Oh, and did I mention a couple waterfalls?
Overview: This is a rugged off-trail trek to a high pass just below Airmen Peak north of the Molino Canyon campground. We didn't make the peak on this run, so I'm writing up the loop without the extra elevation and distance for bagging the peak. Trust me - there's plenty of adventure from this loop without it! Waterfalls at every turn, massive boulders to hop on, around and under, steep climbs and hair-raising descents. This is the wild Catalina Mountains at their most rugged and beautiful!
Warning: As I stated above, this is all off trail after the first 100 yards or so. Though it seems difficult to get lost in a steep walled canyon, it is also very difficult to get found there should anything go wrong. If there's any chance of rains or flash floods stay home - I can only imagine the power these canyons have when they're full of water. Imagine and shudder.
Hike: Begin by parking your car in the lot at Molino Canyon campground near the pit toilets. The Arizona Trail runs through this parking lot, and you'll start off following the trail across the Catalina Highway for about .1 miles until you reach the crossing for Molino Creek. When we did this in Feb.2013 there was plenty of water here, but I imagine in dryer times it's pretty sandy. Turn left off the trail and head up the creek. There's a use trail that heads up and follows the creek on the hillsides above, but it's way more fun to boulder hop along the creek bed.
A little over a half of a mile from the trail junction you get to the first waterfall barrier. It's a pretty little fall over brown Catalina granite. Look to your left and you'll see a clear trail heading up the hill from a spot just below the falls. It's a quick easy climb - the first of many, and not all of them so quick or so easy.
The canyon continues past some massive boulders and up the rocky creek bed. There are more than a few places where you can practice some fun scrambling skills without feeling risky because these rocks aren't quite as polished as they might be in Sabino or Bear. Try not to spend too much time playing in this granite wonderland, though - you've still got a lot of work to do!
After a while (probably around a mile and a half or so) the canyon begins to level out and open up. A secondary drainage comes in from the left, and here you'll tun west and head for the saddle just below Airmen Peak. This is where the real work begins, as this smaller drainage is nowhere near as clear of vegetation as Molino. From the confluence, Airmen Peak will be obvious with it's tall granite cliffs and imposing face. Climbers call this "Stone Wall" - because creativity must've been in short supply that day. Head for the gully that divides Airmen peak and the lower hills north of it. Find the path of least resistance up the steep slopes.
This is a seriously steep, brushy climb no matter how you tackle it. The Aspen fire had a big impact in this area, and with all of the manzanita and oaks re-sprouting, it's a shrubby, charcoal-y whack. Give yourself plenty of time here. About half way up, there's a cool cave that would be a refreshing resting place on all but the coldest of days. As you approach the rocky saddle, views open up to the east which tease you to head for Airmen Peak, where even more vistas would await. But for us, that was to be left to another day. (The peak is another 300' climb, described in our writeup as "slow going".)
The saddle itself is an interesting bit of granite slickrock and hoodoos, and would actually be a great place to camp for a small group. You've reached the lower limits of the ponderosa forest, with junipers and pinons hanging on as well. On a clear day, you can see clear out to the Chiricahua Mountains to the southeast. If you do stay, try as always to leave no trace because this place already feels nearly untouched.
The west wall of the saddle has an entirely different character than what you've just climbed. It's reasonably sloped, forested instead of brushy, and at first has a very kind character to the creek bed. Don't be fooled, though, this is certainly the "more rugged" canyon described in other hike reports. Once you reach the creek, follow it down stream, past another small arm coming in from the east. It's easy going on a lovely stream course littered with small falls and pools for about the first .75 miles. Then it starts to get fun (depending on your definition of the word and how tired you are already).
The first major obstacle is a slick, steep granite narrows with a beautiful waterfall at the end. This forces you to climb around the east wall of the canyon and a small rocky scramble to get around the 75' drop. Rejoin the main creek as soon as you can to avoid the really brushy slopes and see even more cool waterfalls.
Almost immediately downstream, you will see the earth dropping away for another big slick fall of around 200'. Your best bet here is to stay to the west wall until you come to another dry gully which you can use to descend back to the creek. This descent is a little looser than what you've become used to in the creek, but it's quite doable. Back in the creek, there's still plenty of beauty along here, and for a while you may think the hard stuff is done.
Then, you come to a point where you can see the Molino Campground below you, and there's that yawning feeling of another big drop. This is the steepest fall of the trip, and the most exposed work-around. Follow the west wall again, and traverse the slope until you reach some large rocks in the lee of a small ridge. Once you're amid these boulders, the descent is steep but doable. Once at the bottom, take a moment to look back at the nearly 200' waterfall and try to convince yourself that you're really in one of the most arid environments on earth. It's spectacular!
From here it's an easy hop down the flattened creek bed to the road. Below the large fall you may run into picnickers and casual hikers, and you can brag a bit on your amazing accomplishment. As you walk along the highway for a quarter mile back to the cars at the campground, you can start planning your next adventure in the backcountry of the Catalinas. If you're like me, you might just plan for a longer day next time.
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.