In Northwest Tucson, where I live, the Catalina Mountains look a little differently than when viewed from central Tucson. The most prominent feature from my view is a long ridge sweeping north with several rocky points atop it- Samaniego Ridge. I hike often in the Catalina/Golder Ranch area and the Samaniego Ridge Trail looms tantalizingly above. Unfortunately for the Ridge Trail, it was badly burnt in 2003 and for the most part, the trail was abandoned because of fire damage and nasty, spiky growth that has proliferated since the burn. This spring, I heard of Forest Service crews working up from Charouleau Gap, at the Samaniego Ridge Trail's northern terminus, but nothing had been done to the upper part.
In June, I was reading one of my favorite blogs by a fellow Arizona Trail/Grand Enchantment Trail enthusiast, The Diary of Scott Morris http://www.topofusion.com/diary/
, and I saw that he and his friend had ridden the Samaniego Ridge Trail in a 12-hour mountain biking epic feat of endurance that left them both exhausted and scratched. Here's a quote: "A small uphill chute, still clogged with vegetation and steep, seemed our only option. We fought back to the bikes. Louis sat on bushes while I handed him my bike, which he'd move past the bush. I would then hand him his, then pass myself, before we'd move onto the next section. I was happy to not be trying to get through here solo." This and the pictures convinced me that I should probably hold off on the Samaniego Ridge Trail for the time being. Bummer.
But then, this fall, something wonderful happened- some mountain bikers, including Scott and Louis, came together for several trail work events to reclaim the trail from the nasty briars, deadfall, and New Mexico Locust. Some bikepacked in and spent the weekend clearing brush, while others rode out to the work site, spent the day, and rode out the north end. All of these work events culminated with Scott and Chad Brown's 14-hour, 80 mile Samaniego Epic ride earlier this month where they first rode up Mount Lemmon (mostly on singletrack!), tackled the Samaniego Ridge Trail, then looped back around to their starting point. Speed like that makes my head dizzy, which is one of the reasons I enjoy Scott's blog so much. He does things that I could never imagine myself doing. For example, in 2005 he raced the Arizona Trail solo in just 7 days, even taking apart his bike and carrying it through the canyon!
So, even though I could see from the pictures that the trail was far from pristine, I knew that there had been a fair amount of trailwork and traffic through there. After e-mailing Scott and getting his GPS track and asking him a few questions about the route, I asked Laddie Cox, one of the guys on my Crazies trail crew, for a shuttle up the mountain.
Laddie was at my door at 5 am on November 17, and we talked about the Arizona Trail on the way up the mountain. In addition to being on the Crazies trail crew, he is also the leader of the Hit-and-Run crew, which goes into the more remote and damaged parts of the AZT. He finished the Arizona Trail when he was over 70 years old! An incredible guy, I feel lucky to know him. We reached the very chilly top of the mountain at 9100 ft. and I was bundled up and ready to go by 6:45 am.
I hiked out on the Mount Lemmon Trail just as the horizon started to glow orange. I took the Meadow Trail at the junction, then connected back with the Mount Lemmon Trail for a short distance before reaching the Sutherland Trail junction. This junction is currently signed as the Arizona Trail, but most hikers use the Wilderness of Rock over to Summerhaven and reconnect with the "official" AZT on Oracle Ridge. This will all be a moot point soon, as the alignment of the Arizona Trail will soon be moved over to the east side of the Catalina Highway, using the Bug Springs and Green Mountain trails to allow the mountain bikers to ride singletrack up the mountain instead of riding the highway.
I turned onto the Sutherland Trail, another trail recently reclaimed from fire damage that I'd hiked in May, and Samaniego Ridge finally came into view, capped by attractive Samaniego Peak. This part of the Sutherland Trail has expansive views of Cathedral Peak, Pusch Ridge, the Tucson Mountains, Babo and Kitt Peak out to the west, and views as far north as the 4 Peaks (northeast of Phoenix). This part was still in the shade, so I hurried along and got to the Samaniego Ridge Trail at 8:30 am. The sign said 8.4 miles to FR 736, the northern terminus of the trail located on a road so rough that my stock 4wd Jeep would not make it. So from the north end, I had another 6 miles to get out to the area that my husband was going to come pick me up the next day.
I love the feeling of anticipation that comes with a brand-new stretch of trail I've never seen before, especially one that I've looked up at so often. I passed the Canada Del Oro Trail junction, another trail that I've not done yet. Because I'm the kind of person who never met a list she didn't like, I am working my way toward hiking all the trails in the Catalina Mountains- so I'll be back for the CDO trail sometime.
The trail was in much better shape than I'd anticipated. There was broad, pine-needle covered tread with attractive gray boulder piles covered in patches of green lichen- classic Sky Island trail. I was practically skipping along, giddy with excitement. Samaniego Peak came in and out of view among the pine trees and alligator junipers. I could see as I got closer that it looked more like a giant, white boulder pile. I could see where the trees had been cut back and there was flagging and cairns along the route in addition to "little orange hiker guy" medallions on the trees. Even though I was in theory hiking downhill from the top of the mountain, I knew to expect some undulations as the trail rolled along the ridgeline.
It was really impressive all the work that the mountain bikers were able to do, and I thanked them every time I effortlessly glided through a passage that would have been a battle against briars and overgrown trees. The deer seemed to appreciate it too, as there were many heart-shaped footprints on top of the bike tracks. As I progressed along the ridge, closer to Samaniego Peak, I could see out to Oracle Ridge and Dan's Saddle, and trace the path of the Arizona Trail north. I could also see the Superstitions and Aravaipa, the Santa Teresas, and the Pinalenos along the Grand Enchantment Trail and where the AZT/GET diverge near Antelope Peak- the Arizona Trail continuing south to Mexico, and the Grand Enchantment Trail east to Albuquerque. Good stuff. I could also see Weaver's Needle in the Superstitions, a peak I have some designs on...
Walnut Spring to the east of Samaniego Peak was my one water source along the route. I reached it at a little after 11 am after many stops for picture taking and ogling the scenery. I settled in for a break and filled all my water containers from the sweet little flow behind the skanky tank with a log in it. I looked at Samaniego Peak, a giant bouldery brushy looking bushwhack and decided against it. I'll save it for another time when I can come spend the night at Walnut Spring and try a hiker route that goes down the long ridge coming off Samaniego Peak to the west toward the Baby Jesus Trail. (Scott has also ridden/dragged his bike on this route)
A video near the spring: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvdZkNRzfYk
After a long break at the spring, I continued northward and it was apparent that this part of the trail was a little less worked, but still flagged and easy to follow. Sometimes the "trail" was nothing more than a thin line of briars that had been mashed down by the mountain bikers. I was feeling a touch lonely, so it was nice to see the tracks of the bikes from time to time. Soon I reached the "Corkscrew of Death". The trail reaches a cliff and the route around it corkscrews straight down the mountain, then regains the ridge via a scramble straight up a steep, sloping slab of rock. I would have hated to try this before the route was cut back, as it was I had to use my finest rompage (less delicately known as Butt-Hiking) techniques to control my slide down the loose soil to the traverse under the cliff. On my way up the slab of rock, I thought for the hundredth time this hike that I was glad I didn't have to drag a bike up this!
The view of the east side of the cliff was impressive and I could see back to the top of Mount Lemmon, where I'd started my hike. The trail climbed through boulder fields to the top of Mule Ears for some of the best views of the whole hike. I was now on the part of the trail that had been worked by the forest service earlier this year and there was more rolling along the ridge before the final drop down to Charouleau Gap. I'd timed my hike to get to the Gap a little before sunset, where I would camp. The descent was steep, but fun and I started to keep my eyes open for camping areas as I approached the Gap, but saw nothing suitable. I dropped my pack at the Gap and went scouting around. There was nothing but one nasty site with a fire ring and the whole hillside was covered in rocks and grass with horribly annoying seeds and a view of the lights and sprawl of Saddlebrooke.
Normally, I would have just stayed at the sub-par site and just dealt with it. However, in August, when I was making all sorts of grand plans for the hikes I was going to do in the fall, my husband set a limit of 15 nights that I could use however I wanted until the end of the year. Though I grumbled a bit when he suggested it, I acquiesced and planned my hikes accordingly. Well, tonight was the last of my nights, and I certainly wasn't going to spend it at this spot. I watched the sunset from Charouleau Gap, and decided to hike down the forest road for a bit and see if I could find something a little more attractive. FR 736 is frequented by off-road enthusiasts, which has left steep smoothly polished surfaces covered in tiny ball-bearing like gravel. I was getting a little grumpy at this point, but figured that I would find something once the road reached the valley below. I could feel every mile I'd hiked today and just wanted to be home for the night. I finally spotted a small spot with a fire ring by the side of the road at 6:30 pm. Almost 12 hours of hiking, albeit at a pretty leisurely pace with lots of stops. I'd dropped 4600 ft. from my start, but in reality quite a bit more when you figure in all the ups and downs throughout the day.
The next morning I was so pleased to see that the nondescript site that I'd chosen for my camp in the dark was actually much prettier than I had anticipated- under a giant sycamore with golden leaves. I saw my only person of the whole trip, a guy on a dirt bike that went up to the Gap and back. From my campsite, I planned on taking a route the mountain bikers call Cherry Tank to connect up with an area I was more familiar with. I checked my GPS with Scott's track loaded onto it only to realize that the track had been truncated. Thankfully I had the map of the route and was able to make the connection without incident. There is a dizzying network of trails, cowpaths, old two-tracks and roads that criss-cross this part of the mountain. My route now curved back underneath Samaniego Ridge and I was able to see many of the spots I'd been to yesterday, including the Corkscrew of Death. The trails in this area cater to mountain bikers, which means lots of swoopy ups and downs and the trails are somewhat rutted. But overall, it's very pretty and an area not often frequented by hikers, though it is quite close to the town of Catalina.
I connected up with trail I had been on last November through Sutherland Gap and then the trail wove in and out of Sutherland Wash with pockets of fall colors. I called my husband and told him I'd be arriving at our meeting place shortly. It's always so nice to see Brian when he comes to get me at the end of a trip.
Hiking an area that I have often looked at is always so invigorating to me- it fleshes out what I see and the landscape never looks the same again. Instead of just a feature of the mountain known as Samaniego Ridge, I now have memories and pictures from many spots along the route that I can think of when I see it when driving around town. I can look up at Samaniego Peak and know that despite the fact that it looks like a large white cliff from afar, it is really a mound of giant white boulders. Or know that the path of the trail goes up and over the Mule Ears for incredible views. This is why I want to hike all the trails in the Catalinas, because then I feel like I can begin to know this incredible Sky Island playground. Of course the trails are just the beginning- then there are all the subtle folds, ridges, canyons, and peaks that could keep me busy for a lifetime...
After my trip, I read that the mountain bikers went back for another work event. Instead of dragging their bikes down and up the Corkscrew of Death, they brought rope and zip-lined their bikes down and rappelled off the cliff!