Every since we moved to Tucson, Ms. Karen has wanted to hike to the top of Mt. Wasson from the trailhead at the end of Camino del Cerro on the east slope of the Tucson Mountains. The trail would take her over the ridge and down the west slope of the Tucson Mountains to the Desert Museum. She finally got the opportunity when family from Colorado came to visit last weekend (February 20, President’s Day 2012).
The hikers included Ms. Karen, who is both my bride and web designer, her cousins, Kathy & Judy, and Judy’s husband, Ray. All physically fit and experienced hikers. Their plan is to hike over the mountain to the Desert Museum where they will have a late lunch.
My assignment was to pick them up at the Desert Museum and haul them back to where they left their car in the parking lot at the Sweetwater Trailhead at the very end of Camino del Cerro. Once back to our home in the foothills of the Tucson Mountains, we will all relax, enjoy Peanut Time on the main patio, watch the sun set over Mt. Wasson from the viewing deck, then BBQ a pork loin for dinner.
Mt. Wasson is the highest peak in the Tucson Mountains at 4687 feet elevation, about half the elevation of Mt. Lemmon in the Catalina Mountains. Horses are allowed on these trails, but not Fido. Go figure.
The Sweetwater Trail, to the ridge where you can see both Tucson below in the east and the Avra Valley to the west is 3.4 miles, plus another 1.2 miles to the top of Mt. Wasson. Taking the King Canyon Trail from the ridge to its trailhead across from the Desert Museum is 2.3 miles.
Here’s Ms. Karen’s report.
The head of the Sweetwater Trail is about a tenth of a mile up hill from the parking lot. Even this early in the season, we came across wildflowers. Lupine, poppies, desert chicory, to mention a few. From the registration sign and fence that marks public land, the Thunderbird trail heads north past some long-abandoned mines to Picture Rocks Road. This is an easy 4.5 mile hike.
Our trail, the Sweetwater, heads south from this “T” in the road. Ray read somewhere that at one time the original trail was south of the existing trail, but residents would not grant permission for hikers to pass through their property. So a parking lot was created at the end of Camino del Cerro.
Once underway, we could make out old mining roads and some other signs of our pioneers’ handiwork. The trail is rocky but well worn. It took us a couple hours to hike uphill the 3.4 miles to reach the ridge where we could look down both sides of the mountain. Metropolitan Tucson is laid out below us to the east and the Catalina and Rincon Mountains serve as a majestic backgrounds.
The Sweetwater Trail is what true hikers might call moderate. It starts out easy, undulating past giant saguaros, including a rare crested one. Be sure to take plenty of water and go early if the day will be warm. This was mid-February. It seemed the wildflowers were appearing early due to the rains we had last fall. It was too early in the year to see Gila Monsters or Rattlesnakes along the way.
At the top of the ridge, Kathy and Ray stopped to take pictures of the Avra Valley far below as it fans out to the west. As the day heated up to a little less than 70 degrees, the Mexican Gold Poppies began to open and display their awesome yellow-orange carpet. Here we stopped for our picnic lunch.
I, counting on lunch at the desert museum, brought a granola bar and 2 Honey Crisp apples, which I consider the best, their sweet juiciness, a delight after a thirsty hike. I had brought 2 pints of water, and for a time thought it might not be enough. I made it down with a pint to spare. Judy brought a picnic lunch. So, our plans changed slightly. Just dessert when we reach the Desert Museum.
None of us were too excited to take on the summit, even though it was only another 1.3 miles. Although we all joked that if my Uncle Jim, Kathy and Judy’s father, a retired geologist, were here, he would goad us on to the top.
We headed down the west side of the mountain where the sign said nothing about King Canyon, but did indicate the Ma-ma gah picnic area, named after a Tohono Indian Chief. From the ridge, looking down, there never was a sign indicating King Canyon Trail until we reached the point were it ends across the highway from the Desert Museum.
Wildflowers carpeted the trail and hawks flew in the breeze, a welcome relief as there was no shade anywhere.
At the Mam-A Gah picnic area, which was a hundred yards above our trail, we found a stone house, formerly restrooms, it would appear. Looks like a perfect hideout for snakes and other critters. Their are no restroom facilities along any of these trails or the picnic area. It’s a ‘He / She Bush’ or nothing.
Below the picnic area, in the wash down about 50 yards or so, is a natural dam and many petroglyphs. We were excited. It felt as though we were the first to discover them. This was not at all like the short hike to the Signal Hill petroglyphs that most local hikers know about and have seen. These appeared to be just waiting to be discovered.
While poking around these rocks, we came upon an old timer who said he had spent the last 16 winters here. He told us of some grinding holes up the way a bit that the Indians used to grind maze into flour. I heard ‘matata’, like in the Lion King. ‘Metate’ is the word. I imagine that the wash was probably 10-20 feet lower 800 years ago due to silting. If so, these metate would have been above any water flowing downstream.
We headed back up to the trail perhaps 50 yards and down .9 miles to the parking lot across from the Desert Museum. If we had just taken the wash, we would have ended up in the same place.
Watch for cars as you cross the highway to the Desert Museum parking lot. President’s Day, a beautiful sunny winter day, was the most crowded that I have ever seen the museum. But by 1:30 the line was fairly short. I renewed my DM membership. The price has gone up since we first visited 10 years ago. It’s now $65 with only 3 guest passes. Luckily, I only had three guests.
We stopped for a respite at the museum snack shop before heading off to the Harris’ Hawk show at 2:00pm. The Raptor Free Flight Show had spread out since the last time I had been, taking up the three tiers to Cat Canyon. A handler stood atop one of the tiers and invited a hawk to perch.
Then off we went to the hummingbird aviary where the little critters were nesting their babies. No less than 6 nests did I see. Mamas all sitting on eggs or feeding babies. If you go, go early or during the week. Seeing those little critters is a treat.
Afterwards, we headed out, it being happy hour and dog-feeding time. WE called hubby, your fearless blogger, to come fetch us from the other side of the hill. We waited in the warmth of the sun of the Avra Valley. Good hike. Good weather. Good company. Life is good. kr