Located in the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson, Pima Canyon Trail crosses into the Pusch Ridge Wilderness, home to about 20 bighorn sheep.
© Randy Prentice
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Pima CanyonThere are several ways to explore the Santa Catalinas. Among the best is the Pima Canyon Trail, which takes ambitious hikers to the top of Mount Kimball.
By Leo Banks
Pima Canyon Trail ranks among the most popular hiking routes in Tucson's Santa Catalina Mountains. It offers everything a hiker could want. Those looking for an easy stroll close to the city can find it along the trail's lower portions. More experienced hikers, eager for a hard climb to the top of Mount Kimball, can find that, too, but should be prepared for plenty of knee-banging action on the 7.1-mile, one-way trek.
For most users of the trail, something in between sounds about right.
The canyon, which cuts into the southwestern side of the Catalinas, is part of the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. Hikers begin in Coronado National Forest and cross the wilderness boundary a short distance beyond the trailhead, but that wild-sounding designation can be deceiving.
The first half-mile into Pima Canyon could be called "semi-urban hiking." The city looms in the hazy valley below, and the trail follows a fence that marks private property.
New homes are going up beyond it, and hikers can expect to hear the pounding of hammers. At one point, the trail goes under a half-moon-shaped stone bridge, leading to a brand-new mansion.
But that's not all bad. Some people like getting away from it all without really going too far.
After that, as the trail climbs, the city recedes and the desert takes over. The rocky slopes of Pima Canyon hold magnificent stands of saguaros that run all the way up the peaks, and in some cases, finger the sky.
They're beautiful, and grow in profusion because the slopes face southward, allowing the big plants to absorb the winter sun for long periods, which diminishes the effect of the saguaro's biggest enemy — freezing weather.
Pusch Ridge is also home to about 20 bighorn sheep, but don't count on seeing one. Probably no animal blends into its environment with greater ease, and the last thing they want is contact with humans.
Take binoculars anyway. Even if you don't spot a bighorn maneuvering among the rocks, they come in handy for spying the spectacular rock formations from afar.
The trail alternates between dirt and rock, the latter portions making it challenging to follow in places. But losing the trail probably won't mean being lost for long. The canyon walls close in as the trail rises, reducing opportunities to wander.
After a mile or so, the canyon becomes a completely silent place, except for the twitter of birds. The soaring ridges make good shade, and cool the air for climbing.
Hikers find more shelter walking beneath the cottonwood trees that stand along a winding stream, and beyond the big trees, at 3.2 miles, there's a small dam with a waterfall nearby. Don't expect to find water in either, except during the year's wettest times. But hikers who make it to this point have done solid work, gaining 850 feet in elevation from the trailhead, which sits at 2,900 feet.
Beyond the would-be waterfall, the trail becomes increasingly formidable — good news for stout hikers eager to leave the city far, far behind. The trek to Kimball requires another 4 miles of uphill work, and culminates at an elevation of 7,255 feet.
More casual hikers, however, turn around at the dam, content with the gentle mix of city and solitude that Pima Canyon offers.
Trail Guideclick to expand
Directions: From central Tucson, drive north on Oracle Road and turn right onto Magee Road. Drive 1.5 miles to the trailhead parking area. The trail begins on the right.
Length: 3.2 miles one way to the dam; 7.1 miles one way to the summit of Mount Kimball
Elevation Gain: 850 to 4,355 feet, depending on route
Difficulty: Easy to difficult, depending on route
Payoff: Beautiful Sonoran Desert scenery, spectacular rock cliffs and views of the city
Information: 520-749-8700 or www.fs.fed.us/r3/coronado
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