Cerro hawthorn blooms along the
north section of the Butterfly Trail in
the Santa Catalina Mountains.
© Randy Prentice
>> Click on image to view
it larger in a separate window.
Editor's Note click to expand
hikes to overnight
To order, call
or click here.
Butterfly TrailDespite a fire that scorched the area in 2003, this hike is still a great way to experience the Santa Catalinas.
By Robert Stieve
Weldon Heald, a writer, artist and photographer, coined the term "sky islands" in 1967. He was referring to those mountain ranges that are isolated from one another by vast expanses of desert and grassland plains. There are approximately 40 sky islands in the Southwest, and the Santa Catalina Range near Tucson, which tops out at 9,157 feet, is the third highest. There are numerous hikes in the Catalinas, and throwing a dart at the map is as good a way as any of making a choice. However, when it comes to biological diversity, the Butterfly Trail might outrank them all. It's so diverse that a portion of the trail has been designated a Research Natural Area.
There are two places to pick up the trail: the Palisade Visitors Center or a trailhead 4 miles up the highway near the access road that leads to Soldier Camp. Because the facilities are better at Palisade, you'll want to start there. Among other things, the rangers stationed at the visitors center can answer any questions and get you pointed in the right direction.
The trail begins at the north end of the parking lot across the road from the visitors center. You'll see a sign for the Bigelow Trail, which is where you begin — the Bigelow overlaps the Butterfly for the first 15 minutes. It's a nice stretch through ponderosa pines and Douglas firs. In some places, there are so many pine needles on the ground they actually blur the trail. Pay attention. From the point where the Butterfly and the Bigelow split, it's 5.2 miles to the Butterfly's upper trailhead. In between the two points, you'll be treated to not only evergreens, but also box elders, bigtooth maples, alligator junipers, various species of oaks and even yuccas in the drier areas.
For the first hour or so, the trail leads downhill and offers tremendous panoramic views, both east and west. Unfortunately, you'll also see the remnants of the Aspen Fire, which ravaged tens of thousands of acres in the Catalinas in 2003. The trees are unliving proof of what can happen when lightning strikes or ignorant smokers toss their cigarette butts out the window.
Eventually, about halfway through the hike, you'll start to head into a valley thick with maples and oaks. This is probably the most beautiful part of the trail. It can be tricky to follow in places, especially where it crosses a wash at the bottom — look to your right for the retainer logs installed by the Forest Service, and the cairn by the old barbed-wire fence. A little farther along, you'll hear a creek. The butterflies for which the trail is named often congregate in clusters within this moist ravine.
The rest of the route climbs gradually past an expansive garden of ferns, one of the largest ponderosa pines you'll ever see — unfortunately, another victim of the fire — and an intersection with the Crystal Springs Trail. About 3 hours after you've started the hike, you'll come to an old jeep road that leads to the upper trailhead. From there, you can either hike back the way you came, or follow the Catalina Highway to the Palisade Visitors Center. Ironically, the latter option is uphill most of the way, but it's only 3 miles, compared to 5.7 miles on the trail. No one will fault you if you take the easy road, but rest assured, Weldon Heald would have opted for the woods. There's much more diversity there.
Trail Guideclick to expand
Length: 11.4 miles round-trip
Elevation: 6,505 to 8,263 feet
Directions: From Tanque Verde Road in Tucson, drive northeast on the Catalina Highway for 4.2 miles to the Forest Service boundary and continue 19 miles to the Palisade Visitors Center.
Special Consideration: A $5 day pass is required.
USGS Map: Mount Bigelow
Leave No Trace Ethics: