Tortolita Mountains, Town of Marana
By Robert Stieve
In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that the trailhead for this loop is within a chip shot of the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain. For hiking purists, those words will be enough to say, “Eh, no thanks,” but the location scouts for the Ritz selected this place near Tucson for the same reason you’ll want to hike it: the scenic Tortolita Mountains.
Although they’re not as rugged as the Superstitions or as seductive as the Catalinas, the Tortolita Mountains offer an easy getaway into the Sonoran Desert. And thanks to the town of Marana, Pima County and the state, more than 5,000 acres have been preserved as a sanctuary for plants, animals, hikers and bikers.
There are several trails in the preserve, and many of them are linked together. It’s a wonderful network that allows for a variety of short hikes and longer loops. This month’s Hike of the Month combines the Wild Burro and Alamo Springs trails, a route that winds for about 7 miles over and around 600-million-year-old piles of metamorphic granite rock.
The loop begins at the Wild Burro Trailhead, which is accessed by a manicured boulevard that also serves the Karmann Ghias driving to the Ritz — don’t disparage it; just appreciate it. Within seconds, the Wild Burro Trail dips into a wash that’s dotted with chain fruit chollas and saguaros. They’re the first of more than 600 plant species you might see in these mountains, including ocotillos, ironwoods, agaves, sotol and jojoba, as well as crested saguaros. At last count, there were 31 of those rare cactuses in the preserve. In the spring, you’ll also see wildflowers: lupines, larkspurs, red penstemons, goldpoppies and more.
After several back-and-forths across the wash, you’ll arrive at an intersection with the Alamo Springs Trail. Veer right and start zigzagging up the slope. The higher you climb, the more lush the desert becomes. After about 20 minutes, you’ll intersect the Lower Javelina Trail. Keep right and continue to a saddle that offers great views in all directions. From there, the trail meanders up and down for a mile or so until it arrives at what looks like a man-made stone wall. The natural feature is known as “Machu Picchu.” Even in a world defined by interesting landforms, this one is especially unique.
Just beyond Machu Picchu, the uphill resumes for another half-hour to the high point of the trail (3,855 feet) and then begins a steep downhill via switchbacks to a short spur trail that leads back to Wild Burro, a trail that gets its name from the now-nonexistent pack animals that escaped from area miners in the early 19th century. If you’re short on time, you can take the spur and shave a couple of miles off the hike. Otherwise, stay right for another mile to Alamo Springs, where the loop reconnects with the Wild Burro Trail.
From there, it’s a straight shot through the basin of Wild Burro Canyon back to the trailhead. In addition to the remains of an old cabin, keep your eyes peeled for Gila monsters, prairie falcons, gnatcatchers, kit foxes, diamondbacks and bobcats. Despite the nearby Ritz-Carlton, there’s a lot of Mother Nature along this loop. More than enough to keep the hiking purists happy.
Photo: Purple Chinese lanterns sprout from beneath a lichen-stained rock along the trail. | Randy Prentice
Length: 7.1-mile loop
Elevation: 2,806 to 3,855 feet
Trailhead GPS: N 32˚28.549’, W 111˚05.462’
Directions: From Tucson, go west on Interstate 10 for 16.4 miles to Tangerine Road. Turn right onto Tangerine Road and continue 4.9 miles to Dove Mountain Boulevard. Turn left onto Dove Mountain Boulevard and continue 4.5 miles to the roundabout. Veer right at the roundabout, toward the Ritz-Carlton resort, and continue 0.8 miles to the trailhead on the right.
Vehicle Requirements: None
Dogs Allowed: Yes (on a leash)
Horses Allowed: Yes, on select trails within the preserve, including the Wild Burro Trail.
USGS Map: Ruelas Canyon
Information: Town of Marana, 520-382-1950 or www.marana.com