Canyons are inherently risky. Flash floods occur without notice on sunny days. Technical skills & surrounding topography knowledge required yet does not eliminate risk.
Canyoneering Close to Home
Caution: Although no technical climbing is required, there is some difficult and exposed scrambling necessary to follow the entire route. A slip or fall in this remote area could be very dangerous. This trip is recommended only for experienced hikers who are confident in their scrambling abilities.
Sabino Canyon offers many fine opportunities for Tucson hikers. However, it can be maddening sometimes to try to find solitude and "wilderness experiences" in an area that sees over a million visitors a year. This hike is offered as an alternative. Although it is no further from Tucson than Sabino, Pima, and other popular canyons, it sees far fewer visitors due to the rugged and difficult nature of the terrain. For the experienced hiker, this cross-country route offers beautiful scenery and blessed solitude only a few minutes from Tucson. You are more likely to see a coyote or a snake than you are to see another person in Agua Caliente Canyon.
From the parking area, go through the pedestrian bypass around the gate blocking off Horsehead Road. Head east on this road. This road is private property, but the owners have agreed to allow foot traffic. Please be respectful and courteous to any people you might meet, so that we can retain this access. For some inexplicable reason, this dirt road becomes paved after a half a mile, and continues on for 200 yards or so. The road deadends at an intersection with Wentworth Road. Off to the right, you will see a 4WD road blocked by a gate. Go through this gate (close it behind you) and continue along the road. It crosses Molino Wash and contours around a low ridge. After passing the trailhead for La Milagrosa Ridge trail, the road ends at the wash coming out of Agua Caliente Canyon.
Turn north and head up this wash, through the stone towers which guard the entrance to Agua Caliente Creek. For the first half-mile, the canyon is wide, and navigation is easy. After half a mile, the canyon makes a bend, narrows, and the hiking gets more interesting. Many granite boulders litter the wash, and in many places there are dry waterfalls in this granite. Below most of these waterfalls are pools of water. Fish and tadpoles swim in most of the waterholes, leading me to believe that they are likely year-round. Also, in three seperate pools I saw small black-and-white snakes. As the canyon continues to twist and turn, the cliffs grow higher and the canyon grows narrower. The scenery is excellent, and I saw lots of small wildlife like birds, lizards and snakes. Also, a number of hawks soared around one canyon wall, where there is likely a nest. To travel this section, much scrambling over granite boulders and waterfalls is required, and progress is slow. Expect to travel under 1 mph.
Approxiamately 1.5 miles from the dirt road, you will come to a waterfall. Although this waterfall is only about 20 feet high, the granite is slick and there is an underhang. Also, both sides are bounded by cliffs. If you are looking for an challenging but relatively easy dayhike, I suggest turning around here. For the more adventurous, you can backtrack down the canyon 50 yards or so. It is possible to scramble up the right canyon wall. Your goal is to get above the 100-foot-high cliff over the waterfall. Although there is no technical climbing required, this scramble is not easy, and it is fairly exposed. Once you have gotten high enough, you will see that there is a bench above the cliffs that ranges from 10 to 20 feet wide. You will head upcanyon along this bench, which offers fine views of the terrain you've already covered. After a few hundred yards, the bench starts to descend to meet the canyon floor. You will have to scramble down here as well, but it is much easier that the trip up.
Once on the canyon floor, I recommend backtracking about 50 yards or so downcanyon. There is an excellent swimming hole here, which you can reach by carefully downclimbing the southern wall of the canyon. This swimming hole was only about 5-7 feet deep when I visited, so a cliff dive is NOT recommended. After swimming and sunbathing on the granite, head back up the canyon. The canyon here is more open as a few minor side canyons feed into it. Cast about until you come across an unmarked footpath. This use trail leads west, climbing up onto the ridge between Agua Caliente Canyon and La Milagrosa Canyon.
Once atop the ridge, you have two options. Cowgill and Glendening's "Santa Catalina Mountains" guidebook indicates that it is possible to scramble down the ridge into Milagrosa Canyon, and follow that back to your car. The other option, which is what I did, is to follow the La Milagrosa Ridge Trail south along the ridge. This trail offers fine views of Agua Caliente Canyon and La Milagrosa Canyon, as well as the surrounding terrain. It eventually drops to cross La Milagrosa Canyon, then heads down another ridge. The trail here cross bedrock in many places and can be difficult to follow. Look for cairns. Before too long, you will reach the end of the trail, which connects to the dirt road that you followed into this area. To end the hike, backtrack along this trail to your car.
One final word. Although this canyon is very close to Tucson, it is still wild and pristine. During my hike I saw absolutely no litter at all. I ask that if this trail description inspires you to head for this canyon, please limit your group size and pack out ALL your trash. This is not a designated and maintained trail; no trail crew will be following you to pick up your mess. The only way this canyon will stay in its current pristine state will be if everyone who hikes it treats it with respect.
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.
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.