Southern Arizona Trails
This fine backpacking route, a good choice for a three- to five-day outing, climbs into the Rincon Mountains high country via Douglas Spring Campground and Cow Head Saddle. Along the way it passes through vegetation communities representing four distinct life zones Lower Sonoran, Upper Sonoran, Transition, and (if you elect to visit the north slope of Mica Mountain) Canadian. Manning Camp is a delightful campsite that offers hikers a choice of layover day activities those with energy to burn can visit Mica Mountain, the highest point in the Rincons, while less energetic hikers can stretch out in the shade of a tall ponderosa pine, resting their bones, watching the sun track slowly across the deep blue sky, and listening to the wind as it sighs in the boughs.
Drive east on Tucson's Speedway Boulevard to the end of the road about 14 miles past Country Club Drive. Just before the road ends at a private gate to a guest ranch there is a parking area to the right. Although not posted against camping, this is probably not a safe place to car camp as it is just off the main road. You may hike into the park and camp only if you have gotten the required permit obtainable from rangers at the park entrance. Even the shaded ramada adjacent to the trailhead is within the park. The nearest good places to car camp are off the Mount Lemmon Highway.
From Douglas Spring Trailhead (0.0 miles; 2,750 feet in altitude), go to the Douglas Spring Campground (5.9; 4,800). From here we continue along the Douglas Spring Trail, which swings southward and climbs gently at first, then more steeply through a scrubby vegetative cover of small Mexican pinyons, hardy alligator junipers, manzanita, cliff rose, Emory and shrub live oak, and Arizona rosewood. Shortly after working our way into a small canyon we pass through a fence, then climb steeply on a few switchbacks to Cow Head Saddle (8.3; 6,100). The forest overstory is denser and shadier at this altitude, with silverleaf oak and ponderosa pine beginning to supplant the pinyons and junipers.
At a signed junction in the saddle we turn left and climb moderately to steeply in the direction of Helens Dome, the rocky crag that now and then can be seen ahead through the trees. After about 2.5 miles of continuous climbing the trail suddenly drops slightly, then crosses a minor drainage. There may be a trickle of water here in early spring; if so, you may see some Coues white-tailed deer stepping cautiously out of the surrounding forest for a drink. We next follow this watercourse gently uphill for a short distance, then climb more steeply to a signed junction with the North Slope Trail (11.6; 8,040). Our route goes right at this fork, climbs a bit, and then drops steadily past the clearly signed, left-branching Fire Loop Trail to Manning Camp (12.2; 8,000), where you will find perennial water, camp grills, a toilet, and a cabin and corral used by the Park Service, all shaded by a dense forest of mature ponderosa pines. A camping permit is needed for overnight stays.
Manning Camp makes an excellent base for exploring the surrounding high country. A number of fine side trips are possible. Perhaps the best of these is the 5.3-mile loop hike up to Mica Mountain and Italian Spring (mileages given below indicate distances from Manning Camp, not from Douglas Spring Trailhead): At the signed junction just north of the Park Service cabin at Manning Camp, turn right and walk northeast up the floor of a minor drainage. At a succession of two signed forks we stay left; at a third, unsigned split, we veer right. As the trail climbs gradually up and around the east shoulder of Mica Mountain we catch occasional glimpses through the trees of Spud Rock. Just below Mica's summit is a signed junction, where the trail to Italian Spring branches right; here we turn left and proceed 0.1 mile to the top of Mica Mountain, the highest point in the Rincons and, formerly, the site of Mica Fire Tower. (The tower was removed some years ago.)
When ready to continue our side trip, we retrace our steps 0.1 mile to the preceding junction, turn left, and descend gently along a grassy ridgetop. At a fork about a quarter mile later the route goes left, then switchbacks down to Italian Spring (2.3; 8,000), a dependable year-round water source. At a junction here we turn left, onto the North Slope Trail, and climb a few switchbacks to a saddle between small rock outcroppings. In early spring a few patches of snow may linger in this area. For the next two miles the trail traverses the northwest shoulder of Mica Mountain, gently rising and falling over short distances and passing through some magnificent stands of ponderosa pine, Mexican white pine, Douglas fir, and white fir. The latter two species, generally associated with the Canadian life zone, are not at all common elsewhere in the Rincons, but they flourish on this high, northfacing slope.
At the end of this traverse we climb a few switchbacks, detouring above a smooth, sloping slab of rock (the top of which affords an excellent view of the distant Santa Catalina range). After switchbacking back down the far side of the slab, the North Slope Trail reaches a gap behind the monolith of Helens Dome, just beyond which is the junction with the trail coming up from Cow Head Saddle (4.7; 8,040). Here we turn left and complete our side trip by retracing the steps of our earlier route back to Manning Camp (5.3; 8,000).
Return the way you came.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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