The Box Camp Trail provides a "ponderosa to saguaro" hike in the Santa Catalina Mountains that will take the hiker through every life zone of the Sonoran Desert. Created in 1897, it was once the most popular pack route into the high country for an escape from the summer heat in the Tucson basin.
Because of its steep and rocky terrain, the Box Camp Trail is most often hiked downhill, beginning at the trailhead (8,050 feet) next to the Catalina Highway. The first two miles of the trail are by far the most pleasant of the entire hike; a gentle descent combined with thick, shady forest and a carpet of pine needles under your feet offer the perfect relief from Tucson's typically hot and dry climate. Some bear sign may be seen in the area, as well as the occasional squirrel. At times, the trail follows (and sometimes crosses) a drainage leading down into Sabino Canyon, which, in the rainy seasons, may contain water.
The forest eventually thins out and transitions to oak woodland, at which point the terrain becomes steeper and follows a ridge. This section, because it is much more open and exposed than the high forest, provides incredible views of the Tucson area and the front range of the Santa Catalinas. One particularly interesting part of this section wanders through an area that was torched by wildfire in the summer of 1997, where some of the charred vegetation remains. There is also a clearing at the end of the ridge that appears to have been cleared for a helicopter landing, which makes for a great lunch spot. After the clearing, the trail begins to drop sharply toward Sabino Basin, and thus, the real hike has begun.
Slightly less than five miles from the trailhead, Apache Spring appears. This spring usually has some amount of water flowing through it, but don't count on it as a water source. The vegetation has now changed to juniper and occasional oak, with some cacti thrown in for variation.
The remaining 2.3 miles down to Sabino Basin traverse through saguaro and dry grassland. The last half mile may be difficult to follow; if you get lost, just bushwhack down to the basin, which is a large area filled with oak trees and bushes next to a creek bed. The basin is shady and cool, giving the hiker a wonderful rest spot.
From Sabino Basin, you have a few options. After crossing the creek bed, the Box Camp Trail comes to an end, and intersects with three different trails: The West Fork Trail, which will take you to Hutch's Pool; The East Fork Trail, which connects with the Palisade Trail in less than a mile; and Sabino Canyon Trail #23, which will lead you back to the end of the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area. From there, you can walk down the road for 4 miles back to the visitor's center, or ride the tram back for a fee.
Overall, the Box Camp Trail is an exciting downhill hike that takes the better part of a day. Expect to spend about 3-4 hours hiking down to Sabino Basin (7.1 miles), and another 1 to 1 1/2 hours if you hike back to the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area (9.6 miles).