Saguaro National Park, near Tucson
By Robert Stieve
James Taylor has a brother. Actually, he has two. And a sister. They’ve all been in the music business, on and off, and his brother, Livingston, is still performing. He’s a wonderful singer, but he’s overshadowed by his older brother.
The King Canyon Trail on the outskirts of Tucson suffers a similar fate: It’s an excellent hike, but it has a hard time measuring up to the more alluring trails in nearby Sabino Canyon. Nevertheless, it offers the same Sonoran Desert flora and fauna, an equal opportunity to see owl clover and Mexican goldpoppies, and spectacular 360-degree views from the summit of Wasson Peak. It also offers a chance for a little solitude — something the rock-star trails of Sabino Canyon cannot.
The 7.8-mile loop, also known as the Wasson Peak Trail, is a series of connecting trails and adjacent jurisdictions that begins in King Canyon, about 100 yards from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The first stretch heads up a rocky hillside for about 20 minutes and then winds slightly downhill toward the Mam-A-Gah picnic area, which stands out on the left. About five minutes later, the route crosses from Tucson Mountain Park into Saguaro National Park. Although you might see horses up to this point, they’re not allowed in the national park. Ditto for dogs.
A few minutes beyond the boundary, the trail drops into a wash and splits. Go right and follow the manmade steps that lead out of the wash. What you’ll see when you top out is classic Sonoran Desert, dominated by the saguaros for which the park is named. One of the most impressive, which is loaded with arms pointing downward, shows up about 45 minutes into the hike. From there, the trail makes a gradual climb that passes through a small section of State Trust land and arrives at an intersection with the Sweetwater Trail. It’s usually windy at this juncture, but you’ll want to stop long enough to enjoy the views of Tucson to the east and the Red Hills to the west. It’s also a good place to catch your breath before beginning the 1.2-mile ascent up Sweetwater to Wasson Peak.
This is the most strenuous segment of the loop, but it’s only moderately difficult — the switchbacks on Sweetwater are nothing like those on the Old Baldy Trail to the southeast. After a half-hour of climbing, you’ll come to an intersection with the Hugh Norris Trail. Wasson Peak, the highest point in the Tucson Mountains, is a short detour (0.3 miles) to the right. Make the trek, bag the peak, and then retrace your steps to the Sweetwater-Hugh Norris intersection. It’s all downhill from there.
Almost immediately, a team of 15 to 20 switchbacks, some short, some long, will lead you down the mountain to a place where things level off a little. Along the way, the saguaros, which disappeared as the trail gained altitude, reappear and dominate the landscape. You’ll see a lot of saguaros on this hike. You’ll also see several abandoned mine shafts. They’re cordoned off, but be careful nonetheless. Not far from the final mine, around the two-and-half-hour mark of the hike, you’ll come to yet another intersection. This time it’s with the Sendero Trail. Turn left, hike about a mile to the Gould Mine Trail, turn right, and complete the loop back to the trailhead.
As you make your way to the end and start looking back — both figuratively and literally — you’ll be glad you tried something other than Sabino Canyon. It’s so impressive, you might even be inspired to download a song or two by Livingston Taylor.
Photo: Saguaros blanket the desert beneath Wasson Peak. | Randy Prentice
Length: 7.8 miles round-trip
Elevation: 2,915 to 4,687 feet
Trailhead GPS: N 32˚14.833’, W 111˚10.032’
Directions: From Interstate 10 in Tucson, go west on Speedway Boulevard for 12 miles to Kinney Road. Turn right onto Kinney Road and continue for 2.5 miles to the trailhead, which is located on the right-hand side of the road, just beyond the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
Vehicle Requirements: None
Dogs Allowed: No
Horses Allowed: No
USGS Map: Avra, Brown Mountain
Information: Saguaro National Park, 520-733-5158 or www.nps.gov/sagu