Santa Catalina Passage on the Arizona Trail
This trip is a mostly uphill climb from a hidden desert treasure: a rock-walled swimming hole in the West Fork Sabino Canyon. A steep ascent to Romero Pass affords far-reaching views of the Pusch Ridge Wilderness, Cathedral Rock, and the southern route of the Arizona Trail. From Romero Pass it is a challenging climb to a junction below Mount Lemmon, which offers the choice of continuing north on the Arizona Trail or exiting through Wilderness of Rocks to the charming community of Summerhaven.
The beginning of this trip, Hutch's Pool, is not accessible by vehicle. This popular destination is accessible from several different trails from both the east and west sides of the range, but is not near any road.
The Arizona Trail now bypasses the small community of Summerhaven. However, after this difficult section of trail, some travelers may opt to exit the Arizona Trail, as we did, via Wilderness of Rocks in order to resupply or end their hike in Summerhaven. Though the route of the Arizona Trail continues north, passing to the west of Mt. Lemmon via Mt. Lemmon Trail #5 (shown on some maps as #8), this trip exits the Arizona Trail via Wilderness of Rocks Trail to Summerhaven.
Contact the Forest Service for trail conditions before traveling the final Mt. Lemmon Trail section of the Arizona Trail. We do not recommend taking livestock on this trip.
There are no Arizona Trail markers along this trip. The route of the Arizona Trail, following West Fork Trail #24, climbs steeply from Hutch's Pool, switchbacking up 0.25 mile to a saddle. As the trail winds, there are spectacular views into the deep and rocky cleft of Lemmon Canyon to the north. The trail becomes a narrow cliffhanger, washed out in places.
For the next 5 miles the route climbs toward Romero Pass, following the south side of the long, east/west defile of West Fork Sabino Canyon. The grade levels, then drops as it crosses the drainage, continuing west on the other side, through oak and juniper chaparral. As the trail wanders back and forth across the dry bottom of the canyon, it disappears now and then in the rocky flood plain. The canyon deepens, bound by granite boulder cliffs as the path follows along the floor of the drainage.
Three miles from Hutch's Pool, approaching the western end of the drainage, the trail makes several crossings as it wanders up-canyon. Watch for occasional rock cairns. The route passes a small (apparently seasonal) pool, the first water since Hutch's Pool and the last for many miles. Approximately 0.5 mile farther is a faint, easily missed junction with Cathedral Rock Trail #26, marked by a small wooden sign to the left of the trail. (Cathedral Rock Trail passes to the east of Cathedral Rock, linking to other trails on the front range of the Santa Catalinas.) Both routes may be hidden here by fallen leaves. Immediately after this junction, the Arizona Trail makes a final crossing of West Fork Sabino Canyon and begins a switchbacking ascent of the north slope.
The steep, narrow trail is overgrown with manzanita in places, but passable. The route affords spectacular views across the vast expanse of Sabino Basin to the eastern edge of the wilderness boundary and beyond. The southern route of the Arizona Trail lies below us; beyond the Catalinas, the distant Rincons, and farther still, the Santa Ritas, fading blue into the skyline. Across the canyon to the east, the fortressed spires of Cathedral Rock rise starkly from the ragged ridgeline looming above us. Cathedral Rock is a distinctive landmark that is visible from many areas, including Tucson and I-10. The narrow trail continues its steep ascent to Romero Pass.
About 5.2 miles from Hutch's Pool is a junction with Romero Canyon Trail #8, and Mount Lemmon Trail #5. The Arizona Trail turns right (northeast) and follows the Mount Lemmon Trail #5. For the next 1.75 miles the route makes a steep, boulder-scrambling ascent as it follows the crest of a jagged ridgeline. At length, the route levels briefly, affording an impressive view to the west of a deep defile: wild and remote Romero Canyon. Beyond, Interstate 10 and Picacho Peak are visible. The trail continues to climb steeply through a mixed cover of ponderosa pine, oak, alligator juniper, and madrone, finally topping out with a view of Mount Lemmon. At this point the unsigned trail is indistinct in places. Watch for rock cairns as the route heads downhill.
Seven miles from Hutch's Pool the trail arrives at the junction with Wilderness of Rock Trail #44. The Santa Catalina Mountains Passage continues north approximately 2.5 miles, gaining over 1,000 feet as it follows Mount Lemmon Trail #5 to the Pusch Ridge Wilderness boundary. The passage ends at a junction with Sutherland Trail #6, and a utility road below Mount Lemmon.
If you wish to exit the Arizona Trail for Summerhaven, turn right (east) on the Wilderness of Rocks Trail. There are small creeks and some nice camping possibilities as the Wilderness of Rocks Trail travels through pine forest and, in less than a mile, enters Wilderness of Rocks. It is 5.3 miles to Marshall Gulch, which is within easy walking distance (0.75 mile) of Summerhaven. Wilderness of Rocks is an intriguing jumble of gigantic boulders, weirdly eroded pinnacles, and balanced rocks-impossible shapes silhouetted against the blue Arizona sky. This area is made even more appealing by wind-carved boulders intermixed with some huge old ponderosas and lovely little pools of water. A tiny, striped water snake tells us that these pools may be a reliable water source.
Continuing along the trail through pine and oak woodland, the path crosses Lemmon Creek frequently. The route passes through a small copse of aspen and then returns to a lovely oak and pine woodland mixed with fern, columbine, Indian paintbrush, and other wildflowers. After boulder-hopping across some deep pools, the trail begins the steep ascent to Marshall Saddle.
Four miles from the junction with Mount Lemmon Trail #5 (the Arizona Trail), the Wilderness of Rocks Trail tops out in Marshall Saddle and a signed junction. Take Marshall Gulch Trail #3 east. This well-maintained trail makes an easy descent 1.3 miles to the Marshall Gulch Picnic area. Turn left for an easy, 0.75-mile stroll into Summerhaven.
© Article copyright Pruett Publishing.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication