|Guide||♦||33 Triplogs||1 Topic|
2005 Update Since the Florida Fire in 2005, the trees are a lot less lush and the views more expansive.
For those unfamiliar with Mt. Wrightson, it is the Santa Rita range's high point standing at 9453'. It's located just south of Tucson and is one of SE Arizona's "sky islands." It is named after a mining superintendent who, while surveying claims, was killed by Apaches way back in 1865. Since there are several ways for hikers to reach the summit (via a network of trails) and I was going to make this trip with fellow HAZ hikers terricita10 and JW63 who like challenges, I did a little research to find the most challenging route to the top. The hike I'm going to describe is definitely for sadistic hikers, and I think one of the most strenuous non-Grand Canyon trail hikes in the state. What makes this near 16 miles R/T so tricky is the 5100'+ elevation gain with a total accumulated gain of 5500'+!
The route we used on this trip was to hike up the lightly used Florida Canyon trail 4.7 miles to Florida Saddle. Then from the saddle, we continued on the lightly used Santa Rita Crest trail 2.3 miles to the Baldy Saddle intersection. From there, we continued 0.9 miles on up to the heavily visited summit. On a beautiful spring Sunday, we encountered only six people and two dogs on the Florida Canyon trail, two people on the Crest, and at least 20 on the Summit trail. Even though this is a challenging trip, I do say that this entire route was in excellent shape, easy to follow, and offers a good deal of shade after the first 2 or 3 miles. Since Florida Canyon is north-facing, it's possible if you get an early start in the morning during the summer, you can beat the heat. Of course, the last 2 to 3 miles will be hot on the return, but they are downhill. For those of you who like wildflower hikes, the word Florida in Spanish means flowered, and this trail is supposed to have lots of flowers after a wet winter. We hiked this at the end of April and saw a good amount in the 1st mile or 2, but few after.
A neat thing about this hike, and is typical of these sky islands, is that you'll pass thru most of the Arizona life zones, starting with the Lower Sonoran desert on the drive to the TH. To reach the signed Florida Canyon TH, you'll have to drive to the Florida Work Station (a.k.a. Santa Rita Experimental Station), a research station operated by the University of Arizona. It's located in a riparian area at the base of the Santa Rita's northern end. This research station lays claim to being the oldest continuously active research area, dating back to 1903! The TH is located in a parking lot on your left at the end of the road and just in front of the research station gate.
Florida Canyon Trail
Shortly after departing from the trailhead, you will come to some ruins (or junk) located along a fence line to your right. These could be from the mining days. I'm surprised that since these are next to the research station, they haven't been cleaned up. This range had a lot of mining activity, and according to my map, there are many old mines scattered about this range that I'd like to check out someday. After passing the ruins, you'll head in a southerly direction just on the east side of the main Florida Canyon drainage, passing the research station buildings on the opposite side of the drainage. You'll then go into the drainage for a very short time, briefly crossing it twice before reaching the wilderness gate. Once thru the gate, gradually climb away from the main drainage up thru feeder drainage. As it turned out, to my surprise, the start of this hike was the only time this hike would be IN the Florida Canyon drainage until we crossed the head of it much later on.
You'll hike up this tree-lined riparian feeder until it's time to climb out and into Upper Sonoran Desert Grassland. You'll be climbing out on the eastern side of the ridge that separates the feeder from Florida Canyon. At this point, the trail will get loose and gravelly and will be so for the next 2 miles. You'll encounter some switchbacks on this part, the 1st of many on this trip as you make your way up. This 2-mile stretch proved to be very painful to our knees on the extended return back. Bring the ibuprofen! You'll pass by an old water tank along the way that is not in operation, but a short time later, at 1.7 miles into the hike, you'll come to another, which appears to still be working. It is feed from a water pipeline that you will follow for the next 1-2 miles. There will be the 1st of many good camping spots after the 2nd water tank. From this area, you'll get a great view up the canyon to McCleary Peak, the headwall of Florida Canyon, and the dense, healthy forest that awaits you at higher elevations. When you turn around and look, you'll see the Santa Catalina's (a.k.a. Mt. Lemmon) north of Tucson, along with the town of Green Valley and the Santa Cruz Valley. A minor drawback to this hike turned out to be the lack of prolonged panoramic mountain top views until you get to the Baldy Saddle area.
From the water tank, you will continue hiking up in a southerly direction (which is the general direction this entire trip heads), passing an old mine site. Not much is left besides a cabin foundation and a piece of plate steel that probably covers a hole. If you look carefully in this area, an overgrown trail goes off on your left, leading to the old mine. Up to about the mine site, you had been hiking in heavily vegetated desert grassland, which consisted of a mixture of; mesquite, manzanita, oaks, pinyon, junipers, catclaw as well as prickly pear, ocotillo, soap tree yucca, agave, staghorn, and hedgehog cactus plus many others I don't know the names of yet. Around the mine, you'll have passed into the cooler Evergreen Woodland life zone that is also considered to be part of the Upper Sonoran zone. This Upper Sonoran zone level consists mainly of larger oaks, pinyon, junipers, and manzanita.
Interestingly the Upper Sonoran zone classification consists of 5 levels of vegetation mix found around the state. Not all will be seen together. After the mine, the trail heads west briefly and switchbacks up onto another ridge. Then it'll gradually ascend this ridge offering a closer view of McCleary Peak. This will last maybe a mile and will level off as you enter the Transition life zone that will consist mostly of Ponderosa pine, but some Douglas Firs, Arizona, and Apache Pines will be mixed in. Shortly after entering the pines, the trail will soften up into dirt and pine needles, and you'll then descend briefly to Florida Spring. The spring is dry and is the head of Florida Canyon, believe it or not. It doesn't appear what the head of a canyon should look like, more like a small drainage. There's a real nice campsite in this area and the pipe you've been following on and off after 1st seeing it at the 2nd water tank disappears here. From here, it's UP! You'll climb a bunch of big switchbacks for a mile to Florida Saddle, gaining about 1000' for a total of 3500' from the TH. It's not as bad as it sounds since this whole part is under a thick canopy of pines, and some trees are REALLY old. If I recall correctly, we entered the Canadian (Lower Boreal) life zone as Douglas Firs and Arizona Pines became more numerous during this part of the hike. At least to my eyes, the forest looks pretty healthy here with not much downfall except in a few small areas, and the trees aren't growing too close to one another.
Santa Rita Crest
Once at the saddle, you come to a major JCT. You'll want to head SW toward Armour Spring here. This saddle is another excellent campsite and would be pretty protected during a lightning storm. It's a short but aggressive climb after the saddle of maybe 400' in 0.3 miles to the signed Armour spring turnoff and another great campsite. We didn't check out the spring, but supposedly it's your best chance of getting water before the springs beneath Baldy Saddle, but it is unreliable. From the signed turnoff, it's 0.4 miles one way to the spring.
During the 2 mile hike to Baldy Saddle from the spring turnoff, you'll basically hike along the sloped eastern side of the backbone of the Santa Rita's, gaining 1000'+. There will be no exposure along this stretch. Besides the pines, there will be a good amount of some shrubby bush I don't know the name. You'll get occasional views of the ranges to the north and east that there will be a much better view of later from the top of Wrightson.
The nearest ranges are Whetstone, Rincon, Patagonia, and Mustang, with a handful more in the distance. You'll pass thru a saddle about 1/2 way thru this leg that got burned in 1993 by a lightning-caused fire with a bit of downfall to crawl over here. Rocky Mt. Ian at 9188' will be just above you to your south. This saddle must have been an excellent place to camp before the fire, but I'd be reluctant to use it now since it's exposed. Here there will be a fantastic view to the west, and you can see Baboquivari Peak. After you pass thru the burn area, you'll again be on the eastern side of the range and come to a point where you'll drop down 100'-150' and have to regain it back in no time, but that is minor compared to the 375' drop down to 9040' Baldy Saddle which you'll come to shortly. Once you see Mt. Wrightson, you'll begin the descent along a real rocky and bushy portion of the trail to the saddle.
Baldy Saddle to Peak
Once in the saddle, you're almost there! It's less than a mile to the top with only 400'+ to climb back up. You'll run into people here who did it the "easy way," which still requires climbing 4000' from Madera Canyon. For info on the rest of the trip, read other HAZ member trip reports on Wrightson via Old Baldy Trail. If anyone finds any errors in identifying plants/trees or life zones, please send me a message, I'd like to know.
Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.
This is a difficult hike. It would be insane to attempt this entire hike without prior experience hiking.
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