Residents of Oro Valley and the town of Catalina, north of Tucson, are very familiar with stately Samaniego Ridge, which drops off the top of Mt Lemmon and stretches north in a seemingly straight line for over 8 miles before dying out beyond Charouleau Gap. The highpoint on the ridge is a prominent craggy rock outcrop – Samaniego Peak.
The Samaniego Ridge Trail runs north down the ridge from Mt Lemmon past the peak and then down into Charouleau Gap. However, the trail was hammered by the 2003 Aspen Fire and in the fire’s aftermath the trail bed was littered with fallen timber, overgrown with nasty brush, and quickly fell into disuse.
Heading towards Samaniego Ridge
In the past few years, things began looking up for the old trail. First, the Forest Service did some work on higher elevation portions, and then volunteer work groups of mountain bikers put considerable effort into cleaning up long sections of the trail on the main ridge. There are still many sketchy sections of trail to deal with, but trips out to Samaniego Peak from the top of Mt Lemmon are once again reasonably pleasant for fit and able hikers.
On our trip to Samaniego, we followed the trail to Walnut Spring, located 0.3 miles due east of Samaniego Peak. Although Walnut Spring goes dry most years, it is surprising how often it shows water given the small watershed that feeds it.
Walnut Spring shows water in April, 2011
Once in the general vicinity of Walnut Spring, it’s time to leave the trail and bushwhack! The final push to the top of Samaniego Peak involves moving through dense brush among white granite slabs and boulders. It’s worth the effort though; the top of Samaniego Peak is surprisingly dramatic, featuring a rather small granite summit block and steep cliffs dropping off towards Oro Valley. You’ll enjoy unusual and splendid views in all directions: Oro Valley, Canada del Oro, Reef of Rock, Pusch Ridge, and Mule Ears.
Reach the trailhead (32.44036 N, 110.7858 W, WGS84) by following the Catalina Highway from the Tucson valley towards the small settlement of Summerhaven. Just short of Summerhaven, turn right (west) onto “Ski Run Rd”. Continue on Ski Run Road past the ski facility through a gate (often closed during winter months), and on up the narrow winding road to trailhead parking lot near the top of Mt Lemmon.
Samaniego’s diminutive summit block
The Mt. Lemmon Trail #5 leaves the west side of the parking lot right next to a fenced electrical facility, crosses a dirt road and then joins an old jeep trail heading west along the broad summit ridge. Follow the Mt. Lemmon trail west for about 1.6 miles to a signed junction and turn north onto the Sutherland Trail which in turn leads to a junction with the Samaniego Ridge Trail. Leave the Samaniego Ridge Trail in the general vicinity of Walnut Spring for the bushwhack to the summit blocks.
Season: Spring and fall. The trailhead is closed to vehicular access for some of the winter, and snow can obscure higher elevation sections of the route. In spite of 7000’+ elevations, this hike gets very hot on the exposed Samaniego Ridge during summer days.
Water: Water is intermittently available at Walnut Spring and just off route at Shovel Spring, perhaps 6 to 9 months out of the year. Bring plenty of your own, and treat any water you might collect.
Difficulty: Moderately difficult. About 11.5 to 12.5 miles round trip with a 1,700’+ elevation drop and then gain on the return trip. The trail is sketchy in a few places, and the scramble off trail to the summit of Samaniego Peak involves some pretty thick bushwhacking. Take care among the summit blocks; there are many steep drop offs.
Notes: This is a Forest Service fee area. This area was impacted by the 2003 Aspen Fire.