At the top of Wasson Peak in Saguaro National Park we met two local women also out for a hike. I asked them if they could identify the various mountains in the distance, and the more knowledgeable of the pair obliged by pointing out Santa Catalina Mountains, the Rincon Mountains, and the Santa Rita Mountains. Additionally, they recommended that we check out Sabino or Bear Canyon, in particular the hike to Seven Falls. Seven Falls…as in waterfalls? In the desert?!? Sounds amazing! Along with John’s Uncle Rich’s recommendation to see Mount Lemmon, this this how we ended up at Sabino Canyon Visitor Center to acquire a map and information on hiking in the area.
Examining the map, John planned an itinerary for a one-night backpack trip to hike down Bear Canyon past Seven Falls, up Sabino Canyon, and over to Hutch’s Pool (a destination recommended by the ranger) before heading back to the van. The leg between the trailhead adjacent to the Gordon Hirabayashi Prison Camp and Hutch’s Pool is on the Arizona Trail, an 800+ mile trail from Mexico the Utah.
Camping isn’t allowed in the most popular day use areas, the lower areas of both canyons, so to make this itinerary we would need to hike 15 miles the first day to set up camp above the heavily used areas. Trouble was, on the first day we were slow getting going and didn’t start hiking until 10:30. An hour later when we arrived at the trail junction to Bear Canyon, we realized there was no way we would be able to enjoy our day and make it to a suitable camping area if we stuck with the plan, so we decided to hike it in reverse! This led to a very relaxed first day, where we had plenty of time to relax at Hutch’s Pool, which holds the most water of anywhere in the Coronado National Forest.
After eating lunch and relaxing at Hutch’s Pool, we turned back toward the canyon trails. The junction of the Arizona Trail (which turns from the West Fork Trail to the East Fork Trail here) with the Sabino Canyon Trail offers a flat area suitable to pitch a tent. After some consideration we decided to stay at this junction, which was heavily used and clearly suitable for camping, though it would mean we would cover 17 miles the following day. The topo map shows steep walls on either side of the trail in the canyon, so we couldn’t be sure that if we tried to continue on we would find a place to camp. Setting up camp and planning an extra-long second day was playing it safe. (A side note: usually wilderness areas with open backcountry camping set a minimum distance from the trail to set up camp, but in this forest there was a maximum distance set to protect big horn sheep lambing areas. Sadly, we did not see any adorable little lambs, or even the adults.)
We hiked about 8 miles on day one, and had a nice relaxing evening. The temperature was not so freezing that we ran under the covers as soon as the sunset, and we were able to sit out near a dry wash and enjoy the evening. As the sun was setting we caught sight of two deer on a mountain side across the canyon, and we sat as dark set in looking for nocturnal animals. We glimpsed a couple of mice as they scurried past, one inches from where I sat, but they are so fast we barely saw them before they were hidden in the shelter of a stone. We listened to owls hooting and watched the stars pop out in the night sky before turning in.
[John here: I look ridiculous in this shot, but let Heidi post it because of the “looking manly” part in the description.]
In preparation for the long day, the next day we arose from the tent early, before the sun was even up, and we were hiking by 7:30. This day was Saturday, and we saw firsthand how popular Sabino Canyon is. After the trip, I read that the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area draws over a million visitors a year. More than a million! A paved road winds about two-thirds up the canyon. The road is closed to vehicles and is reserved for use by a privately run shuttle tour, but foot traffic is also allowed. Crowds of people come here to take a Saturday morning walk along the road. A few pairs and small groups were hiking up the trail, but most people walked the road below.
Near the bottom of the canyon I heard a noise off the trail and looked over. I was surprised and ecstatic to see a mom and child javelinas! More were back a bit further from the trail. The herd stood there munching away on prickly pear cacti even with the noisy crowd on the trail. We thoroughly enjoyed watching them and employed the binoculars for a better look, even though they were close enough to see clearly with our naked eyes. We saw them munching away on prickly pear cactus (it’s amazing that they can eat these spiny plants!), watched the mother and child rub against each other for comfort and to absorb each others’ musk, and even witnessed some tussles between two adult members of the herd.
After watching the javelinas we continued to the bottom of Sabino Canyon and rounded the base to enter the adjacent Bear Canyon. Thankfully we found a water spigot at the base of Bear Canyon and were able to top off our supplies. I filled a liter, and would have been a very unhappy camper by the end of the day if not for that extra liter of water. The day was hot and the air (unsurprisingly) dry. The water spigot was located at a shuttle stop where a group of people exited and started hiking up the canyon. Many, many others also hiked up the two mile trail to Seven Falls. This is a popular destination for Tucsonans of all ages, but especially as a swimming hole for college kids. We ate lunch watching people come and go, and finally set out again after an hour break.
After climbing away from the falls for awhile, we came across an unmarked trail junction (every other trail junction was clearly marked with a sign). We debated, then decided to go right – it seemed too early for the fork we expected, but we figured it must be and went right, the direction we needed to go at the fork on the map. After about a mile, we encountered another fork! The map only shows one fork, so this extra choice was disconcerting. We took the right turn again, because the trail coursed northwest, and I reasoned that as long as we continued northwest, we were bound to hit our final trail, which runs southeast. So we continued on, not sure what would happen. About 15 minutes later the trail ended at a T-junction with another trail. We turned right on this trail, heading southeast, hoping that this trail was indeed the expected East Fork Trail leading to the van. By this point the sun was getting low in the sky. We wracked our brains about the previous day, but we could not recall any specifics about the East Fork Trail, and we did not have much food for an extra night in the woods. The trees and bushes were the same that we had seen the day before, but the vegetation was not specific enough to be sure we were on the same trail. Relief set in as soon as we came to the first landmark we recognized – an area loud with the buzz of bees, and a large nest in a tree that we suspect is the hive. We arrived back at the van minutes before sunset. Tired and sore from the long day, (over 17 miles, about 3000 feet down then up again, in 10 1/2 hours) but happy with the accomplishment.