Posts Tagged ‘Palisades Trail’

In 2010, I was looking at pictures on HikeArizona.com when I came across a photo of Palisades Canyon that took my breath away. I have looked at it many times over the years, it’s one of my favorites.

Palisades Canyon by nonot on HikeArizona.com

Palisades Canyon by nonot on HikeArizona.com

Such an incredible place, and right in my own backyard in the Catalinas. The colors and textures of the canyon walls, the person rappelling in a beautiful waterfall into a large, black pool. It was before I had ever gone canyoneering and when I checked the route description I saw that it was a strenuous route that takes 10-14 hours to complete. The picture is of the second in a series of seven rappels, many 100 feet or more. I have looked longingly at the falls in the canyon visible from the nearby Box Camp Trail.

Waterfalls in Palisades Canyon from Box Camp Trail

Waterfalls in Palisades Canyon from Box Camp Trail

Since my first canyoneering trip I have been totally taken by the pools, waterfalls, strenuous routes, and exciting rappels that come with it. Early in September I saw trip reports and pictures of Palisades and contacted a friend to see if he was planning on doing it anytime soon. He said he wasn’t going to be able to go, but a friend of his who had been through several times before would probably be interested in doing it again. I got in touch with Russ and we planned a trip for September 21st.

I hadn’t gone canyoneering in a little while, so before the trip I had a practice session hanging from my tree in the backyard. I was more nervous than I’d been in a while. A couple of groups that I knew had gone through the previous weekend and had epic 19 and 15 hour adventures.

Russ Newberg and I were met at the Sabino Canyon parking lot by my dear friend Tom who graciously shuttled us up the mountain to the Palisades Trailhead. Tom is the leader of Tom’s Sawyers, a volunteer group that goes into the wilderness in the Catalinas and Chiricahuas and removes downed trees on the trails with 2-man crosscut saws. He even has a website where you can report downed trees for the Sawyers to work on. We reached the Palisades trailhead and were hiking by 7 am.

Hiking into the drainage

Hiking into the drainage

We set a good pace down the mountain toward our turnoff point, descending first through pines, then through oaks and junipers. The trail rounded the rocky promontory I’d taken a long break at during my hike of the Palisades Trail to Prison Camp in 2011. Soon after the trail switchbacked down through the grasses, we reached our turnoff and took a gully into the creekbed. There were some ledges for us to get into our wetsuits, I wore a 3/2 full and was glad I did- made the time spent in the water enjoyable rather than merely tolerable.  We had a short hike to the first 150 ft. rappel.

Russ at the top of the first rappel

Russ at the top of the first rappel

150 ft. 1st rappel

150 ft. 1st rappel

Russ went down first so he could provide a fireman’s belay from below. He whistled that he was off rope and it was my turn. I rigged my belay device, double-checked everything, took a deep breath and started lowering myself down the slippery first drop into a pool. Sliding down on my side made the slick rock manageable. The second part of the rappel was down a waterfall black with slippery algae. I made my way down to the pool below and then we were at the top of the second rappel, the one that had captured my imagination years ago.

Bottom of the first rappel

Bottom of the first rappel

The second rappel has a chute that diverts the flow into a sideways spigot. I scooted down the chute on my side and stood with the water shooting sideways across the slot. I stopped a second to take it all in- here I was at last! I continued down the rest of the rappel to an immense circular black pool. My drybag buoyed me up in the water and I took a bit to happily float around in the pool, looking up at the waterfall- It’s one of my favorite things in the world to do!

Down the chute on the second rappel

Down the chute on the second rappel

Immediately afterwards, we had another 85 foot rappel followed by yet another 100 footer. There was a small downclimb and my foot slipped and I came down on my knee. It hurt a bit, but didn’t cause any problems the rest of the day. We were able to look at the cascades above that we had just descended. Incredible. Any one of these falls would be a worthy destination in and of itself.

Looking back up at the waterfalls

Looking back up at the waterfalls

We checked the time, surprised that it was still so early. If we got done early enough, we just might be able to catch the Sabino Canyon Tram for the last 4 miles instead of a hot, crowded roadwalk at the end of our day. Russ set up the fifth rappel and as I descended, the water splashing off my helmet made rainbows all around me. What a treat!

We packed up the ropes and rock-hopped toward our next rappel, two stages measuring 160 feet. The view from the top was fantastic. It took a little maneuvering to get down the first part, then yet another stunning slippery waterfall.

Top of 6th rappel

Top of 6th rappel

There was one last challenge before the technical section was complete- the last 85 footer had a notorious reputation for sticking ropes. Russ found a small stick and wedged it in the rope-eating crack. He went first and I followed. There was an overhang, then a free rappel for a moment underneath a chockstone with a hedgehog cactus clinging to life, dangling precariously by its roots. A short stop on a ledge with a tree, then down the rest of the way, rejoining the watercourse into a pool.

Micro Chicken at the last rappel

Micro Chicken at the last rappel

And now, the moment of truth- Russ and I looked at each other, took a deep breath and pulled as fast as we could, whooping with joy when we realized it was a clean pull- no stuck ropes today! We high-fived and then took a break to refuel and change out of our gear, our concern now was trying to stay cool instead of warm.

After eating and repacking all our soggy gear and ropes, we scrambled down Palisades Canyon, dunking ourselves to stay cool. The Sabino Basin got ever closer and finally we hit the East Fork Trail. Hello, Arizona Trail!

Rockhopping down the rest of the canyon

Rockhopping down the rest of the canyon



After a quick break to put away our helmets and grab some calories, we checked the time and realized that we could make the tram if we kept a good pace, so we booked it up the Sabino Canyon trail. Not sure where I got all that energy, but the idea of a long hot roadwalk certainly was a great motivator. At 4:30 we saw the tram below and ran to catch it, thinking it was the last one. It was the second to last one of the day, I was just happy that we were riding the road instead of hiking it. Interestingly, we sat right behind a group of guys who’d just come down Lemmon Canyon for the last two days. We shared canyoneering stories all the way to the parking lot.

Russ was wearing a GoPro camera, I’ll post his video when he gets done editing it. Until then, here’s the only picture of happy, sweaty me on the tram:

The sweaty run to catch the tram was all worth it!

The sweaty run to catch the tram was all worth it!

Edit: Here’s the video that Russ made:

I had a post-adventure endorphin-induced giant grin on my face as I drove home. Everything went smoothly in the canyon and the next day I was going to leave on an Arizona Trail business trip up to the North Rim and Flagstaff for a week.  I walked in the door, eager to share my day with my husband Brian when I was met with news that my dog Zeus was not doing well. He’s a big dog- half German Shepard and half Wolf- and at 15 1/2, this was not a great surprise. But something in Brian’s face told me that it wasn’t just the ordinary old-dog stuff.  My mood went instantly from elation to despair- it finally hit home that Zeus wasn’t going to be around much longer. I stayed home for two days and he seemed to stabilize, but when I left on my trip he went downhill again.

I spent the last week at home, getting in a last bit of quality time with him- massaging his tired old body, thinking about all the adventures we’d had together, and feeding him anything he wanted to eat.

We took Zeus and our other dog, Bailey on one last hike in the desert. As we walked, the dogs turned off toward a labyrinth I’d forgotten was there. I thought Zeus would just wander around and get tired and go back to the car. Instead he got a burst of energy and we had a great time hiking into the wash near some petroglyphs. Zeus was a big part of me getting into hiking, I’ll have to write about it sometime.


Zeus on his last hike

Brian and I made arrangements for a vet to come to the house so that he didn’t have to get all riled up on the drive. It was a wonderful decision. We were all on the futon together, hugging Zeus as his heart finally stopped. We buried him out in Picture Rocks on a friend’s land- he’s got a great resting spot in the desert with a view of the mountains. I don’t know when I’ve ever been so heartbroken.

One way I’m dealing with the loss of Zeus is to volunteer a bunch at Wildlife Rehabilitation Northwest Tucson. I took off a bunch of time this summer because I was really busy with my river schedule and it’s good to be back. Fortunately, I managed to sneak a couple of shifts in between trips this summer and meet the myriad youngsters we had in residence. This video of a trio of “Fuzzballs”- baby Great Horned Owls- cracked me up all summer long.

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Palisades Trail below Mud Springs

It has been a long time since I have been backpacking- since my Royal Arch via Point Huitzil trip in April. I was super-excited to put the big pack back on and spend a night out close to home. I have been trying to complete all the trails in the Catalinas, so I searched the map for something appropriate. Last summer, I did a hike on the Box Camp Trail and spent the night at Hutch’s Pool before hiking out to Sabino Canyon. I decided that the Palisades Trail, with a night at Hutch’s Pool and out to Prison Camp, would be a good day and a half adventure, albeit a little toasty in the lower reaches.  I parked my car at Prison Camp, also known as Gordon Hirabayashi Campground, and checked out the signs and the ruins since I was a bit early. Click here to read the story of the Prison Camp, it’s very interesting and sad. I waited by the side of the Catalina Highway to get a ride with some friends from the Tucson Hiking Meetup group that were driving up to hike the Mint Springs Trail near Summerhaven. While I was waiting, I saw a skateboarder coming down the mountain, followed closely by his friend in a pickup truck. Don’t see that everyday! Bill Carter was kind enough to let me hitch a ride up to Organization Ridge Road, where I started my trek.

I love mossy Sky Island boulders

It felt so good to strap on the big pack, even though it was heavy with a gallon and a half of water. It has been a very bad year for precipitation and a lot of the usual water sources have been dry, so I carried all I’d need to get myself to Hutch’s Pool, one of the sure-fire water sources in the Catalinas. I walked the short distance down the road to the Palisades Trailhead- there were quite a few cars there for 9am on a Wednesday morning.  The trail marker said 6.8 miles to the East Fork junction. I was super-excited about the prospect of seeing fresh scenery in the Catalinas, and was practically dancing down the trail. There were low-hanging clouds and the occasional rumble of far-off thunder. I immediately came upon several stands of wildflowers.

Western Dayflower

Chiricahua Mountain Columbine

The trail was wide and easy to follow as I came into a burned area. I got my umbrella out since my tree cover was gone. The views of the front range were obscured by low clouds that would burn off as the day progressed. Here’s a video taken near the wilderness boundary- you can hear how excited I am to be out backpacking:

Dark skies over Mt. Lemmon

Cathedral Rock enshrouded in low clouds

The trail followed the burnt ridgeline for a while, passing more boulders and rock formations as I lost elevation. Then rugged Pine Canyon came into view. As the trail traversed into Pine Canyon, views opened south to an interesting view of Thimble Peak. I stood aside to let a large group of Southern Arizona Hiking Club members pass by. One of the hikers stopped to ask me about my plans, and looked a little worried when I told her I was heading downhill in the heat of the day. I told her that I was carrying about 6 liters of water and that I hike all summer long. Right after my encounter with the hiking group, I walked into a muddy area full of bright green ferns known quite aptly as Mud Springs. I didn’t go investigate the pools that are supposed to be in the drainage, but there was a trickle of water running across the trail. The trail had been mostly cool, with cloud cover up until this point, so I didn’t really need extra water.

Thimble Peak comes into view

Mud Springs ferns

Video just below Mud Springs:

I knew that the trail between Mud Springs and the East Fork gets a lot less use, so I wasn’t sure what to expect as far as navigation. Fortunately, someone had cairned the heck out of the lower trail, so there was hardly a spot that I didn’t know where to go. The trail criss-crossed the dry creekbed, sometimes through stands of oak and juniper, but most of the time on exposed grasslands. I crossed an old, rusty wire strung across the trail several times and saw a broken white insulator. The trail gave great views of a 150-f00t waterfall in Pine Canyon. Sadly, it was dry.

Very fancy!

150-foot waterfall in Pine Canyon

The trail then made a traverse across the nose of the ridge through some great rocky outcroppings, one that had fantastic views of the whole Sabino Basin. Here’s  pictures and a video from the rocky lookout:

View of the East Fork and Sycamore Canyon Trail

Sabino Canyon

Cathedral Rock and the West Fork

After the rocky outlook, the trail switchbacked down with views of Palisades Canyon, Sabino Canyon Trail, and the Box Camp Trail where it meets the West Fork. The trail does not match the old alignment shown on the Topo map, it was very clearly cairned in the tall grasses. I could see the canopy of the East Fork and couldn’t reach it fast enough- my head was getting increasingly hot even underneath the umbrella. It was 12:30 and toasty by the time I crossed the bone-dry East Fork and reached the trail junction. I was a little sad that there was absolutely no water to be found. I took a break at the junction, and it was completely bug-infested, so badly that I had to wear my earphones to drown out the sound of the no-see-ums and mosquitoes. After eating and cooling off for a bit, I went to investigate the weather-I had heard thunder and saw that there was lightning over the West Fork, right where I was planning on staying at Hutch’s Pool.

Hike to Hutch's pool in that direction

I had a decision to make. I had only two liters of water left, and it was around 3pm when it started to rain. I made one last-ditch attempt to get some more water by turning my umbrella upside-down, but only collected about two cups of rainwater. My desire to sleep out under the stars plummeted as I realized that it would be a hot, buggy night at Hutch’s Pool and I was already covered in bites. I decided to hike all the way out and had cloud cover for the lazy switchbacks that climb out of the East Fork.

Pine Canyon on the right

I passed the Bear Canyon junction and made my way towards the Sycamore Canyon reservoir, but didn’t make the trip over to visit. I have always found the water I’ve filtered from there to taste disgusting. I had the one last climb out from the reservoir to Shreve Saddle, a climb that I have always approached at the end of a long day, and it always kicks my butt. There is the most hilarious giant Arizona Trail sign at Shreve Saddle- they put the big metal signs in the most unlikely places.

Butterfly Weed

Hiking up to Shreve Saddle

At the saddle, it began to rain again and I called my husband to tell him that I’d be home early. I reached the Soldier Canyon Trail junction, which is about a quarter mile from the trailhead, and my right quad started to spasm with every step. Good thing that didn’t happen a couple of miles back! Finally made it back to my Jeep just before 6pm, quite a long, hot day for the middle of the summer. I would not recommend this hike in the summertime to people not acclimated to hiking in the heat. Click below to see the full set of pictures from this hike:

Palisades to Prison Camp 8-10-11

A couple of days later, I went to Sabino Canyon for a night hike and got to see all sorts of critters. Two tiger rattlesnakes and a diamondback, tarantulas, and many scorpions of all sizes. Some of our group had black lights to look for scorpions, and they saw one that looked strange. The reason was that the bark scorpion had many tiny baby scorpions on its back, and the babies did not fluoresce under the black light. Fascinating.

Scorpion with babies

It must have been the season, because later we saw a Wolf Spider carrying babies on its back:

Wolf Spider with babies on back

To top off a fantastic night of sightings, we got a great encounter with a Gila Monster, who ran away, puffing itself up. It then turned around to hiss and show the inside of its mouth at us. What an entertaining night!

Gila Monster

In Wildlife Rehab Fundraiser news, we’ve got more raccoons- hungry raccoons! Your donation helps to feed these and many other birds and animals at Wildlife Rehabilitation Northwest Tucson:

Hungry baby raccoon

After a good meal!

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