Canyons are inherently risky. Flash floods occur without notice on sunny days. Technical skills & surrounding topography knowledge required yet does not eliminate risk.
The Sabino Canyon recreation area is misleading in name. True, Sabino Canyon is the star of the show, but in fact many canyons call this area home: Bear Canyon, Sabino, Breakfast, Rattlesnake, Bird and Esperero Canyon all call "Sabino Canyon" home. Taking a trip up some of these promises crowds, others promise solitude. Rattlesnake Canyon is one of the latter. The middle of the three canyons that radiate northeast between the dominant Sabino and Esperero Canyons, Rattlesnake is notable for having both Rattlesnake Peak and McFall Crags towering over it's canyon head. This is an up canyon bushwhack well worth the effort.
From the popular Sabino Canyon parking area you have a choice of how to get to Rattlesnake Canyon, the goal is to get to the Esperero Trail. You can walk the Sabino Canyon tram road (not recommended) or take the Esperero as it breaks off the sandy path leading to Bear Canyon (recommended). From the parking area the large, sandy path leading to Bear Canyon breaks off from the southeast corner of the lot and follows a wide path. Within minutes a signed trail breaks off left, take this onto the Esperero trail. This trail cuts north across the desert towards the Sabino tram road. This is just an easy ramble across the desert with nice views of Pusch Ridge. You will pass the old Cactus Picnic area to your left. Shortly you cross over a small paved track, then parallel the Sabino road briefly before crossing over it. As the Esperero crosses over, then above the mouth of Sabino Canyon spectacular views are offered up the canyon. Thimble Peak stands out like a rock star. In the morning as the sun breaks over the canyon, in particular, the view is sweet. The next canyon you pass by is Breakfast Canyon, just north of Sabino. After Breakfast is Rattlesnake, the target of this hike.
At about 1.5 miles from the trailhead is a signed intersection for Rattlesnake trail, which cuts across back to the tram road, and provides a link connecting Esperero to the Phoneline. Just after the Rattlesnake trail intersection, you can break off the Esperero trail and drop down to your right into Rattlesnake Canyon. This canyon is initially wide and sandy and runs north. After about a quarter mile in the canyon, it gently curves right and runs northeast the rest of the way. The farther you get out in this trail less canyon the more it gradually narrows down. It slowly converts from predominantly sandy to mostly rocky as you climb. At times you can see Rattlesnake peak to your upper left, and at other times it is obscured by the north wall of Rattlesnake canyon. McFall Crags are a more constant feature as you move up canyon. There isn't much route-finding difficulty along the way here, just picking the correct rocks and boulders to hop as you go. As the canyon narrows down more in the mid-to-upper reaches you will come to a narrow dry fall at about 3.45 miles. This is a gorgeous little fall that is likely sweet when water is running. Climb up the left side and keep going. Soon thereafter at about 3.6 miles total you come to a Y-like intersection. The main Rattlesnake continues straight/right. We broke left here to climb up a scenic side canyon spilling down into the main Rattlesnake.
The canyon immediately begins to offer a challenge as you ascend small boulders and climb short scrambles, generally following the stream-course. The travel has now become a solid "Class II". At times, it becomes easier to climb onto one of the walls to avoid larger boulders, but the passage is relatively easily negotiated. After roughly a quarter-mile of climbing, the course takes you to the first of a series of waterfalls and pools that must be spectacular when water is flowing heavily in the area. When we visited, there were smaller pools and barely a trickle, but the canyon bears the marks of a torrential rush of water when the season is right. There is a nice breeze to offset the lack of overhead over through this portion of the canyon. After climbing past this cascade, the course follows the streambed until it arrives along side a series of large boulders situated to the east of the canyon. Each boulder is adorned with a large rock atop, reminiscent of the hoodoos of northern Arizona. The ascent becomes more and more step here, and the view offered of both the mini-hoodoos and the canyon below is awesome. It's a logical place to take a breather.
After passing the two boulders, the course scrambles to the left of a series of large boulders and climbs onto a bedrock section of the stream-course. Any footprints that may have been present are now gone and the canyon becomes slot-like and steep. It is necessary to climb and scramble around narrow passes in the rock to continue to follow the waterway. Rattlesnake peak is now clearly visible ahead, and you feel like the canyon is climbing toward a saddle present just ahead. After scrambling over a short series of bedrock boulders, the course breaks left (west) and gains significant grade. The watercourse is now quite narrow and caution must be exercised to avoid rolling rocks down what has now become a slot canyon. A large patch if distinctly red iron-oxide dirt spilling from a weathered rock on the east side of the stream-course marks the final section of the canyon that is walk-able. At this point it is necessary to ascend a series of vertical boulders that fall squarely into "Class IV" travel. The short climb persists for 30-40 meters and ends at rock outcropping. Standing on this outcropping it becomes clear that you have reached the head of the canyon and Rattlesnake peak looms directly north of you, a meadow and ridge spilling down from the peak toward your position. The saddle the canyon appeared to be climbing towards is now clearly a distance away and off to the east, apparently at the head of Rattlesnake canyon which is blocked from view by a ridge to your east. The views of lower Sabino and the Catalinas from this point are exceptional.
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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.