Sewing the Rincons Together

Monday, March 19th, 2012

The New Quilter Trail Adds A Critical Link To The Arizona National Scenic Trail

The author taking in the view on the new stretch of Quilter Trail.

Hit The Trail article from the Mar/Apr issue of TailWinds.
Article and Photos By Emily Gindlesparger.

It was a beautiful drive down Old Spanish Trail with nothing but rocky desert mountains out the driver’s side window. I turned down Camino Loma Alta, and headed straight for the mountain, until the pavement broke and I kicked up dust behind me. I put on sunscreen in the rear view mirror, cinched my CamelBak straps down as tight as they go, and hoofed it down the Hope Camp trail, a route that’s wide enough to fit a car but still gets some pretty views of old desert and a decrepit aluminum windmill, a holdover from homesteading days. The windmill creaks eerily and was made in Chicago: it says so on the tail, where you can still read the flaking paint.
My destination was the Quilter Trail, a newly completed piece of the Arizona National Scenic Trail on the southern aspect of the Rincons. This piece of desert wrapping around Saguaro National Park has massive cacti in the way old growth forest has massive trees, huge and green.

The Quilter Trail officially opened last April, starting two miles in off the Hope Camp trail, sweeping gently up the lush Sonoran desert basin and veering onto the ridge side, eventually climbing to connect with the Manning Camp trail 5.5 miles later. Its name is a memorial to Jake Quilter, who worked with National Park Service trail crews in Saguaro and died of a congenital heart defect at 26. Nearly two years of dedicated work has produced a beautifully built trail that honors his memory.

“Finishing this section of the trail allows for a much easier route for through hikers,” says Arizona Trail steward Tasha Nelson. “It reveals an amazing view of the Tucson Valley, looking all the way over to Baboquivari and the hidden surprise about four miles in, looking into the valley below Rincon Peak is phenomenal.” Not a bad teaser, I thought, as I got into the rhythm of running on the gravel Hope Camp trail, dodging its rockier grooves.
Two miles in, a marker pointed out the junction with the Quilter trail, a thin single track that wove its way to the base of the mountain and the real beginning of my trek. Just when the trail turned to soft dirt, I stopped running: I was surrounded by crowds of towering saguaros. Spines notwithstanding, if I could hug these ancients, my arms wouldn’t span halfway around. I took a thousand pictures, different configurations of saguaro arms with Mica Mountain in the background. I watched cactus wrens flit in and out of their burrows and laughed at a little bushtit, such a teeny fluffy thing perched on a branch of mesquite. And then I kept running.

Hard work takes shape in flights of stone stairs on the steeper sections of the Trail.

The Quilter Trail hugs a ridge line, presiding over the same view of valley for long stretches, but it’s dotted with surprises: a mile or more in it crosses a smooth-bedded wash, sun-bleached stone basins full of water. A couple of times the trail ducks behind hills, hiding the view as it climbs until you pop onto the mini-summit to greet the valley again like a missed friend. Roughly three miles in, the trail crosses another wash, nearly dry when I came across it, but nestled in cool sharp cliffs and paved painstakingly by trail crews with on-site rocks fitted closely together. The trail crew also constructed strong stone steps on the steeper hillsides. A small part of me doesn’t like such development in a wild place; I’d prefer not to see evidence of grooming the desert, but standing on the crew’s carefully placed cobblestones, I shook myself out of it and realized, this is the Arizona Trail. This will be around for centuries; people who set foot on this trail could also be touching their toes to the borders of Mexico and Utah with the same boots. This path is a piece of history, and it’s clear that a huge amount of hard effort has been put into this piece to make sure it endures.

Like all Arizona Trail stewards, Nelson organizes two work events per year, “where volunteers can come out and trim some trees, move some dirt and meet some new friends,” she explains invitingly. “I think any time you physically work on a trail, you feel part ownership in it. You can walk there with your friends and say ‘I built that!’ It’s not something one often gets to say.” This sense of ownership comes with an attendant sense of responsibility. “Being a steward also means caring for the land, which is crucial in this day and age when so much of our public space is being overrun,” Nelson adds. But even as the desert gets cut across by highways and more and more housing developments, it’s comforting to know there’s at least one long thread across the state that will forever be safe from all that. “The Arizona Trail achieved National Scenic Trail status in 2009. This puts it in a category with the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail and about ten others. These scenic trails offer opportunities for all kinds of people to get out and experience an ‘adventure’, whether it is a short day hike to a picnic area or a three month commitment to doing a through hike,” Nelson continues. “One of the great things about the Arizona Trail in particular in Southern Arizona is most people who have hiked, biked or horse backed anywhere in the area probably did so on part of the Arizona Trail and didn’t even know it. It is so accessible here.” The Quilter Trail adds a five and a half mile section of history that Tucsonans can visit any day.

At mile four on the Quilter Trail, following a smooth grade of ridge line, I came upon a rocky prominence looking south down the bajada and out into the farthest southeast roads of Tucson. The trail wound around the corner and opened up to show me the view north, deep into the crease of valley below Rincon Peak, just as Nelson promised. There’s something so calming about seeing such a big stretch of desert from this height. The Rincons aren’t as folded and hilly as the Santa Catalinas; they’re not as craggy as the Tucson Mountains. They offer something else: open space, its partner perspective, and the akimbo arms of so many giant green saguaros.

Hiking the Quilter Trail

Getting There: The trailhead is located at the end of Camino Loma Alta, which intersects Old Spanish Trail approximately two miles south of the Rincon Market. If you are coming from Central, East or North Tucson, turn left on Camino Loma Alta. If you are near Interstate 10 or 19 it might be a quicker trip on Interstate 10: take the Vail/Wentworth exit and follow Colossal Cave Road north, turning right at the signal at the T intersection. After climbing out of the Pantano Wash, turn left onto Camino Loma Alta and take this until the road ends at a small dirt parking area, approximately two miles after crossing Old Spanish Trail.

This is the trailhead for the Hope Camp Trail. Head through the gate and take Hope Camp Trail 2.3 miles to the junction with Quilter Trail. This trail heads gradually northeast to connect with Manning Camp Trail 5.5 miles later, with a total elevation gain of just over 1,200 feet. Reaching the Quilter Trail from the south is a longer hike; the closest trailhead is at Pistol Hill Road, approximately six miles from the junction. (The trail is closed to bikes, but the Camino Loma Alta Trail is waiting for red tape to clear, which would make it possible to ride from either end, stash your bike and hike the Quilter Trail.)

The Quilter Trail is new enough that it doesn’t yet appear on many maps. You can see an outline of it on the National Park Service website.

Go to and click on “Rincon Mountain Saguaro Wilderness Area.”

Additional maps and information are available from the Arizona Trail Association,

Water. Bring all you need; no reliable sources exist on the trail.

Difficulty. The Camino Loma Alta Trail and the first mile of the Quilter Trail are relatively easy terrain. As the trail climbs up the mountain the grades are steeper and longer.

Wildlife. You may see deer, coyotes, javelina and if you are lucky, coati from the Quilter Trail. During warmer weather you might also encounter rattlesnakes, so watch where you put your feet and hands.

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