Hush Among the Saguaro

Hugh Norris Trail
By Betty Leavengood
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Trail at a Glance

General Description: A pleasant ridge ramble post old mines, to the highest peak in the Tucson Mountains.

Difficulty: Moderate, some areas of steep switchbacks
Best Time of Year to Hike: Winter
Length: 9.8 miles, round-trip
Miles to Trailhead from Speedway/Campbell Intersection: 19 miles
Directions to Trailhead from Speedway/Campbell Intersection: Go west on Speedway 11.8 miles to the intersection of Kinney Road. (Note: At the intersection of Anklam Road, Speedway becomes Gates Pass Road.) Turn right on Kinney Road, following the signs to Saguaro National Park. The entrance to the park is past the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, is signed, and is to the right. Turn into the park and drive past the Red Hills Information Center to Hohokam Road. Turn right. The Hugh Norris trailhead is 0.8 of a mile ahead. There is a small parking area on the right.

My favorite route to the summit of Wasson Peak is the Hugh Norris Trail. Although longer than other routes, the climb is gradual, and the views from the ridges are spectacular. Wasson Peak offers an unforgettable 360-degree view of the Tucson valley.

This excellent trail is named for Hugh Norris, a Tohono O'odham police chief. The peak it reaches was named for John Wasson, a colorful, often controversial, early editor of the Tucson Citizen, who, much to his surprise, was appointed surveyor general of the Arizona Territory in 1870. Although he had absolutely no experience in the field, he retained the position until 1882, when he moved to California.

Signs at the beginning of the Hugh Norris Trail are typical of the trailheads in the Saguaro National Park. Pets are prohibited, as are bicycles, motor vehicles, and weapons. A map depicts the trails of the Park, listing the distances in both miles and kilometers. There is also a trail register. It's fun to read the register and note where the hikers came from, especially in winter, when people converge on Tucson from all over the United States and world. These registers serve other purposes. The rangers can judge trail usage, and, in case of the necessity for a search and rescue operation, searchers can tell if the lost hiker did indeed go on this trail. A final sign indicates that the trailhead elevation is 2,600 feet.

The trail climbs gradually at first and then becomes steeper. The only difficulty is stepping over the rocks placed across the trail to prevent erosion. After about a quarter of a mile the trail crosses a deep, sandy drainage, climbs out, and heads up the canyon directly between two ridges. As you gain in elevation, look back at the saguaro forest. There is no place like this in the world. Thousands of giant saguaros spread across the bajada, a Spanish term indicating the transition zone between the mountain and the valley. Beyond the saguaros are the farms of Avra Valley. What appears to be a very straight road across the edge of the farm area is actually the canal of the Central Arizona Project (CAP), which delivers water from the Colorado River to Phoenix and Tucson. CAP water use is controversial in Tucson and is not being piped to homes or businesses. As a result of popular vote in 1995, CAP water is currently being used to recharge the aquifer.

As the drainage narrows, the trail steepens and becomes a series of switchbacks that lead to the top of the ridge. To the north, where the walls of the drainage provide protection for the tiny saguaro seeds, there are many young saguaros. This is a pretty, quiet area. The sounds of planes overhead and the occasional pecking of a woodpecker or chirping of other birds is all you hear. You can easily reach the top of this first ridge in forty-five minutes.

On top of the ridge, the trail turns to the right and is level, then quickly turns left, around the side, and gradually switchbacks to the top of a small saddle. In this saddle there are several side paths that lead to the viewpoints on both sides of the saddle, where there are many boulders that make a good lunch or snack spot.

From this saddle the trail descends briefly, crosses a longer saddle, and begins a long trek along the north side of the ridge. This is a very pleasant portion of the trail. There is some slight elevation gain but nothing serious. The trail is now basically a ridge trail, meandering from one side of the ridge to the other and occasionally going along the top. The views change from one side to the other, first the Catalinas, then Picacho Peak, then the Santa Ritas or Rincons. Below and to the northwest, the Sendero Esperanza Trail winds its way through the basin and up the ridge. Far to the north and high on the ridge, you can see where the Hugh Norris Trail continues its climb to Wasson Peak.

After leveling out on top of the ridge, the trail passes a fenced mine to the right with the warning sign that says, "Peligro Excavacion" or "Danger Excavation." Yet there are signs of where people have crawled under the fence to explore just a little farther, a dangerous practice that has led to the loss of several lives in the Tucson Mountains. A little farther down the trail there is another prospector's pit, also fenced. A quarter of a mile past the pit and around the east side of the ridge is a signed trail intersection.

This is a good resting spot and meeting place for people who have arranged car swaps to prevent the retracing of steps. For example, one car can be left at the Sendero Esperanza Trailhead, another at Hugh Norris, and still another at King Canyon. All hikers can converge on Wasson Peak and return by a different route. The Hugh Norris Trail continues straight past the intersection and along the ridge for 2.2 miles to the summit of Wasson Peak.

From the intersection, it is a gradual climb along the northwestern side of the ridge. As on the first section of the trail, the rocks placed on the trail for erosion control are the only problem with the trail. After half a mile the trail crosses a short saddle, from which the hiker can see both sides of the mountain. As you look ahead to the peaks, it is difficult to figure out which one is actually Wasson. It is not the one it appears to be, but the peak farthest away and to the left. After the saddle the trail crosses back to the western side of the ridge. At a small sign marking the 4,000-foot elevation level, the trail turns to the right and quickly left across another short saddle, following the east side of the ridge along a smooth, sandy trail.

The trail from this point again meanders from one side of the ridge to the other, interspersed with small saddles. It is smooth and not at all difficult. From this portion of the trail you can see more extensive evidence of the mining that took place in the Tucson Mountains in the early 1900s and again in the 1940s.

Most of the last half-mile of the trail is a series of steep switchbacks. The large rock outcropping directly ahead of the switchbacks is not Wasson Peak, as you will shortly realize, although from the switchbacks it appears to be the high point. Wasson Peak is now visible on the left. At the top of the switchbacks is a signed trail intersection. The King Canyon trailhead is 3.2 miles down the other side of the ridge. The Hugh Norris Trail continues an easy 0.3 of a mile to the summit.

Right before the summit is a trail sign-in box. It is interesting to read the comments of hikers who have reached this vantage point.

People from all over the United States have signed the trail registers, with comments like "Better than Mount Rainier!" "A fantastic day," and frequently, just "Wow!" On a clear day, you can see all of Tucson and the surrounding mountains. The comments are understandable.

© Article copyright Pruett Publishing.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 13 Jul 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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