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East middle of nowhere to middle of nowhere...
This trail should not be confused with the "Rincon Peak Trail", or maybe it should be...it's hard to say with the folks at Saguaro National Park and various map makers (including Rainbow Expeditions) using "Rincon Creek" and "Rincon Peak" interchangeably to refer to the same trail. Since the trail that leads to Rincon Peak is typically (logically) called the Rincon Peak trail, I think that the trail that follows the upper tributaries of Rincon Creek should thus be the Rincon Creek trail. This stance can be further supported by the fact that very, very few people ever use this trail to reach Rincon Peak anymore.
The story of how this amazing piece of trail engineering and the wild area it traverses became disenfranchised from the superb system of tracks in Saguaro National Park is one that is both thrilling (for environmentalists and those seeking utter isolation) and depressing (for anyone who values access to public lands).
Beginning in the 1940's, the Madrona district was set to become the Rincons' version of the Catalinas' Sabino Canyon, complete with access to perennial water, picnic facilities, a ranger station, corrals and trails leading into the park. The road to Madrona went across land owned by the X-9 ranch, and for a number of reasons - including positive relations between the park and the ranch - an access easement was never obtained. In 1965, however, that relationship began to deteriorate, leading to repeated conflicts between ranchers and Madrona visitors. This included, according to ranchers, difficulties with gates and corrals being left open and active hunting on X-9 land. As a result of these problems, the owners of the X-9 lands placed a locked gate on the entrance road to Madrona in May of 1967, permitting only park personnel to cross their land. By June, the monthly visitation at Madrona dropped from over 470 to only 17.
There were rumors that the park superintendent conspired with the X-9 owners to prevent public access to the Madrona area. Others argued that the corral and picnic areas had a negative affect on the natural resources in the area, and that the closures were necessary to save the saguaro population. In 1971, the park acknowledged in it's master plan the need to buy land from the ranchers to help resolve the matter, but before it could be implemented, the X-9 land was subdivided into 36 acre residential lots and sold off to private holders. The ease of dealing with a single landowner was lost. The current landholders include doctors, lawyers and authors with million dollar houses and extensive political influence, and there is little chance that negotiations to re-open Madrona will progress in the foreseeable future.
Rincon Peak Trail, which begins at the Madrona station and ends at the Happy Valley Saddle over 7 miles away, is left floating in a nearly inaccessible wilderness. Once intended to be jewel of the system, it has become underused and neglected - which makes it call all the more powerfully for those looking for a true piece of Arizona wilderness.
This trail description begins at the upper trailhead, at the junction with the Rincon Peak trail and the Heartbreak Ridge trail at Happy Valley. The Happy Valley Campground is approx. 0.2 miles to the north, and the junction with Miller Creek Trail 0.2 miles further on. From the Miller Creek junction, it is 4 miles to the parking area off of J-Six/Mescal Road. The western terminus of the trail is at Madrona Ranger Station, which can be reached from the Camino Loma Alta trailhead via the Hope Camp / Quilter and Manning Camp trails at about 9 miles one-way.
The junction is marked by one of SNP's famously confusing signs. It tells you that the Rincon Creek Trailhead (which is the Madrona Ranger Station) is 7.7 miles. This is very close to the location of the old Happy Valley Saddle Campground (in the sake of lost brevity, I'll save that story for another time). It starts, initially, in a small drainage, but quickly climbs up to the northern flank of the upper reaches of one of Rincon Creek's many tributaries. This massive canyon and views of Rincon Peak will be constant companions for the next 4 miles. The trail here is overgrown, but mostly with softer grasses and sub-shrubs. We encountered a few rough oaks and a handful of catclaw bushes, but overall the traveling was easy. It is a real tribute to the construction techniques of NPS trail crews that this neglected trail is still so clear. Even many of the metal trail markers are still visible in the trees alongside the track.
The trail remains very high up above the floor of the canyon, which is dropping steeply in carved-granite pools and falls far below. The vegetation is predominantly pinon, oak and juniper - with an occasional ponderosa towering above. A couple of smaller saddles are traversed until at around 3.5 miles, the route passes over a wide saddle with views opening to the north and south, including Tanque Verde Peak and Mica Mountain making their appearance at last. Here, the trail drops to the south flank of another tributary canyon, and the vegetation changes to scrub oak and manzanita. From a flat rocky outcrop just below the saddle, it is possible to see nearly the entire route down and out of the mountains - and it looks like a long ways still to go!
The next mile is the most spectacular of the hike, though, so keep moving. This area is geologically very interesting, with changing colors and characters in the granite that you don't often see in such a small space. 5 tributaries of Rincon Peak are converging here, and the waterfalls, pools and grottoes are everywhere you look. The water is still a good ways below the trail, which contours high around a butte, but in the distance, you see the creek crossing near where all of the tributaries are coming together - and it promises to be wonderful.
Near the 4.5 mile mark, the trail hits the flat land in the wash bottom and a trail register appears. Like many other Saguaro National Park trail registers (at Italian Spring and Miller Creek), this one seems absurdly placed in the middle of nowhere. The names on it imply that residents in the X-9 ranch development are the most common visitors out here, and that the often come on horseback. It's a quick and easy hike to the X-9 ranch road from here, and no one can blame them for visiting the pools nearby in the bedrock of Rincon Creek.
Once it leaves the creek, the trail continues on the flats for a little over a half mile. Don't forget to look back at the amazing landscape you've just left - these mountains will fill anyone with awe. Just past the pools is a sign which indicates that the private road is to the left and Madrona Ranger station to the right, starting up a small hill. From here to Madrona, the trail climbs and descends in and out of drainages as it follows the southern boundary of the park. Although houses are visible not far off the trail, the area is still beautiful and wild, with thick stands of saguaros and beautiful granite outcrops. As the trail approaches its end, large cottonwoods, sycamores and hackberry announce the perennial water of the Madrona pools. The sign at the end indicates that you are on the Rincon Peak trail, and that Miller Creek trail is 8.2 miles.
Kick back under the thick riparian vegetation and enjoy a piece of the day. Camping may not be permitted at Madrona, but as far as I know, there aren't any rules against loitering for an hour or two. It's a long, hot trail still to go to the parking area at Hope Camp - starting with a 1000' climb over 2 miles on the Manning Camp trail to reach the Arizona Trail at Quilter. Maybe from here you'll continue 3 miles to Grass Camp and camp, or maybe you're aimed for ice cream at home. Either way, you've logged some amazing miles in the best that Saguaro National Park has to offer.
Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.
Gate Policy: If a gate is closed upon arrival, leave it closed after you go through. If it is open, leave it open. Leaving a closed gate open may put cattle in danger. Closing an open gate may cut them off from water. Please be respectful, leave gates as found.
This hike is listed as One-Way.
When hiking several trails on a single "hike", log it with a generic name that describes the hike. Then link the trails traveled, check out the example.