When researching the Sutherland Trail in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, I found very few triplogs from hikers. And the ones I found said that it went through some really beautiful areas, but that it was a tough, brushy, steep, sometimes hard-to-find 12 miles and 6300 feet of elevation gain to get from Catalina State Park to the parking area at the top of Mount Lemmon. Naturally, I was intrigued.
At an Arizona Trail Association meeting in February, I was talking to Rachael Hohl who works with the Forest Service. I asked her what trails were scheduled for maintenance this spring and she said the Sutherland and Samaniego Ridge Trails. I was excited to hear that they were going to be fixed. I recently called Rachael to get an update and she said that crews had gotten all but 1 1/2 miles done on the Sutherland Trail, and that the part they hadn't done was flagged. (Work is still being done on the Samaniego Ridge Trail, I can't remember how many miles they have left to go.) I contacted some of my Crazies trailbuilding crew that I volunteer with, and we decided to take advantage of the lower temps forecast for the middle of the week.
One of my favorite parts of the Catalinas is that you can drive up to the top and hike downhill. You start your hike in the pines at 9000ft, going through six different life zones, each with their own type of vegetation, until you come to the Sonoran Desert at the base. We dropped a car off at Catalina State Park and drove up to the parking area at the top of Mt. Lemmon. There were little patches of snow remaining at the highest elevations. We took the Mount Lemmon Trail (an old roadbed) downhill past some fantastic rock formations. There are great views along the upper ridgelines, partly because in 2003, the Aspen Fire burned 84,000 acres of the Catalinas. To some, the scorched stumps of trees might look unsightly, but personally I welcome the views that are a result of the burn. At a junction with a big, metal Arizona Trail sign, we took the Samaniego Ridge Trail a short distance to the junction with the Sutherland Trail.
The views just got better and better as we hiked steeply down a ridge, following flagging and cairns in the upper mile and a half of trail that the trail crews had not gotten to yet. There were a number of downed trees, not surprising given the strong windstorms that we had this winter.
The mile and a half went pretty quickly, and soon we were walking on just-maintained trail that had been re-benched. Much thanks goes out to the trail crew, because we could see all the brush and deadfall that they had to hack through to clear up this trail. When we stopped for a break at a particularly scenic spot, we were amazed at how far we could see in almost every direction. The Superstition Ridgeline and Four Peaks, near Phoenix, were clearly visible. Amazingly enough, I could even pick out the spire of the Weaver's Needle- a volcanic spire that I hiked past on the first segment of the Grand Enchantment Trail. Also visible along the trail was The Window, a natural arch in the front range of the Catalinas. In general, views on the Sutherland were great because it uses the ridge rather than the canyon to travel downhill.
Once we were on the trail that had been worked on, the going was easier. We stayed in the tree cover for quite a while-there were lots of large pines and madrone trees on this part of the mountain that had escaped the fire of 2003. We crossed several drainages with running water and light pink flowering locust trees, and then came to an old metal sign.
The trail now followed a 4WD road that steeply lost elevation and we took a break for some shade and a snack at a very lovely spot with a great running stream and rocks to sit on. I would like to come back here to camp sometime. I would have rather done this hike as an overnighter, but my husband Brian asked me to take a month off of backpacking because he was tired of being left home alone all the time. So a long dayhike it is. I understand his position, but that doesn't mean that I am not counting the days till I am able to backpack again...
Eventually, at 4500 ft., the trail met up with some powerlines that we had seen earlier in the day, way up at 7700 ft. The road was rocky and steep and hard on the feet and knees, especially since we had already dropped 4500 ft. in elevation. I was happy that I had brought an elastic knee brace, because it alleviated the strain on my left knee, which began to ache around the middle of the hike. There were many wildflowers, and the ocotillo were still blooming at this elevation. The area started to look familiar as we descended toward the Baby Jesus Trail intersection.
I could see the Baby Jesus Ridge stretching out to the north- it is a beautiful stretch of trail with large rock outcroppings and giant forests of saguaros that I hiked in the fall. I was happy that there was only one short stretch of road left before we were back on singletrack toward Catalina State Park. We crossed Cargodera Canyon again before we headed into the park. I was really surprised at how much water there still was in the middle of May.
The singletrack was a definite relief after the stretch of rocky road. Once in Catalina State Park, the trail wove in and out of blooming cactus. My hiking companions were moving fast to get back to the car, as there was still a lot of driving to do at the end of the day to retrieve the car on top of the mountain. The trail was super-easy compared to what we'd been through all day, so the time flew by. There was water in every wash crossing all the way back to the parking lot. We kept waiting to run into the crowds that frequent the park, but amazingly made it all the way back without seeing a single soul for the whole eight hours, 12 miles, and over 6000 feet of elevation loss.
I was excited about finally having seen the Sutherland Trail. It was really scenic, and all the running water was a treat. It's always so interesting to hike through all the different types of vegetation in one day. After driving back to the base of the mountain to retrieve my car, I topped off a great day with a visit to El Charro for dinner.
This triplog also appears on my blog, with pictures of animals from my Wildlife Rehab Fundraiser: http://desertsirena.wordpress.com/2010/ ... and-trail/