Tucson to the Extreme
Note: The actual Sutherland Trail #6 segment is 8.7mi +5860ft. Page data reflects continuing on Mount Lemmon Trail #5 to the top of Mount Lemmon.
After finding a companion as crazy as I am (my buddy Phil), I finally realized my ultimate local hiking goal today...Hiking from the floor of Tucson to the peak of Mt. Lemmon. I've been ramping up for this for a while, but I have never been sure that I could do it, or that an accessible route even exists. Well, there is a route but it is extremely difficult to follow, especially in the midportion and requires serious route finding skills, patience and a reliable partner.
From the corner of the parking lot, take off on the unmarked route, which quickly shows a signed Sutherland Trail pole. Follow the signs for the Sutherland trail as it winds away from Romero Canyon and starts leisurely climbing up into the high desert of the State Park. This section is pleasant, easy to follow and can be hiked quickly.
In about 0.8 miles a well-formed path breaks off to the right. This unmarked route actually cuts across the canyon to link up with the Romero Canyon Trail. Keep on moving and in another 1.8 miles or so, pass through a hinged hikers gate and soon thereafter join a wide jeep track at a signed intersection. This is a junction with the 50-Year Trail. Hang a right here and follow this wide, rocky trail as it continues to climb.
Continue along this path between 2.5 to 3 miles until it ends at a rusted sign. Surprisingly,at two points along the way we saw running water. After crossing the wash at the second spring the trail starts wildly climbing very steeply for a while before reaching the rusty sign. As a side note, this portion of the trail parallels some power lines that head up into the Catalina highcountry, more about these later.
The sign announces that the Sutherland Trail, Samaniego Trail and Mt. Lemmon all break off to the right. The trail is just ahead and right of the sign. Beware, for the next several miles the trail is at times very faint, at times OK and at times virtually nonexistant. Immediately it is much tougher to follow, and concentration and route finding becomes a must. There is a fairly nice cairn network that you will have to rely upon. Also bring a map and know where you want to go. You will also need to rely heavily on your partner. The faint path falls slightly down the ridge and soon breaks off to the right heading down towards the gully on the right. Cross the gully and look for a cairn that marks where the trail starts to switchback up the other side of the gully. The trail now starts climbing up along the canyon and is at times overgrown. Start to look for cairns that tend to bail you out when you think you have gotten lost. Continue climbing up intermittent switchbacks with the canyon falling away to your left into a larger canyon. This canyon is not always visible to you. After about one mile you will come to the most difficult area of the trail to follow, we were lost here for several minutes. Get a good idea of the last portion of the trail you can follow and fan out to look for cairnes, be patient, continue to climb and keep your eyes open for a small drainage that continues to climb up, you can follow this up into the train again. After about 1/2 to 1 very tough mile you start to enter the lowest reaches of pine and the trail becomes much easier to follow, though still faint. Now there is a nice network of cairns to follow. As you climb you will realize that your ultimate goal is to reach a saddle up and slightly to your left, and then up and over the top of the canyon to rejoin the power lines on the other side of the canyon. (Cargodera Canyon)
At the saddle (roughly 6800 feet) jaw-dropping scenery opens up in front of you, and follows you for the next several miles. This is the best part of the hike and the most fantastic scenery I have seen in the Catalinas. Cathedral Rock and the Window follow you the rest of the way. I will submit pictures, however they do not represent the true beauty of the hike at all. Partly because this route heads into the sun most of the way, good photos were hard to capture. This is one of those hikes that you have to just see to really appreciate.
From the saddle, the trail breaks off to your left and for the next 1/2 mile becomes very difficult to follow again. It is going to climb up the ridge at times very steeply. We got lost again in this portion. Again use your route finding skills and tricks and look for cairns. Shortly thereafter, the trail will again become easier to follow. As you climb, at times you will go through burned areas watch your footing and look for cairnes. A couple of disappointing times you actually loose evelation, disappointing only because you immediately regain what you have lost. Shortly after this the trail become very faint again for a short distance. The cairn network is not as good here. The trail stays to the right of the ridge you are climbing. After a total of 4.3 miles after breaking off from the jeep track you finally summit another saddle and meet the power lines again. This is at roughly 7750 feet.
Your path now follows where the lines run, though they ultimately become buried. Occassionaly you will even notice signs noting high voltage underground. Throughout this section of trail we saw more bear scat that I have ever seen adding a nice edge to the hike as we waited to get trampled by something. This is probably the steepest part of the climb and after all the elevation you have already gained it gets pretty painful. After climbing what feels like forever you suddenly find yourself on a well-worn path going left and right. To the left is the unmarked Samaniego Ridge Trail. Turn right and congratulate yourself because the route finding difficulties are over. If you have made it this far, you will make it to the top. It is about 0.8 miles and probably 700 feet of switchbaking to the junction with the Mt. Lemmon trail.
Hang a left and climb more gently (but by now equally painfully) and follow the Mt. Lemmon trail up to the trailhead. There will be 2 junctions for the Meadows trail breaking off to the left so keep right. From the junction of the Mt. Lemmon trail it is a total of 1.5 miles to the trailhead. Congratulations, you have just pulled off the toughest hike around! Now look for your pre-arranged ride or you have a blistering 12 mile, 6600+ descent to make.
This trail is not for the faint of heart and favors those who enjoy monumental leg-burning climbs. That being said it is nothing short of spectacular and I am thrilled to have finally done it. This trail demands a formidable partner with endurance and route finding skills. I cannot recommend trying this solo. Serious experience in the Catalinas is helpful for at least one of you as well. Map and compass are requisites as is a lot of water. I would also not wear shorts as you are gonna get torn up on sections.
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.