This week, I teamed up again with Bill Bens, who runs the Tucson Hikers Yahoo Group, and Mitch Stevens (my companions for my Ragged Top hike) for a hike up Elephant Head in the Western Santa Ritas. I have never been to this part of the Santa Ritas before, but have always been intrigued by this peak:
The description of the hike mentions 2nd and 3rd class scrambling, so I definitely did not want to attempt this peak solo for the first time. Bill had been up here a number of times and was helpful to figure out the route on the last part of the hike.
The parking area for the Agua Caliente route is in grasslands and oak trees at 4200 ft. I just love the vegetation at this elevation. You get these tall yellow grasses, with oak trees and the occasional juniper mixed in for good measure.
You can see Elephant Head if you are driving on I-19, it’s the closest peak in the Santa Ritas to the freeway. Although from the freeway it looks precipitous and fully improbable that there is a hiking route, a very well-beat-in path exists to the top. I would rate this hike as advanced, but the trail in and the route up to the top are both pretty well visible and cairned along the way. The first part of the hike takes you along an old roadbed that crosses Agua Caliente Creek, which was running from the recent rains. There were a number of places along this hike that would make beautiful destinations unto themselves.
The old roadbed climbs to a saddle then contours around to the junction with another route into the canyon, the Elephant Head Bike Trail. We also passed the turnoff to the Little Elephant Head summit. There were many purple Santa Rita Prickly Pears on this part of the hike, some that were purple on one side and green on the other.
There was also a healthy population of Arizona Rainbow Cactus, like this one growing out of the rock:
We met the only other people on this hike at the Quantrell Mine Junction, which was all decked out with a brand new sign.
After contouring on the roadbed, it’s time to work for it as you approach the Chino Canyon hiker’s route. As you contour around, you will see a very deep, rugged canyon between you and Elephant head. This is Chino Canyon and the end of the nice, contouring trail. The turnoff was marked by a collapsed cairn which we rebuilt. The turnoff is just as you round the corner and reach a rocky outcropping. Here is the view:
From the Chino Canyon trail junction, it had been described that the trail was a well beat-in path steeply down Chino Canyon to the creek crossing that had several nice little waterfalls from the recent rains.
I was really impressed with the condition of the hiker’s route in Chino Canyon, it was more well-defined than some trails I’ve been on, and it looked like there had been recent maintenance. From the Chino Canyon crossing, it is a steep but well-marked trail up to the ridge that goes up to the summit. This is the most difficult part of the hike in my opinion. We took it slow and made it up to the saddle where the true routefinding and scrambling begins.
If you use hiking poles, this is a good place to stash them for the return, from this point to the summit requires the use of your hands to pull yourself up and through the cairned maze of rock. I was happy that I had Bill along, because he had been up here before, and had placed many of the cairns that we were using to find our way.
The scrambling part of this hike was a lot easier than the Ragged Top hike we’d done last month. The rock on Elephant Head is grippy, and stable, with big handholds. There are ample cairns to follow on this part of the hike.
Every time it looked like we could go no further, a route would appear to lead us to the next section, until we reached the actual summit ridge, which was very easy because it was solid rock.
We reached the 5641′ summit in about 2 1/2 hours, and the views were spectacular!!
I added my elephant pendant that I made to the other elephants in the summit cairn, and we all enjoyed the view for a bit. We couldn’t linger too long, however, because it was an afternoon hike, and we wanted to get back before we lost daylight. The rock made for solid footing on the way down, and there was only one part that made me a little uncomfortable, but the obstacle was easily solved once I figured out where to put my hands and feet.
I love this shot that Bill took of me and Mitch, it really gives a neat perspective on the summit ridge:
The descent didn’t take very long, and soon we were back at the saddle, ready to cross steep and deep Chino Canyon once again. The bottom of Chino with its waterfalls would be a great place to come back and camp someday. One last 500 foot climb out of the canyon back took us back to the wide old roadbed of the Quantrell Mine Trail. We caught the last vestiges of the sunset and made it back to the truck just as the light was fading.
The hike took us 5 hours total, and my GPS showed 2700 feet of accumulated elevation gain. Not too shabby for an afternoon’s work! Speaking of my GPS, a 6 year old Garmin Etrex Vista, it looks like it may be on its last legs. It has been turning itself off even with full batteries, and the screen sometimes won’t come on. Not a great thing for someone starting the Grand Enchantment Trail soon. A new one is a bit out of my price range right now. I was wondering if any of my readers might have an old GPS that they would like to sell or donate. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And now for another picture from the Wildlife Rehab Fundraiser- here’s a beautiful Great Horned Owl