A trip up the Sutherland Trail from Catalina State Park to the top of Mt. Lemmon is a challenging hike!
For starters, the word “trail” may not be an appropriate descriptor for the route. The first five miles are pretty easy to follow; a beautifully maintained trail leaves the parking spot at Catalina State Park, but after following a jeep road and power line for a while, the trail quickly deteriorates as it begins a steep climb up the flanks of Sutherland Ridge. The next 3.5 miles of trail are very challenging to stay on; often a bush whack route decorated with small rock cairns that are all too easy to miss in the heavy brush and among numerous rock outcrops.
Coral Bean blossoms
And then there’s the elevation gain: about 6,300 feet vertical from the trailhead at Catalina State Park to the parking spot on top of Mt. Lemmon. That’s a big climb! (Hike from the Colorado River to the North Rim and you knock off 5,800 feet, while the famed hike up Mt Whitney comes in at 6,100 feet.)
Exposed rock low in Cargodera Canyon
There are logistics to deal with too. This trip can be set up as a one-way, 11.5 mile hike, if a vehicle is available on top of Mount Lemmon when you finally stagger into the parking lot. Alternatively, you can make a big loop by hiking from the top of the Sutherland Trail to Romero Pass and then down Romero Canyon to the original trailhead. This reduces the elevation gain to a piddly 5,700 feet, but increases the distance to about 20.5 miles.
Jeep road and power line
The combination of big elevation gain and hard bushwhacking make this route challenging indeed, but the hike is also spectacular and satisfying. The low elevation Sonoran landscapes are lavish, and Cargodera Canyon may surprise you with a few quiet trickles of seasonal water. Once atop Sutherland Ridge, the hiker is presented with spectacular views of the big peaks of the Pusch Ridge and the headwaters of Romero Canyon. The “window” in Window Rock is clearly visible from many spots along the brushy and rocky spine. This area is seldom visited and feels extraordinarily wild and primitive, with lots of bear scat scattered along the way.
High on the Sutherland Ridge
Reach the trailhead (32.42553 N, 110.90828 W, WGS84) by following North Oracle Road (State Highway 77) north from Tucson towards Oro Valley. Turn right (east) into Catalina State Park about 6.3 miles past Ina Road. Signs guide the way to the trailhead parking lot near the end of the road.
The Sutherland trail heads north from the parking lot. After 0.8 mile, turn left (north) at a junction with the Canyon Loop Trail; 1.8 miles later turn right (east) at the intersection with a jeep road and power line. About 2.7 miles later, a metal sign marks the spot where the Sutherland Trail leaves the power line road and soon begins climbing up the side of Sutherland Ridge. The next 4 miles are a thrash, first gaining the ridge top, and then working up the ridge until reaching the Canada del Oro Trail where you turn right (east) and climb uphill to the junction with the Mt Lemmon Trail. Follow the Mt Lemmon Trail east for about 1.5 miles to the Mt Lemmon trailhead parking lot; or to complete the 20.5 mile loop down Romero Canyon, follow the Mt Lemmon trail west a few steps before turning south towards Romero Pass.
A Collared Lizard shows color in Romero Canyon
Season: Spring and fall. The high elevation section of this hike is subject to winter snow, which can limit vehicular access to the Mount Lemmon trailhead. The route has plenty of western and southern exposure, so it can be dangerously hot in the summer.
Water: Seasonal water can sometimes be found along the Sutherland Trail in Cargodera Canyon, and in Romero Canyon. Bring plenty of your own.
Difficulty: Very difficult. The one way trip from Catalina State Park to the Mount Lemmon trailhead parking is about 11 miles long with a whopping 6,300 foot elevation gain.
The alternate loop hike up the Sutherland Trail and down Romero Canyon is over 20 miles long and climbs 5,700 feet; a very long day of hard hiking.
The upper 4.5 miles of the Sutherland Trail is overgrown and difficult to follow. I suggest wearing long pants; shorts are not a good idea on the Sutherland Ridge. The likelihood of losing the trail is very high, so competency in cross country navigation is a must. A good map, with compass or GPS is recommended.
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