Canyons are inherently risky. Flash floods occur without notice on sunny days. Technical skills & surrounding topography knowledge required yet does not eliminate risk.
A tough 2 day Canyoneering Adventure
Overview: An extremely strenuous, technical and beautiful boulder filled canyon. The trip requires considerable down climbing on slippery water polished rocks. Plan for a 2 day trip, however a small, fast team (2-3) may be able to finish in one very long day (14-16+ hours). Expect to be wading or swimming for the entire trip and pack accordingly. I measured 12.6 miles from the Box Camp TH to Sabino Canyon Tram stop #9 where 5.8 miles were in the canyon.
Warning: Canyoneering involves travelling through slot canyons where flash floods are a definite possibility. Always check the weather before you depart and do not go if there is any chance of rain. Make sure you allow enough time for the trip since travel in the canyon is very slow. We averaged 0.5 mph and setting up and doing the rappels also takes significant time.
History: The beta for this canyon trip was obtained from Todd Martin's book: "Arizona, Technical Canyoneering". The book also lists several other options to do this canyon, along with other excellent information, which are not listed in this hike description.
Equipment: This technical canyoneering trip requires appropriate gear, which includes: harness, helmet, rappelling device, several locking biners, 5 rap rings, 50 ft webbing, and two 200 ft ropes. A wetsuit may be desired during colder portions of the year. A topo map and GPS are helpful to locate the canyon start point and proper return trail. A water purification device should be considered for this long and difficult trip.
Hike: Drive up Catalina Highway past the Palisade Ranger Station to the Box Camp Trailhead. Hike the Box Camp Trail (#22) for 1.8 miles (35 min) until you reach a small cairn marking the junction with the Box Springs Trail (#22A) and turn right (Northwest). The Box Springs trail starts out well defined but soon disappears and becomes overgrown. Continue hiking NW for a total of 0.9 miles (55 min) from the turnoff until you reach the bottom of Sabino Canyon and you will remain in the canyon for the rest of the trip. Movement in Sabino Canyon will be very slow and laborious as you climb over, around or through numerous pools, falls, swims, and difficult down climbs. Depending on the time of year there may be 10 to 20 swims. Rappel #1 can be reached by following the stream bed for 2.8 miles (4:40 hours). A tree on canyon right can be used to tie off. R2 is another 1200 ft down canyon and a large tree on canyon left can be used for the rappel. R3 immediately follows R2 and a rock horn on canyon right serves as a good anchor. R4 is another 0.5 mi (45 min) down canyon and a horizontal tree on canyon left serves as the anchor point. R5 immediately follows using a tree on canyon left as the anchor. You will reach Hutch’s Pool after another 2.3 miles of canyon travel and at this point you must select your return route. We decided to hike 4.1 miles (1:40 hrs) to tram stop #9 in Sabino canyon and take the tram to the parking lot.
The rappels ranged from about 50 to 85 vertical feet however the anchor points chosen will add to the amount of rope required. We only used our second rope on R2 where the anchor point was a long distance from the edge. We did our trip on June 1-2 and everyone thoroughly enjoyed the trip. The canyon was a comfortable temperature and we filtered canyon water for drinking. However the hike to the tram after Hutch’s Pool was very hot (107F) and we were glad we only had 4 miles to hike. The follow day some of us had sore legs but we all thought is was worth it.
Water Sources: The bed of Upper Sabino Canyon will always have pools of water and continuously flow in most years.
Camping: We found a nice sandy camping site complete with a flowing pool of clear drinking water pool between R3 and R4 at: N32.39071 W110.78436 (WGS84)
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.