Arizona: Catalinas traverse South to North


Catalina Mountains traverse South to North, from Tucson, AZ to Oracle: 30 miles, 2 days. Ty, Marielle, Jordan, Craig. Narrative by Ty Taylor, photos by Marielle Smith.

The idea was to start in Tucson at 3,000 ft, climb up 4,000 ft and over the crazy jagged steep front range and drop to the underbelly of Mount Lemmon (5,200 ft), then up to Lemmon’s second tier to traverse the Wilderness of Rock, up and over Lemmon’s shoulder at 8,000 ft and a steady general descent down Oracle Ridge to Oracle at 5,000 ft.

We’ve done a few trips in this relatively small mountain range so far, and as we entered the wonderland of Wilderness of Rock, I realized that I could not imagine a more dynamic and interesting mountain range of a similar size, and it’s right in our back yard. The Catalinas used to be part of a range taller than Everest, and I think it’s oldness and varied history is evident in its counterintuitive form. Mount Lemmon’s major drainages on the south side run north to south, yet it contains two very broad tiers that cut east-west across the mountain, which I call the under- and overbellies. On the south side of the underbelly the front range rises unexpectedly a few thousand feet back up into jagged peaks. This range is dissected by two major drainages from Lemmon, and is channeled deeply on its south side by many other canyons carving out a rugose face of epic scale.

Unfortunately, our attempt to start up Esperero canyon in the dark was foiled by the maze of trails and lack of signs where needed near Sabino Canyon. So we bailed and drove up Lemmon a ways to Sycamore Canyon, the east end of the underbelly. We traversed the belly to climb to Wilderness of Rock in Lemmon’s second tier, bypassing the rugged, but undoubtedly beautiful climb over the front range via Esperero.

Map hi

Map 1: broad view

Map 1

Map 2: Base to Oracle Ridge: Red is intended route start up Esperero, blue is actual route start down Sycamore Canyon..

Map 2

Map 3: Oracle Ridge to American Flag Ranch (AZ trail).


Gyp the dog, master of naps, untirable hiker. Morning at the top of Bear Canyon after our hike down in the dark.


Hobo stove: butchered tin can in which to make fires with small twigs to heat your water. Many times lighter than a can of fuel and gas-stove. The design needs some improvement for boiling 4 people’s water though. Need to get a chimney effect going.


Gyp and Jordan heading West across the underbelly with Cathedral Rock in the distance.


Sags and rocks, that’s Arizona!



Just stopping to do some pushups on the rocks, guys, I’ll catch up in a second!


An invention we’ve been envisioning for quite a while, a flow meter for the platypus! This could be super useful, especially in AZ where planning water consumption rates can be critical! This was made by Camelback, and I think the platypus hose has a larger inner diameter, so the meter unerestimates flow rate, but you can still rely on it in terms of fractions of water remaining if you apply the right correction factor to the starting quantity you enter.


You can see why there’s a lot of good rock climbing on Mt Lemmon. This is one of a thousand cliffs.


Bet you didn’t think it snowed here did you!


Entering the “Wilderness of Rock”. Fortunately these photos do not spoil the site for you. I could play there for days and keep finding beautiful hidden pockets of rock and forest, and of course do endless bouldering!









Big Ponderosa Pine. I was also surprised to find Douglass Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), an old friend from the Pacific Northwest, on a wetter and more shaded drainage.

IMG_6457 Pretty sure that was a Ponderosa.


This place was great for lichens. Lichens are a combination of an alga or cyanobacteria and a fungus, so each species is two species. They are one of the few earth creatures capable of converting our most abundant atmospheric gas, nitrogen, into a form usable by plants, ammonia.


That’s Baboquivari silhouetted in the distance! We hope to climb that soon, six pitches of 5.6-7 grade (mild) rock climbing with wild exposure.


What a handsome lad.


Marielle and Ponderosas. Mariellerosa.



Trails left by bark beetle larvae.


Marielle and crew created a sweet tripod stand to hang the pot and boil water. It was a cool idea, although it was a bit problematic that the structure was burning while the water heated.



Aah, the versatile tarp! This reflected heat from the fire, keeping us warm through the night (except when nobody bothered to feed the fire).


The drainage over the hill from Wilderness of Rock, leading to Marshall Gulch. The character changed to slimmer trees and many downed.




The hobbit house, come on in for noonsies!


Reef Rock, looks really fun to hike around and great climbing! Beyond the rocky ridge is Samaniego Ridge, which may make another sweet traverse for a future trip from Biosphere 2 to Tucson.


This was really neat. This whole forest was burned, and at the base of each tree is a young leatherleaf oak. Looks like all of the trees are growing back from their bases, a great fire strategy and a way to ensure the dominance of one species.


Oracle Ridge


Why is this old burned trunk all white?


It’s entirely covered in a species of white lichen! Maybe the whiteness helps it deal with a very sun-exposed, hot location like in a burn area. I’ve never seen anything like this.



There were some massive trees here at some point in the past! We think these might have been huge Junipers.


Savanna country.



The End.