The charm of a desert in bloom

11570 N. Oracle Rd.



Though the calendar reads March, Catalina State Park is well into a dazzling display of spring wildflowers. Lupine, brittlebush, clover, globe mallow, thistle, fairy dusters and more line trails and enhance open fields.

The highlight of any Spring season, California Golden Poppies, are evident in many areas. Along Sutherland Trail is where people will find the most abundant display. Keyed by timely winter rains, this wildflower season appears to be on its way to a high quality bloom.

Slightly beyond the eastern-most parking area, Nature Trail cuts off a paved cul-de-sac and the wide dirt path ascends quickly north. Once the short climb reaches a plateau, far-reaching vistas are enjoyed across the Sonoran Desert. Many lupine and fairy duster plants border the trail and decorate open fields.

A one-mile loop trail winds smoothly through granite boulder studded fields. Numerous interpretive signs are installed along the path, educating hikers about plants, animals, and this desert habitat. Animal tracking information is expertly displayed, examples of javelina, coyote, mule deer, bobcat, mountain lion and even roadrunner tracks cast in concrete.

Providing a spot to relax, numerous benches are set trailside, most in memory of outdoor lovers who have passed away.

Views along Nature Trail are extraordinary. A 360-degree panorama is enjoyed. Even Picacho Peak can be seen in the distance. The rugged beauty of the northern slopes of the Santa Catalina Mountains, one of southern Arizona’s finest sights, fills the landscape south.

Completing the loop trail with a sharp descent, Canyon Loop Trail intersects and leads hikers east through a stand of mesquite trees. A steep sloped hill to the left is dominated by Saguaro cactus, the “Sentinel of the Desert”.

Soon this trail crosses the Sutherland Wash, a wide, steep banked illustration of the massive and powerful amount of water that occasionally rushes across this now dry riverbed. It’s small wonder that the Saguaros are so healthy.

As the trail meanders along the south side of the wash, lush green growth has sprouted under trees, a sure sign warm weather has arrived and some rains have fallen. Mesquite tree leaves, a lovely light green, wave in the slight breezes.

At the next wash crossing, water now flows, cold and clear. Stepping stones bridging the shallow water have been expertly set, affording a dry crossing. More impressive Saguaro reach toward deep blue skies on rocky hills above.

Signs indicating Sutherland Trail appear. Having been encouraged by the volunteer collecting the $7 entrance fee at the Ranger Station/gift shop off Oracle Road, a detour from my original plan leads me up a stairway constructed of old railroad ties to fields scattered with the California Golden Poppies.

Across open fields, poppies are blooming in vast numbers, their simple, but glorious beauty significantly enhancing an already wonderful outing. It’s also apparent she has told others. Dozens of people have obviously made this location their primary destination. Mentioning several states still gripped by winter, Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, these folks are most certainly winter visitors enjoying the special charm of the desert in bloom.

After crossing a short level bit of land, the trail again climbs farther out of the drainage. Poppies are blooming across slopes and can be seen in fields at the top of the incline.

Here, the bloom is primarily poppies, but as if just to prove the view can be improved, blue lupine and purple clover grow among the yellow and gold petals of the delicate poppies. A tiny pink and white winged moth finds a spot to rest in the cup of a yellow flower.

Returning to Canyon Loop Trail, the adventure continues, water flowing in the wash left of the path. White trunks of sycamore trees contrast sharply with deep blue skies. Cottonwood trees are just beginning to hint of new leaves sprouting. Climbing gently, this trail soon leaves the watershed, gaining only slight elevation. Well maintained by rangers and volunteers, more railroad ties have been installed, easing the climb.

Shortly past a point indicating horse travel must go right, Canyon Loop Trail reaches a well-known section. The next distance traveled will be up 92 steps, a steep climb to a level area above. As with other incline trail sections, the climb is eased by railroad ties serving as steps, also affording erosion control. During my ascent, a count verifies the number to be accurate.

Pausing at the top on one of the memorial benches, grand views east toward the Catalinas are enjoyed. Lichen encrusted cliff walls color the eastward view. Though not visible from this vantage point, Sutherland Trail and Romero Canyon Trail both top out at the 9,157-foot summit of Mt. Lemmon, many miles farther and several thousand feet higher.

Here the high point of this day has been reached at 2,877-feet elevation, just over 100-feet higher than the low point at trailhead. Definitely an unchallenged day on easy rated trails.

Curving westward, the trail is now a wide sandy path, coursing amid grassy fields dotted with hundreds of mesquite trees. Green leafed ocotillo stand along the higher ridges. More folks sharing the warm weather are passed, exchanging pleasant greetings.

Romero Canyon Trail intersects from the southeast, joining Canyon Loop Trail not long before crossing Sutherland Wash and a return to the trailhead. Just before reaching the wash the trail begins a gradual descent, which quickly becomes a steep one. At the base of this incline, Birding Loop Trail departs left, entering an area known as Mesquite Bosque (Spanish for forest). Periodic flooding of Sutherland Wash and Montrose Canyon formed the bosque, depositing nutrient rich soil and dispersing seeds. Cottonwood and other fast-growing trees initially controlled the area. Eventually they died, leaving the longer-lived mesquite trees to dominate. Bosques also have a lush growth of shrubs, vines and small annual plants. With this variety of plant life, abundant food and nesting sites attract numerous insect-eating plus fruit and seed-eating birds. More than 170 species of birds have been observed in the park.

Crossing a small creek, Birding Loop Trail gains a bit of elevation, allowing open views across much of Catalina State Park’s 5793 acres. Side trails are passed, those leading toward the base of dramatic rocky formations climbing upward to jagged cliffs near the top of Pusch Ridge.

Once again, the trail drops back to the bosque level and the one mile loop trail is soon completed. Following one final major wash crossing, a supremely delightful 3 hours and 4.5 miles of exploration has ended.

On Saturday, April 7, the running event company called Everyone Runs has organized an outing along these same 3 trails. Starting at a slightly different spot, their adventure will cover 5.2 miles. For those desiring additional mileage, a second loop will end with a total of 10.3 miles. Registration and fees are required, with a portion of the proceeds supporting Arizona Cancer Center. For additional information, visit

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