All the famous Sabino attractions, sans crowds!
This is a really fun hike. If one is careful to start out early enough, one can see many of the famous destinations in the eastern portion of the Front Range of the Catalinas and Sabino Canyon, including: Bridal Veil Falls, Cathedral Rock, and Hutch's Pool. There are also spectacular views to be had and some solitude, even on Sabino Canyon's busiest days. There are almost limitless possibilities for photography and equally as many great places to break for lunch and/or a breather.
-= Leg 1 - Sabino Canyon to Esperero Creek =-
Starts: ~2600' ends: ~4700'; 4.8 miles
This section of the hike will likely be the busiest, especially on weekends. Additionally, a good portion of the first three miles is mostly exposed to the south. The trailhead lies about 1/2 miles into Sabino Canyon recreation area. Two approaches exist: walk up the "tram road" and follow the crowd, or follow the lesser-used "Phone line" trail (#27). Either way, continue until you reach a sign on the north side of the tram road that says: "Cactus Picnic Area." Turn here and head north toward the Catalinas. If you reach the median in the Tram road with the old RV dumping station, you've gone too far. As you approach the picnic area, stay to the right and in the sandy wash. There are numerous social trails, if you get lost just start heading towards the Catalinas, again. The Esperero trail climbs out of the wash to the northeast of the Cactus Picnic area and begins to ascend toward a ridge. Immediately after leveling out the trail drops back into a sandy wash and meets the Rattlesnake Peak trail. Continue on the Esperero trail. Not long after the trail approaches another junction, and a well-defined trail of unknown origin leads off to the left. I've been told that, before much of the construction too place in the foothills, this trail once connected to Ventana canyon. Ignore it and continue to the right on the Esperero trail. The trail starts climbing, now, and eventually drops back down into Bird canyon. Immediately afterward the trail begins to climb a ridge westward and then turns right, eventually coursing along above a canyon until it matches elevation and a series of switchbacks start. This section of trail is what is known as "Cardiac Gap." Fear not, it is nowhere near as steep as switchbacks get in the Catalinas and it is over rather quickly. You are not atop Mt. Miguel, and the deep canyon to the north is Esperero Canyon. The trail continues to climb to the right (east) up and through an oak woodlandchaparral area known as: "Geronimo Meadow." This area is quite scenic and the ambient temperature should be noticeably lower. The trail continues through the meadow until it arrives at an eroded gap on the canyon wall where it begins to descend into Esperero creek. There was significant water in the creek in July, and almost none another year in November.
-= Leg 2 - Esperero Creek to Bridal Veil Falls =-
Starts: ~4700' ends: ~5250'; 1.4 miles
This section of the hike is really pleasant. You will have a decent tree canopy for the first half and can enjoy some solitude while you follow the stream course. Route finding can be hindered by fallen leaves and undergrowth in this area, but continuing to follow the stream, staying to the west, will eventually present you with a fork at the confluence of two canyons. Follow the canyon to the left and the trail climbs slightly to Bridal Veil Falls, a rock outcropping with a gentle, lateral trickling of water that resembles a thin sheet (veil) during periods of heavy rainfall. Water was present here every season I've visited the falls, but it usually slows to a trickle or drip in dry months. There will be a fire ring near a popular camping area situated to the right of the trail.
-= Leg 3 - Bridal Veil Falls to Cathedral Rock =-
Starts: ~5250' ends: ~7950'; 2.9 miles
This section of the hike is one of those places that so many of us enjoy: It sees light traffic and gives the feeling of being out in the backcountry, though you are in the front-country. The trail goes back to the wash and follows the stream course again for a time before starting a steep ascent out of the canyon. Route finding here can again be tricky but keeping parallel to the canyon will put you back on trail. After climbing up canyon for a while the trail follows a ridge and climbs toward a wooded area, in which is situated a signed junction with the Cathedral Rock trail (#26). Follow the Cathedral Rock trail (right). Here the trail starts to climb steeply toward Cathedral rock. Tucson and Sabino begin to open up below the trail making for some exciting views. The trail continues its ascent until it reaches an obvious, level area where it descends sharply down the opposite side. This is Cathedral saddle. The route to Cathedral Rock is just that, a route. It is marked by cairns (usually) but requires some minor scrambling and imagination. Many social trails exist in this area, so continue toward Cathedral Rock until you link back up with the route if you get side-tracked. The route generally follows the ridgeline as it climbs away from the saddle. When the ridge levels out, you are now in a boreal forest of mixed pine and juniper. This is where it gets confusing. There is an obvious rock formation down and to the right, follow the faint trail toward this formation. Follow the trail through this formation and on into the forest until you reach a larger rock formation with a "notch." There will likely be a rope hanging here, anchored to a Pinyon above. I wouldn't suggest using this rope to aid yourself unless absolutely necessary. Scramble up this notch and immediately turn right following the contour of the rock face. You are now on the fourth-highest peak in the Catalinas; enjoy the views!! There are a number of climbing routes on the three pinnacles, here. Two involve obvious crack routes and protection is pretty good. No beta available in most of the guides I have. When you've had enough of the scenery, head back to the saddle the same way you came.
-= Leg 4 - Cathedral Rock to Hutch's Pool =-
Starts: ~6900' ends: ~3900'; 2.9 miles
After all of that, the nice thing about this part of the hike is that it starts to descend. That is, until it reaches the switchbacks. The Cathedral Rock trail follows through a grassy area heading east, eventually arriving at a set of switchbacks that bring you down toward Sabino creek. The down-climb is more something to endure than anything but the scenery is still a sight. After arriving at the canyon bottom the trail meets the signed intersection with the West Fork Trail (#24). If one were interested, one could follow the West Fork trail northwest and up-canyon to Romero Pass and Catalina State Park. Follow the West Fork trail down-canyon (right) toward Hutch's pool. This section of the hike is a gift after a morning of steep climbing. It passes a junction with the Palisades trail and essentially follows the stream course, meandering through the chaparral forest for about 45 minutes until it reaches a small saddle and crosses up the west wall of the canyon. The trail zigzags its way across another grassy meadow until it reaches the point where SycamorePine Canyons connect and begins to drop down a series of switchbacks descending toward Hutch's pool, which should be visible below. A route breaks away to the left from the trail and crosses a sandy area, follow this route for roughly 50 yards and arrive at Hutch's pool. The pool was quite deep in November, though years earlier had been temporarily filled with sand and silt after the series of devastating fires on Mt. Lemmon. After enjoying the pools, return to the trail the way you came.
-= Leg 5 Hutch's Pool to Trailhead =-
Starts: ~3900' ends: ~2600'; 2.9 miles
Following the West Fork trail down-canyon, now, you begin to descend through many would-be camping areas and probably a crowd. After climbing down through the oak and juniper for about 40 minutes the trail reaches the signed junction with the Sabino Canyon trail (#23). Follow the Sabino Canyon trail (turn right). The trail runs the length of the south wall of Sabino Canyon and offers wonderful views of the Canyon, the creek, and the Catalinas. It meanders its way through the scrub, not really gaining or losing elevation, until it reaches a small saddle to the north of a large rock formation in the canyon. This was the proposed site of a dam in the 1930's. The notion was being toyed with of building a large dam here, which would create a manmade lake capable of supporting boating and fishing. The original tram road would have connected the city to this site. Luckily this plan never materialized and it is now just an interesting footnote. Climbing down through the saddle offers more great views and the trail shortly arrives at the junction with the Phone Line trail (#27). If you want to reconnect to the tram road, then stay on the Sabino trail and it will take you back to its trailhead. Following the Phone Line trail offers slightly more solitude on busy days and a few more nice views before descending (slowly in some places) toward the Visitor's center and parking lot. After about an hour and a half, the trail passes by the Esperero trail junction that took you past the Cactus Picnic area, where it all began!
- Water will be nonexistent on the section visiting Cathedral Rock, and scarce until the hike reaches Sabino Creek. Plan accordingly during this section of the trip.
- Sabino Canyon can be extremely busy on weekends and it is not uncommon to find slow-moving parties, parties experiencing injuries that should have been preventable, and individuals imbibing alcohol and behaving in an uncivilized manner on even the more difficult trails. This is especially true in the more temperate months. Factor these types of encounters in to your time equation, as they can cause parts of the trail to be slow to impassable.
- Rattlesnakes are usually observed in the initial section of Esperero canyon, when in season. The nearby peak, Rattlesnake Peak, is aptly named. Be cautious when appropriate.
- The Cathedral Rock route and West Fork trail see little traffic even on the busiest days, as do the upper portions of Esperero. Plan to be out of communication and possibly away from help for a few hours.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.