Many times, I have looked into the deep wooded canyon of the Canada del Oro (CDO) or Canyon of Gold and wondered what it was like down there. It is a very large drainage on the less-visited north side of the Catalinas and can only be accessed by taking a series of trails from the top of Mount Lemmon or a long, tough 4WD road from the bottom. Unfortunately, the trail had not been rehabilitated after the 2003 Aspen fire and the only things I heard about the CDO went something like this triplog from topohiker on HikeArizona.com: “… the canyon walls narrowed and the trail disappeared into a sea of deadfall and over growth. This must be the results of the 2003 fire. Our moving pace dropped down a quarter mile an hour. This was some serious bushwhacking and route finding. I had the AZT route loaded in my GPS, but that didn’t help much. We just looked for the safest route that followed the creek bed. Every so often we would see a ribbon or a cairn, but that that only helped for about a 100 feet until the trail got swallowed up in deadfall.”
I had read that mountain bikers from tucsonmtb.com had flagged and worked the trail this spring and that it was on the Forest Service schedule to be cleared by the end of the year. I had two days off back to back on November 1st and 2nd and someone to shuttle me to the top of Mount Lemmon. Laddie Cox dropped me off at 10 am on a perfect day for hiking down the mountain. We’d seen some fall color on the drive up which made me hopeful that I hadn’t missed the show. I had forgotten my camera (horrors!) but Laddie saved the day by lending me his.
I took the Mount Lemmon Trail to the Sutherland Trail- there is a big metal Arizona Trail sign here as this used to be the official route of the Arizona Trail. It had since been rerouted down Oracle Ridge. As I turned the corner I saw a hillside of aspen and Cathedral Rock. Gorgeous. I was also at the right angle for light to be shining through The Window.
At the next junction I took the Samaniego Ridge Trail a short distance to the Canada Del Oro Trail. The trail descended below Samaniego Ridge toward Shovel Spring. I met two hikers here who had just climbed the steep switchbacks from the canyon floor. They were the crew leaders who were brought in by the Forest Service to clear the trail. A crew of 7 was coming out to work for 8 days and the crew leaders had just come from scouting water sources and flagging the route. I was happy to hear that there was water in the canyon- it had been such a dry summer.
The trail was heavily wooded and I only got a small glimpse of the expanse of the Canada del Oro below before descending to the canyon floor. The trees were gigantic and there was a massive tangle of brush and deadfall. I thanked the bikers as I followed a thin path cleared in the chaos. It was easy to tell when I got off-route because there would immediately be obstacles in the way.
The well-cairned trail crossed back and forth across the dry streambed which glowed with thick patches of golden sycamores. There was a deep stillness and quiet that made it feel very remote. The CDO is known to have a large population of bears, but the only thing I saw on my trip was a healthy pile of scat. I also saw many deer and several flocks of turkeys. About a mile after the junction, I heard running water and settled in for a break next to a small cascade.
I continued on after my break, crossing the creek and occasionally getting glimpses of the Corkscrew of Death cliff and the Mule Ears on the Samaniego Ridge Trail. There were tons of crunchy leaves underfoot- what a fantastic sound! Finally, the views opened up to reveal the Reef of Rock and Oracle Ridge around 5pm. I started to look for a campsite, but the area was covered in these waist to shoulder-high crunchy weeds, so I pushed on to the Red Ridge Trail junction. Just after the junction at 4800ft. there was a nice grove of alligator junipers with a view. Home for the night. I had a tasty dinner and boiled myself a hot water bottle to sleep with.
In the morning, I heard a rustling sound and opened my eyes to see a skunk bounding toward me, only 10 feet away! Thankfully, he just turned around when I opened my eyes and ran off without any unwanted emissions. I sat in camp and read Going Back to Bisbee by Richard Shelton. A delightful book that I can’t believe I haven’t come across before. Eventually it was time for me to start my hike out. I only had a mile and a half until I reached Forest Rd. 736 , and then a long roadwalk to the town of Catalina on the rough Charouleau Gap 4wd road. There were great views back toward the Reef of Rock and fall colors. Getting closer to the road, the trail was rocky and directly in the streambed. There was a small camp with an old spring bedframe at the junction.
I ran into a Forest Service group that was out doing a watershed survey for a series of controlled burns that are being planned. We chatted for a while and they gave me an icy Gatorade before I started the climb out to Charouleau Gap. The roadwalk out to the staging area in Catalina was nearly 10 miles long but quite scenic. I got quite a few strange looks from people on quads driving the road. One guy asked me where I’d come from. I told him I’d gotten dropped off on top of the mountain yesterday: “So you spent the night out there? Congratulations!” Yes. Congrats to me for choosing to spend the last two days out and about on the mountain. It was worth the lengthy roadwalk to where my husband came to collect me. Total mileage was 21.4, with a descent of 6738 ft and gain of 1694 ft. Hopefully more people will use this trail after it has been cleared so that it does not get lost in the deadfall again.
In Wildlife Rehabilitation news, the baby racoons are being released this week on the San Pedro River. I think they’ll be just fine.