Hiking in Coronado National Forest and Driving the Catalina Highway
I like the desert well enough – and I’m actually quite fond of high desert with it’s pinyon and juniper and rock – but there’s only so much low desert exploring I care to do before I want to be near trees again. So it was a relief when we discovered that we could drive up the Catalina Highway into the Santa Catalina Mountains on the east side of Tucson. The scenic byway begins at roughly 3,000 feet in Saguaro cactus forest but transitions suddenly at 4,000 feet to semi-arid grassland and rolling hills. The mere sight of grass after a week of cactus was very welcome.
Soon after we crossed into the grassland we stopped at Molino Canyon to stretch our legs. There are two paved trails that lead to overlooks here but I immediately left the pavement and picked my way down the granite rocks once I spotted the water flowing in the canyon below.
After climbing around the canyon a bit we returned to the car and continued driving, watching as the grass gave way to pine as we neared 6,000 feet. That was all the encouragement we needed. Finding a picnic area to park at we began wandering through the tall pines. Except, of course, we couldn’t just take a leisurely stroll but had to go climb the really steep mountain. Though difficult because of the loose limestone, it was a fun climb up about 700 feet to the ridge from which we were at eye level of the surrounding mountains. We walked the ridge for about a half mile looking for a reasonable place to descend but the small, loose pieces of rock covering the extremely-steep that made walking down nearly impossible without constant slipping. We reached one section in which vegetation on either side necessitated a straight descent without mitigation by switchback and it was here that I discovered I could squat, resting on my heels, and slide down on my shoes as if I were sledding. Laughing – and occasionally shrieking as I nearly slid into trees and rocks – I then descended the last 400 feet in approximately 2 minutes.
We continued on, driving up through areas with incredible vistas into the Tucson Basin from atop outcroppings of schist and granite but decided to turn back just above 7,000 feet and save the rest for the next day.
We returned mid-morning the following day intending to hike Marshall Gulch Trailhead. In my eagerness to be among big trees I had chosen a hike that started at 8,000 feet – one in which we encountered significant snow-covering as we approached the trailhead. Not to be immediately deterred, we walked the closed forest road towards the beginning of the trail, dodging snow and ice, but when we got to the trail we realized it was solid ice. Not snow, not “you-can-find-footing-between-the-patches-of-frozen-stuff”, but completely solid, thick ice, undoubtedly due in part to hikers having compacted last week’s snowfall. Without crampons, we abandoned that plan and turned around to go back down the mountain.
At just below 6,000 feet we passed a trailhead located in low elevation pine forest and decided to give it a try. Fortunately, the Bug Springs Trail ended up being an extremely pleasant few miles hike. We began by ascending a ridge – from which we could see the mountain we had scaled the previous day – and then steadily dropped down after a couple miles into a shaded canyon where the trail followed the the stream. We continued on, meandering back and forth over the watercourse and savoring the cool breeze and the shade. After emerging from the oak and pine section the stream ran over picturesque lightly-colored granite stones and then had a few short but pretty drops over boulders. It was really quite lovely, As a bonus, we were able to better appreciate the rocky outcroppings rising from the forested mountains since the sun was more or less at our back.
Finally, we ended our day at the third brewery we visited in the Tucson area – Barrio Brewing Company. Barrio had a solid offering of 8 different beers on tap, all of which I enjoyed. My favorite was their Copperhead Pale Ale, a dry, not-too-hoppy, malty ale though their Raspberry Ale was also quite good (crisp and flavorful without being sweet) as was their white IPA, Barrio Blanco. I would also like to mention that they provided me with an exceptionally large basket of tortilla chips along with salsa and guacamole which worked out well because I had some serious hunger after the hike, and it can be an issue finding satisfying vegan eats when you’re not in the mood for salad.