CATALINA STATE PARK, Part 2—Beyond its boundaries


Early morning at Catalina

You don’t need to go far beyond the park’s boundaries to discover more recreational possibilities with views to entice. Scoring big points with us is the fantastic dedicated biking trails that can be accessed just outside the park’s entrance. Wide, paved trails will take you in many directions—connecting with shopping areas (Super Walmart a mere 10-minute ride away), small cafes and grocery stores, residential neighborhoods, the county library or natural areas and community parks. Something for all types of bikers.

A mountain backdrop added more to the trail’s appeal.

A mountain backdrop added more to the trail’s appeal.

Mike and Barbie’s knowledge of hiking destinations off the well-known, popular paths took us to a jewel of a trail not far from Catalina. A trailhead parking area sized only for a handful of cars indicated that perhaps we’d have an intimate, wilderness experience here. The setting struck the proverbial high note straight from our first sight.


Within the boundaries of BLM land, the trail runs up to Pusch Ridge on the northwest end of the Catalina Mountains. Arguably the most beautiful section of this mountain range, Pusch Ridge would be a towering presence above us throughout the entire loop trail.


Climbing a few hundred feet in elevation over a rocky, boulder-strewn trail, it was difficult to manage your footing while the views called for your attention. Sometimes hiking is as much about soaking up the environment as it is covering the length of the trail. Taking many pauses are part of the experience.


The trail was a delight and all to soon it ended. But somewhere back there on the trail I had made a pact with myself—I would be returning to this special place, another day, in the late afternoon light, when long shadows would accentuate textures and low-angle light would saturate the color. I saw more potential here.


Although foreign to what I grew up seeing in Midwest landscapes, the beauty of a desert setting had begun to work its magic on me. I found it easy responding to its colors, textures and contrasts. Photographic opportunities abounded.


But Mike and Barbie weren’t finished leading us on trail excursions yet—not by a long shot!

I knew about Sabino Canyon from my research. I knew it was a popular destination for visitors coming to the Tucson area as well as for locals who know that one visit here is not enough. This place is simply one of the most scenic spots in the foothills of the Catalinas.


A road winds up through Sabino Canyon for nearly 4 miles, crossing Sabino Creek many times. Built by the CCC during the Great Depression, it had been planned to build a road all the way to the summit of Mount Lemmon. More difficult than they thought, their road made it only to mile four. Nevertheless, its construction made visiting the canyon a possibility, and soon afterwards, cars full of tourists began arriving.


Too narrow to allow the bigger cars of the 1950s and 60s to pass safely and negotiate sharp curves and several bridge abutments, in 1978 trams began operating through the canyon. Still today, narrated rides carry visitors to the end of the road, where they can choose to disembark and walk back down, or simply return on the tram. Another option is to head up a steep trail to near the ridge of the canyon wall and follow a dirt path back down through the canyon. Called the Phoneline Trail, it is longer than the road and has a totally different perspective. Chris was eager to take that option, but 3 votes to 1, he was overruled in favor of walking back through the canyon. And that was where these photos were taken. It was a magnificent option.


The rugged backdrop of Thimble Peak is a prevailing landmark rising behind those who choose to walk back down the road.

The canyon is a rare place in the surrounding area. Besides being in a defensible location, it is a rare place that has nearly a year-round supply of water. Consequently, ancient peoples have lived here for millennia. More recently, it was the Hohokam native people who inhabited the canyon, the peak of their culture occurring around 1100 A.D.  Evidence of dams they built to catch rainwater and soil have been discovered by archaeologists. Today, the sparkling waters of Sabino Creek bring an additional attraction to the uniqueness of this place.

5x-SW-3137Rugged rock walls rise high above, while saguaro cacti sprout profusely along the canyon’s slopes. The scenery seems to change with each turn in the road, and the landscape is never monotonous.



Sabino Creek begins 6,000 feet above the desert floor, in the pine forest on the slopes of Mt. Lemmon. It winds its way 10 miles through the mountain canyons before reaching the desert, where its water eventually sinks into the ground.



The creek  presented a few road overflows that required a little wading.  Ooooooo, but it was frigid!





Sabino Creek flows between 9 to 12 months of the year, making it unique in the Tucson area. The canyon supports riparian areas that have cottonwoods, willow, walnut, sycamore and ash trees, thanks to its water supply. Those trees stand in contrast to the foothill plants that include mesquite, palo verde, brittlebush, saguaro and many other cacti.



As the afternoon waned, we were coming to the home stretch. Our trek nearly over, Barbie encouraged us to make a slight detour in order to take in one last uncommon sight. From previous visits, she and Mike had come across a rare Crested Saguaro. We added more mileage to our day, but the effort proved worthwhile. How many of you have ever come across this unique plant?

Saguaro cacti rarely grow perfectly symmetrical, but sometimes they take 5x-SW-3216on a very different appearance. The growing tip can produce a fan-like form which is referred to as crested or cristate. They are somewhat rare and biologists disagree as to why some saguaros grow in this manner . . . is it a genetic mutation? The result of a lightning strike? Maybe freeze damage?



The sun was telling us our day was done. Dropping low to the horizon, the warm day now had a chill in the air. But one glance back from whence we came—that wondrous canyon was darkening. A look up on those high canyon walls cloaked with saguaros gave me my evening’s reward. One last parting shot.


Take it from me (and I think Chris would agree), we were getting a great introduction to the potential of a Southwest desert. We were seeing it in its very best light. And still, there is more to come . . . all testament to our very full days.

Maybe these photos can illustrate how good a desert can be . . .




Hiking the Sonoran Desert
(and loving it!)

Airstream Travelers,

Chris and Melinda



About AirstreamTravelers

A 2016 Pendleton Airstream suits our lifestyle perfectly. It's a commemorative edition celebrating the 100th anniversary of our national parks. In our efforts to see as many of those parks as we can, the two of us are now spending several months each year on the road. We hope our posts and accompanying photos give a vivid description of where we travel, illustrating to our followers what's out there, just over the next horizon.
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4 Responses to CATALINA STATE PARK, Part 2—Beyond its boundaries

  1. says:

    Tucson is great because the desert is so close to the city. I have hiked some of those same tails just be adding a day onto a deposition trip. It’s a whole different world in the Summer. I love the area near La Quinta, since it is blessed with the date plantations, artichokes, avacatos and lots of really unique truck farms, but that is more of a Springtime trip. Still no snow here. We have had no snow cover all month. Makes it really pleasant to walk the Indiana woods. Brian and I are planning a camping trip with Griffin.

    • Someday we’ll need to check out La Quinta. Your photos have always looked interesting! So where will you and Brian be camping? New Orleans sounds perfect for spring break! Thanks for sharing your memories of Tucson. Wreath is now gone, but we didn’t have the only Christmas decors in the campground!

  2. says:

    And I thought I had good photos of Linda Vista and Sabino. Wow! The time you take getting things just right is well worth it. And you got that starburst perfectly. You said you were envious of some shots I got at the Desert Museum. Well, it’s more than triple that for me with what you’ve got here. Mike

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