Posts Tagged ‘bushwhacking’

The Biscuit

If you look at a topo map of the Mustang Mountains, a small range northeast of Sonoita, you will see the northernmost peak is called Mount Bruce. This ordinary name belies the beauty of this peak, for it has a most interesting shape. Sheer walls on the sides with a domed top- locals call it The Biscuit.

The Biscuit is one of those peaks that can be seen for miles and miles. I have admired it from many other mountain ranges and always wondered what it would be like to hike to the top. I saw that the Huachuca Hiking Club was leading a trip up there and contacted them to ask if I could tag along. Boy, am I glad I did! This hike was a blast and the views were incredible in every direction. Bill and I met up with the others from the hiking club at Upper Elgin Rd. and Highway 82. We drove past 8-foot high sunflowers lining the road and marveled at the beautiful rolling scenery and views of The Biscuit. As we were waiting for the others to arrive, I saw a very large hawk with a grey back and entirely white underside. I looked it up when I got home and it was a Harrier Hawk. Cool!

The Biscuit from our parking area. We grasswhacked, then went up to the saddle and curved around behind the peak to a break in the cliffs. Came down a ridge not seen in the photo to make a loop back to the cars.

We drove down Upper Elgin Rd. for a ways and turned off onto a good dirt road leading through the grasslands. The road stopped at a gate and we parked the cars. Steve, the hike leader, described our route, which started with a grasswhack toward our Biscuit. We waded through knee-high grasses and I was thankful I’d brought the tall gaiters- it is grass seed season. It got a little brushy as we crossed several small drainages. There were patches with sugar sumac, ceanothus, and everyone’s favorite, cat claw. After we crossed the drainage that goes up to the saddle, we found a faint path that went up through an increasingly brushy and ocotillo-laden slope. The view from the saddle was very interesting- on the other side was the much greener and more lush Rain Valley between the Mustangs and the Whetstones. Above us were the sheer cliffs of the Biscuit.


Up to the saddle

‘Brella on the Biscuit

Getting brushy

View from the saddle toward the Whetstones, Rincon Peak in the distance

Monolithic Biscuit, can’t go up from this side without rope!

We took a break and then went up and contoured around near the base of the cliff. There was a break in the cliff once we got closer to the north side of the peak. The biggest problem with the route was that the rock was extremely loose and even large pieces were getting dislodged from the slope. There were a couple of spots that required scrambling, and where the rock wasn’t loose, it was razor-sharp. Sometimes it was both.

Sidehilling from the saddle

Scrambling up the break

Above the scramble, the hillside was covered in bright yellow goldeneye, which was such a treat. We found a large cairn marking another route up to the peak coming from the more gentle slope of the north side. We would use that as our descent and hopefully avoid coming down the sharp loose scramble. There were cairns on the route to the summit hidden in the flowers, and the summit finally came into view.

Mike takes a moment to take in the views on the flower-covered slope

View toward the Santa Ritas

Looking north, Rincons and Catalinas in the far distance

Where some summits have a cairn, or a post, or a mailbox, this one had a 4 foot tall circular rock wall. The 360 degree views were spectacular- so many different sky islands visible from just one spot!

Video from the summit:

Unexpected summit structure

Micro Chicken makes an appearance

Huachuca Hiking Club

We took a long break at the top, pointing out landmarks to each other. When it was time to go down, we went cairn-hunting in the flowers for the route back down the north slope. It was much easier than the route we had taken up. When we got close to the saddle, we contoured around the mountain to avoid several drainages and then descended back to the grasslands. The rest of the hike back was grass-seed hell, as we all got stabbed repeatedly. No mesh shoes for me next time! It was a short but interesting hike and I think we hit it at just the perfect time for wildflowers up top.

Cairn-hunting in the flowers

The more gentle northern slope

It may look serene, but we are getting stabbed by a million grass seeds on the way back to the cars

In wildlife rehabilitation fundraiser news, one of my favorite parts of volunteering at Wildlife Rehabilitation Northwest Tucson is getting to fly the raptors to see if they are ready for release. I took a beautiful Great Horned Owl out the other day and it did a great job and will be released soon. 100% of donations go toward animal rehabilitation.

Great Horned Owl

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Battleship Mountain

I met Kyle and Joel at First Water Trailhead on February 7th after a lovely drive up Highway 79. We started hiking around 8:15 am and after turning on the old roadbed of the Second Water Trail, we passed a large group of hikers. Other than this group, we hardly saw anyone else all day. We hiked through the flats of Garden Valley with a view of the Four Peaks in the distance. Soon, we descended to reach the junction with the Boulder Canyon Trail and took it south. There was running water in the creek and several larger pools. Temperatures were warm enough that I wet my head at one of the creek crossings before we started our ascent of the Battleship.

Hiking through Garden Valley

Boulder Canyon

We reached the turnoff for the route, marked with a cairn, and crossed the creek one last time before going up a steep slope that led to a use path on the left side of a side drainage of Boulder Canyon. The path curved around and took us to a saddle where we could look down into the Lower La Barge Box. From the saddle, we continued northwest on a path that took us to an alcove at the base of the rock formation that makes up the back end of the ship where we took a break before the real scrambling began. There were great views of the Weaver’s Needle from the alcove. I stashed my hiking poles at the alcove and put on gloves to follow Kyle as he scrambled up on solid rock with good ledges and handholds toward the top of the back end of the ship. Suddenly, we were on a flat expanse of mesa, with incredible views in every direction. The ridgeline of the Battleship stretched out in front of us, looking a little more than daunting.

Battleship Mountain

Atop the first part of the Battleship

We wove our way through the rock formations- it was nice to have Kyle along, who had been here recently. However, the route was pretty well beat in and there were cairns in questionable spots. I knew the “scary spot” on the connecting ridge that all the triplogs talk about was coming up, but when we got there, it didn’t look so bad at all. Here’s a video of Kyle on the scary spot:

Then it was my turn. I decided to use one of my favorite techniques when faced with a spot where a slip or a fall would ruin your day. Some call it Butt-Hiking, I call it La Rompage. Here’s a video Joel got of me crossing:

Looking back at the connecting ridge

After crossing the connecting ridge, we continued scrambling up the ridgeline. There were some places that looked like a tight squeeze between boulders, we found it easier to travel along the top of the solid rock of the ridge. We reached a set of cliffs and the route dove down and to the left on horrible, loose pea-sized gravel on top of solid rock. There was no good way to get down it, so I tried a controlled slide which worked okay- another area the gloves came in handy. I couldn’t wait for the ball-bearing slopes to be over- in retrospect, if I wouldn’t have left the poles at the alcove, I would have gotten them back out for this part. A little more scrambling and then we were able to see Canyon Lake in the distance.

Good rock for scrambling

Kyle and Joel on the ball-bearing slopes

Canyon Lake in the distance

The route wrapped around the mountain to the right and up on a good path and all of a sudden, we were at the red summit register box. 360 degree knockout views in every direction! Here’s a video from the summit:

Wow. We made the summit just before noon and took a long break to explore and soak in the incredible views. We could see the Weaver’s Needle, which I am going to attempt to climb at the end of the month. We signed the summit register- I always enjoy reading the various entries and there were a lot of names in there that I recognized. It was a perfect day, with blue skies and a slight breeze. We saw two large birds soaring above and diving- I later determined that they were a pair of Prairie Falcons.

View south with Weaver's Needle

Atop the Battleship

After our summit break, it was time to reverse our route down the ridgeline. The most unpleasant part was short stretches of the ball-bearing slopes. The temperatures were increasing and we could feel the rocks were warm to the touch. I wouldn’t want to try this hike in hot weather. We found our way back to the alcove, having gotten through the scramble with only minor scrapes and bruises. The path was easy to follow from the saddle down toward Boulder Creek, and after one last steep section we were on the Boulder Canyon Trail.

Hiking down from the Battleship

Great views from the ridgeline

One of the first wildflowers of the year- a fairy duster

It was pretty warm on our hike up out of the creek, so I got out my umbrella. Crazy that we’re sweating, when only four days before the high had been right around freezing. We had an enjoyable time on our hike back. I could tell that we were nearing the trailhead because shirtless people carrying no water began to appear. Just before the trailhead, I said good-bye to Kyle and Joel and took a half-hour to myself on some pretty rocks near the trail before getting back in my car and driving back to Tucson. I really enjoyed the hike and the company and would like to try coming in from Canyon Lake to access the Battleship the next time.

A moment to myself

For today’s Wildlife Rehab Fundraiser animal, we recently got a Western Yellow Bat that was found in someone’s garage. Here’s Janet Miller, who runs Wildlife Rehabilitation Northwest Tucson, giving the bat some food:

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Last light on Thimble Peak

Towering over Sabino Canyon at 5323 feet, Thimble Peak is a prominent feature of the front range of the Catalinas. For those of you not acquainted with sewing, (which I’m guessing is at least some of my readers), a thimble is a sewing aid that you wear on your finger to help push a needle through fabric. I was talking to my friend Bill Bens at a recent Arizona Trail trailbuilding event and mentioned that we should try for the Thimble soon. He said that he had a standing invitation from someone who knew the route- Steven, a man known in Tucson hiking circles as “Mr. X” of the X Hiking Club. As it got closer, Bill said that there would be 10-12 people going in the group including Matt Nelson, a friend of Steven’s and a professional guide that would help belay us up to the actual summit of Thimble Peak (most hikers only go to the lower, non-technical summit). Steven had scouted out a route to Thimble Peak that scrambled up all 7 Falls toward a drainage coming off the base of the peak. After summiting Thimble Peak the plan was to hike over to the NNW to a drainage that would deposit us at the end of the tram road.

Blackett's Ridge and Saddleback visible from the Bear Cyn TH

On January 19th, ten of us met at Sabino Canyon and shuttled over to the Bear Canyon Trailhead, starting our hike around 8:30 am up the access road. We reached the Bear Canyon Trail at 9am and made our way up the canyon. I remember years ago when a hike to 7 Falls was the whole hike, today it was just a means to get to the real fun! The group spread out a bit and I was happy to get a little time to myself. There was a fair amount of water in the creek, giving a nice sonic backdrop to the easy stroll. Bill and I stopped before the descent to the falls to eye up our route across the canyon before continuing to the falls for a break.

Cathedral Rock and the Front Range of the Catalinas to the left

Across flowing Bear Creek

View of the drainage above 7 Falls

This is as far as most people go, but it was just a warm up for the hike to come

After some snacks, Steven went over our plan for the day and some pointers about the scramble ahead. Then it was time for us to start scrambling up each level of 7 Falls. It was so neat to see each of the pools and look at the waterfalls from a totally different perspective. There was one that was quite large, with a rainbow visible in the spray. There were a couple of tricky spots, but Steven and Matt were there to spot us and talk us through the best way to go. We crossed the stream a couple of times and finally we reached what Steven calls “The Penthouse”. It was a gorgeous set of pools that I must revisit in the summer with my inner tube for some quality floating time. Here’s a video:

Scrambling up

Gorgeous upper waterfall

Steep terrain ahead

Matt and Steven spot and lend a hand- a slip here would send you down the large fall in the previous pictures

Today, there was no time for dawdling because we had places to go and a Thimble to climb. We bushwhacked up the drainage, which started out as series of broad ledges that made for easy scrambling. The drainage split and we followed the right fork. Pretty soon, our next objective came into view- a notch between the rocks that make up the base that Thimble Peak sits on and a tall rock face. I’d scouted the route on Google Earth the night before and it looked like it was going to get super-steep and nasty as we got closer to the notch. The scramble got progressively steeper and as we neared the notch, our nice ledges were replaced by unstable rocks and boulders. It was tough going, but we took our time and stopped for a couple of short breaks for shade and to catch our breath. Even though it was the middle of January, it was unseasonably warm and I  was glad that we weren’t attempting this in any hotter weather. The views down to the Bear Canyon Trail and beyond were incredible. Here’s a video:

Scrambling up the ledges in the drainage above 7 Falls

David eyes up our notch on the right

Grasses on rock make for a beautiful but slippery combination


Getting closer!

Looking down the steep drainage


Conditions deteriorated further after we regrouped at the notch. The steep, loose, and nasty terrain made me long for the unstable boulders of the upper drainage. The rock wall that made up the east side of the notch was beautifully striated and dwarfed the hikers behind me. But the terrain was so steep that before long, I was towering over the rock wall with a wonderful view of Helen’s Dome and Mica Mountain in the Rincons.

The higher we climbed, the more loose and crumbly the terrain

Glad we weren't planning on coming down this way!

Steven is just a small red dot compared to the giant cliff

Oh Helen- what a glorious sight!

After thrashing up the hillside, we reached the base of the rocks that Thimble Peak sits upon and contoured around on jumbled pink, white, and black-striped boulders to meet up with the conventional route that most hikers take to Thimble Peak from the upper Bear Canyon Trailhead at Prison Camp (Hiryabayashi). This point in and of itself is quite the destination at the base of Thimble Peak- great views of the Catalinas. By this time it was 1pm, and though we all wanted to be up top, we took a short, well-deserved lunch break first to refuel before the final push to the top of the peak.

Our route around the base of the Thimble toward the notch between the two summits

Wonderful Catalina views

After lunch, it was time to tackle the final chute and then climb a ten-foot wall to attain the summit. The chute was filled with giant boulders and had plenty of good hand and footholds. At the top of the chute, I put on a harness and lined up with the rest of the group to take my turn at the final obstacle. I was happy to have Matt belaying us up the wall to the actual summit, most people have to be content with the nearby non-technical summit which sits 10 feet lower. A couple of well placed feet and hands later, and I was hiking up the final slope to the flat-topped peak of the Thimble!

Scrambling up the chute

View from the top of the chute

Bill climbs with help from Steven and Matt

People at the Thimble Peak vista point on the Catalina Highway could be looking at us right now!

What a place- the summit is quite large and would make an incredible place to spend the night! The 360 degree views are spectacular in every direction and we all amused ourselves by pointing out different landmarks and trails. As we enjoyed the summit, we were visited by a soaring Peregrine Falcon. Here’s a video from the summit:

Matt marvels at the views

A victorious group atop Thimble Peak

Bear Canyon, Agua Caliente Hill, Mica Mtn. and Rincon Peak

After many photos were taken, it was unfortunately time to descend. I watched as Matt and Steven showed how to get down the wall. It was my first time rappelling where I wasn’t in charge of letting the line out myself. I’m trying to get better at trusting the rope- but it is always a struggle, as I am pretty afraid of heights, especially descending. The reason that I push through it is that every time it has proved to be worth the momentary discomfort.

We went back around the base to where the grassy slope extends northward. The conventional route goes back to the upper Bear Canyon Trail via a route that contours to the northeast. But we weren’t doing anything the conventional way today. Instead we took the western slope of the ridge toward some large rock towers on our way to a drainage that would deposit us at Tram Stop #9, at the end of the Sabino Canyon Tram road. There were great views back to Thimble Peak and more scrambling.

Coming carefully back down the chute

I love the vegetation at this elevation

We were up there!

The bushwhack toward the drainage took us past some wonderful rock towers

Bill says: "Just another crummy day in the Sonoran Desert!"

As we found the correct drainage and started heading down it, the split between the two summits of Thimble Peak became visible. Tram Stop #9 would come into view every so often but the rugged terrain in the drainage made for slow going. Finally, the front people in the group reached the tram stop and radioed back, asking if we’d be interested in riding the tram out to the parking lot. I was surprised that there was a tram there at all, as it was almost 5pm, and radioed back that I was definitely on board. I walk the tram road pretty often as a night hike, and wasn’t really interested in a 3.7 mile roadwalk on hard asphalt to cap off an already tough day. Some in our group insisted on hiking the road, but a bunch of us hopped on the tram and enjoyed sunset views of Thimble Peak on the ride out.

Looking back


'Shwacking down the drainage toward the tram road

Split between the two summits

Looking back up the drainage that we descended

View of Thimble Peak from the tram- no shame in my game for catching a ride on the last tram out and saving myself a 3.7 mile roadwalk that I've done a million times before.

Click the picture below to see the whole set of pictures from this hike:

Thimble Peak 1-19-11

What an adventure this day turned out to be- we had hiked from 8:20 am until 5pm and only covered 6.4 miles with 2600 feet of elevation gain. It was a great group and I had a smile on my face that lasted the rest of the week as I visited family in chilly Chicago for my grandmother’s 80th birthday.  And now for something completely different: pictures of non-hiking situations on my visit to Chicago!

Me with my two younger brothers, Shawn and Sanjay Rana out to see Shawn's band play

My Nonna at her surprise party

My nephew Devin and my Dad

Me and Mom

Olivia and my husband Brian

It was good to see my family and friends and everyone’s children. Brian and I did typical Chicago-in-the-winter things like sit at peoples houses and eat. Thankfully, we flew out before the “Snowmageddon” hit (or “Snowpocalypse” if you prefer) and buried everyone for two days. Now, for the Wildlife Rehab Fundraiser picture, here’s a trio of young Cooper’s Hawks that we had at the rehab in 2010. These three are among the 543 animals total that went through Wildlife Rehabilitation Northwest Tucson last year: 113 bunnies, 124 quail, 54 hawks, 23 falcons, 38 owls, 13 waterbirds, and a whopping 267 songbirds!

Baby Cooper's Hawks- 33 came through the rehab last year

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When I worked as an archaeologist, I did a pipeline survey that went from the New Mexico border up to Phoenix. It was great work, getting paid to hike along the pipeline and record archaeological sites. One of the areas the pipeline went through was what is now the Ironwood Forest National Monument. There was one peak that really caught my attention with it’s jagged appearance:

Ragged Top

Now, by the looks of this peak, and knowing that there is no constructed trail on it, you would never guess that it is hikeable. For years after seeing the peak up close, I would look longingly at it when in the Tucson Mtns. or driving up to Phoenix. I eventually read about a way to get up to the top that required bushwhacking (traveling without a trail) and 2nd and 3rd class scrambling. Here’s a description I found of 3rd class scrambling: “steep scrambling with exposure. An unroped fall on 3rd class terrain would likely be fatal.” A couple of years ago, I would have never attempted such a hike. But since climbing Baboquivari last year, I realize that in addition to being just this side of terrifying, scrambling can be a lot of fun! I asked Dave Baker, the owner of Summit Hut who had taken me up Babo, if he thought that it was similar to the scrambling we did there, and he said similar, but easier. He said that I probably wouldn’t have a problem with it. I scouted this hike solo in November, but upon reaching the steeper parts, decided it was best to come back with at least one other person.

Mitch and Bill

And so it was that Mitch Stevens, Bill Bens and I came together on a perfect winter day to hike to the summit. Mitch will be leading this hike for the Sierra Club in a couple of weeks and wanted to scout it out beforehand. Bill and I have corresponded with for a couple of years, but never met before. He runs the Tucson Hikers Yahoo Group. It was nice to finally meet him! Bill had been up Ragged Top before, but not on this route. We used a description by Dave Baker on his Trail Talk blog that can be found here.

Ragged Top Map

Mitch had 4WD on his truck, so we were able to drive up to the base of the mountain. When I had scouted this in November, I had to park my un-trailworthy Thunderbird on Silverbell Rd. and walk an additional 1.1 miles in. We started hiking at 8am after taking a bunch of pictures of the early morning light reflecting off the peak. I had done some map and GPS work for my previous attempt that would prove to be really helpful in figuring out the way to go. There is no constructed trail in this area, but there are several game trails that aid progress up to the Wolcott Peak- Ragged Top saddle.

From the saddle, we contoured under Ragged Top’s peak with great views. There are many interesting rock spires along the way.

Photo by Bill Bens

The hike up to the ridgeline was one of my least favorite combinations: steep, rocky, loose, and unstable. I was glad that we were doing a loop, so that I wouldn’t have to come back down this way. We took a long break when we got up to the ridgeline to take pictures and scout out the route. The next part of the hike went up a steep chute.

Up this chute to the summit

The chute was also loose and rocky, and required use of hands in places. The rock was so unstable, we would step on large rocks, only to have them move. The rock was also rotten, so every hand and foothold had to be tested before putting weight on it.

Up the Chute- Photo by Bill Bens

I tried not to look down too much- I am somewhat afraid of heights, though I can usually fight my way through it. Going up is not nearly as bad as coming down, and that was what was concerning me. Each bit I climbed, I would have to come back down. I was not looking forward to it. Thankfully, the views made it all worth it.

Enjoying the view-Photo by Bill Bens

Photo by Bill Bens

As we got to the top of the chute, the climbing became even more exposed and I got a little freaked out by where we were headed. We were so close to the top, but the last push was pretty scary. Any misstep would be bad news.

Tricky maneuvers near the top- Photo by Bill Bens

Final push to the summit- photo by Bill Bens

Finally, we made it to the summit, which had an old mailbox that housed the summit register.

Summit Mailbox

Me and Bill at the summit with Picacho Peak in the background

The views from the top at 3907 ft. were incredible! The summit is a lot larger than it looks from the bottom of the mountain. We took a break to eat lunch and take pictures. Here’s a video from the summit:

After spending a while on the summit, it was time to head down. Now we had to climb down the scary part we’d just come up, only this time, the view was all the way down the mountain to the chute.

Coming off the summit- photo by Bill Bens

I took my time and tried to find the best line to scramble down, and when I got down to the chute, I used my tried and true technique of sliding down/crabwalking on my butt. The way I figure it, if I’m already on the ground, then I can’t fall. Dave Baker called it “rumpage” (it sounds best if you say it like it’s a French word)

Butt-scooting down the chute- photo by Bill Bens

As we were coming down the chute, we saw a man coming toward us and he stopped to talk for a minute. He owns the ranch in the valley and said that he hikes Ragged Top every day when he is in town. He went up to the summit, and came back down at an unbelievable speed while we were still negotiating the chute.

We finally made it down to the second saddle, and we went down the North Gully to continue our loop back to the car. We stayed to the right on a good game trail that made travel a lot easier than the way we had come up. It was still steep and loose, but there was a pretty well-defined path and it did not feel as exposed as the South Gully. The path even had steep switchbacks in parts. I continued my rumpage down the mountain:

Scooting down the North Gully-photo by Bill Bens

The North Gully was a lot shorter than the way we came up the South, and before we knew it, we were down at the level that we needed to contour our way around the mountain back to Mitch’s truck.

Looking back at the North Gully

We made it back to the truck at about 5 1/2 hours after we started and I was shocked to see that the entire hike was only 3 miles! That is one of the most scenic, exciting 3 miles I’ve ever hiked. What a wonderful, rugged route- but I would recommend it to experienced hikers only, and only when temps are cool. Even just up to the first or second saddle could be a destination in itself if you’re not comfortable with the climbing part. I am so happy that Bill and Mitch accompanied me up to the summit- our group meshed well and we are planning some more off-trail adventures in the future. The rest of the day, I was floating on an endorphin high. I said at the summit that I probably wouldn’t want to do this hike again, but now that I have completed it safely, I have a sneaking feeling that this wasn’t the last time I’d see the summit of Ragged Top.

Catalinas, Rincons, and Tucson Mtns. from the summit

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