Ventana Canyon

August 6, 2006

Exceptionally heavy rains the last week in July washed out roads, bridges and trails all over southern Arizona. The weather began drying out the first weekend in August, but flood damage had us scrambling for a hiking destination. Sabino Canyon is closed indefinitely, and I had my doubts about old standbys like Tanque Verde or Sycamore Canyon. Even That Creek in Northern Arizona was a muddy mess according to David. Since it seemed like a total crapshoot, we "settled" for a neighborhood hiking trail, hoping that it would have just enough water for refreshing dip without being washed out altogether. Were we in for a surprise ...

Saguaros get ready for red hot ballroom dancing.

I'm almost embarassed to admit that this was my first hike in Ventana Canyon. I was discouraged by reports of overcrowding combined with a mile of "junk" hiking through an overbuilt housing complex. Excuse me while I digress, but how in the hell anyone was allowed to build so high on the flanks of the Catalinas? And why are we, the taxpaying public, restricted to a 15-foot corridor (considerably narrower in spots) and fenced in like intruders while walking through a fabulous natural area that should never, ever have been used for private home development?

Ventana Canyon is home to an ephermeral stream that can rival Sabino Creek. On this monsoon morning, it was brimming with sparkling, amber-colored water.

Surreal clouds of Arizona Yellow Bells decorate the upper reaches of the canyon.

The trails starts at 2950 feet and crosses the stream numerous times. About two miles out, the trail swings west away from the stream and begins climbing steeply over the nose of a ridge. A sheer granite wall rises up out of the creekbed on your right. This is Maiden Falls, but only the butt buckets at the top of the falls are visible from this trail.

Most sources list the distance to Maiden Falls at 2.4 miles, but this is doubtless based on the famously inaccurate statistics in the "Tucson Hiking Guide."

Sensible hikers turn back at the falls, but we decided to continue a bit farther upstream. Our reward was a fabulous swimming hole, neck deep in spots, with a lovely waterfall at one end.

Morning melted into afternoon, with the temperature well over 100 degrees. No matter. We stopped every 20 minutes or so to soak ourselves in the sparkling amber water.

Objectively I know it's crazy to hike in such temperatures, but there is something special about hiking in extreme heat. After a certain point, conversation and even conscious thought become superfluous. All that matters is the natural forces that created this ragged granite canyon and a pantheon of succulents and shrubs that flourish in such extreme conditions.

We found everything we needed after the hike at the Sunrise Cafe at the intersection of Kolb and Sunrise -- shade, air conditioning, iced lattés, and excellent, inexpensive Mediterranean food.