For those unfamiliar with Mt. Wrightson it is the highpoint of the Santa Rita range standing at 9453'. It's located just south of Tucson and is one of SE Arizona's "sky islands". It is named after a mining superintendent who while surveying claims was killed by Apaches way back in 1865. Since there are a number of ways for hikers to reach the summit (via a network of trails) and I was going to do this trip with fellow HAZ hikers terricita10 and JW63 who like challenges, I did a little research to find the hardest route to the top. The hike I'm going to describe is definitely for sadistic hikers and I think one of the most strenuous non Grand Canyon trail hikes in the state. What makes this near 16 mile R/T so difficult is the 5100'+ elevation gain with a total accumulated gain of 5500'+!
The route we used on this trip was to hike up the lightly used Florida Canyon trail 4.7 miles to Florida Saddle, and then from the saddle we continued on the lightly used Santa Rita Crest trail 2.3 miles to the Baldy Saddle intersection, from there we continued 0.9 mile on up to the heavily visited summit. On a beautiful spring Sunday we encountered only 6 people and 2 dogs on the Florida Canyon trail, 2 people on the Crest and at least 20 on the Summit trail. Even though this is a difficult trip I do say that this entire route was in excellent shape, easy to follow and offers a good deal of shade after the first 2 or 3 miles. Since Florida Canyon is north facing then its possible if you get an early start in the morning during the summer you can beat the heat. Of course the last 2 to 3 miles will be hot on the return but they are downhill. For those of you who like wildflower hikes the word Florida in Spanish means flowered and this trail is supposed to have lots of flowers after a wet winter, we hiked this at the end of April and saw a good amount in the 1st mile or 2 but few after.
A neat thing about this hike, and is typical of these sky islands, is that you'll pass thru most of the Arizona life zones starting with the Lower Sonoran desert on the drive to the TH. To reach the signed Florida Canyon TH you'll have to drive to the Florida Work Station (a.k.a. Santa Rita Experimental Station) which is actually a research station operated by the University of Arizona, it's located in a riparian area at the base of the northern end of the Santa Rita's. This research station lays claim to being the oldest continuously run research area, dating back to 1903! The TH is located in a parking lot on your left at the end of the road and just in front of the gate to the research station.
Florida Canyon Trail
Shortly after departing from the trailhead you will come to some ruins (or junk) located along a fence line to your right, these could be from the mining days. I'm surprised that since these are next to the research station they haven't been cleaned up. This range had a lot of mining activity and according to my map there are many old mines scattered about this range that I'd like to check out someday. After passing the ruins you'll head in a southerly direction just on the east side of the main Florida Canyon drainage, passing the research station buildings that are on the opposite side of the drainage. You'll then go into the drainage for a very short time briefly crossing it twice before reaching the wilderness gate. Once thru the gate you'll gradually climb away from the main drainage up thru feeder drainage. As it turned out, to my surprise the start of this hike was the only time this hike would be IN the Florida Canyon drainage until we crossed the head of it much later on.
You'll hike up this tree lined riparian feeder until it's time to climb out and into Upper Sonoran Desert Grassland. You'll be climbing out on the eastern side of the ridge that separates the feeder from Florida Canyon. At this point the trail will get loose and gravelly and will be so for the next 2 miles. You'll encounter some switchbacks on this part, the 1st of many on this trip as you make your way up. This 2-mile stretch proved to be very painful to our knees on the long return back, bring the ibuprofen! You'll pass by an old water tank along the way that is not in operation but a short time later at 1.7 miles into the hike you'll come to another which appears to still be working. It is feed from a water pipeline that you will follow for the next 1-2 miles. There will be the 1st of many good camping spots after the 2nd water tank and from this area you'll get a great view up canyon to McCleary Peak, the headwall of Florida Canyon and the dense, healthy forest that awaits you at higher elevations. When you turn around and look you'll be able to see the Santa Catalina's (a.k.a. Mt. Lemmon) that are north of Tucson along with the town of Green Valley and the Santa Cruz Valley. A minor drawback to this hike turned out being the lack of prolonged panoramic mountain top views until you get to the Baldy Saddle area.
From the water tank you will continue hiking up in a southerly direction (which is the general direction this entire trip heads) passing an old mine site. Not much is left besides a cabin foundation and a piece of plate steel that probably covers a hole. If you look carefully in this area an overgrown trail goes off on your left and that leads to the old mine. Up to about the mine site you had been hiking in heavily vegetated desert grassland which consisted of a mixture of; mesquite, manzanita, oaks, pinyon, junipers, catclaw as well as prickly pear, ocotillo, soap tree yucca, agave, staghorn and hedgehog cactus plus many others I don't know the names of yet. Around the mine you'll have passed into the cooler Evergreen Woodland life zone that is also considered to be part of the Upper Sonoran zone. This level of the Upper Sonoran zone consists mainly of larger oaks, pinyon, junipers, and manzanita. Interestingly the Upper Sonoran zone classification consists of 5 levels of vegetation mix found around the state, not all will be found together. After the mine, the trail heads west briefly and switchbacks up onto another ridge, then it'll gradually ascend this ridge offering a closer view of McCleary Peak. This will last maybe a mile and will level off as you enter the Transition life zone that will consist mostly of Ponderosa pine but some Douglas Firs, Arizona and Apache Pines will be mixed in. Shortly after entering the pines the trail will soften up into dirt and pine needles and you'll then descend briefly to Florida Spring. The spring is dry and is the head of Florida Canyon, believe it or not. It doesn't appear what the head of a canyon should look like; more like a small drainage. There's a real nice campsite in this area and the pipe that you've been following on and off after 1st seeing it at the 2nd water tank disappears here. From here it's UP! You'll climb a bunch of big switchbacks over the course of a mile to Florida Saddle gaining about 1000' for a total of 3500' from the TH. It's not as bad as it sounds since this whole part is under a thick canopy of pines and some trees are REALLY old. If I recall correctly it was during this part of the hike that we entered the Canadian (Lower Boreal) life zone as Douglas Firs and Arizona Pines become more numerous. The forest at least to my eyes looks pretty healthy here with not much downfall except in a few small areas and the trees aren't growing to close to one another.
Santa Rita Crest
Once at the saddle you come to a major JCT. You'll want to head SW toward Armour Spring here. This saddle is another excellent campsite and would be pretty protected during a lightning storm. It's a short but aggressive climb after the saddle of maybe 400' in .3 miles to the signed Armour spring turnoff and another great campsite. We didn't check out the spring but supposedly it's your best chance of getting water prior to the springs beneath Baldy Saddle, but it is unreliable. From the signed turnoff it's .4 miles one way to the spring.
During the 2 mile hike to Baldy Saddle from the spring turnoff, you'll basically hike along the eastern sloped side of the backbone of the Santa Rita's gaining 1000'+. There will be no exposure along this stretch. Besides the pines there will be a good amount of some kind of shrubby bush I don't know the name of. You'll get occasional views of the ranges to the north and east that there will be a much better view of later from the top of Wrightson. The nearest ranges are: Whetstone, Rincon, Patagonia and Mustang, with a handful more in the distance. You'll pass thru a saddle about 1/2 way thru this leg that got burned in 1993 by a lightning caused fire with a bit of downfall to crawl over here. Rocky Mt. Ian at 9188' will be just above you to your south. This saddle must have been a good place to camp before the fire but I'd be reluctant to use it now since it's exposed. Here there will be a good view to the west and you can see Baboquivara Peak. After you pass thru the burn area you'll again be on the eastern side of the range and come to a point where you'll drop down 100'-150' and have to regain it back in no time but that is minor compared to the 375' drop down to 9040' Baldy Saddle which you'll come to shortly. Once you see Mt. Wrightson you'll begin the drop along a real rocky and bushy portion of trail to the saddle.
Baldy Saddle to Peak
Once in the saddle your almost there! It's less than a mile to the top with only 400'+ to climb back up. You'll run into people here who did it the "easy way" which still requires climbing 4000' from Madera Canyon. For info on the rest of the trip read other HAZ member trip reports on Wrightson via Old Baldy Trail. I'd personally like to ask if anyone finds any errors in my identification of plants/trees and/or life zones please send me a message, I'd like to know. - May 07 2004 whereveriroam