Pusch Ridge is a series of four peaks extending westward in the Catalinas: Pusch Peak, closest to town, The Cleaver, Bighorn Mountain, and the tallest, Table Mountain. From town, Table Mountain is a dark-green-dotted diamond shape, but from Oro Valley you can see that three sides of the Table are massive sheer cliff walls.
I have had a longtime fascination with Table Mountain ever since I came across pictures of the summit views. The thing that most piqued my interest, though, was a photo of the campsite on the summit. Underneath a stately Juniper tree was a beautiful stone fireplace made out of Catalina granite. That was it- there was no way that I was going to hike Table without staying at the campsite on top.
There is only a short weather window for this peak because it is off-limits from January 1- April 30th for bighorn sheep off-trail restrictions. Most of the time that it is open, the weather is too hot. Two years ago, I had attempted to backpack to the top for a lunar eclipse, but had a shoe failure and had to turn around. Last year, the weather didn’t cooperate with my schedule. This year everything fell into place and the experience was even more amazing than I had anticipated.
All the trip reports I had read said to take the Pima Canyon Trail three miles to a steep, loose, brushy gully. The reports made it sound borderline dangerous and I was not looking forward to it. I remembered that Cowgill and Glendening’s book mentioned that there was a ridge option that would probably have more shindaggers. Then I came across a report by a woman who went by the name “Bloated Chipmunk” on NW Hikers.net that had pictures of the route. It looked way better to me, especially with a full pack.
The morning of December 17th, Wendy and I met at the Pima Canyon Trailhead, excited about the adventure ahead. Our packs were heavy with 7 liters of water and warm gear for our night at the 6265′ summit. We hiked about two miles on the Pima Canyon Trail and saw the slabs of our ridge route to our left, across the brushy creek.
We followed the trail until it crossed the drainage. There was a distinct sharp smell of cat urine and a large sprayed area under an overhang. We decided that hit would be better to backtrack and try to cross the creek closer to the slabs. There was a spur trail and a small opening in the brush that allowed us to get into the creek. We took a break before beginning the ascent and I spotted a pair of antlers in the creek. When I went to investigate, I saw an entire deer that had been picked clean, probably by our feline friend.
The beginning of the route was on large slanted granite slabs and was quite fun to walk on. There wasn’t a lot of vegetation and the views were great! The ascent was an off-trail choose your own adventure with the occasional cairn. Sadly, the slabs ran out and we picked our way through patches of prickly pear and ocotillo.
As we gained elevation, we lost most of the cacti and hiked into the sea of shindaggers. Wendy and I wove a path between them when possible, but sometimes there was no choice. The only way to deal with shindaggers is to step directly on the center. We reached a saddle and took a break for lunch with a fantastic view of our objective.
After lunch, we climbed steeply up and toward the Table, aiming above a rocky outcropping with scattered oak trees. The vegetation changed again with our first juniper and pinyon pines appearing near the base of the Table.
By this time, Wendy and I were getting pretty tired. We wished that we had a flat table ahead of us, instead there was another 1000 feet of elevation to go. We pressed on, but went a little far to the west and got into some boulders that made travel more difficult. The bonus was that we got to see the great views down the west gully right before the final ascent. Somewhere along the way we were in a brushy area and I looked down and found a black case with a camera in it.
Finally, we could see blue sky and the end of our climb. We went through some pinyon and junipers to a clearing with breathtaking views of the Catalinas and the sheer cliffs of Table Mountain dropping off below. We dropped our packs at the fireplace and toured the summit, dotted with patches of snow. Now came the payoff for lugging all our stuff up here- watching the sunset and sunrise from this incredible promontory and an enjoyable night by the fabled fireplace.
There was a small glass jar summit register near the fireplace and I read through it before dinner. The first name I saw was the woman from NW Hikers.net who’s triplog I’d read. The second entry I read was an entry from February that said “Lost camera in a black camera case” and gave a phone number! I was so excited that we were going to be able to reunite the camera with its owners. I lost a camera this summer and would give anything to have it back.
Wendy got our fire going and we had a decadent meal of cheese fondue with all sorts of items for dipping and chocolates for dessert. The fireplace was great- it had a chimney and everything which diverted the smoke upward. The fire warmed the rocks and it radiated heat all night long as we slept in front of it. We hit a perfect weather window and the temperature was quite reasonable for 6000′ in December.
The night was a long one, and it stayed cold for a while after it finally got light out. I spent the amazing sunrise hanging my head over the cliff face and watching the light change. We ate breakfast in our sleeping bags and didn’t want to leave.
Eventually, we tore ourselves away and started hiking downhill, packs much lighter after a day’s water and food were consumed. We followed what looked like the standard route down the face which was much easier than our ascent route. But if we’d taken this ascent route we wouldn’t have found the camera.
It was a beautiful, cool day and we shindagger-stomped our way down the ridge, taking short breaks and thoroughly enjoying ourselves. It felt like we were flying compared to yesterday’s ponderous ascent. The golden cottonwoods in the canyon got closer and closer and then we were back to our slabs down to the creekbed.
Our deer departed friend had been moved in the night and looked more macabre than ever. We found our way out of the creek and intersected the Pima Canyon Trail. Clouds started rolling in and the wind picked up. The last two miles back to the car on the trail felt like they would never end. It felt great to look up at Table Mountain knowing we’d finally spent the night at the fireplace.
We had been talking for the last two days about what flavors of gelato we were going to get at Frost after our hike. The weather changed so quickly that by the time we got our gelato, we had to eat it in Wendy’s car with the heat on!
That night, I called the owners of the camera and they were so excited that we had found it! They had gone back up the next week to try and locate it to no avail. It had become a running joke between their friends that someone was going to finally find the camera that was lost on Table Mountain. I dropped it off the next day on their porch and they sent a lovely card thanking us for returning their long-lost camera along with some pictures from the day they lost it.
What an amazing, life-affirming couple of days on the mountain. I’ve found another of my favorite campsites and Wendy is always a blast to hike with. So glad I finally got to spend a night on Table Mountain and it certainly won’t be my last.
You can see the full set of pictures at https://plus.google.com/photos/108844153292489172003/albums/5826811070181856545
In Wildlife Rehabilitation news, I was going through old pictures when I came across this shot of mama and baby bunnies from 2010. So cute! You can read their story here. Click below to donate to Wildlife Rehabilitation Northwest Tucson.