Upper Sabino Canyon

Friday, June 29th, 2012

Exploring The Trail Less Taken Yields a Riparian Paradise in
Article and Photography by Emily Gindlesparger

Hit the Trail! – Tail Winds, July/August 2012 – Page 9

The first time we saw the pool at the edge of the earth, it was after we’d been climbing at Raycreation, a set of walls near an unnamed creek to the south of the Sunset trailhead. After tiring ourselves out climbing, my two partners and I decided to do some exploring along the lush riparian creek, and found a faded trail that paralleled the water, skirting a set of pools in an alcove, ice cold even in August.

The view from the pool on the edge of the earth.

We continued along the creek until it fell off a cliff, and there at the edge a lip of rock had collected a pool full of water before it trickled off the rim into another pool thirty or so feet below. The upper reaches of Sabino Canyon met this little creek down below, cutting a sweeping ridge forested with pines among exposed rock walls. Though I was too nervous to crawl into it, I was sure we’d found the ice bath with the most beautiful view in the world.

We came back several times, finding the trail that skirts around the cliff to the confluence below, and then rock-hopping up Sabino Canyon until the canyon bed was too steep a scramble. We hiked downstream of the confluence to find towering rock walls. Even in the middle of summer there was water, green leafy trees to soak up, and yellow columbines everywhere. These upper stretches of Sabino Canyon and its little offshoot soon became one of my favorite secrets in the Santa Catalinas; it was a place that felt like home.

Where I’m from in southern Illinois, it’s hard to get a photograph that really captures a place. Branches and vines obscure the pretty cliffs and rivers. The intimate view flattens out on paper, because it’s impossible to fit the details and the scale into a single frame. But the magic of these jewels —boulders tucked in to forests, pools in smooth rock alcoves —is not so much in how they look. It’s about how they feel.

And there’s something amazing about having a view clouded by big green leaves, only to move the branch and discover a red-orange rock wall. That’s what it’s like to stumble on Raycreation, a set of rock walls that only saw routes put up a couple of years ago, despite being known as a nice hunk of rock to develop for a decade. With one wall mostly in sun and another in shade, the cliffs make up a rope master’s playground of tough climbs in comfortable temperatures all summer long.

Downstream of the walls, the creek tumbles into a few pools, one of them deep and nestled in slick granite walls like a devilish trap: a shriekingly cold swimming hole with only one way out. A faint trail continues through forest, half lush and half burned, until popping out to the view with the pool at the edge of the earth. Then the faint trail side steps the cliff, swings wide around the ridge and down to the basin, meeting up with Sabino Canyon.

I once followed a painted redstart as it flashed the white spots on its wings, luring me down the canyon to a trap or an adventure —I never knew exactly which. But I found a sign that had clearly been burned in the Aspen fire in 2003, reading “CAUTION: The terrain behind this sign is very rough. Stay on signed trails.”

There were no signs anywhere, only small cairns marking thin threads of trail overgrown with ferns and scrub oak. It occurred to me that while I’d never seen another soul in my explorations, and I’d never seen this trail on a map, it had been loved before the fire, at least enough to haul a hulking wooden sign into the middle of nowhere, where the painted redstarts roamed. It also occurred to me that the sign could be more useful at the start of this infrequently used trail through rock drops and burned terrain. The soil is delicate and prone to erosion, and requires care and respect from hikers traveling across it, but it’s an area that’s seeing some love again, from climbers heading to Raycreation and from wanderers like me who get lured downstream by the pretty birds.

I took one last inadequate photograph of the jungly terrain beyond and began the hike back. Stopping for one last dip in the pool at the edge of the earth, my plunge displaced water that spilled over into a miniature waterfall down the cliff. I dried off in the sun and headed back to the known world.

Getting There

Take Catalina Highway up to the Sunset trailhead parking, which is a signed turnoff on the left just above the Upper Butterfly trailhead. Take the road straight out of the parking lot toward Sunset Trail, and when the road forks after roughly a quarter mile, head through the middle fork, where boulders block the drive for cars. Ahead is Sunset Trail. Instead of Sunset, follow the road as it turns left, heading downhill. The road forks again, heading left to a cabin and petering out on the right at some rock slabs. Head down the rocks and catch a thin trail leading down toward the creek bed. The trail reaches the creek in front of a rock wall; this is the Raycreation climbing area (route lists can be found on mountainproject.com). Continue following the trail as it parallels the creek to explore the surprises below.

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