Mount Wrightson Wilderness, Santa Rita Mountains
By Robert Stieve
The first thing that'll come to mind when you catch your first glimpse of Mount Wrightson is, HOLY MOLY! Your second thought will be, There's no way! It's only 5.4 miles away on foot, but it's way up there. And it looks even farther than that — at 9,453 feet, Mount Wrightson, also known as Old Baldy, is the highest point in the Santa Rita Mountains.
The trail begins at the end of Madera Canyon. Even if you're not a bird-watcher, you have to appreciate the unique nature of this place. Birders come from all around the world hoping to spot an elegant trogon, a broad-tailed hummingbird or a yellow-billed cuckoo. Hikers come for the rocks and the trees and the challenge of reaching the summit.
From the trailhead, you'll start to feel the incline immediately, and it won't let up until you're on your way down. Within about 10 minutes, the groves of trees change from sycamores to ponderosas. Also, this is where that first view of Mount Wrightson comes in. As you continue climbing, the forest gets thicker, shaggy almost, and after an hour or so, you'll come to a spectacular slope covered with ferns. There's something about ferns that seems out of place in Arizona, but there they are.
Beyond the ferns, the ponderosas start getting taller, and they're mixed with silverleaf oaks and Apache pines. They're beautiful. Equally impressive is the Josephine Saddle, which sits at 7,080 feet, 2.2 miles from the trailhead. There are some great views off to the east, but what will really catch your attention is a wooden memorial. On November 15, 1958, three young Boy Scouts, ages 12-16, died at this spot when they were caught in a sudden snowstorm. It's a good reminder that whenever you're hiking in Arizona, you need to check the forecast before you leave the house.
From the saddle, the trail gets noticeably steeper and includes some challenging switchbacks. It's beautiful every step of the way, with brilliant green everywhere, but your legs and your lungs won't really appreciate it. That said, if you're not breathing too hard, keep your eyes peeled for white-tailed deer, black bears and some very fat squirrels, especially around Bellows Spring, which you'll pass along the way.
After about 3 hours, you'll finally arrive at Baldy Saddle, an almost treeless place that's used as a campsite by backpackers. The summit is still about a mile away, and in places, the trail is better suited for mountain goats than day-hikers. It's steep and rocky, and one misstep could ruin an otherwise perfect day. At the top of the mountain are the remains of a fire tower that was built in 1928, and remained in use until the 1950s.
Today, all that's left of the tower is a section of its foundation, but the views are still the same. On a clear day, you can see Sierra San José in Mexico, as well as several surrounding mountain ranges, including the Rincons, the Galiuros and the Chiricahuas. Also, to the west, you'll see the Smithsonian Institution's Whipple Observatory, which looks like a misplaced igloo at the top of Mount Hopkins. To some observers, the telescope is an eyesore. To others, it's a scientific marvel. To the hikers who make it to the top of Mount Wrightson, it's just one more thing to look down on as they think to themselves,HOLY MOLY, I made it to the top.
PHOTO: Trekking along Josephine Saddle on Old Baldy Trail, hiker Alexis Mills checks out the scenic views. | Peter Noebels
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.
Vehicle Requirements: None; accessible by all vehicles Dogs Allowed: Yes (on a leash)
USGS Map: Mount Bigelow
Information: Santa Catalina Ranger District, 520-749-8700 or www.fs.fed.us/r3/coronado