Call 'em the Catalinas' Cactus Canyons

Front Range of the Catalina Mountains is a hiker's playground
2011-12-01T00:00:00Z Call 'em the Catalinas' Cactus CanyonsDoug Kreutz Dkreutz@azstarnet.com Arizona Daily Star
December 01, 2011 12:00 am  • 

Slicing sharply into the steep Front Range of the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, they bristle in their lower elevations with the spiny beauty of saguaro cacti set against a backdrop of sheer rock walls.

Throw in balmy winter weather and easy access from town and, well, you've got your perfect cool-season playground for casual ramblers and serious hikers.

The canyons - Pima, Finger Rock, Pontatoc, Ventana, Esperero, Sabino, Bear - have beckoned to roaming people since long before they wore those names. Trek their intriguing trails and you'll see why.

Each of the canyons is unique and worthy. Today - to whet your appetite for wandering - we offer a brief guide to three of them: Finger Rock, Ventana and Esperero.

FINGER ROCK CANYON

What's up there

Yep, you guessed it: One thing you're certain to see in Finger Rock Canyon is a tall, thin blade of stone that looks - voilà! - very much like a finger poking at the sky.

The Finger is quite the sight right now, but someday - next week or many centuries from now - it will tumble, as all rocks do. Then it might be necessary to rename the canyon, but let's worry about that when the time comes.

For now, know that this is no one-trick canyon. There's much more there than a finger set in stone.

"It's a very beautiful canyon, and this is a popular workout trail," said Gail McDonald, who trekked up the Finger Rock Canyon Trail one day recently.

Take heed of that "workout trail" description.

The route extends five miles and more than 4,000 vertical feet from a trailhead at the northern end of Alvernon Way to the top of Mount Kimball. If you plan to take the entire 10-mile round-trip hike, be in good shape - and be aware that you could encounter cold conditions and even snow in the higher elevations.

To experience the trail's "cactus canyon" pleasures, hike the first two or three miles.

Watch for

• Gargantuan saguaros in just about every shape a cactus can imagine.

• Sky-scraping canyon walls - with some cliffs every bit as impressive as the attention-grabbing stone digit.

• Rock outcrops above a watercourse a little more than a mile up the trail - a splendid spot to plop down for a rest or a snack.

• Hawks, javelinas, deer and plenty of other wildlife - but almost certainly no bighorn sheep. Despite a trailhead sign describing the sheep, wildlife officials say a herd in the area at one time appears to have died out.

Get to the trailhead

Take East Skyline Drive to North Alvernon Way. Drive north on Alvernon about a mile to a parking lot and trailhead.

VENTANA CANYON

What's up there

Why, you might wonder, is a canyon named Ventana - a Spanish word that means "window"?

Answer: High, very high, in the canyon, a large natural opening in a huge fin of rock forms a stone "window" about 25 feet wide and 15 feet high.

A trek up the canyon trail to the Window is a rewarding but challenging endeavor - involving a 12.8-mile round-trip hike and an elevation gain of 4,000 feet. Because the upper elevations are in conifer terrain far above the saguaro zone and are subject to wintry weather, it might be best to save the Window until late spring.

You'll get the best of the cactus scenery in the first couple of miles of the trail.

The saguaro forests cloaking the sides of the canyon are some of the finest in the Catalinas.

And breaking up the plots of cacti are steep, rugged canyon walls adding another kind of beauty to the place.

A popular day hike in Ventana is a 2.4-mile trek from the trailhead to a lovely site called the Maiden Pools. You'll climb above the saguaros in the final stretch - but the view down the canyon offers a good overview of cactusland.

A little tip on timing: Plan a late-fall or winter hike so that you're walking out the last mile around sunset. The play of gold and red rays on those rocky canyon walls can be wondrous.

Hikers Blake Gibson and Sara Mitchell got a good look at the sunset show as they came down the canyon one day recently.

Earl and Lee Surwit had the good fortune of trekking down 10 minutes after Gibson and Mitchell - giving them an even more luminous experience.

Get to the trailhead

From East Sunrise Drive and North Kolb Road, take Kolb Road north to a signed turnoff for the trailhead at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort. Park in a lot designated for hikers. It's at the end of an employees lot.

ESPERERO CANYON

What's up there

This comely canyon begins near the mouth of heavily visited Sabino Canyon - but then makes its own less-traveled way to grand stands of saguaros and points higher.

Unlike some of the other canyons in the Front Range of the Catalinas, Esperero starts in take-it-easy terrain - making the first mile or so a good choice for novice hikers or families with young children.

That first mile is mostly flat and takes hikers through a prickly landscape of cacti and desert trees. But after the route crosses the main Sabino Canyon Road, it climbs a bit steeply to a hilltop and gradually makes its way into classic cactus-canyon country.

"This is a great trail and a good workout hike," said Erin Schumacher, a self-described world traveler who trekked up Esperero recently.

As with other Catalina canyons, the cactus scenery is in the lower elevations. But to get a good workout, many day hikers follow the trail uphill 3.6 miles to a spot known as Cardiac Gap - a name that gives a sense of the effort involved to get there.

Fit trekkers might continue to Bridal Veil Falls, about six miles from the trailhead. It's more common to find a trickle or small flow than a true waterfall.

And the trail goes on from there. Those of us who have arranged a vehicle shuttle, trekked up the Esperero Trail and a connecting route to the Window - and then descended Ventana Canyon - can attest that the 17-mile route makes for a long, fatiguing day hike.

Get to the trailhead

From the parking lot in Sabino Canyon, at 5700 N. Sabino Canyon Road, walk east about 0.1 of a mile on a broad path that begins at the eastern end of the lot and watch for the signed Esperero Trail on the left.

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