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This is likely a great time to hike this trail!  Check out "Prefered" months below, keep in mind this is an estimate.

Butterfly Trail #16 - Catalina, AZ

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Guide 103 Triplogs  3 Topics
Rated  Favorite Wish List AZ > Tucson > Tucson N
3.5 of 5 by 28
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Difficulty 3.5 of 5
Route Finding 1 of 5
Distance Shuttle 5.05 miles
Trailhead Elevation 7,725 feet
Elevation Gain -1,095 feet
Accumulated Gain 1,797 feet
Avg Time Hiking 3 hours
Kokopelli Seeds 11.04
Backpack Yes & Connecting
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Photos Viewed All Mine Following
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Author Desertboots
author avatar Guides 8
Routes 0
Photos 114
Trips 14 map ( 68 miles )
Age Female Gender
Location Scottsdale, AZ
Historical Weather
Trailhead Forecast
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Preferred   Apr, May, Jun, Sep → 8 AM
Seasons   Late Spring to Early Autumn
Sun  6:12am - 6:18pm
Official Route
13 Alternative
Fauna Nearby
Flora Nearby
Meteorology Nearby
Named place Nearby
Culture Nearby
Are we there yet?
by Desertboots

Likely In-Season!
This delightful summer trail is best done in a two-car shuttle. Even though it is technically only 5.7 miles, it is the quality, not the quantity of the miles. You'll thank ol' Desertboots for suggesting a two-car approach! My group and I did the opposite of what is described in most of the trail books. The first time I hiked this trail, I did it the "legal" way from the actual trailhead. If you start from the Palisades Ranger Station, you will shave 200 feet of the climb out of the canyon, and being the lazy climber I am, any elevation gain avoided is okay by me. The trailhead is officially at the parking are near Soldier Camp Road, and since you will have two cars parked at either trailhead, you can begin from either place. The only word of warning is that if you start at Palisades, the trailhead is not marked. Cross the road and find the trail as it marches up the hill, and bear right. This all-uphill approach trail will lead you to a sign where you will be guided to the Butterfly Trail.

From here you will begin a very long descent through a major burn area from the fire in 2003. Chances are if you touch anything you will end up sooty. There is a considerable undergrowth of plants, especially ferns. There are also many fallen snags you have to negotiate along the trail.

Eventually, the trail bottoms out at a place called Novio Spring. There is some water here but only a trickle. This is a beautiful area and a perfect spot to stop for lunch. Here you can get confused and lose the trail if you're not careful. If you go straight and end up seeing the remains of an aircraft, you've gone the wrong way. I do not know the details of this crash or how these plane parts came to be here. If you taken this short field trip to the wreckage, go back the way you came and look for the trail on the left that might be partially covered with vegetation. There are wooden steps on the trail that make it obvious.

From here you will walk along the creek bed and it is a fantastic area. The creek drops significantly into a deep ravine. Then you start climbing. Climbing and climbing and climbing! There is a point where again you can go the wrong way. When you start switch backing and you come to a place where there are some wooden logs hammered down to what looks like a logical step and a trail to the left, that is a faux trail. The real trail switches to the right and continues the grueling, er, I mean, heart-rate enhancing climb up. You will finally reach a sign that indicates Catalina Highway is 1.4 miles. There are a couple of trail crossings here, but you want to go in the direction of Catalina Highway. From here, you guessed it, you keep climbing! It is a very long 1.4 miles. You will emerge on to an old jeep trail. Just keep following this and you will reach Shangri-La, the beloved parking area with excellent restrooms.

At this point, I would recommend taking the 4-mile trip to Summerhaven and visiting the Summerhaven Cafe for a bite of something good to eat and have a slice of homemade pie! Just do it before 5pm, when the cafe closes. Much of this hamlet burned down in the fire of 2003, and there is much construction going on.

Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.

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2006-07-09 Desertboots
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Coronado FS Details
This is a wonderful trail that passes through an area of such diverse biology that part of it has been designated a Research Natural Area. Views are diverse too, facing both east and west in what is a unique situation among generally south and west-facing Santa Catalina trails. In addition, many of these attractions can be reached by hiking the first part of the trail, which is easier, and avoiding those steeper portions that account for its more difficult rating.

This is the perfect trail to bring along your tree and wildflower books and something on butterflies, since these colorful creatures congregate in clusters among the wildflowers that grow here. Along the trailside, there is a wide variety of trees, including ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and Southwestern white pine in the high, cool areas; Arizona Madrone, Box Elder and Big Tooth Maple in the more moderate areas; and Alligator Juniper, various species of oak and yuccas in drier, more exposed areas. Moist ravines are decorated with Columbine and Butterfly Weed, while south facing slopes provide an appropriate habitat for prickly pear and hedgehog cactus.

Views along this trail are as diverse as the biology, especially if you take the short side hike to the top of Mt. Bigelow. At this forest lookout location you'll find good views of Tucson to the west. The rest of the trail offers views to the east of Alder Canyon, the San Pedro Valley and the copper smelter at San Manuel.

Trees, wildflowers and butterflies
East-west views
Cool forest setting
Diverse biology
Easy hike option
Research Natural Area
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.

Most recent of 27 deeper Triplog Reviews
Butterfly Trail #16 - Catalina
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I few months ago I came up with idea of doing a "circumnavigation of Mount Lemmon". I needed some miles, so decided to make an attempt on a late June weekend. Maybe it was a bit brash to try such a route during the summer months.

The goal was to start at Butterfly TH, go down to Crystal Springs trail, up the Oracle Control Road, down Oracle Ridge to Dan Saddle and then down to Catalina Camp, then down to CDO, up to Samaniego Ridge and then Lemmon Trail, then head down to WoR, back across Marshall Saddle, and connect with Sunset to finish the loop. A solid loop if I do say so myself, probably pretty close to a marathon with 6000+ feet of ascent.

The plan held up until Catalina Camp, where it started to get warm, and I really started to question whether I had it in me. This was the last bail-out point, and I took it. Luckily there was a trickle in the creek, so I was able to fill up before heading up Red Ridge (the first time I've had the, let's call it a privilege, of seeing this trail in the uphill direction). Surprisingly, I saw three other people on Catalina Camp and Red Ridge trails. Thought I was the only one stupid enough to be down there in late June.

When I got to Red Ridge, clouds had rolled in, and I was feeling much more alive. So I added a few miles back on by heading up the road to the ski resort, and heading down Aspen Draw (where it even sprinkled a little bit!), before taking a Mint Springs to Marshall Saddle detour.

Ended up a pretty good outing still, even if the whole circumnavigation has to wait until another (possibly cooler) day.
Butterfly Trail #16 - Catalina
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Original plan was to hike all the way to Bigelow and spend the night before hiking back the next day but I obviously overestimated my abilities and underestimated the difficulty of this hike with all of the elevation and very poor footing. Once we reached the bottom and looked up at Bigelow it was apparent it was going to kill us if we tried to make it to the top, let alone knowing we had to do it in reverse the next day. In any case, we turned around and even the return hike's elevation gain with such a heavy pack completely kicked my butt. For the time being, need to stick with flatter hikes and find ways of seriously reducing pack weight.
Butterfly Trail #16 - Catalina
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after (yet another) long night at work, got up as early as i could stand to try and beat the heat at least a little.

happy with the effort given the severe lack of sleep. still got warm on the low points but not unbearable. there are little stretches and spots that i rather like on butterfly. the fern jungle is over my head now and i was surprised to see some early flowers.

ran the bigelow segment better than anticipated so that was good
Butterfly Trail #16 - Catalina
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I let the Tucson native pick out a hike on Lemmon and it was a pretty good one.

The trail was in pretty good shape and although there were a lot of people out on Lemmon, there did not seem to be too many on this trail, especially after the first mile. The fall colors were very nice and a pleasant surprise as well. We did a partial out and back, however, a shuttle, or creative looping option with the campground at the end may have been more enjoyable. There were some deep pools and lightly flowing water near the Novio Spring area, however, it involved leaving the trail. We also came across a little trickling water and a nice pool during our quick detour to the plane wreck, which was not overly spectacular, but the setting was very scenic with some great fall colors going on.
Butterfly Trail #16 - Catalina
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Crystal Spring to Butterfly
Posting this a few weeks late. We walked a little ways down Control Road, took #17 to the junction with #16, made a detour to the west and up Butterfly peak, and turned back East to a car that we had left at the Bigelow TH. I think the gain was a bit more, but in solidarity with msimmons I'm using these numbers...

I hadn't been on the Butterfly Trail since I did it East-West as a little kid - it was a lot tougher in this direction than I remembered. Lots of beautiful, lush stretches of trail on this hike. There were a lot of people when we first got on Butterfly, but there were surprisingly few (for a Saturday) as we climbed Bigelow on our way to the trailhead.
Butterfly Trail #16 - Catalina
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I initially used the official gps route, which I cloned, reverse, joined and synced, to produce my stats, adding in the difference to the summit of Mount Bigelow. I was surprised that an out and back from the further trailhead was 3298'. I came back and used Nick's route from 6/21 and arrived a more accurate ( I think and hope) route I posted to the hike. I trimmed the AEG stats for my log, and was further surprised at them. I bumped the miles slighlty, since I started at the Sunset TH. It is a solid hike, which was made a bit harder by thinking it was easier, and also by the extreme humidity.

I set out with Dan from Alt, and a friend of his. They turned back at the Davis Spring Trail junction while I went to the summit of Bigelow and ate lunch. Storm built up very quickly, and I hiked back with intermittent light rain. It was more like Pennsylvania than Arizona on the hike, with both the birds and the extreme humidity that made hiking rather unpleasant. Very lush and green on this trail, too. The birds made this a surrogate for a second June trip to the Pinalenos. The dry season somehow ended just as it began this year, and we'll see when I can head there, but at least I had a nice hike like this which was reminiscent of being over there a few weeks ago. Either way, this ought to be my last hike up here for a while.
Butterfly Trail #16 - Catalina
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While visiting Tucson over the weekend we did an out and back on the Butterfly Trail to Novio Spring. Lots of fall color and plenty of water flow at the spring, which was a real nice rest spot in prep for the turn around hike. We took our time on the return, breaking for short periods after the steep ascents. I really enjoyed the hike. For Kelley, not so much as the altitude and AEG took it's effect, although she got some really nice pictures.
Butterfly Trail #16 - Catalina
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Clockwise loop: Butterfly Trail, Bigelow Trail to Bigelow summit, then Bear Wallow Road back to Sunset Trailhead. This was my first time on the Butterfly Trail and I was impressed. Constant views of the Galiuros, lush vegetation (almost jungle like and super humid near Novio Spring), waist deep ferns and a plethora of aspens. Ripe raspberries were an unexpected and delicious treat along the way. Made the summit of Mount Bigelow by dusk and then walked the Bear Wallow Road back in the dark, sans headlamp, scaring campers along the way with my footsteps. Crawled inside my truck just in time for a monsoon downpour and lightning show. Admired the view from Geology Point and listened to the sound of a flash flood in progress somewhere far below. I finished off the evening by picking some prickly pear fruit for jelly making near Molino Canyon overlook.
Butterfly Trail #16 - Catalina
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F-86 Crash Site:

While looking at aircraft crash sites a while back, I stumbled on a post mentioning the Butterfly Trail. It stated that in 1954 an F-86 Saber had crashed just above Novio Spring off the Butterfly Trail. Being on the mountain for 3 days, I made this my main excursion. I left the upper TH at about 11:00, planning to find the crash site, then pick up the remaining fraction of the trail before heading back. I was making just over 2 mph for the first couple of miles through fields of fern until I entered 'raspberry country' where my speed abruptly fell to 1.7 mph :s With those seductive, red beauties finally behind me, I again picked up pace to Novio Spring. I had a rough set of coordinates from the post I had read (the author wasn't kidding when he said 'rough'). Turned out that the crash site was in the canyon just east of Novio. I had given up on the crash site, but happened to stumble on it as I was completing the trail. Anywho, after the crash site, I finished up the trail, or so I thought. The way I interpreted the Green Trails map, the Butterfly trail would end just beyond the crash site. Not the case. So... I guess I'll finish the trail another day. At very least, I found my crash site, I ate myself sick on wild raspberries and spent a few hours frolicking in the ferns.
Butterfly Trail #16 - Catalina
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Started at the Upper Trailhead - it was a bit cooler than I thought it would be and I ended up switching into a long sleeve shirt and was still a bit chilly in spots without my jacket - even ended up finding a small patch of snow in one spot! The trail is not very grown over right now - the green plants are just starting to come in, sort of an early spring feel to the trail!

So... I thought I remembered most of this trail, but it turns out there was a section I had never done and I had certainly never done a full out to Bigelow and back - wow, harder than expected... Took the side trail to the bottom on Novio Falls (streaming but not roaring - from higher up it looked like maybe some anchor webbing on one of the logs in one of the pools, interesting to see), went to the wreckage, noted how much like a trail the top of Davis Spring appears from the junction and climb, climb, climbed to Bigelow... Definitely see the appeal of the car shuttle - but does seem a little more fun to leave the 2nd car at the Mount Bigelow Butterfly trailhead rather than the Bigelow Trailhead on the Highway (or the Palisade Ranger station - which also might be less attractive as a parking option now esp. because I think there is a fee to park there?).


Permit $$
Visit this link for full details.

There are four specific day use areas that require a Coronado Recreational Pass or a National Pass/America the Beautiful Pass.
1) Sabino Canyon - located on the Santa Catalina Ranger District (520)749-8700
2) Madera Canyon - located on the Nogales Ranger District (520)281-2296
3) Cave Creek - located on the Douglas Ranger District (520)364-3468
4) Mt. Lemmon at 11 day use sites.

Catalina State Park $6 per day. Sabino Canyon Tram is $10 extra.

Coronado Forest
MVUMs are rarely necessary to review unless mentioned in the description or directions
Coronado Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUMs)

Map Drive
Paved - Car Okay

To hike
Take the Catalina Highway off Tanque Verde Road in Tucson. Drive 4.2 miles to the Forest boundary and continue 19 miles to the Palisade Visitor Information Center. The trailhead for Butterfly Trail is located at the north end of the parking lot across the road. The upper trailhead is about another 4 miles up Catalina Highway at the Soldier Camp access road. The Catalina Highway is paved and suitable for passenger cars, but it may be snow-covered in winter when chains or 4-wheel drive may be required.
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