Thursday, January 3, 2013

A Week in Tucson, Arizona - December 2012

For the last decade we have been visiting Tucson, Arizona around Christmas. We enjoy spending some of the holiday season in the desert sunshine. tucson has a lot to offer in terms of hiking and non-hiking opportunities. If you don't want to hike you can explore in the town itself checking out galleries or the art museum. You could go visit nearby places like the old Cold War missile silos, the Biosphere, or Kitt Peak Observatory. This year we elected to do fairly short hikes which gave us time to do other things. This year the weather was totally wonderful and we went out for hikes every day. What follows is a summary of what we did. I hope you enjoy it. One quick note about the maps shown. I am not totally confident that EveryTrail has placed the photos (the red balloons) properly. The completely album of photos can be viewed here.

Tucson Mountains Above the Desert Floor Day 1: Golden Gates Pass and Ironwood Trail Loop An easy hike that first takes you up to the pass and then deposits you down upon the desert floor. The bulk of ascent and descent is at the start of the hike on trail that is a little rock-strewn but generally has good footing. While the obvious trail is the one to follow a narrow, more like a aged worn out path, trail runs from the parking lot contouring across the slope through a wash (heading southwest from the parking lot) to the primary trail. If you take it, as Mom and I did on the return, you'll shave off a fair bit of climbing and probably close to a mile of walking.
Lunch at Garwood Dam Day 2: Douglas Springs Trailhead - Garwood Dam Loop We had a small navigational snafu with this hike as we started from a different spot than we had intended too. That little mistake just adds more proof to the fact that if you start with faulty assumptions about where you are you are going to get confused trying to match reality to what you believe you know. Once we realized our mistake things went smoothly and we had a chance to explore a little bit more of the trails in this area which is full of trails. Normally we park at the Shantz Trailhead and venture into the Pink Hills towards Garwood Dam and then up towards the three tanks and big steel tank before passing by the airfield that we have never actually seen returning to that trailhead. This time though we started at Douglas Springs Trailhead and found our way along the Garwood Trail heading towards the big steel tank (still empty of water) before looping up and around to Garwood Dam for lunch. From there we would return to Douglas Springs trailhead. The trails in this area are all easily walked. Sometimes it seems like walking them can take a bit too long but that is an illusion. The trails are generally pretty quiet with just a little traffic noise drifting across the wide expanse of desert floor. This is a nice change from the hike along Golden Gate Pass and Ironwood Trail where though there is just a single road it seems rather louder.
A view from a highpoint along the Kartchner Caverns Foothills Loop Day 3: Kartchner Caverns State Park - Kartchner Foothills Loop This would be a new place for me. Mom and Dad came here a decade earlier but wanted to return. The caverns were first explored over 30 years ago and now what really strikes one beyond the cool rock formations you find slowly growing in the caern is the engineering that has gone into opening up a small section of the cavern to the public. It's an ongoing process to keep the environment of the cavern to something pretty much approaching what it should be if people weren't invading. This means keeping track and then carefully cleaning anything that gets touched by people, ensuring no lint or other detritus is left behind, carefully controlling the humidity, and so much more. We did the Rotunda Tour which is about 90 minutes long. You slowly move through the wheelchair accessible cave along wide but dimly lit ramps. My dark-adapted vision may well be getting less good but unless you are normally fearful in caverns you won't have any trouble. The tour does give you a fine hence to see stalagmites, stalactites, rock draperies, massive columns, and more. The little light and music show in front of Kublakahn (sp) which is a staggeringly large column is enjoyable. I strongly encourage you to walk the Foothills Trail after visiting the cavern. This is easy trail that loops through the foothills and gives you a slightly different view of desert flora than you may have already seen . This is because their is a bit more water around than normal which creates a slightly different environment. Granted the water isn't visible in pools or streams but things do look different. If you decide to take the side trail, perhaps a half mile long with about an elevation gain of 200 feet, to the top of one of the hills you will be treated to some great panoramic views.
Cottonwoods in Pima Canyon Day 4: Pima Canyon This is a popular hike for Tucsonans. Unlike many hikes this one starts well within the city limits. You actually begin the hike by walking a right-of-way path through private land behind several nicely tucked into the scenery homes. There is a bit of ascending to do at first but for most people it will be easy going. I personally don't much care for walking across the slick rock sections but that owes more to my vision than anything else. Within half a mile you leave the private land for the wilderness area and not long after you enter the canyon proper (heading northeast). As you move into the canyon, following a rock-strewn trail, the sounds of Tucson fade away to pretty much nothing. In the morning the canyon is shady and it's clear that sometimes water is readily available as sections with a few trees including cottonwoods and many taller shrubs abound. I'm fairly sure there is never an actual stream flowing as you can find in Sabino Canyon (the 7 Falls hike say). While walking in the canyon is different than the more open desert walking and that is a nice change I think we all prefer to bigger views and sense of openness that you find along the other trails we have hiked. I also personally prefer Sabino Canyon even though it can be more crowded (Pima Canyon gets busy; we saw many more people on our way back out in early afternoon). The rocky trailbed is bothersome for me though most people won't be overly affected by the rocks. We hiked in just over 3 miles to where a dam is supposed to be (just over 6 miles round-trip; Dad actually did a bit over 8 miles as he realized he left the guidebook with over ten years of notes at the car and wanted to be sure no one swiped it off the car's roof so he hustled back to the car and returned meeting us just after we left our furthest point into the canyon). We found the many slick rocks which make for a fine lunch spot and I know people went well beyond this area but we did not find the dam. Our understanding is that it is in that area but easily missed. I suppose since a dam is there water must have been present in large enough amounts to make it worth building (rather like Garwood's dam). But none is visible now.
Day 5: Douglas Spring Trail to Ernie's Falls We like the whole area around Douglas Springs Trail and Bridal Wreath Falls. While the Douglas Springs trail can be quite busy it is still a nice area to explore. This year instead of visiting Bridal Wreath Falls (I wish we had as it would have only added 20-30 minutes) we decided to check out Ernie's Falls which we knew nothing about. From what I could gather the trail to Ernie's Falls would lead us to a creek which would in turn take us to the waterfall. We had no idea what we would find. Setting out on a mostly sunny morning we began the gradual ascent towards the trail junction of Bridal Wreath and Ernie's Falls 2.7 miles from the trailhead. The trail starts out level for the first two thirds of a mile before quickly ascending for a time before leveling out and then ascending again before again leveling out. The ascents aren't all that steep and the trail follows good switchbacks all the way. In time we passed by a slickrock area we often have had snacks at that is less than a half mile from the trail junction. By this point we had seen a few people, including many trail runners, but it didn't really feel overwhelmingly busy to us. Once we turned off on the trail to Ernie's Falls it became quite clear that people do not go this way. It is a good easy to follow trail that descends gradually for about 0.6 miles to the creek and National Park boundary. As we walked along the trail it seemed to me the flora changed a bit. All of a sudden it seemed as though there were more grasses around us along with a few shrubs here and there. When we reached the creek-bed we found it utterly dry and that was definitely a good place to stop. I do wonder when water flows through this creek and what the waterfall might be like. Returning to the trailhead and our car makes this an easy out-and-back hike of about 6.6 miles. I'm glad we went somewhere new even though we did not see any water flowing. Maybe we will return to Ernie's Falls one day.
Me along the Hugh Norris Trail
The Hugh Norris Trail at EveryTrail
(Not sure all the photos appear on the map or in the proper places)
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Tucson, Arizona
Day 6: The Hugh Norris Trail The Hugh Noris Trail eventually takes you to Wassen Peak which we have visited numerous times in the past. In the past we have found our way to that peak from the Kings Canyon Trail if memory serves. It has been years since we hiked the Hugh Norris Trail. In fact our notes suggest that the trail may have changed some in the intervening years; at least we think some of the things we noticed this time would certainly have made it into our notes. We decided as time went by that we would not hike all the way to Wassen Peak. We would go as far as we would based on how we felt for the last day. The trail winds steadily upwards through a series of switchbacks that are made up of a stunningly large number of steps. This is one of those features of the trail that we feel we would have written into our notes. The steps do seem to make the climbing tougher as you have to raise your foot up high to ascend each stair. As you climb you are treated to expansive views of the desert and in the foreground massive boulders that add character to the scenery. It is a trek with some of the more distinctive vistas around. When not ascending you get to walk good paths along ridges that sport some desert flora. But these are just interludes to the general ascent. The trail is moderately popular. We saw many, though by no means the most, people heading in both directions throughout the hiking day. It is not so crowded that you feel a sense of loss as people ruin the quietude of the desert. We enjoyed the hike even though it does get a bit tiring always seeming to be climbing up. But taking breaks now and then for a snack, by a particularly photogenic egg-shaped boulder, or to have lunch make the hike fun. The overall quality of the trail is superb but you should be used to steady hill climbing up and down if you want to tackle this trail. We decided in the end not to go go quite all the way to the trail junction with the Kings Canyon Trail that lies just 0.3 miles from Wassen Peak itself. It just seemed a tad silly at the end and we knew it would be breezy at that junction and the views would only be a bit different (and nothing we haven't seen before) from where we were standing as we watched two mountain bikers (a no-no I am pretty sure) rapidly descend towards us. All in all I think the out-and-back hike covered 8 miles and that includes somewhere around 2,300 feet of ascent and 2,300 feet of descent. This was a good hike to end our trip with even though I do kind of wish we had gone to the trail junction as originally planned. There are several more photos that I strongly encourage you to view by following this link. Remember you should really click the photos to see them at the best resolution and to view the associated commentary. As you can see from the sampling of pictures we generally had utter clear weather but some mornings started out a bit overcast which helped keep the temperature down and added a bit of zest to the sky.
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