Along the southern boundary of 57,000-acre Pusch Ridge Wilderness in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area wedges its 2,900 acres almost four miles into the protected land.
Boarding the earliest Sabino Canyon tram at 9 a.m. ($8.00 plus a $5.00 day use fee) under brilliant blue skies, comfortable and informative transportation is provided to shuttle stop 9, 3.7 miles north of the Visitor Center. Expecting an 8-10 mile round trip hike to Hutch’s Pool, the additional mileage is gratefully avoided.
An informative 30-minute transport is enjoyed. Three Mountain Lions have been sighted recently by (in my mind) fortunate joggers.
“Make eye contact and do not run” are key warnings. Other knowledge imparted includes Saguaro Cactus root system, a single 20-inch taproot with ground roots spreading equal distance to the plant’s height. Cottonwood trees can consume 200 gallons of water on a single hot day. More than 200 species of birds have been documented in the canyon.
The effects of an 1887 earthquake in Mexico brought many of the massive boulders down to the canyon floor. Thimble Peak, visible from much of Tucson, is the highest point in the canyon at 5,323 feet. The beautiful dark and light banded rock is Gneiss, a product of metamorphic activity. Just beyond tram stop number 8 is a beautiful example of this banding at Anderson Pool, named to honor Arizona Deputy Sheriff John D. Anderson, who lost his life saving a teenager on August 23, 1948. Finally, many Hollywood films have used this setting in movies.
To this point, just 200 feet in elevation have been gained, most in the final quarter mile. Crossing a wide drainage just beyond trailhead, it’s evident more gains will come quickly. A series of switchbacks cover the next few tenths of a mile, the trail entering Pusch Ridge Wilderness at a junction where Phone Line Trail breaks to the east, returning high across the eastern slopes of Sabino Canyon to the Visitor Center, by trail 5 miles away. Carving northwest, Sabino Canyon Trail continues ascending, rambling through a heavily vegetated high desert landscape. Saguaros dominate the rocky terrain. A near vertical wall climbs toward the sky to the west.
A welcome gentle breeze drifts up from the canyon, appreciated as the sun crests eastern slopes and the day warms.
Rounding a bend, in the distance the trail can be seen approaching a saddle. Crossing the pass threshold, Upper Sabino Canyon opens wide and beautiful, the creek coursing over granite boulders and through tall trees far below. Deep pools sparkle as the sun’s rays reach the canyon floor.
Many large oak trees dot the landscape as elevation reaches 3,800 feet. Imagining a mountain lion napping on a hefty branch seems ever so possible.
Beyond the saddle this moderately difficult trail is characterized by gentle ups and downs as it meanders through open country. Not unexpectedly for a trail leading into a wilderness, areas of rocky terrain are encountered. However, much of this trail traverses over smooth and sandy conditions. The difficulty rating is due primarily to rocky sections and overall length.
At 2.5 miles the trail has descended into a wash. Signs marking the junction of West Fork Trail #24 and East Fork Trail #24A are observed. The altitude at this point is just over 3,600 feet. Beautiful Arizona Sycamore trees, unique with their white bark, stand tall in the drainage; large leaves just beginning to display a hint of fall color.
Responding to a distinct humming sound, a nearby Desert Broom plant is examined. A combination of buzzing bees and gorgeous Monarch butterflies swarm over this tall bush. Dozens of beautifully colored butterflies dance across the upper branches. A rare treat.
Exiting the west side of the drainage, the trail is a bit of a challenge to locate. Cairns are strategically placed, assisting hikers in finding the trail. West Fork Trail soon begins an ascent that will continue almost without interruption for the next mile and a half, until Hutch’s Pool is reached. Only a couple hundred feet, but steady gains, nonetheless.
At about a mile, the west fork of Sabino Creek is crossed toward the south, another spot where cairns assist in locating the trail on the far side. Slightly upstream from the crossing, wide shallow pools course through a thickly grown section. Cattails and flowers line the banks of still water. Huge boulders make progress upstream a challenge. Giant tree trunks and branches are wedged into crevasses among the boulders, fine examples of powerful flooding that occurs through this narrow passage.
Clambering over large boulders and huge tree trunks to escape the creek bottom, soon the trail is again underfoot. In less than half a mile, as the trail drops amid large boulders, a wide, sandy beach is reached, leading to waters edge at Hutch’s Pool. A gorgeous sight! Steep walls on either side, high mountain views of the Santa Catalina Mountains and stunning blue skies reflect in deep motionless water. Sitting at slightly under 3900 feet, the adventure has covered a bit over 4 miles in about 2 hours.
The glorious day has been shared with other individuals. Judy, a Tucson resident, provides the most inspiration, noting she will soon celebrate her 80th birthday. She is joined by her daughter, Elizabeth, and grandson, John, visiting from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
A couple has come down from Scottsdale to make the trek. Quite interestingly, Dale Robertson is an ex Chief of the National Park System. Appointed by President Ronald Reagan, years later he was fired by Vice President Al Gore. Accompanying Dale is his wife, Margie. He shares some interesting stories of the NPS, some covering its origin the late 1800’s.
Reaching a width of over 25 feet and length close to 150 feet, the clear waters look mighty inviting. On a warm spring or late summer day few could ignore the lure to leap off high rocks and plunge into the refreshing waters. In the heat of July and August this hike might prove unbearable.
Turtles warm themselves on rocks beside the pool. At the upper end, huge, well-polished granite boulders block the narrow passage. Farther upstream more massive boulders lie jumbled in the creek bed. Over centuries these stones have been polished smooth by annual winter runoff and seasonal monsoon deluges, a sight well worth another adventure to Hutch’s Pool, though high water at creek crossings could prove challenging and dangerous.
Hikers visiting this oasis find special ways to relax and enjoy the exquisite setting. Stories are shared, lunches and drinks consumed, boots are removed for a refreshing wade in the cool waters. Early afternoon is approaching and 4 miles still must be hiked. Trams arrive at stop 9 at twenty past each hour, the final one at 4:20. Missing it will add 3.7 miles to the outing. Gradually the parties depart. Knowing the trail conditions are comforting, realizing no significant climbs or descents exist on this section of Sabino Canyon Trail.
Before reaching the nearby creek crossing one additional thrill awaits. Passing close to a trailside boulder, the sound of rustling grass is investigated. Slithering in the opposite direction, a 4-foot long Mojave Rattler crawls through the tall, dry grass. A large bulge in the snake’s body indicates this reptile, known to carry possibly the most toxic venom of all rattlers, has eaten prey recently and obviously wants to be left alone while the meal is digested. Beautiful bands of color wrap it’s body, an overall greenish tint making identification easy. Definitely an adrenaline pumping moment.
Shortly past 3:00pm the paved Sabino Canyon road is reached, allowing a few moments to rest in the shade of a trailside Mesquite tree while enjoying the quiet.
The rewards of this day have been many. Perfect weather, well maintained and comfortably negotiated trails, enjoyable hiking companions, stunning Santa Catalina Mountain views and the liquid gem that is Hutch’s Pool at trail’s end. Between October and April this is a highly recommended adventure.