Leaving the driveway in Tucson at 8 a.m. on a recent July morning, the temperature registered 84 degrees. Backing into one of the limited number of parking spots 75 minutes and 40 miles later, the temperature at the end of Sabino Canyon Parkway below Summerhaven on Mt. Lemmon hovers just above 60 degrees.
Rains in the Santa Catalina Mountains have brought mountain slopes to a beautiful deep green Ocotillo are fully leaved. Century plants sprout bright yellow blooms atop tall stalks. Brilliant white flowers of Jimson Weed enhance shoulders of Catalina Highway. When traveling this road always be mindful of the many riders laboring up the highway’s bike lane.
Walking across Sabino Canyon Parkway, standing at 7524 feet elevation, Marshall Gulch Trail beckons. Sabino Creek flows strong and clear through Summerhaven as it begins a journey to the desert below. A small creek tumbles beside the trail, splashing over boulders and passing through beautiful still pools that reflect the forest surroundings.
Hikers are presented with two trailhead options, one beside the creek and the other along northern slopes, reconnecting a few tenths of a mile up the drainage. The higher trail sparkles in morning sunlight, mica flakes and quartz pebbles scattered on the ground. The suggested hiking direction is counterclockwise, navigating around 8280 foot Marshall Peak, leaving a final mile descent along reasonably steep slopes.
A gentle incline leads west-northwest, crossing the small creek several times, quickly reaching an area where views open, revealing damage wrought during the devastating Aspen fire of 2003. This fire ravaged both Coronado National Forest as well as the tiny community of Summerhaven, eventually scorching 84,750 acres and destroying nearly 340 homes and businesses.
In the still morning air the only sounds disturbing the quiet are babbling creek waters and heavy breathing as the ascent has slightly steepened.
Delicate, tiny wildflowers color the greenery trailside. Stunningly beautiful yellow Columbine flower in bunches in the damp soil beside the crystal clear waters.
Overall, this trail rates easy in difficulty, gaining less than 700 feet in elevation in its 3.2-mile length Marshall Gulch Trail is in excellent condition. The Forest Service has done a superb job cutting and clearing downed trees that lie across the path.
With more open views, stands of Aspen trees are seen high on the slopes to the north, flourishing 10 years after the forest burned.
At under a mile, the trail departs the creek bed and climbs gradually toward Marshall Saddle, reached in another 4/10 of a mile. Here hikers have several trail options, some leading further into the 56,933 acre Pusch Ridge Wilderness. Heading south, Aspen Trail continues the journey around Marshall Peak. Reaching the saddle in 1.1 miles at a leisurely one hour pace, the elevation has reached 7,983 feet.
Massive granite boulders now control much of the landscape, downed charred trees allowing more openness to the view.
Aspen Trail now meanders nearly level, passing through small stands of pine trees, the three-to-five foot tall saplings looking healthy and vibrant. Needles of these short trees are long, soft and fragrant. The forest is making strong recovery strides.
Looking west an area know as Wilderness of Rocks can be seen. One of the most dramatically scenic areas of the Catalinas’, these unique rock formations cover the southwest slopes of Mt. Lemmon with standing as well as balanced rocks. This rolling hillside of exposed granite presents sculptured rock formations among tall pine trees. Short, unmarked side trails lead to overlooks where unobstructed views can be enjoyed. A separate trail system leads hikers through the area. It’s along this section of trail that the highpoint of the day is reached at 8,176 feet altitude.
At just over two miles and two hours into this extraordinary adventure, Aspen Trail bends eastward. Through the trees to the south much of the city of Tucson can easily be seen. A light rain begins to fall, further proof this would be a terrific day to be hiking a mountain trail. Lasting only a few minutes, the air smells even more clean and fresh.
Beginning a steady decline toward the trailhead, a thicket of oak trees now line each side of the trail. Soon the oaks give way to small aspen trees, round leaves dancing in wind that has freshened considerably. Large patches of raspberry bushes mingle with tree trunks, their fruit small, juicy and delicious. With much of the trail overgrown with plant and tree branches, it’s advisable to wear long pants and shirtsleeves.
As Summerhaven cabins come into view, a final short climb across the shoulder of a small hill leads to a hike concluding descent to the trailhead.
During slightly over three hours covering 3.2 miles, several other hikers, mostly in groups of two or three, some with their dogs, have shared the trail. One group of 22 young ladies associated with the Church of Ladder Day Saints passed by as a water break was taken.
The temperature still hovers in the 60s as the adventure draws to a close. Summerhaven offers several cafes and a general store where refreshments and souvenirs can be purchased. As the forest shows strong recovery, so does this mountain community.