The Hill That Felt Like A Mountain
Agua Caliente Hill is one of those places that I’ve always looked at and thought “I’ve got to get up there someday”. It is 5369 feet high and nestled between the Catalina and Rincon mountain ranges on the east side of the Tucson valley. It can be seen from many hikes in the area and I knew that the views would be incredible from up top. I also knew it would take some effort to get there, with almost 3000 feet of elevation gain and a round-trip distance of about 9 miles. Effort that I wasn’t sure I wanted to expend when I woke up this morning. I’d worked late the evening before and was considering scrapping plans for the hike in favor of something more leisurely. But a quick glance at my calendar and the realization that I have several strenuous hikes planned that I need to train for got my butt moving, albeit slowly. I knew if I could just get myself on the trail that I’d be happy that I did.
I started hiking at 11:20 am (better late than never), looking forward to an area that I haven’t yet explored. Is there anything sweeter than fresh trail? I think not. The trail climbed almost immediately, switchbacking to attain the ridgeline. I was kind of tired, but told myself I might as well get used to the climb- I had 4.5 miles of ascent ahead.
Thankfully, the trail started out gently- the climbs were interspersed with flats on the ridgeline and the trail dipped into drainages, breaking up the ascent. The views from the ridgeline were great and I knew I’d made the right choice by going on a hike today. The first drainage had a skanky-looking, scummy green cattle tank in it called Cat Track Tank. This being national forest rather than wilderness, grazing is allowed. After crossing a couple more drainages, the trail climbed toward a saddle and the junction with Forest Road #4445. There was a gnarled, old saguaro at the junction and a great view of the Catalinas.
At the saddle, which is at 4000ft, Forest Road #4445 dives toward Agua Caliente Canyon, while our trail #46 continues- you guessed it- climbing. The trail skirts Peak 4778, then levels out for one last, joyous stretch before you have to pay the piper to get to the top.
I could see the Galiuros and the snowy top of the Pinalenos to the east, and the Arizona Trail south of Molino Basin and the Bellota Ranch in the valley below. Here’s a video:
It was here that I made a mistake. By this time it was 1:10 pm and I had only had some yogurt for breakfast and a handful of trail mix at the junction. What I should have done was stop and eat my sandwich that was in my pack before continuing on. Instead, I thought, “It’s less than a mile to the top- I’ll just eat lunch when I get to the summit”. 0.7 miles with 750 feet of elevation gain left to go on an empty stomach makes for some unpleasant hiking and I bonked shortly after starting the final climb. I should have known better. One of the first hiking tips I ever remember learning is: No Food- No Fuel- No Fun. The summit now seemed so far off, like one of those dreams where you’re running and running (or hiking) but the goal keeps getting further and further away.
Still, there was no way I was going to come this far and not make the summit. I stopped to eat some snacks, but by this time it was too late to give me much energy. Of course this was when the trail went from a nicely-manicured and graded path to really steep, loose, and rocky. Ugh.
It took everything I had to drag my sorry ass up the rest of that hill. At times I literally sat down in the middle of the trail to regain my energy.
The last push was interminable, and I slogged upward, paying attention only to my feet, trying not to look at how far up ahead the summit was. (it was never closer than I thought, just disappointingly farther) It was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other and repeating till there was no more trail left. The last 0.7 miles took me 40 exhausting minutes, but I finally reached the summit.
The views immediately buoyed my spirits and I grabbed my sandwich (finally!) and dropped my pack for a lengthy break on the hard-earned summit of Agua Caliente Hill. And what views- 360 degrees of Sky Island goodness! Here’s a video tour of the summit:
There is a fire ring with a grill grate, for those who spend the night up here, and nearby I found the summit register under a pile of rocks. I settled in to eat lunch and read the summit register. It went back to 2005 and I can’t believe how many people I knew in the summit register! Hiking partners, people on my trail crew, and others. There were also the usual funny and insightful entries, like these two:
Then I turned the page and saw an entry from December 2005 that stopped me in my tracks: Joe Domin, aka GPS Joe, who signed in with his hiking partner Gabriele, aka Sun_Hiker.
I never met GPS Joe, but “knew” him from his many contributions to the hiking websites I frequent, HikeArizona.com and ArizonaHikers.com. GPS Joe went missing back in early November while hiking in the remote and wild Mazatzal Mountains, near Payson, and is yet to be found. My heart sank and my eyes welled up with tears. Joe has been missing now for 66 days as of this writing, despite incredible efforts to locate him. He went for a solo hike on November 8th without leaving an itinerary with anyone, and as a result, no one realized that he was missing until a week later. His vehicle was found at the Mount Peeley Trailhead, which gave a starting point, but didn’t help all that much because GPS Joe often went off-trail to bushwhack to remote peaks. An extensive Search and Rescue effort was mounted to try and find him, to no avail. Even though official Search and Rescue was called off after five days, the hiking community banded together and many hikers volunteered their time slogging through the thick brush and rugged terrain to try and locate him until snow finally made the area impassable. Such an unfortunate mystery and one that I hope will be solved soon. At least he went missing doing what he loved. I had a good cry for GPS Joe and replaced the summit register where I found it. You can read the HikeArizona forum thread on GPS Joe here.
While I was reading the summit register, I was visited by a very friendly Painted Lady butterfly who landed on my hand! I spent another hour wandering around the top of the hill, taking in the views and writing in my journal. I liked that I could see the path of the Arizona Trail south of Molino Basin, where I’d spent the night chasing the eclipse several weeks ago. Always the backpacker, I wished that I was spending the night up here so I had more time to explore- it looked like there were several interesting bushwhacks that can be done from the top of the hill.
The hike down felt longer than 4.5 miles. The steepness of the last part before the summit was not much more fun to come down than up, and I was relieved when I reached the junction and the grade became more reasonable. My body still wasn’t too happy with me, even after eating lunch and I could tell I was more tired than usual because I was none too happy about the ascents out of the drainages on the way back. Finally, as the sunset painted the mountain with an orange glow, I reached my car. On the drive home, I listened to the memorial service for those killed in the shooting at the Safeway on the radio. I found myself crying for the second time today for the fallen as I drove home- what an emotional day it turned out to be.
For today’s Wildlife Rehab Fundraiser picture, we got a Hog-Nosed Skunk at the rehab recently. I seem to have a soft spot for the stinky critters. We have four kinds of skunks in Arizona: Striped (the most common), Spotted, Hooded, and Hog-Nosed.