Southern Arizona Trails
A fine introduction to the"front range" of the western Santa Catalinas, this route passes alternately along wildflower-dotted hillsides and through leafy, intimate forest cloisters on the way to the head of Romero Canyon. En route we gain excellent views across the rough-cut skyline of Pusch Ridge, beneath which sprawls some of the wildest and most inaccessible country left in southern Arizona.
From Tucson, drive north along US 77 (Oracle Road). About six miles beyond Ina Road, turn right into Catalina State Park. At the entry station you will be charged a day use fee of $4, or a camping fee of $9 or $15 (with electricity). Drive an additional mile and a half to the large trailhead parking area.
From the parking area at Romero Canyon Trailhead (0.0 miles; 2,720 feet in altitude) follow a well-defined and signed path east as it crosses sandy Canada del Oro and swings up to a trail junction just beyond. Bear left from the Birding Trail along an old road smoothed into a wide footpath. Continue straight past the Canyon Loop Trail half a mile farther. Soon a sign proclaims the trail ahead to be within a bighorn sheep management area with no dogs allowed ever, and hikers are not to leave the trail more than 400 feet during lambing season, January 1 April 30. A half mile later the road ends at a point overlooking Montrose Canyon Wash on the right (1.1; 2,960). A glance into the wash may give some idea of how much water to expect. Here we turn onto a foot trail which can be seen heading off to the left, and climb up to the Coronado National Forest boundary. Above here the trail climbs rather steeply, switchbacking occasionally and soon rising high above rugged Montrose Canyon. There are many side-use trails, usually blocked by a line of stones low enough that a rubbernecking hiker can easily step over them unnoticed. The vegetative cover here is dense and varied, consisting chiefly of statuesque saguaros, sprawling ocotillos, yellow (or foothill) paloverde, and prickly pear. During the spring months there are bright patches of wildflowers all through this section, including yellow-blossomed brittlebush and paperflower, as well as some narrowleaf aster. Views are excellent to the south, sweeping across the cliffy foothills of Pusch Ridge to steep-walled, square-topped Table Mountain. With luck you might spot one of the 40 or so bighorn sheep that inhabit the inaccessible fastnesses of Pusch Ridge, particularly during the winter, when fierce snowstorms occasionally drive them off the heights.
After winding up and down through a jumbled, rocky area, the trail threads a narrow notch atop a ridge (2.4; 3,640). From here we climb a short distance eastward along the ridge, gaining good views up the long defile of Romero Canyon, and then drop down to a saddle crest between Romero Creek and a drainage on the right (2.8; 3,600). Shortly beyond the saddle, the trail reaches the pools and crosses the stream though it appears to continue upstream. A series of potholes just downstream from here always have water and provide enjoyable swimming during warm weather. When these are too crowded there are less popular pools upstream. A few poor-to-fair campsites are located nearby.
For the next 0.5 mile we proceed up-canyon, crossing the creek on occasion but mostly staying on the dry flats to either side. The first crossing is on solid bedrock and the trail seems to end in an area of beautiful pools. Sycamore, walnut, and velvet ash grow near the stream, while Mexican blue oaks and mesquites are predominant in the drier areas away from the water. The canyon quickly grows narrower and rougher, and the trail soon begins a steep, switchbacking ascent up the left-hand canyon wall. As we gain elevation there are good views of the craggy headlands surrounding 7,952-foot Cathedral Rock.
After gaining some 800 feet the trail levels off and begins traversing high above the canyon floor. Approximately 0.5 mile later, after crossing a (seasonally) brushy flat (the site of an old corral), we drop down a few steep switchbacks to an old campsite featuring a couple of large stone fire rings (5.0; 4680). Other nice campsites can be found just up- or down-stream. Romero Creek, which runs only during the rainy season (and often intermittently even then), is just beyond the campsite. Romero Spring is a short distance down-canyon, at the confluence of a tributary wash that comes down from the south. It is apparently not a reliable source of water during the dry months.
To continue to the head of Romero Canyon, follow the trail as it proceeds moderately up-canyon, crossing the bouldery streambed frequently. About 0.5 mile later we switchback a short distance up the north canyonside, through a light forest cover of pinyon pine and alligator juniper, then drop back down to creek side. There are excellent campsites in this area, beneath a shady overstory of silverleaf and Arizona white oaks, velvet ash, walnut, and an occasional cypress or ponderosa. During the spring, delicate yellow columbines bloom in moist pockets by the water.
A few hundred yards above here the trail swings to the right and enters a side canyon (6.2; 5,320), preparatory to beginning the ascent to Romero Pass. Here, at the end of today's excursion, there is one final campsite (water during rainy periods only).
Return the way you came.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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