A southern Arizona classic
Overview: The Tanque Verde Ridge trail begins at the Javelina Picnic Area in Saguaro National Park East, and ends at Cow Head saddle deep in the front range of the Rincons. The final section of the trail descends 2.5 mils from the peak, and is omitted. Tanque Verde peak stands at 7050' and provides sweeping views of the entire Tucson valley, the Santa Ritas to the south, and Mica Mountain to the east. The final ascent on the peak is that of a short boulder scramble to meet the peak marker sign. Most guide book and references on the subject regard this hike as a slow, steady climb along a ridge; a bit of a mis-characterization. Almost half of the 3950' of elevation the trail gains en route to the summit is gained in the first few miles and then again at the end during the final push. The remainder is gained and lost and regained as the trail works its way in and out of minor drainages and canyons, generally following the line of the ridge. The ascent passes through various life zones and offers ample opportunities to encounter wildlife.
Hike: From the Javelina picnic area, the trail skirts the road for a short time and then turns south and pases through a drainage. It begins to climb slightly and meanders through the open desert floor before approaching a trail register. After leaving the register, the trail beings its first climb onto the ridge. The trail climbs along the northern edge of the ridge for a time, approaching a social trail at about 3600' that departs to a nearby rock buttress offering great views of the valley. It begins to ascend, again, now passing through a grassy plain and approaches a stretch of bedrock; bear left and follow the cairns marking the route. The trail winds its way through the grass and around minor obstacles as it seems to be approaching a large rocky knob, above. It ultimately swings to the left of this minor peak and onto a relatively flat stretch of ridge. Along this section the trail takes up a pattern of climbing slightly, leveling out, and then climbing again as it winds its way eastward through the grass and chaparral. The views to the south of Rincon valley and the desert floor are sweeping.
At the end of the stretch of ridge, the trail circles south and drops into the head of Box canyon and crosses a small stream (dry) before ascending the opposing canyon wall in a series of short switchbacks. From here on out, the course of the trail is fairly well marked by engineer tape in the trees and cairn piles. Te trail drops into another minor drainage and once again reattains the ridge where a great vista of Chiminea and Madrona canyons can be had after walking about 50' to the right along a social trail (There is also a nice rock formation forming a natural table ~5500'). It then drops into another large canyon (Possibly a tributary of Chininea) and circles around in the understory. It climbs to the left on the opposite canyon wall and approaches a large boulder pile that offers excellent views of the Catalina range and Douglas Camp. The trail passes by a large juniper, signaling the beginning of the mixed scrub woodland it now enters.
The trail now enters a large drainage and the first signs of the Chiva fire begin to appear. Occasionally, a burned stump or fallen burned tree has been redirected away from the trail by NPS crews. The first pinyon pine begin to appear and the track always bears right around obstacles until beginning to take up a familiar course of climbing gradually away from the drainage toward a rock outcropping towering above. Orange stakes now appear and begin to aid in route finding, which is uncomplicated to begin with. The trail attains a saddle to the south of the outcropping and follows a minor ridge through juniper and pinyon, which heavily scent the air. I then turns north and begins to descend short switchbacks into Pantano wash; it immediately climbs out and drops into a basin and what seems like a moonscape. The trail meanders through a mixed scrub forest that is deep in recovery from the Chiva fire in a large bowl accented by huge swaths of bedrock and wide-open breaks between the tree stands. The trail will always bear left at obstacles and when crossing the bedrock swathes. Look for cairn piles and tape, as well as small metal hashes nailed to trees to aid in route-finding. After clearing a steam and approaching the walls of a canyon that marks the southern edge of the basin, the trail turns due east and starts climbing into a small saddle above. The climb is aided by improved stone steps and the air is alive with the smell of pinyon and juniper. In the fall, the steps may be colored with purple juniper berries.
After achieving the minor saddle, the trail drops onto a grassy slope and an easy descent into a large juniper forest nestled away in a small canyon. This is Juniper basin, and the campground is reach after a short walk into the forest. The Campground provides improved backcountry camping sites, each numbered and boasting fire rings, bear boxes, and a central outhouse. It is a popular backpacking destination. An overnight camping permit is required to stay at Juniper, but it is worth making a side-trip to explore the area. The Juniper forest here is truly unique and magnificent. The Tanque Verde Ridge trail continues to the east just before the campground at a signed junction.
After leaving Juniper Basin, the trail begins to climb at a steeper grade, generally following the course of a gully draining from the higher elevations. The track of the course is sandy and is marked by the metal hashes in the trees throughout its course. At roughly 6300', the trail levels for a moment and the first views of Mica Mountain, Helen's Dome, and Spud Rock dominate the eastern horizon. It winds north, the east, then north again climbing the all the while. After winding around a minor peak the trail approaches an old social trail that has been obscured by deadfall, bear right and continue east up through the pinyon and juniper as the trail ascends ever more steeply avoiding boulders and becoming ever more gullied. After passing a large boulder with a near-vertical scramble, the trail drops onto the summit ridge, which is forested by manzanita and scrub oak. The views of the eastern ranges of the Rincons here are sweeping and wide; encompassing Mica, Rincon Peak, and beyond. The trail winds south and approaches a signed junction and a large wooden sign announcing the summit 100' on the left. The Tanque Verde Ridge trail continues down into Madrona Canyon to the east on its way to Cow Head saddle; continue straight ahead to the south.
After approaching a large boulder pile, a visitor register is encountered and a small sign marking the summit of Tanque Verde Peak can be seen atop the boulders. Scramble to the sign by whichever route feels the most comfortable; but the easier approach is from the left (south) behind a tree where other hikers have left rocks to aid the climb. The views from the summit must be experienced first-hand to be appreciated. Return by the same route. The views of Tucson on the descent are the best in the Rincons.
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.