Sabino Canyon to Prison Camp

November 30, 2008

Last Sunday we finally did the out-and-back to Sycamore Reservoir from Prison Camp, a trail we'd been eyeing for several weeks. We were pleasantly surprised by the sweeping views from this section of the Arizona Trail, as well as the turnaround in a lush slot canyon at the site of a reservoir that once served the former prison camp*.

After lots of tinkering with topo maps and Google Earth, we concluded that it would be theoretically possible to complete the hike from Sabino Canyon to Prison Camp in one day if we left a car at each end. The distance is approximately eight miles, with an accumulated elevation gain of about 2800 feet.

Unsure of the exact distance or trail conditions, we set out early this morning, seriously overprepared with extra clothing, flashlights, hats, gloves and huge quantities of food (not to mention about 20 pounds of electronics including cameras, tape recorders, handi talkies, FSR radios, cell phones and a GPS).

Two days after classic winter rainstorm, the air was freshly washed, and diamonds of dew sparkled on every spider web.

From the top of the tram at 3300 feet, the trail climbs steadily to a promontory overlooking upper Sabino Creek, then drops into the broad East Fork Sabino Canyon basin, which collects water from Box Camp, Palisade, Pine and Sycamore Canyons. The views from this basin are among the best in the Catalinas, of jagged front range above, and below, the nut-brown stream tumbling over enormous white boulders. East Fork, West Fork and Box Camp trails part company in the basin, and the trail begins switchbacking steeply along the south wall of the canyon, to a junction with Bear Canyon Trail at 4800 feet.

From here, the Sycamore Canyon Trail wanders across a high, shallow valley with many burned trees as well as abundant new growth along the banks of the former Sycamore Reservoir.

The trail is well-traveled and well-marked, and the non-stop make this my new favorite nearby hike. Our time with stops and our usual snail's pace was just under six hours, so now we know we could hike easily hike DOWN from Prison Camp in time for the Sabino Canyon shuttle. We'll certainly give that a try next time around.

The "Catalina Federal Honor Camp" was established in 1939 to provide prison labor to build the Catalina Highway. During World War II many of the prisoners at the Honor Camp were draft resisters and conscientious objectors. In 1999, the recreation area was renamed for its most famous prisoner, Gordon Hirabayishi, who served 90 days there for challenging the constitutionality of internment of Japanese American citizens.