Tales from the Trails


The last entry in this Streamflow Section, written almost one year ago in January 2017, described the bounty of snow and water in the Catalinas that flowed downstream to Sabino Canyon. At that time, some trailhead access points were closed off due to high water. Hikers who pressed on were required to hone their rock-hopping skills, and Shuttle trips were suspended for a while until flow abated. After the rainfall harvest of last winter, the summer monsoon roared into Tucson in early July. Despite record breaking heat in 2017, the summer rain kept the creeks flowing well into Fall.

But, that was then. This is different. The Catalinas and much of Arizona are currently in the grip of extended drought.  Southern California is ablaze, and we hope Southern Arizona is not next up.  There has not been meaningful rain in Tucson since the last days of August. La Niña shows different faces in different parts of the country, but here in the Southwest, that face is hot and dry.

The winter rains should be starting up again soon. Within a month, the creeks should be flowing again. But right now, the only water in Sabino or Bear Canyons sits in stagnant ponds or underground seeps; plants and animals are “thirsty.”   The streamflow gauges are recording nothing.

One of the things we have noted elsewhere on this website is the sense of joy, sometimes muted sometimes expressed, that flowing water brings to all of us, regulars and visitors alike.  The gurgle of the gently flowing creek, or the roar of rushing waters, serve to lighten spirits, loosen tongues, and make our chaotic world feel more ordered, less alarming.

Local weather history tells us we can expect rain soon. Thirst quenching, fire drenching, live affirming rain. Soon.

December on the Esperero Trail

A December walk on trail #25, Esperero, is starkly different than in other months – at least this year. Our very dry Fall has turned Summer’s bounty of wildflowers and fragrant bushes to a rattle dry mimicry of the desert diamondback. But before a hiker reaches those bushes, the lower Esperero Trail begins in the sandy bajada east of the Visitor Center. It winds through a broad sample of our desert adapted plants through minor drainages, until it crosses the Tram Road.

Whether joined off the Sabino Tram road or the Bear Canyon (#29) approach trail, lower Esperero is popular with winter visitors because of its level path and wide-open views. Once Esperero crosses northwest of the Sabino Tram Road, it parallels the Cactus Picnic Area and the roofs of several structures come into view. In the 2016-2017 school year, FOSC invested $35,000 to construct four new ramadas here. This is where the Sabino Canyon Volunteer Naturalists (SCVN) provide Kindergarten nature education to Tucson school children. Midweek and midday, you might also see the white top of a school bus. Frequently, FOSC provides financial support for student transportation to these programs.

At this time of year, this segment of trail is a good place to bring your binoculars; migratory birds are returning and hikers can detect a distinct greening and tiniest fruit formation of the desert mistletoe in the branches of mesquite trees. Once you leave the wash area, be prepared to climb. Some hikers have likened the cascade of ramped rock above Cactus Picnic Area to layers of frost heaved sidewalks. It is one of the first cardiovascular tests on this trail. And if you’re not in a hurry when you reach the first level overlook, take a few moments to look east toward Sabino. The Phoneline Trail (#27) runs like a ribbon high up on the Sabino Canyon wall; above that trail line, one can glimpse the large orange hued rockface dubbed “the Acropolis.”

At this point, rock outcroppings begin to dominate the character of Esperero, and for the next quarter mile, strong ankles are required to navigate the ups and downs until you reach the intersection with the popular Rattlesnake Trail (#50). This is one of the classic loop hikes in the Recreation Area. But, there are a few loop options:

  • From the Visitor Center, hike Esperero to the Rattlesnake Trail junction and then return through Rattlesnake and back on the tram road. This will require you to ascend the road’s “heartbreak hill,” a little too dramatic informal name for an ascent up the asphalt road.
  • To avoid the tram road’s hill, hikers can cross the Rattlesnake trailhead exit at tram stop 1, cross the Sabino Creek (wet or dry) to connect with the Creek Trail (#52A) until it discharges you near the Dam area.
  • One other hill avoidance strategy occurs just below the road’s hill; the Bluff Trail (#51) bisects the Riparian Area, taking you to the Dam and another picnic area where FOSC has funded 3 more ramadas and restroom improvements for elementary education programs.

However, Esperero has much more to offer hikers seeking the stillness of deeper desert. Continuing past the Rattlesnake intersection, the Esperero Trail unfolds into multiple canyon-and-wash crossings which require steeper climbs. The best advice is to go as far as you like while keeping an eye on your water: turn around when half remains.  With a little more planning, the 7-mile round trip hike to Cardiac Gap is a tough but very satisfying destination to where the saguaros give way to oak trees. Late fall through early spring are the best times of the year for this day hike.

As the sign at the loop intersection notes prior to entering the Wilderness area, the Cathedral Rock Trail (#26) is 5.8 miles north. That is a hiking adventure requiring careful planning for it will test everything you thought you knew about hiking and endurance. If considering it, speak to a volunteer at the Visitor Center Forest Service Desk for more information.

The Phoneline Trail and People

In Sabino Canyon, as on most trails, people are usually more open, welcoming and engaging a mile or more after the crowds are left behind.  The Phoneline Trail (#27), is a good example. This trail peels off from the Bear Canyon Trail (#29) and ascends with a modest grade until it gains the often shaded west facing wall on the east side of Sabino Canyon.  Once in the shade, below and visible along the entire ≈4 miles is the Tram Road and the creek.  The cool shade makes it the perfect walk on a spring morning. In the desert, shade, water, and a stunning view, seems to lift spirits and open mouths. Phoneline has them all.

Almost any morning hike along the Phoneline Trail will find a dozen or more people. Friends with friends, friends with visitors, solo hikers, and trail runners are among the most common wildlife sightings.  Most people will open up with a simple hello, or hi where are you from? You’ll find couples visiting from Michigan who are 3 weeks into an extended vacation, seasonal residents with a second home in Tucson who start their days with a Sabino hike, German triathletes, British families. One group of locals were encountered while stopped for a rest at a turnaround point before a rueful dash to the airport to deposit a family visitor back to Seattle.

What is that plant – Ocotillo? Is that musky smell from Javelinas? Will I see a Mountain Lion? Where is the turnoff to Blackett’s Ridge? The Sabino Canyon Volunteer Patrol (SCVP) frequently get questions of these kind.  Many SCVP rangers get a little lift from trail users who let them know their presence on the trails is appreciated.