far side of the corrals and walk east on a jeep road for about 1.4 miles to the windmill and steel tank at Papago Spring. From Papago Spring, first a jeep road and then a sketchy trail climbs hillsides to the southeast for 0.4 miles to a prominent saddle on a long ridge. At the saddle step through a gate to the east side of a fence line. For the next 1.7 miles the trail closely parallels this fence as it follows a long ridge northeast towards the Rincon high country. It is easy to lose the trail in this section, but by staying near the fence, it can usually be picked up again in short order. Unable to find an obvious trail heading towards Aliso, we left the fence at some rock cairns piled up near the 5,480′ elevation contour (approximately 32.09081 N, 110.55762 W, WGS84), and struck out cross country in an easterly direction to Aliso Spring and the cattle tanks.
The faint fence-line trail climbs a long ridge.
Season: Fall, winter and spring. These south-facing slopes of Rincon Peak can get hot.
Water: Water might be found at Papago Spring with its windmill, and Aliso Spring shows seasonal water as well. However, as always, bring plenty of your own water in case these and other sources are dry.
Difficulty: Difficult. The one way trip to Aliso Spring from the corrals is about 5 miles and involves roughly 2,100′ of elevation gain. The trail described here is often faint and hard to follow, and near the end pretty much disappears altogether. So, this is more a wilderness route than a trail walk. Map, compass or GPS, and cross-country route finding skills are needed.
Note: The hike as described is all on Forest Service property. Reaching the trailhead however, requires passage across State Trust Land. At the turn off of Pistol Hill Road, a sign states: “State Trust Land … Enter only with valid lease or permit … No Trespassing”. Information about obtaining State Trust Land permits can be found here.