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It has been said that it is pointless to argue the difficulty rating of a trail with another hiker. All hikers are different, have different levels of conditioning, think different things contribute to the physicality of a trail. The standard logic does not apply to the Esperero trail of the Catalinas. When undertaken in its entirety, Esperero is the most challenging trail in the Front Range... and perhaps the most rewarding. Its course passes several well-known landmarks in the eastern Front Range. It offers views that cannot be matched of parts of the Catalinas few will ever see, while it relentlessly climbs just over 4500 feet and then steeply descends to a formation known as the Window.
The Esperero trail comes with history as well as splendor. To be completely accurate, the trail's true course starts west of Sabino Canyon road, although roads and houses now interdict its course. Perusing a circa-1960s map of the area, one will find the true course of Esperero began in the foothills much below the current park boundaries in Esperero wash. The trail itself was blazed by the Forest Service in 1924 for equestrian use and called the Dixie Saddle Trail. By the 1950s, topographic maps of the area list the trail as the "Ventura Esperero Trail, Twenty-Five." The loose translation being "Trail of Fortune and Hope." One account of how the trail got this name concludes it had to do with Spanish miners expecting to find silver in the canyon in the 1800s. The Ventura name can still be seen, as can "Esperero Canyon Trail"; however, the Forest Service officially calls the trail "Esperero, Twenty-Five."
Two schools of thought exist about getting to the trailhead, which lies just beyond the Cactus Picnic Area in Sabino Canyon; the simpler of the two is to follow either the Phoneline trail or paved road until you reach the turn for the picnic area. The other being, taking the first section of Lower Bear until you run into the "continuation" of the Esperero trail, which connects to the right after about 300 meters. Either option leads to the signed junction between the trail and the paved road, which is where this description begins. The trail follows the wash and passes the Cactus picnic area, which offers water and restrooms. It immediately begins to climb over the low hills and drops into Rattlesnake Canyon, where it approaches a junction with one section of the Rattlesnake trail, which was once much longer. The Rattlesnake trail goes right (east) and returns to the paved roadway, and the Esperero trail goes left (west). This area is heavily used, and many side trails exist.
Just after the junction, the trail beings hill climbing again and winds its way westward, eventually dropping down into Bird Canyon. This area can be lush after rainstorms. The trail then beings climbing the ridge above and west of Bird canyon and then begins ascending the ridgeline above Bird and Esperero canyons. It finally drops onto the east ridge above Esperero and hugs this ridge for roughly a mile, climbing gradually and offering great views of the canyon below. The trail then breaks away from the canyon into a side drainage and climbs towards Mt. Miguel. This section of the trail is grassy and flanked by patches of shindaggers. The trail approaches a wall to the north of the drainage and begins switchbacking its way upward. This section is known as "Cardiac Gap" by some local hiking guide books. It's over before you know it.
Standing on the ridge just opposite Mt. Miguel, Tucson is now in full view to the south, and your eventual destination towers over you to the north. Esperero Canyon is just west, and you will circle your way around to meet it. Great views of waterfalls and the riparian nature of the canyon are available all along this stretch. The trail loses a small amount of elevation and then begins gradually climbing again, with a few steep steps, as it winds its way west, then back east over the canyon below. After roughly a mile, the trail crosses a series of rock steps and passes several small boulders, entering into a grassy area known as "Geronimo Meadow." This area frequently hosts campers. Just beyond the meadow, the trail drops into Esperero stream.
This section of the trail is perhaps the most pleasant of all. Although it is still gaining elevation, this is the only section of Esperero that can arguably be called "level." The trail follows the stream course, crossing it several times, while shaded by oak and sycamore. Water is frequently present in the stream, and the area is adorned with wildflowers when in season. Now at just over 5000 feet, the weather is much milder, as well. After roughly nine-tenths of a mile, a sign indicating the presence of Mormon Spring is encountered. The spring itself is off to the right of the trail and consists of the standard concrete cistern, usually full of brackish water. The trail continues along the stream for another half-mile until the canyon seems to widen, and the trail encounters a prominent campground complete with a fire ring. Just to the left of this campground is Bridal Veil Falls. The Falls are usually just a spray of water dripping down several rock ledges and forming a small pool but have been torrential after heavy rains. A sandy area surrounds them with many great places to sit and take it all in. Hummingbirds, butterflies, and wildflowers graced the falls when we visited the area in May.
After returning to the trail, the shaded canyon begins to disappear behind you, and the trail starts to climb along a ridge projecting into Esperero canyon. This trail section is relatively exposed, and the trail begins to offer many opportunities for slips and falls in its sandy and loosely-packed bottom, skirting the ridge. The climb persists for just short of a mile and approaches another wooded area. In the center of this wooded area stands the junction with the Cathedral Rock trail, which disembarks to the right (east). Continue along the Esperero trail, which now begins to climb toward Window Peak.
For the next (roughly) one and a quarter miles, the trail climbs steeply up a series of switchbacks and ridge climbs. This section of trail is very overgrown, not maintained in any noticeable sense, and offers countless opportunities for the loss of footing. The trail starts climbing toward the saddle between Esperero and Montrose canyons, which comes into view ahead. It zigzags its way from the head of the canyon and back to the east wall as it climbs relentlessly. In many areas, trail finding will be difficult. Fabulous views of the valley below reward the climb. The trail eventually reaches the small saddle between Esperero and Montrose, where excellent views of the Catalinas' Northern ranges come into focus. Fantastic views of Cathedral Rock grace the gaze east from here. Route finding in this section will be tricky. There will likely be tall grass overgrowing the trail and possibly trees down in its course. Standing at the saddle, look immediately west; the seemingly massive hill ahead of you is adorned by Window Peak, and that's where you're headed. The trail follows the saddle just to the Esperero side and begins to climb west.
This stretch of the trail continues its relentless climb as it winds its way towards Window Peak. The trail is flanked and overgrown by shrubs in many spots along its course here and routinely presents rocky step-ups. The trail winds back toward Esperero Canyon on its final ascent into a small saddle that comes into view ahead. Upon reaching the saddle, Window Peak is directly north and appears to be a large pile of boulders, Esperero Cayon looms below, and Ventana Canyon and the Window have not yet come into view. The views here are outstanding. This saddle is about 0.6 miles from the Esperero canyon saddle and about 535 hard-earned feet above it. This is the highpoint of the hike sitting right around 7215 feet. A couple of cairns mark the spot.
As a note, just before you get to this saddle, a small route will break off to your right at the last switchback. This likely leads to the top of Window Peak and will require some class 3 scrambling. On today's trip, this was only scouted a couple hundred feet and remained for a later day...
From this gorgeous saddle, you will now descend briefly and wrap around towards the north. The trail heads to another saddle on the northwest base of Window Peak. There is some lovely shade here as well, with some pines nestled in the rocky spires of Window Peak. From here, the trail starts a pretty rapid descent down the ridgeline heading west. As you break away from the saddle, you will see some formations ahead of you along the ridgeline, standing tall above the brush. The last of these large formations houses the Window. You are that close. The trail zigs and zags on it's way down here and can be a little tough to follow. You will approach the Window from the right of the formations, and as such, the Window will be on your left. As you get close, the trail hugs the formations very tightly to the right is a significant drop-off. Be careful here. Keep your eyes on the wall on your left, a small trail will break away from the main route, and the Window just suddenly pops into view. Walk through the roughly 25 x 15-foot Window to the shelf on the other side and be prepared for a whopping panorama looking out over Ventana Canyon and the massive Mt. Kimball to the west. There is a hundred-plus foot vertical drop off right in front of you, so please be careful here.
The Window is the best lunch spot in the Catalinas. A brisk breeze often whips through. In the summer, it offers refreshing cool breezes, and in the winter, it is freezing. Looking back northeast through the Window, there are phenomenal views of Window Peak and the Catalina high country. Take it all in. If you look down and to the right, you can see the end of the Esperero trail as it descends to meet the upper Ventana Canyon Trail. The Window is not much more than a mile from the Esperero Canyon saddle and about 8.6 miles from the Esperero trailhead in Sabino Canyon. It sits at roughly 6880 feet.
From the Window, you've got about 7 miles of almost nonstop descending in front of you. Rest those legs and get back on the Esperero Canyon trail, make a left onto the main route and continue heading west. The trail continues to descend at first off the spire housing the Window, then levels out for a little while along the grassy ridgeline heading west. The views of Mt. Kimball to the west and back east over the Catalinas here are just fantastic. There is some old burn still evident here. Soon enough, the trail starts to deeply switchback down the upper reaches of Ventana Canyon, staying along the east wall initially. After roughly 1.2 miles from the Window, you will reach the signed intersection with Ventana Canyon Trail #98 to the left and Finger Rock Canyon to the right. Hang a left onto the Ventana Canyon trail.
The Ventana Canyon trail drops through the upper reaches of its namesake canyon swiftly. There is abundant tree cover in the upper reaches that seems almost out of character for Pusch Ridge canyon country. This is classic Ventana Canyon. The trail is never hard to follow, and as it drops down into the stream course, it will cross over eventually onto the west side. You can see some pools and little falls, depending on the current water situation as you look down. If you're lucky, you may catch some mortar holes ground into the stone along the trail. They are literally right on the trail. Soon enough, the trail crosses again at Maiden Pools, which consist of multiple scattered pools and large rock slabs perfect for stretching out. There is usually water in Maiden Pools, but it can get pretty murky if things are dry. From here, you have about 2.4 miles to go to the trailhead.
From the pools, the trail continues to descend somewhat gradually for a while, ultimately putting you at the apex of a ridge that cuts down sharply from the west, where the canyon cuts abruptly east. The views of the canyon's mouth here are just great, with the narrow spires of the canyon's entrance walls perfectly framing Tucson and the Santa Ritas in the distance. The trail sharply switchbacks down this ridge to place you back in the streambed, which it crosses several times. It can be a little hard to follow through here, but the trail never stays in the streambed, so always look for it to cross when you reach the bottom. Before long, the trail breaks out of the east side permanently and crosses some flat desert. You will pass a sign announcing the Wilderness and cross a hiker's gate. The rest of the hike is along a narrow trail that passes through some private property, then parallels the resort for a short while before finally dropping you back off at the Ventana Canyon trailhead and your previously arranged shuttle ride.
Congratulations, you have just hiked one of the most challenging, most beautiful, and rewarding routes in Pusch Ridge.
Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.
This is a difficult hike. It would be insane to attempt this entire hike without prior experience hiking.
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