Across the Catalinas

March 18-20, 2011

From central Tucson, the Catalina Mountains look like one long ridge — a two-dimensional serrated edge that separates the desert from the seamless blue sky. But behind the front ranger there's a huge valley with its own mountains and with sparkling waterfalls and lush riparian oases scarcely imaginable to those who never stray from the well-traveled paths on the desert floor.

An initial foray into East Fork Sabino Canyon made us eager to explore the West Fork beyond Hutch's Pool. With the help of the Tucson Backpackers, we found three other hardy hikers who were willing to tackle a 19-mile trek across the Catalinas, from Gordon Hirabayashi Campground to Catalina State Park.

We started at Hirabayashi (aka "Prison Camp") to eliminate a few thousand feet of climbing, and also to include the particularly lovely trail along the East Fork. Water spilling over the dam provided great background music for a break at the first crossing of Sycamore Creek, and continued to serenade us during a luxurious lunch break at the last crossing just before the junction with Bear Canyon.

From this high saddle at about 4600 feet, we plunged into the spectacular east fork of upper Sabino Canyon, switchbacking 1000 feet into the enormous canyon that slices across the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. With 7½ miles behind us, we camped on a sandy spot near lovely Hutch's Pool, and enjoyed our first serious dip of the year. Next to a house-sized boulder that provided an welcome arc of shade from a dazzling full moon, we shared a small campsite with several scorpions.

From Hutch's Pool, it's an unrelenting climb of 2100 feet in 5+ miles to Romero Pass at 6000 feet, but we were propelled uphill by soaring views of Rattlesnake Peak and Cathedral Rock. Just as the midday sun began to take its toll, we rejoined the West Fork and began wandering back and forth across the creek through a delightful mesquite bosque. Near the junction with Cathedral Rock Trail, we encountered some solo hikers who were literally jogging down the trail, aiming to complete the Esperero-Sabino Canyon loop "in a couple of hours", as well as a group of young backpackers chugging their last few beers and wondering how far it was the next water source (answer: 3½ miles).

After the junction, the trail climbs steeply away from the creek, and the views take on epic proportions. Charging uphill over gray granite slopes spiked with stunted fir trees made me wonder if I had stumbled back in time to the upper slopes of the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

We reached the pass about 4:00 pm, and, as expected, found limited camping and extremely windy conditions. On a nearby ridge, we wedged the tents into two small spaces and waited out the night while eavesdropping on a long conversation between two great horned owls.

Day 3 of our "trilogy" was a 3300-foot freefall over 6½ miles from Romero Pass to Catalina State Park. The upper section of this trail provided the trickiest footing of this hike, but also surprised us with some forested sections and plenty of water. Romero Creek receded below us, and we emerged on a grassy slope with the suburban sprawl of Oro Valley dimly visible through a veil of white dust. Don't believe the official estimates for this section of the trail; it's four long miles from Romero Pass to Romero Pools. The cool water at the upper pools was a welcome relief, but we struggled the last three miles to Catalina State Park, against temperatures in the 80s, gale force winds and an unbelievable 4% humidity.

Now back at home at the foot of the mountains, I shake the "fairy dust" (fine mica powder) off the tent, the backpack and the boots, and know that from now on, the Catalinas will never look the same to me. I have seen behind the front range — and I can't wait to return!