Hiking enthusiast Doug Kreutz has written about favorite hikes for years. Take a look at just a few.
Classic Hike: Dutch John Spring Trail
Some hiking destinations lure us with their intriguing names.
One example: Dutch John Spring.
You see that sucker on a map and wonder: What’s there — and how did it get that name?
We can help with the first part of that question.
Not so much with the second.
The Dutch John Spring Trail winds through lush oak woodlands to sycamore-shaded spring sites in mile-high Madera Canyon south of Tucson.
One of the sites — marked with a “Dutch John Spring” sign — is a short stroll off the trail less than a mile into the hike. A metal catchment collects spring water, which should be filtered or treated if you intend to drink it.
Red penstemons and other wildflowers decorate the trail and surrounding slopes in the summer. Mushrooms — some of them white and others showing off in orange hues — add to the wild-garden atmosphere.
Trek beyond the first spring site to the end of the trail — which is only 1.3 miles long but steep in places — and you arrive at another, higher spring.
ABOUT THAT NAME
OK, even the not-so-sharp among us can take a wild guess and speculate that the spring was named for somebody named John whose ancestry might have been Dutch or German.
But it’s about there that the Dutch John Spring Trail goes cold.
Writer Betty Leavengood, author of the “Tucson Hiking Guide,” did some research and learned of a man of German descent — named John Tannenbaum and known as “the Dutchman” — who worked on ranches in the area in the 1920s. Alas, Leavengood reports she could find nothing that clearly would link Tannenbaum to the spring.
GET TO THE TRAIL
From Tucson, go south on Interstate 19 to Green Valley and take the Continental exit. Then follow signs southeast about 13 miles to Madera Canyon. Turn left onto the Bog Springs Campground road and drive 0.6 of a mile to the trailhead. You’ll pay a $5 parking fee.
Classic hike: Aspen-Marshal Gulch loop trail is a no-sweat affair
Cool mountain air. Aspen groves. Cool mountain air. Winsome wildflowers. Cool mountain air. Tranquil pools of water.
Did we mention the cool mountain air? It’s that splendidly not-hot atmosphere — along with superlative scenery—that makes the loop created by the Aspen and Marshall Gulch trails one of the best classic summer hikes near Tucson.
Etched into the Catalina Mountains about a vertical mile above the city, the 3.7-mile route offers a soothing, stimulating respite from the desert heat. Trailheads for both of the trails making up the loop are in Marshall Gulch, about a mile south of the mountain village of Summerhaven. Hiking the loop in either direction works fine.
If you start with the 2½-mile Aspen Trail leg of the loop, expect some sections of moderate and steep climbing as the trail makes its way to Marshall Saddle — where it connects with the Marshall Gulch Trail. Parts of the aspen and conifer forest along the trail were burned in the 2003 Aspen Fire, but the area is visibly on the rebound. Groves of young aspens and New Mexico locust trees line the route, and in places dense clumps of ferns flank the trail.
One quirky sight along the way: a remarkably comfortable chair and footstool fashioned from logs. Call it a “bark-a-lounger,” a “lay-z-log” or perhaps a “tree-cliner.” Your reward for plodding the uphill stretches of the Aspen Trail is a mostly downhill ramble on the 1.2-mile Marshall Gulch Trail back to the starting point.
The trail stays close to a watercourse as it makes its way past clumps of wildflowers — including brilliant yellow columbines — and maple trees in full green splendor. Don’t expect the creek to be flowing briskly unless monsoon rains have recently doused the area. But you will often find small pools here and there along the watercourse — inviting a brief rest stop in a tranquil setting.
As you make your way down the last half-mile toward the trailhead, you might notice something: You’re not sweating like a racehorse. In fact, you’re not sweating at all. That might have something to do with the cool mountain air.
To get to the trailhead, take Tanque Verde Road to the Catalina Highway and follow the highway past Milepost 24 to the community of Summerhaven. Drive through Summerhaven and continue about a mile south to a picnic area and parking lot in Marshall Gulch.
Classic hike: Mint Spring Trail is a treat for the senses
Mint Spring Trail — A brief stop along the trail high in the Catalina Mountains is a chance to savor a soothing, sylvan world more than a vertical mile above the desert. A summer trek on the 1.6-mile Mint Spring Trail takes hikers past colorful clumps of wildflowers, groves of young aspens and pine forests in recovery from the 2003 Aspen Fire.
A stop at the trail’s namesake spring is worth the trek in itself. About a mile into the hike and marked with a sign, Mint Spring is an enduring, wet wonder. Water issues from the earth in a grassy clearing and collects in a small wooden catchment box. Someone has left a cup in the box for dipping water — but it’s important to filter or treat the water before drinking because even a protected spring can harbor harmful contaminants.
Fragrant wild mint grows around the spring, adding visual and olfactory beauty. Some hikers harvest a few leaves to add zing to a salad or other food.
It will take decades for new trees to replace the towering giants burned in the Aspen Fire—but ferns and wildflowers are flourishing anew in the wake of the flames. Bright-red penstemons, yellow columbines and a wild garden of other blooming species grace the trail along with expansive clumps of ferns. A trek to the spring and back makes a good short hike, but it’s easy to extend your journey on connecting trails.
Hikers who follow the Mint Spring Trail 1.6 miles to Marshall Saddle can pick up other routes, including the Marshall Gulch Trail and the Aspen Trail.
To get there, take Tanque Verde Road to the Catalina Highway and follow the highway past Milepost 24 to the village of Summerhaven. Drive south through the village and watch for a right turnoff for the Carter Canyon Road. Follow the road to a broad turnaround area and park there.
Find the trailhead on the left before you reach a boundary with private property.
Trails to tranquillity
A hike, at its bare essence, is simply a vigorous venture out of the city and into the wild — a test of legs and lungs against a backdrop of scenic splendor.
But something else, something more subtle, lures many of us to the trails around Tucson: a quest for a place that inspires quiet reflection, moments of meditation or private prayer.
It might be an overlook with panoramic views. It could be a forest glade. Even a niche in the rocks where time stands still can set the stage for contemplation.
“It’s quiet here,” said hiker Kara Bove as she sat for a while with a friend on a small rock outcrop with big views along the Douglas Spring Trail east of Tucson.
Another hiker, Dieter Berninger, paused at sunset on a rocky expanse along the Pontatoc Canyon Trail north of the city — a spot where many hikers stop to look, listen and perhaps clear the mind.
Routes to such sites — call them “trails to tranquility” — ring the Tucson area. Today, as we near the winter solstice and new-year milestones, we describe three trails with plenty of places to pause and reflect.
BROWN MOUNTAIN TRAIL
What’s to see: This fairly easy 2.4-mile trail in Tucson Mountain Park west of the city connects two trailheads and winds through classic Sonoran Desert terrain.
Saguaros dominate slopes and ridges, while robust cholla cacti, standing more than 8 feet high, form their own prickly forest along lower stretches of the route near its southeastern trailhead on McCain Loop Road.
Hikers often see hawks and desert birds, and you might catch a glimpse of javelina or deer.
Places to pause: The trail passes several rocky high points — and these flattopped spots invite hikers to plop down and ponder.
One of them, less than a mile into the hike from the northwestern trailhead on Kinney Road, is the first high point you’ll see up a slope on the right side of the trail. If you choose to make the very short ascent off the trail, watch your footing and stay on rocks to avoid damaging vegetation. Views from the top — across the Avra Valley — might put you in a meditative mood.
Something else along the Brown Mountain Trail can have a soothing effect: minimalist beauty.
Simply glance down beside the trail or along the slopes above it and watch for some small but striking displays of mustard-yellow lichen on rocks.
Also at ground level at various spots along the trail are inviting nooks in the rock trimmed with tiny green, fern-like plants — looking a little like refugees from the forest.
Get to the trail: Follow Speedway west out of Tucson and continue as it becomes Gates Pass Road. Cross the pass and proceed to an intersection with Kinney Road. Turn right (northwest) onto Kinney Road and follow it 0.6 of a mile to a left (southwest) turnoff for McCain Loop Road. Continue about 0.4 of a mile to the trailhead. A second trailhead is at the Juan Santa Cruz Picnic Area on Kinney Road just southeast of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
PONTATOC CANYON TRAIL
What’s to see: Rocky ridges, cerulean skies and cactus forests are the scenic standouts once hikers depart the trailhead area, which overlooks residential neighborhoods.
The canyon trail shares a route with the Pontatoc Ridge Trail before the two diverge at the 0.8-mile point. The ridge trail climbs to a ridge where hikers see wild country on one side and look down on the sprawl of Tucson on the other.
By sticking with the canyon trail, you’ll mostly avoid the urban interface as the route continues to a spot known as the Amphitheater — 2.2 miles from the trailhead and a good turnaround point.
Places to pause: Barely a quarter-mile up the trail, several broad outcrops have long been a popular spot for sunset watchers, meditators and people who just want to slow down, sit down, and focus profoundly on nothing.
It takes just a minute or two from the trail to make your way easily onto the rocks and find a comfortable spot to sit in the full-lotus position or merely stretch out on the stone. But be careful on the rocks and keep a close eye on children, because there are some steep drop-offs toward the canyon bottom.
Another good stopping point is about a mile up the canyon trail, just past its junction with the Pontatoc Ridge Trail. Views of distant, rugged ridges and the watercourse below can be calendar-quality in end-of-day light.
In periods after heavy rain or snowmelt, you might find a waterfall near the Amphitheater site — a setting favored by some hikers for quiet contemplation.
Get to the trail: Take East Skyline Drive to North Alvernon Way. Turn north on Alvernon and follow it for a mile to a hikers’ parking lot at its northern end. Start up the trail and watch for a trail junction just a minute or two into the hike when you reach the crest of a small hill. Take the right fork toward Pontatoc Canyon.
DOUGLAS SPRING TRAIL
What’s to see: The 6-mile trail, slicing into the foothills of the Rincon Mountains at Saguaro National Park east of Tucson, offers an almost endless number of good spots to stop and think a bit — or just stop thinking.
The lower reaches of the trail are saguaro cactus terrain, but you’ll see some mountain plant species as you move upward.
If you stop for a breather, look back the way you came to get grand views of the Catalina Mountains across the valley.
Places to pause: Less than a mile up the trail — after the route passes a deep, rugged drainage on the left and ascends a steep, rocky section — a small hill just off the trail provides a good view and a sit-down spot. You might chant “Om,” send up a prayer for peace or, OK, eat that peanut butter sandwich you brought along.
The site of Bridal Wreath Falls, even if water isn’t flowing, can be a peace-and-quiet kind of place. To reach the site, follow the Douglas Spring Trail 2.5 miles from the trailhead and then take a spur trail 0.3 miles to the falls.
Get to the trail: The trailhead is at the eastern dead-end of Speedway.
Another possibility is to engage in a sort of walking meditation. No less an outdoor authority than John Muir, a renowned naturalist and co-founder of the Sierra Club, reportedly didn’t care for the word “hiking” because it implied rushing along a trail with a destination in mind rather than searching for something greater.
Muir’s preferred word: sauntering.
“Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’” says a quote from Muir on the Sierra Club’s website. “It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre,’ or ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”
Hike off that Thanksgiving feast
Perhaps your Thanksgiving feast consisted of a few leafy greens, a small serving of tofu and a glass of spring water. Good for you.
But if you’re one of the rest of us — wolfing down a mountain of a meal followed by one or more irresistible Thanksgiving desserts — you might benefit from a little penance in the form of exercise.
One appealing, painless option: Take a short hike.
A walk in scenic Southern Arizona terrain in the next day or two can be pure pleasure — and a way of paying off that mashed-potatoes-stuffing-gravy-and-pumpkin-pie debt.
Here’s a guide to some inviting nearby trails.
ROBLES PASS TRAILS
What’s out there: Hikers, as well as mountain bikers and horseback riders, will find a wondrous maze of interconnected trails at Pima County’s Robles Pass Trails Park on the southwest side.
The site, at the southern end of Tucson Mountain Park between Ajo Way and Irvington Road, features more than a dozen trails traversing rocky ridges and saguaro-studded hills. Among the popular routes are the Sunset Pass Trail, Cascabel Trail and 360 Vista Trail.
Trekkers of all ability levels are likely to find a just-right hike at Robles Pass — with options ranging from out-and-back walks of less than a mile to longer loops involving some moderate elevation gains and miles of hiking.
Get to the trails: Several points provide access to the trails park, but signs aren’t in place to mark trailheads — and they can be a bit challenging to find. To reach one of them, follow Irvington Road west of Cardinal Avenue and watch for a small, unsigned, unpaved pullout on the north side of Irvington just a bit west of Mesquite Hills Place. A loop trail begins there. For another trailhead, take Ajo Way about three miles west of Mission Road and turn south on Bilbray Avenue. Follow Bilbray to Coyote Ridge Trail and go east on that unpaved road to an unsigned trailhead.
SWEETWATER PRESERVE TRAILS
What’s out there: Here’s another area, close on the edge of the city, with a rich mix of terrain and trails that are popular with hikers, equestrians and especially mountain bikers.
Routes — including the Saguaro Vista Trail, Sun Circle Loop and Black Rock Loop — take trail travelers through classic Sonoran Desert terrain with shapely saguaros and other cacti dominating the prickly scenery.
Keep an eye out for wildlife. Mule deer, Gila monsters, coyotes and other critters roam the 700-acre preserve.
Get to the trails: Take El Camino del Cerro west of Interstate 10, past Silverbell Road, to Tortolita Road. Turn south on Tortolita and go about a mile until the road dead-ends at the trailhead.
CANYON LOOP TRAIL
What’s out there: Dense cactus forests, a seasonal stream and rugged ridges towering in the distance make this easy 2.3-mile loop at Catalina State Park so scenic you might hardly notice expending energy along the way.
Much of the path is relatively flat, but there’s a slope with about 90 stairsteps in the trail near the halfway point.
The loop route — made up of segments of the Sutherland and Romero Canyon trails — is popular with bird-watchers, and it’s a good place to spot wildlife in the early-morning hours.
Get to the trail: Drive north out of Tucson on Oracle Road, which becomes Arizona 77, and continue to the Catalina State Park entrance at Milepost 81. Admission is $7 per vehicle. Drive to a trailhead at the end of the main park road and start the loop in either direction.
PONTATOC RIDGE TRAIL
What’s out there: This 2.6-mile trail in the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson offers easy going in the first mile or so, but it becomes moderately steep as it ascends the ridge. Stick to the lower reaches for a casual hike. Climb higher if you are seeking to pay off a massive stuffing and pie debt.
Parts of the route lie along the urban-mountain interface — where you’ll see tall saguaros and rugged slopes in one direction and look down on luxury homes in the other.
Expansive rock outcrops along lower reaches of the trail make a perfect perch for watching a sunset.
Get to the trail: Take East Skyline Drive to North Alvernon Way. Turn north on Alvernon and follow it for a mile to a hikers’ parking lot at its northern end. Start up the trail and watch for a trail junction just a minute or two into the hike as you reach the crest of a small hill. At the junction, the Finger Rock Canyon Trail goes to the left. You will take the right fork, which begins as a shared route for the Pontatoc Canyon Trail and Pontatoc Ridge Trail.
EAST BROADWAY TRAILS
What’s out there: A trailhead near the eastern dead end of Broadway offers access to a complex web of interconnected trails in the northwestern corner of Saguaro National Park East.
It’s an area where you can easily concoct a short loop route, a longer loop route or a marathon loop covering many miles.
One scenic loop covering about three miles follows the Shantz, Pink Hill, Loma Verde, Cholla and Cactus Forest trails.
Get to the trails: The trailhead is along Broadway just west of Camino del Codorniz.
Classic hike in the Catalinas offers respite from the heat
Cool mountain air. Aspen groves. Cool mountain air. Winsome wildflowers. Cool mountain air. Tranquil pools of water.
Did we mention the cool mountain air?
It's that splendidly not-hot atmosphere - along with superlative scenery - that makes the loop created by the Aspen and Marshall Gulch trails one of the best classic summer hikes near Tucson.
Etched into the Catalina Mountains about a vertical mile above the city, the 3.7-mile route offers a soothing, stimulating respite from the desert heat.
HIKE EITHER WAY
Trailheads for both of the trails making up the loop are in Marshall Gulch, about a mile south of the mountain village of Summerhaven.
Hiking the loop in either direction works fine.
If you start with the 2 1/2-mile Aspen Trail leg of the loop, expect some sections of moderate and steep climbing as the trail makes its way to Marshall Saddle - where it connects with the Marshall Gulch Trail.
Parts of the aspen and conifer forest along the trail were burned in the 2003 Aspen Fire, but the area is visibly on the rebound.
Groves of young aspens and New Mexico locust trees line the route, and in places dense clumps of ferns flank the trail.
One quirky sight along the way: a remarkably comfortable chair and footstool fashioned from logs.
Call it a "bark-alounger," a "lay-z-log" or perhaps a "tree-cliner." By any name, the piece of forest furniture provided a brief rest for hiker Gary Pivo.
He kicked back in the chair while his hiking companions, Jay Williamson and Bailey de Iongh, took in the surrounding scenery.
INTO THE GULCH
Your reward for plodding the uphill stretches of the Aspen Trail is a mostly downhill ramble on the 1.2-mile Marshall Gulch Trail back to the starting point.
The trail stays close to a watercourse as it makes its way past clumps of wildflowers - including brilliant yellow columbines - and maple trees in full green splendor.
Don't expect the creek to be flowing briskly unless monsoon rains have recently doused the area. But you will often find small pools here and there along the watercourse - inviting a brief rest stop in a tranquil setting.
As you make your way down the last half mile toward the trailhead, you might notice something: You're not sweating like a racehorse. In fact, you're not sweating at all.
That might have something to do with the cool mountain air.
GET TO THE TRAILHEAD
Take Tanque Verde Road to the Catalina Highway and follow the highway past Milepost 24 to the community of Summerhaven.
Drive through Summerhaven and continue about a mile south to a picnic area and parking lot in Marshall Gulch. Trailheads for both segments of the loop are adjacent to the parking lot.
Tortolita trails lead to scenic wonders
Television viewers across the nation got enticing glimpses of the Tortolita Mountains during last month's WGC-Accenture golf championship - but that was mere eye candy.
Trek into the Tortolitas northwest of Tucson - far beyond the fairways and featherless birdies - and you'll discover a trove of scenic wonders in the rough.
An extensive network of trails will take you into the heart of the range.
It's a world apart, but not far away, from the familiar trekking turf of the Catalina Mountains and Saguaro National Park.
"The trails in the Tortolitas are some of the best-thought-out, intelligently designed trails that I've ever seen," says Larry Linderman, chief hiking guide for the SaddleBrooke Hiking Club.
"The way the trails interconnect, you can make a short, two-hour hike or an enjoyable six-hour day hike," Linderman says.
Some 29 miles of trails traverse the area, which includes classic Sonoran Desert terrain, rugged ridges, diverse wildlife, historic ruins and signs of prehistoric inhabitants.
The trails were constructed, starting in 2004, in a cooperative effort by the town of Marana, Pima County and the Arizona Land Department. Expansion of the trail system is continuing.
The first month of spring usually brings good hiking conditions. Later in the season, consider an early-morning trek to get the sights sans the midday heat.
GET TO THE TRAILHEAD
Take North Oracle Road or North La Cholla Boulevard to West Tangerine Road. Go west on Tangerine to Dove Mountain Boulevard and follow the boulevard to the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain resort entrance. The staff can direct you to trailhead parking - on the right side of the drive as you approach the resort.
There is no fee to use the area. Dogs must be leashed.
TRAILS TO TRY
The Wild Burro Trail is a gateway into the Tortolita range - providing links to the Lower Javelina, Upper Javelina and Alamo Springs trails, as well as additional connecting routes.
Here are some hiking options
• For a short, easy ramble, simply follow the Wild Burro Trail for a mile or so in its lower reaches and return the way you came. The trail follows a broad, sandy wash and meanders past cacti and desert trees.
• A moderate loop route begins with a short approach on the Wild Burro Trail and then picks up the Lower Javelina Trail for a loop passage before reconnecting with the Wild Burro.
• A longer loop departs the Wild Burro Trail onto the Alamo Springs Trail and follows Alamo Springs to a reconnection with the Wild Burro.
Use a trail map to cook up longer treks involving the Wild Mustang and Cochie Springs trails. The map is available by going online to www.marana.com/index.aspx?NID=785 and clicking on the map link.
CACTI AND CRITTERS
A trek in the Tortolitas is a journey into national park-quality desert country - where some 600 species of plants create a comely, prickly, colorful landscape.
Palo verde, ironwood and mesquite trees thrive alongside cacti including chollas, barrels and grand stands of saguaros.
The range boasts a large population of crested saguaros - those with unusual flourishes of growth atop the trunk.
"I personally have found and documented 43 crested saguaros" in the Tortolitas, says Gary Borax, an avid hiker and founder of a group called the Dove Mountain Hikers. Members have contributed many volunteer days helping to build and maintain trails in the area.
Golf fans recently spotted a Tiger (Woods) at the foot of the Tortolitas. Hikers venturing into the range can hope for some fascinating sightings of their own - anything from birds, lizards and snakes to rabbits, coyotes, javelinas, bobcats and deer.
SIGNS OF THE PAST
Petroglyphs, or rock carvings, in the Tortolitas date to a period between AD 1100 and 1450, according to a brochure funded by the Marana Parks and Recreation Department.
Ancient Indians, known today as the Hohokam, pecked geometric designs and figures of animals and people onto rock surfaces - and their work endures today.
"They probably spent their winter months at Alamo Spring - relaxing, working and enjoying the same views we do," Borax says. "How do I know this? There are some ancient grinding holes no more than 25 feet from Alamo Spring, and there are also petroglyphs in the areas nearby."
Elsewhere in the Tortolitas, hikers will pass the ruins of one-time ranch buildings.
One now-roofless, stone-walled structure basks in silence and desert sunshine along a winsome stretch of the Wild Burro Trail.
DID YOU KNOW
Wild horses roam the Tortolita Mountains. About 15 of the animals - technically known as feral horses - are part of a herd that has survived in the wild since at least the 1920s or 1930s, by some ranchers' estimates.
Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at email@example.com or at 573-4192.
Call 'em the Catalinas' Cactus Canyons
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.
• 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.
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.
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.
The Best of Arizona: Desert hikes
Slicing into the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix, the Peralta Trail might be best known for the legendary Lost Dutchman Mine said to lie hidden in the area. The real treasure, though, is the route's passage through classic desert landscapes to a view of sheer Weaver's Needle.
King Canyon Trail
In a region with a wealth of wondrous desert trails, this one stands out for its grand mix of terrain. The route, in Saguaro National Park West, overlooks a watercourse, passes near ancient rock carvings and historic stone buildings, switchbacks up saguaro-studded ridges and tops out on 4,687-foot Wasson Peak.
Hike this route - and perhaps add a side trek up steep Blackett's Ridge - for a grand overview of Sabino Canyon northeast of Tucson. You'll be high above the tourist crowds riding the canyon tram as you traverse classic desert terrain.
It's surrounded by the buzz of metro Phoenix and often swarming with hikers - but the Summit Trail on Camelback Mountain still serves up an A-list desert hike. Steep sandstone cliffs, cacti ad infinitum and panoramic summit views drown out the city.
A trek to the top of this eye-catching blade of stone northwest of Tucson includes some stretches so steep that hikers get an assist from cables fixed to the rock. Vertical thrills are enhanced in spring by brilliant blooms along the trail.
- Selected by Doug Kreutz
Takin' it to the trails: Answer the call of fall
Summer: It's over.
Extreme heat: outta here.
Hiking conditions: just about perfect.
Autumn in the Tucson area can be near nirvana for trail trekkers - with almost all of our desert, canyon and mountain terrain free from climatic extremes.
The Catalina Mountains and other ranges typically are cool but not cold right now, and autumn color on the mountain heights usually peaks in October.
Mile-high Madera Canyon south of Tucson is a hiker's heaven.
Desert trails near the city beckon when the sizzle of summer is on the wane.
Today, to help you answer the call of fall, we describe three trails to try. One offers cool mountain air and leafy color in the Catalinas, another traces a lovely watercourse in Madera Canyon, and a third weaves its way up a saguaro-studded ridge west of Tucson.
Your mission: Choose one of the routes. Pull on your boots. Go.
ASPEN-MARSHALL GULCH LOOP
Tale of the trail: The 3.7-mile route, high in the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, serves up a brisk workout in forests tinted with fall color.
Along the way: You'll see - yep, voila! - aspen trees on the Aspen Trail leg of the loop route.
Some terrain along the trail was burned in the 2003 Aspen Fire, but young aspens, oaks and evergreens are busy refurnishing the forest.
Watch for splashes of yellow and gold - usually at their best in mid- to late-October. But be aware this is a subtle version of autumn - not the big fall fireworks you might see in Colorado or Vermont.
Other plants that have flourished since the fire - including abundant ferns - add their own touch of autumn in hues of copper and brown. Early in the fall, you might even spot a few leftover wildflowers in bloom.
Watch for a faint, unsigned side trail to the left after you've hiked two miles or so up the Aspen Trail. The side trail leads to a spot known as Lunch Ledge, a rocky overlook that's perfect for a trail snack or, well, lunch.
After following the Aspen Trail for about 2 1/2 miles and reaching Marshall Saddle, pick up the Marshall Gulch Trail to return to the starting point.
Winding on a mostly downhill course, the Marshall Gulch Trail takes hikers through stream-side terrain into lovely groves of maple trees.
When conditions are right, the autumn-red hues of maple leaves make this one of the most colorful stretches of trail in the Catalinas.
Get there: Take Tanque Verde Road to the Catalina Highway ($5-per-vehicle fee) and follow the highway past Milepost 24 to the community of Summerhaven.
Drive through Summerhaven and continue about a mile south to a picnic area and parking lot in Marshall Gulch. Trailheads for both segments of the loop are adjacent to the parking lot.
Tale of the trail: Madera Canyon south of Tucson is home to plenty of challenging trails - but some of the canyon's most splendrous scenery is along a route accessible not only to hikers, but people in wheelchairs.
Along the way: The 0.7-mile Accessible Trail winds at first through enchanting woodlands of mesquite and oak set against the backdrop of a rugged rock summit called Elephant Head.
But that's just an introduction. The surfaced, mostly flat route quickly changes personality when it enters a riparian, or stream-side, zone along Madera Creek.
Here, walkers and visitors in wheelchairs pass towering cottonwood trees and other vegetation well watered by the creek.
That creek - sometimes flowing briskly with water from late summer and fall rains - provides a splendid aqueous soundtrack as it gurgles downstream and plunges over small waterfalls.
Birds are abundant, and it's not uncommon to see deer along the trail.
Other attractions include a surviving adobe wall of a historic canyon landmark known as the White House and small "bat houses" mounted on tall poles. They were erected to serve as dwellings for the area's bat population.
Be sure to take a camera. Even professional photographers find lots to like along the Accessible Trail.
Bruce Griffin, whose large-format photos have appeared in publications such as Arizona Highways magazine, visited the area one day recently in a quest for yet another intriguing image.
Get there: From Tucson, take Interstate 19 south to Green Valley and get off at the Continental Exit. Continue southeast to Madera Canyon ($5-per-vehicle fee) and the Proctor Parking Area. The trail begins there. Pets must be leashed.
BROWN MOUNTAIN TRAIL
Tale of the trail: The 2.4-mile route connects two trailheads in Tucson Mountain Park west of the city - serving up big views from a saguaro-studded ridge.
Along the way: Traversing classic Sonoran Desert terrain, the Brown Mountain Trail would bring on a severe avoidance reaction from many hikers in the days of midsummer.
This month and next, as the weather gradually cools, it once more becomes a trail of multiple attractions.
One of those scenic lures is the route's impressive population of enormous cholla cacti.
Observe also the barrel cacti - hearty fat specimens, some of them holding red-orange blooms even as summer makes its exit.
High in the sky: turkey vultures, and perhaps a soaring hawk.
The trail starts low at both trailheads and climbs to a craggy ridge near the midpoint - gaining only a few hundred feet in elevation.
The highest point - about 3,100 feet - isn't likely to bring on a nosebleed, but it's enough to give hikers a good, hawk's-eye look over an expanse of desert and mountains. The view includes the cactus forests of nearby Saguaro National Park West, the vast Avra Valley and the summit of Mount Wrightson south of Tucson.
Get there: Follow Speedway west out of Tucson and continue as it becomes Gates Pass Road. Cross the pass and proceed to an intersection with Kinney Road. Turn right (northwest) onto Kinney Road and follow it 0.6 of a mile to a left (southwest) turnoff for McCain Loop Road. Continue about 0.4 of a mile to the trailhead.
A trailhead at the opposite end of the route is at the Juan Santa Cruz Picnic Area on Kinney Road just southeast of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
Leave dogs at home.
Coming Sunday: Autumn color guide
See the ¡Vamos! section in the Arizona Daily Star Sunday for a guide to sites known for good displays of fall color.
Tanque Verde Ridge Trail: Take long or short hike along Tanque Verde trail
A long, chubby Gila monster lumbers in no particular hurry across the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail and vanishes in a jumble of rocks.
Long tendrils of octotillo, tipped with bright red blooms, waft over the trail like pennants in a gentle breeze.
It's all quite soothing.
Unless you plan to tackle the entire trail — in which case you'd better get cracking.
Generally following the spine of its namesake ridge in Saguaro National Park East, the trail ascends for nine miles and nearly 4,000 vertical feet to rugged 7,049-foot Tanque Verde Peak.
And if the 18-mile round-trip trek to the peak isn't enough exercise, you could continue an additional 2.5 miles from the peak to Cow Head Saddle — adding five miles to the round-trip outing.
But here's the thing: You don't have to go all the way to the saddle or the peak to enjoy the trail.
A short ramble of a mile or two on lower reaches of the route leads past classic desert vegetation and several drainages on the way to the main ridge.
A longer day hike — but still less challenging than going for the peak — is a 6.9-mile one-way trek to Juniper Basin at 6,000 feet.
Get to the trailhead
Take East 22nd Street to Old Spanish Trail and follow Old Spanish Trail southeast to the signed entrance to Saguaro National Park.
Get a park map at the entrance station, where you'll pay a $10 per vehicle fee, and follow the Cactus Forest Drive to the Javelina Picnic Area. The trail begins at a parking lot near the picnic area.
Pima Canyon Trail: Everyone can trek this stunning trail
Brendan Babb, a visitor from Fairbanks, paused on the Pima Canyon Trail, peered up at sun-kissed ridges spiked with tall cacti and made an observation.
"Not exactly like Alaska."
To say the least.
Pima Canyon — a long, deep slash in the southwestern flank of the Catalina Mountains — is a classic slice of glacier-free Southern Arizona.
Generations of Tucsonans have taken their first desert treks on lower reaches of the canyon trail, which begins at a convenient trailhead north of the city.
Hike the fairly easy first couple miles of the route and you'll get a sort of walk-through course on Sonoran Desert vegetation. Among the standout plants are saguaro, barrel, cholla and prickly pear cacti, palo verde trees and ocotillos.
About a mile into the hike, the trail makes its first crossing of the canyon creek — which often flows at this time of year with runoff from rainfall and mountain snow.
"The views are beautiful," said Rachel Radtke, who hiked the trail one day recently with her fiance, Daniel Casmer.
A trek up the first 3.2-mile stretch, to the site of a dam built as a source of water for wildlife, is gentle enough for family excursions. Pima Canyon Spring, 5.2 miles and more than 2,500 vertical feet above the trailhead, poses a more challenging day hike. Reaching the top of 7,255-foot Mount Kimball involves hiking up the trail for more than seven miles through increasingly rugged terrain.
To reach the trailhead from West Ina and North Oracle roads, go east on Ina to Christie Drive. Follow Christie north to Magee Road. Turn east on Magee and continue to a parking lot at the trailhead.
The first stretch of the hike passes under a bridge and through an area of private property. Obey signs and stay on the trail. Dogs aren't allowed.
50-Year Trail: Takes hikers, bikers through classic desert terrain
The name — 50-Year Trail — makes it sound as if you're in for a really, really long hike.
But names can be deceiving.
The trail in Catalina State Park — popular with hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders — didn't get its moniker from the time needed to travel it.
Managers of the park north of Tucson say the name stems from a right-of-way agreement that was secured in 1989 for 50 years. The standing joke is that perhaps the name should change every year — which would make it the 32-Year Trail this year.
Well, whatever we choose to call it, the route provides a scenic tour through classic Sonoran Desert vegetation set against a backdrop of the rugged western wall of the Catalina Mountains.
The route meanders, with only moderate elevation gains, northeast about eight miles from the 2,700-foot trailhead at the park's equestrian center.
Many hikers and mountain bikers travel only the first 2.6-mile segment to a trail junction — returning the way they came or on connecting trails.
Remember that this route is in exposed desert terrain. Use sun protection and carry plenty of water. Pets must be leashed.
To reach the trailhead from Tucson, go north on Oracle Road into Oro Valley. The park entrance is at Milepost 81, and you'll pay a $6 per vehicle fee. Once in the park, follow signs to the equestrian center and trailhead.
For more hiking stories, go to go.azstarnet.com/trails.
Finger Rock Canyon Trail: Trail is worth pointing out
No need to ponder how the Finger Rock Canyon Trail got its name.
Just look up.
The stone spire of Finger Rock — a well-known Tucson landmark that resembles an extended digit — towers over the trail in the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson.
It's visible from many vantage points along the route, persistently pointing out the sky from its notch in a rugged ridge.
But hikers quickly discover that the Finger Rock Trail has more to offer than a gesturing rock.
Extending five miles from the northern end of Alvernon Way to the 7,255-foot summit of Mount Kimball, it winds through classic Sonoran Desert terrain, rocky canyon passages, oak and juniper woodlands and a zone with some ponderosa pines.
The trail is a challenging trek for those who choose to hike the entire 10-mile, round-trip distance. It's not only long but steep — climbing a grueling 4,200 vertical feet from trailhead to summit.
But here's the thing: You don't have to go the whole way.
Many hikers enjoy an easy amble on the first meandering mile of the route and then make their way back to the trailhead.
Others go as far as Linda Vista Saddle, a point three miles up the trail where they get spectacular views of nearby canyons and distant mountain ranges.
Those who push on to Mount Kimball's summit get more splendid views — and some weary muscles, too.
Be aware that the trail won't take you close to its namesake Finger Rock. To reach the rock itself, it's necessary to leave the trail and bushwhack over rugged terrain to the base of the pinnacle. You'll need rock-climbing skills and equipment if you want to attempt a climb to the top.
To reach the Finger Rock Canyon Trail, take East Skyline Drive to North Alvernon Way and drive north on Alvernon about a mile to a parking lot and trailhead. Start up the trail and take the left fork when you reach the top of a small hill. The trail on the right leads to Pontatoc Canyon and Pontatoc Ridge.
Next week: This place is for the birds.