Santa Catalina Passage on the Arizona Trail
This trip travels from Molino Basin to a scenic, natural swimming hole in the heart of the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. The wilderness is defined by steep-walled, deeply eroded canyons and ragged ridgelines. The cliff-bound heights conceal serene willow- and sycamore-lined streams and lovely canyon pools. This mostly downhill route intersects other popular trails leading into Sabino Basin, offering opportunities for alternate routes out of the wilderness.
The Arizona Trail leaves the Molino Basin campground parking lot and heads south and then west as it bypasses Molino Campground, following Molino Trail #11. Paralleling the Catalina Highway (also called the Mount Lemmon or the General Hitchcock Highway), the trail traverses rolling chaparral of scrub oak, manzanita, shin dagger, and prickly pear cactus.
Two miles from the Molino Basin trailhead, is the site of a federal prison camp, which once supplied labor for construction of the highway. The Forest Service is developing this area for use by larger groups and equestrians. The Arizona Trail travels southwest as it skirts the campground and passes through a charming area of grassy meadows, colorful wildflowers, and an intermittent stream; the Trail eventually joins an abandoned road.
A brown marker indicates where the old 4wd road begins a steep, uphill grade to the wilderness border, 1.3 miles from the old prison camp. The route is exposed and rocky as it leaves the meadow for the hot, chaparral-covered slopes above. As the route gains a saddle it encounters a large metal Arizona Trail sign and magnificent views of the Pusch Ridge Wilderness and Mt. Lemmon to the north. This is the wilderness boundary, and the beginning of the Sycamore Reservoir Trail #39 (shown on some maps as #339).
About 3.3 miles from Molino Basin Trailhead, the Sycamore Reservoir Trail drops steeply from the Pusch Ridge Wilderness Boundary along a rough, narrow, rocky, 600-foot descent. If on horseback, watch for knee-banger rocks. The route levels for a brief respite and then swoops again toward the canyon floor, passing thickets of manzanita, oak, shin dagger, and bear grass. One steep mile from the wilderness boundary the trail alights beside a metal mileage sign and Sycamore Canyon Reservoir, hidden behind a thick growth of desert willow, alder, and sycamore trees. Turn left and follow the narrow path along an old stone wall, leading to a cement foundation. The old foundation makes a wonderful overlook, offering a dramatic view of beautiful and rugged Bear Canyon, the dam, and a waterfall dropping to a pool below. This is the confluence of Bear and Sycamore Canyons.
Backtrack to the sign, and continue northeast, paralleling the stream. The path may be overgrown by grass and wildflowers as you make your way a short distance upstream to an unsigned crossing. The Arizona Trail lies to the west, across the stream and up Sycamore Canyon. Watch for a small rock cairn and the most obvious place to cross-there is a rocky little hill on the opposite side that might be used as a landmark. Once you have crossed the shallow stream and the dense vegetation of the opposite bank, the trail is well defined.
Traveling west along the right side of Sycamore Creek the Arizona Trail continues to follow the route of Sycamore Reservoir Trail #39 for another 0.75 mile. The trail takes a pleasant, gentle, uphill grade away from the riparian sycamores and into a nice mix of oak, Arizona cypress, and alligator juniper, interspersed with yucca and manzanita. There are some grassy camping possibilities along the creek. Occasional rock cairns mark the route as the trail plays tag with the creek before climbing to a saddle, and junction.
At 5 miles from Molino Basin you come to junctions with Bear Canyon Trail #29 and East Fork Trail #24a. Note that there may not be Arizona Trail markers at these junctions. The Arizona Trail follows East Fork Trail to the right (north) as it makes a steep, narrow, switchbacking descent into Sabino Basin. Equestrians, this is a cliff-hanger. There are spectacular views down-canyon, as the trail drops to a junction with Palisade Trail #99 to the right (Palisade Trail climbs 7.5 miles to Showers Point Campground, 0.25 mile south of the Mt. Lemmon Highway).
Continue to follow the East Fork Trail #24a as the route travels a gradual, westward descent along the east fork of Sabino Canyon, to a signed junction with Box Camp Trail #22. Just beyond the signs, to the right, are some lovely, cool pools of water in Palisade Creek. Shade and some level areas offer camping possibilities. A short distance from here, the trail meets the Sabino Canyon Trail #23.
The junction with Sabino Canyon Trail, one of the most popular trails into this region, is 8.7 miles from the Molino Basin trailhead. You may meet other travelers who have hiked up the approximately 2.5 miles from the Sabino Canyon Trailhead. The East Fork Trail #24a becomes West Fork Trail #24 at the junction with Sabino Canyon Trailhead.
Continuing west on West Fork Trail #24/AT, the route crosses rocky Box Camp Creek. Equestrians may want to dismount and lead their animals through the boulders. The route proceeds at a fairly level grade, along a bank above the beautiful pools of Sabino Creek, offering an interesting mixture of plant communities. This is a desert oasis of large sycamore and oak trees mingling with giant saguaro, prickly pear, ocotillo, teddy bear cholla, and barrel cactus. Watch out for poison ivy along the creek.
Less than a mile from the junction, the trail passes an open, grassy area dotted with mesquite trees. This is the recommended place for camping, especially with livestock. From here it is a short distance to a rough and bouldery stream crossing. After scrambling through rocks, the trail climbs west along the side of the stream. The large canyon opening up to the right is Lemmon Canyon.
It is a short climb up a wooded hillside to Hutch's Pool, located below the confluence of Sabino and Lemmon Canyons. The pool, hidden by trees, is awesome: a larger-than-Olympic size, rectangular swimming hole with a small waterfall at the north end and sheer rock sides. As the narrow trail cuts uphill, watch for pathways on the right that drop down to the stream. This is rugged, rocky country with few level places to camp. If you follow the small paths, you will come to some heavily used, flat camping areas below the pool.
The authors recommend that livestock travel this passage no farther than Hutch's Pool. Use caution taking livestock on this section of the route, which is rugged, with narrow, cliff-hanger trails (which may not accommodate horses carrying panniers), and can reach temperatures above 100°F. Take only experienced trail animals that are acclimated to the heat (and not afraid of heights). If you wish to make a loop route, check with the Forest Service regarding which, if any other trail can accommodate horses or llamas.
An alternate route has not been determined. We recommend that long-distance travelers have their animals transported from the Old Prison Camp north of Molino Basin to Red Ridge or Oracle Ridge trailheads above Summerhaven. Both connect to the Arizona Trail (Oracle Ridge is the easier of the two).
The recommended place to unload and camp with livestock is the Old Prison Camp, located 1.7 miles northwest of Molino Basin Campground. Prison Camp may be reached either by driving (do not attempt to ride livestock up the highway), or by following the Arizona Trail west. A spacious area with big shade trees makes this an ideal horse camp, with easy access from the highway and plenty of room for turning and parking trailers. Seasonal water and grass may be available as you follow the dirt road west a short distance beyond the rock walls. If you will be driving in, bring your own water and firewood.
There are no suitable camping areas near Hutch's Pool for livestock. There is a flat, grassy area near the creek, 0.5 mile southeast of the pool (before the final, rocky, creek crossing). Bring insect repellent for your animals.
You may unload livestock in the Molino Basin Campground parking lot, but clean up manure. Livestock is not allowed in the campground.
© Article copyright Pruett Publishing.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication