The Butterfly Trail

An hour’s drive or so out of Tucson near the top of Mt Lemmon, the Butterfly Trail has long been a popular hike. Is the Butterfly Trail nice? Well, here are quotes from the National Forest web page about the trail:

“This is a delightful trail that passes through an area of such diverse biology that part of it has been designated a Research Natural Area. … You’ll be hard pressed to find a more enjoyable outdoor classroom than this. … Along the trailside, a variety of trees are mixed and matched in diverse communities that include ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir and southwestern white pine in the high, cool areas; Arizona madrone, box elder and bigtooth maple in the more moderate areas; and alligator juniper, various species of oak and yuccas in drier, more exposed areas. Moist ravines are decorated with columbine and butterfly weed, while south facing slopes provide an appropriate habitat for prickly pear and hedgehog cactus. … Views along this trail are as diverse as the biology …”

“Diverse biology” along the Butterfly Trail

Yep, the Butterfly Trail is surely nice. I love how quiet it is along the Butterfly, and since the trail is on higher, north facing slopes, this trip is a good choice during the warm months of the year.

An unusual attraction along the trail is the wreckage of an F-86 fighter jet that crashed in 1957, in the canyon bottom upstream from Novio Falls. The Butterfly Trail enters this canyon from the west just above Novio falls, and leaves the canyon bottom a quarter of mile upstream as it begins to climb towards Mt Bigelow. Just as the Butterfly leaves the canyon bottom towards Bigelow, a beat-in hiker’s path leaves the trail, heading up-canyon another tenth of a mile to the crash site. (This junction is at approximately 32.42549 N, 110.71816 W, WGS84.)

F-86 Wreckage

There are many ways to construct an enjoyable hike along the Butterfly, depending upon how ambitious and fit you are feeling. Two trailheads just off the Mt Lemmon Highway serve the trail: one across the road from the Palisade Ranger Station and the second near Soldier Camp.

One of the easiest ways to enjoy the area is to walk the Butterfly for about a mile and a quarter from the Soldier Camp trailhead and then return the way you came.

Or, arrange to have two cars, one parked at each trailhead, and you can hike the trail 5.7 miles end to end. Hiking from Soldier Camp to Palisade is the hardest direction to go, with 1,920 feet of elevation gain, compared to about 1,280 feet of gain when you travel in the opposite direction.

An in-and-out hike from one trailhead to the other and then back again, is about 11.5 miles. I have also created a nine mile loop by walking dirt Forest Service roads that snake from Mt Bigelow down towards Soldier Camp (this requires walking a half mile beside the Mt Lemmon Highway to close the loop).

Hikers climb towards Mt Bigelow

From Tucson, drive the Mt Lemmon Highway towards the little town of Summerhaven. The first of the two trailheads for the Butterfly Trail is at the Palisade Ranger Station (32.41105 N, 110.71525 W, WGS84), and the second is further up the Mt Lemmon Highway at a trailhead parking lot in the Soldiers Camp area (32.42736 N, 110.7408 W, WGS84).

Season: Spring, summer and fall. Snow obscures many sections of the trail during winter cold spells. This hike can be warm in the lower elevation portion.

Water: As always, bring plenty of your own. Water is usually present near Novio Falls, though the flow can slow or cease in the driest months of the year. If you do collect water, purification is recommended before using.

Difficulty: From easy, to moderate, to hard; depending on how you plan the hike. Popular choices include an easy in-and-out trip from the Soldiers Camp trailhead, for a 2.5 mile round trip with a 500 foot elevation gain; a 5.7 mile end-to-end trip; or an 11+ mile back and forth trip with a 3,200 foot elevation gain.

Notes: This is a Forest Service fee area.

Maps: Rainbow Expeditions Santa Catalina Mountains, Green Trails Maps Santa Catalina Mountains, or National Geographic Arizona digital map software.

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