Near the town of Catalina, just north of Tucson, there is a network of trails at the base of the Catalina Mountains. Most are unsigned and not marked on the topo quads. I found some GPS tracks on mountain biking sites like www.mtbguru.com and a very helpful map at http://www.sdmb.org/TrailDesc/CatalinaSPMap.jpg. I also used Google Earth to help plot out my route. These trails are mostly used by mountain bikers and equestrians- I rarely see anyone on foot out here, and I have never seen anyone backpacking or camping. I’m not quite sure why, the scenery is amazing, albeit close to town.
My plan was to start at the parking area off Golder Ranch Road, take the 50-Year Trail, Middle Gate Trail, and Rattlesnake Trail to Sutherland Gap and proceed toward the 4wd road that goes to Cherry Spring, then pick up the road that goes to Charouleau Gap. I figured it at about 8-9 miles one way. I had to carry all my water for the time I would be out and I started with 7 liters of water. I shouldered my heavy pack and started on the 50-Year Trail. This part I had hiked before, and in 1.5 miles, I made it to the junction with the Middle Gate Trail right before Sutherland Wash. I crossed the wash and went through the gate, and was surprised to find a well-maintained, very obvious trail that had seen quite a bit of recent use. There were footprints, horse prints, and tire tracks, and this was the part of the trail when 3 bikers whooshed past me, the only people I would see for the rest of the trip. This is when the trail entered the boulder and slickrock fields. I think there is nothing more beautiful than a bouldery landscape, dotted with tall saguaros. About one mile in on the Middle Gate Tr. there was a cairned junction for the tantalizingly named Slickrock Lollipop Tr. That would have to wait for another time. I reached the junction with the Rattlesnake Trail, which was obvious even though it was not marked.
The Rattlesnake Trail weaves in and out of Sutherland Wash climbing towards Sutherland Gap, an obvious break in the bouldery ridge coming south from the Mule Ears on Samaniego Ridge. At the last crossing of the wash, there is an area of large oaks which made a great shady spot for lunch. Most of this hike is quite exposed, so I was using my umbrella while hiking for shade. I was really surprised at how good the trail maintenance was out here, I had expected it to be too brushy to use my umbrella. My lunch spot was 5 miles from the trailhead. While I was taking a break, 3 red-tailed hawks circled overhead, screeching and weaving in and out of each other’s paths.
After lunch, I continued on the Rattlesnake Trail, climbing out of Sutherland Wash and turning right to follow a ridge. The views from here were spectacular- I could see the moon coming over Samaniego Ridge, Charouleau Gap, and in the distance Pusch Ridge, the Tucson Mountains, and Baboquivari Peak. I had found my home for the night, 6 miles away from the trailhead. There were these great rock formations to lean up against and I set up my camp. I decided that it would be best to hike to Charouleau Gap tomorrow in the cool of the morning, instead of this afternoon, especially since I had a limited supply of water.
I went on an exploratory hike from camp in the late afternoon, just taking my water, GPS, and maps. I wanted to find the 4wd road to Cherry Spring that would take me to the road to Charouleau Gap. The trail comes close to a wash, and I crossed it and bushwhacked up the hill and easily found the road. It was only about ½ mile away from my camp, but as I was coming back I made a wrong turn and was going the wrong way for a little bit before I realized it. Oops. Thankfully, it seems that I am soon aware that I am going the wrong way and I can usually correct myself before getting too off-course. This happened several times on this hike, where there were numerous paths that branched off.
Dark came early, and I had a long, cold night ahead to keep myself entertained. I had a fire, cooked up some dinner, and spent a long time writing in my journal. When I am at home, I don’t journal nearly as much as I do when I am outside. There is something so inspiring about the outdoors that makes the words just flow from the pen. My camp was nice as it was on the backside of a ridge, so I couldn’t see the lights and sprawl of Saddlebrooke butting up against the mountain. I don’t use a tent in good weather, and the stars were unbelievable. I saw 5 shooting stars throughout the night.
I woke up in the middle of the night, as I usually do when camping, and read my book Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals until I fell back asleep. She was one of the Little Rock Nine that integrated the school system in the late 1950s. It is unthinkable to me the hatred and violence she sustained in order to be a pioneer of integration.
It was a long, cold night, and even once it got light out it took the sun until almost 9am to come over the ridge. I cooked breakfast from my sleeping bag and read the rest of my book. Melba’s story touched me so much that I was crying by the end of the book. Being a brown person myself, I am so thankful that I don’t have to deal with that kind of overt discrimination. I didn’t have enough water to make the climb to Charouleau Gap and get back to the car, so that would have to wait for another time. As I hiked back to my car, I was already plotting my return to this wonderful maze of trails at the base of the Catalinas.
You can see the rest of the pictures from this trip here:
|50-Year to Sutherland Gap|