The Grand Canyon of the Catalinas
Overview: The Catalina Highway is unique because it affords the rare opportunity to start a hike at the highpoint and make an enormous descent down a canyon, only to have your return route be the requisite enormous ascent. This is a hike from pine country down a spectacular canyon and ridgeline to the low point of the hike, the East Fork and Sabino Basin. A quick jaunt along the East Fork brings you to Palisade Trail and the long, demanding climb up to the Palisade visitor center. If you have two cars, this can be done as a shuttle loop. Otherwise, it's a little under 2 miles along the Catalina Highway back to your car.
Hike: The Box Camp Trail was one of the original routes up to Mt. Lemmon, and thus provides a steep and fairly direct route connecting Sabino Basin to the highcountry of the Catalinas. Like most things up there, it was affected by the Aspen Fire, but also still has some splendid forest sections as well. The trail takes off almost right directly from the Highway at the Box Camp trail head. A quick little ascent has you wandering among the pines, then through a burned area. Shortly thereafter you are back in pines and beginning to descend. Get used to the burn because you've got a 4000+ foot descent coming your way in about 6 miles. The descent through the pines is as pleasant as it gets, paralleling a little creek through the shade. The route to Box Spring takes off about 1.8 miles from the trailhead. The sign for this has been removed and the forest service seems to have decided to let this trail go back to nature. You may notice a little cairn at the route or you may not. Anyway, keep on the obvious Box Camp trail and continue to earnestly descend through the remainder of the pine forest, then into the transitional zone, where you begin to follow a ridge down. Once on this ridge, the views open up in every direction and remain spectacular the rest of the way down. To your right you can follow the ridge leading out to Brinkley Point. To your left is a severe side canyon crashing down to the basin in wild fashion. And ahead, ahead lies the majesty of Sabino Basin and the beautiful East Fork Canyon. Cathedral Peak is also a constant, looming figure of menace throughout much of the hike. There are times when this trail descends insanely, but usually those parts are not too long. After a while of fairly straight descending down the ridge, the trail starts to swing about and switchback a bit more down the final leg of the trail as it nears the riparian corridor along the East Fork, an excellent place of shade and respite. A quick cross over the creek (which can be hairy depending on the time of year but usually is not) will bring you to the signed intersection with the East Fork Trail #24A. This is about 6 miles from the trailhead. There are no real route finding issues with the Box Camp Trail, though there are enough catclaw to keep you bleeding a little.
Make a left onto the East Fork trail and head east. You will only hike about 1 mile on the East Fork trail, which will initially climb up briefly and the follow the creek bed a couple of hundred feet above it, before dropping back down to it again at the signed junction for the Palisade Trail #99.
Make a left onto the Palisade trail and cross back over the creek. Prepare yourself for a long, tough and exposed climb back up to the highcountry. It is about 6.4 miles to the trailhead. During the warmer parts of the year the stretch of trail along the lower and middle thirds of the Palisade trail can be brutal so keep this in mind. Like Box Camp, this trail is gonna switchback and wind up the ridgeline (separating Palisade Canyon to the west and Pine Canyon to the east), before finally attaining the ridge and following it in a more straightforward fashion. Like Box Camp, there are sensational views most of the way as well. The route is straightforward and well established, if a little overgrown here and there. Probably a little more scratchy and pointy stuff along this leg than the way down. Once you achieve the ridge, there are a couple of mildly tricky sections along brief periods of flat rock, but this are always cairned and overall route finding along the part is not too bad. Ultimately the trail brings you into the upper reaches of Pine Canyon which you cross over a few times. About 3.7 miles from the beginning of the Palisade trail will bring you by Mud Spring, an old and overgrown cement spring filled with soggy green algae both times I've been through. The trail can be just a touch difficult to follow through here as it crosses over some nameless tiny drainages but due diligence will keep you on track. You have also re-entered the burn zone, with ample torched pines all over. As the trail wanders back west away from the canyon and back into the forest, the burned area to your left opens up views out over Palisade Canyon and into the highcountry. It's interesting up here, there is a section along the upper ridge where everything is torched to the left and pristine forest to the right. Finally, you are back in the forest proper and last bit is through pristine forest untouched by any flames. This pine forest is a lovely mix of Ponderosa and Douglas Fir, with some scattered Southwestern Whites for good measure. You will come by a white sign saying no public access (to some Boy Scout Campgrounds). There is a sign for the Palisade trail here. Beware, there is a maverick trail leading down to the creek right at the same spot that is very easy to get on. It takes you immediately down to the creek then goes no where. Try to avoid this spur or you are gonna have to come back. All too soon the signed trailhead comes to view and your jaunt through the magnificent forest is over. This is roughly 6.4 miles from the East Fork Trail.
From the trailhead, if you did not set up a shuttle, you will now have to hike the forest road back to the Catalina Highway at the Palisade Visitor Center. This is an easy 0.6 mile walk along a dirt FSR in excellent shape. Once at the Catalina Highway you will have to take a left and walk the road about 1.9 west to your car to complete this 15.6 mile loop.
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.