The Santa Catalina Mountains provide a majestic backdrop for a group of stately saguaros towering above the wash in Honey Bee Canyon.
© Randy Prentice
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Honey Bee CanyonBirds, bees and spectacular views of the Santa Catalinas are among the highlights of this urban hike near Tucson.
By Matthew Marine
SCREECH. The haunting sound, like steam escaping from a pipe, echoed off the pewter-colored canyon walls. I'm no expert on birdcalls, but I could have sworn it was the call of a great horned owl. I looked toward the sound, but the early morning sun created dark shadows in the rocks and I couldn't see the source.
This time, the bird's call came from behind me. Either there were two owls, or the narrow canyon was playing acoustic tricks on me. Ten minutes went by, but the crafty owl had gone silent. I put my camera away.
I'd started out on the Honey Bee Trail hoping to capture the nighttime predator — digitally, with 6 million pixels — but he'd beaten me again. Always one to root for the underdog, I silently congratulated the elusive owl.
My easy 3-mile round-trip hike from the town of Oro Valley's Honey Bee Canyon Park began with a gradual descent into the shallow Honey Bee Canyon, thick with creosote, mesquite and paloverde trees. From there, the trail veers left, passing the park's immaculate picnic tables, grills and restrooms, then heads off toward the second ramada.
Bright emerald-hued hummingbirds accompanied me along the short walk to the sandy wash. The sight of a 15-foot dam, from where I'd heard the owl's call, took me by surprise, because parts of the 5-mile-long arroyo appear dry at times. The dam was built by early ranchers to help support cattle grazing along the riparian area that wends southward from the Tortolita Mountains.
Giving up on the owl or owls, I climbed through the dam's diminutive doorway — a portal into a different realm — to find the previously flat wash had transformed into a narrow canyon. I imagined a summer monsoon sending torrents of water into the canyon and looked up at the deep blue sky to assure myself that rain clouds weren't threatening a downpour. My apprehension faded after a few hundred feet when the wash opened up again, allowing a spectacular view of the rugged Santa Catalina Mountains to the east.
Unwilling to go home completely empty handed, I snapped a few shots of a majestic saguaro guarding the canyon's entrance. I retraced my steps through the dam, but instead of using the trail, I walked along the wash, inadvertently carrying with me several of the largest devil's claw seedpods I'd ever seen.
The wash winds northward, passing under Honey Bee Canyon bridge and beneath brown hills dotted with tall saguaros — their arms gesturing a friendly greeting to all who pass. Three-quarters of a mile from the bridge, I stepped over the toppled remains of another dam and came to a large bronze-colored boulder covered with faded petroglyphs.
I sat on a natural stone bench to study the primitive symbols, the work of villagers who occupied the area for eight centuries beginning in a.d. 450. The rock evoked a spiritual feeling in me as I envisioned ancient Hohokam artists carving their unique perspectives into its hard surface.
Intrepid hikers often continue up the wash past a third dam, but I decided to retrace my steps to the parking area. The sight of others strolling by, combined with the occasional glimpse of the new homes lining the wash, reminded me that this is a popular urban hike and an important riparian habitat — one that could become compromised if not treated with respect.
When I got back to my car, I took a moment to reflect. Although I didn't see an owl on this trip, I realized that the exceptional desert beauty of Honey Bee Canyon is reason enough to keep me going back.
Trail Guideclick to expand
Length: 2 to 3 miles round-trip.
Elevation Gain: Less than 100 feet.
Payoff: Wildlife sightings, views, desert scenery.
Location: Oro Valley, 15 miles north of downtown Tucson.
Getting There: From Tucson, drive north on Oracle Road about 7 miles north of Ina Road. Turn left onto Rancho Vistoso Boulevard; drive 3 miles to park.
Additional Information: Oro Valley Parks & Recreation Department, 520-229-5050.
Leave No Trace Ethics: