Trip Reports

Backpacking Across the Santa Catalina Mountains Trip Report

Hutch's Pool in the Santa Catalina Mountains. January 2019

Hatching a Plan

I didn’t intend to move to Tucson when I first visited in January of 2017. But there’s something magical about winter in the Sonoran Desert. Washes are flowing, flowers are blooming, the cacti are plump and green – every day is a good day for hiking. The desert sunk its claws into me and I haven’t left since.

In mid January 2019, my friends Jason, Justin, and Mike flew in from Northern Utah to escape the winter and bask in the Sonoran Desert sun. I wanted to plan a backpacking route that would take us through some of the best scenery in the area. With any luck, the desert would cast its spell on them too.

I mapped out a 40 mile thru hike of the Santa Catalina Mountains, from Catalina State Park to La Milagrosa Canyon.

Justin Carrell poses in front of a waterfall in the Santa Catalina Mountains
Justin Carrell poses in front of a waterfall in the Santa Catalina Mountains

The Route

Using Topo Maps+, I created a route that follows Romero Canyon up over Romero Pass, onto the Arizona Trail, down the West and East Forks of Sabino Canyon, down Sycamore Canyon (and past Sycamore Reservoir), over Shreve Saddle, past Gordon Hirabayashi Campground, through Molino Basin, over an unnamed saddle and down La Milagrosa Canyon to the neighborhoods of Tanque Verde. Here, we would walk the last few miles of pavement to my house. I included side trips to Hutch’s Pool and Seven Falls.

Santa Catalina Mountains Route

The Hike

Day 1

  • Distance: 9.5 miles
  • Ascent: 3,490 feet
  • Descent: 1,307 feet

The fellas got in late the night before, so we were in no hurry to leave the house in the morning. I made a big breakfast in the cast iron, complete with french toast, scrambled eggs, and bacon. We were going to need our fuel for the hike ahead.

At noon, we started up Romero Canyon Trail. Temps were in the high 60s and the skies were clear. Just shy of 2 hours in, we arrived at the most significant waterfall at Romero Pools.

The waterfall at Romero Pools. January 2019
The waterfall at Romero Pools. January 2019

In typical fashion, we lost the trail for a moment. After boulder hopping up the creek a ways, we bushwhacked out of the drainage and back onto a berm where we found the trail again.

As the sun dipped behind Mount Kimball, we continued up the steep switchbacks to the top of Romero Pass, elevation 6,037 feet. I had hoped to reach Hutch’s Pool and make camp there, but it got dark and we stopped short at a nice spot next to a running creek.

Day 2

  • Distance: 17 miles
  • Ascent: 2,669 feet
  • Descent: 3,035 feet

We left camp at 10:30am and headed toward the junction with Hutch’s Pool. I missed the turnoff, crossed Sabino Creek and mentioned to Jason that I was interested in seeing it. He told me he had seen a cairn on the other side of the creek, so we crossed it again and backtracked.

There was a lot of water flowing, so the crossing was somewhat difficult to make without getting our feet wet. It was my first time to Hutch’s Pool, and I look forward to going back to take a dip on a hot day.

Hutch's Pool. January 2019
Hutch’s Pool. January 2019

We continued down the drainage, bearing left at the next junction then immediately right onto Sabino’s East Fork Trail. At 2:30pm, we arrived at the junction with Bear Canyon.

Here, I suggested we drop our packs, stuff our pockets with snacks, and take some water with us to visit Seven Falls. By this time, temps were in the 70s and they continued to rise as we descended into Bear Canyon.

California poppies in the Santa Catalina Mountains. January 2019
Mexican poppies in the Santa Catalina Mountains. January 2019

Admittedly, I underestimated how far the out and back was. I told the group it was 2-3 miles to the falls and 1,000 feet vertical descent. It turned out to be 4 miles and 1,200 feet. The final stretch involves some gnarly looking switchbacks surrounded by precipitous cliffs.

“We’re not going down that, are we?” asked Jason, painfully.

“Yes we are. It’s worth it, you’ll see!” I exclaimed (with guilty excitement).

The group paused and stared at me, all carrying different expressions. Mike had a maniacal grin, Justin had a look of mental perseverance, and Jason seemed to begrudge my existence. In his defense, I had patently undersold how tough this hike would be.

At 5:15pm, we arrived at Seven Falls and it was roaring. This is not always the case, because rain in the desert is inconsistent. I was happy that my friends got to see it in peak form. We were also treated to a wonderful sunset.

Darkness fell rapidly as we hiked back up to where we had left our packs. However, the waxing gibbous moon rose and lit up the landscape. I took the opportunity to turn off my headlamp and see by moonlight.

At 8:45pm, we found a good camp spot next to Sycamore Reservoir. By this time, the temperature had plummeted and it felt great to make a hot meal, relax, and eventually turn in for the night.

Day 3

  • Distance:  7.2 miles
  • Ascent: 1,086 feet
  • Descent: 1,369 feet

We woke up to find chunks of ice in our water bottles, which surprised me. I did not expect to encounter freezing temps on this trip. We left camp at 11:15am.

A climber nears the top of a cliff near Gordon Hirabayashi Campground. January 2019
A climber nears the top of a cliff near Gordon Hirabayashi Campground. January 2019

After hiking over Shreve Saddle and down to Gordon Hirabayashi Campground, we went to a nearby waterfall and continued onto Molino Basin Trail. At this point, I noticed Mike falling behind. When he caught up, his knee was noticeably stiff and he was in a lot of discomfort.

A waterfall in the Santa Catalina Mountains. January 2019
A waterfall in the Santa Catalina Mountains. January 2019

We were almost to Molino Basin Campground and the Catalina Highway, which was a great place to have Kim pick us up. There was no sense in putting Mike through more misery just to complete the planned route. The only problem was, none of us had cell phone service.

Justin and I opted to continue up to the next saddle, where I had remembered finding service once. On our way up, I started to question my memory. I confided in Justin and we had a good chuckle. Luckily, we found service and I got ahold of Kim.

Before we got back to Mike and Jason, we devised a ploy.

“We should tell them we didn’t find service just to see their reaction,” I said.

“Good idea, let’s get into character,” Justin replied.

We both giggled. I put on my best face and broke the bad news.

“Really? Because Kim is on her way to pick us up,” snickered Jason. “I was able to send her a text.”

We all laughed and before long, Kim arrived. Right away, we headed to one of our favorite fast food joints, Jason’s Mexican Restaurant, where we ordered Sonoran hot dogs and Tostilocos (chips and toppings in a Tostitos bag).

A week later, I had Kim drop me off at Molino Basin and I finished out the final 11 miles to our doorstep.

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2 comments

  1. Cool trip log, thanks for sharing! Hutch’s Pool is one of my favorite destinations and well worth the 100-degree punishment received when hiking to it during the summer.
    We may have been on the mountain the same day as your trip with your Utah buddies. My wife (also an ICU nurse) and I are section-hiking the Arizona Trail and were on the Bug Spring trail not too long ago. I keep a blog too and invite you to check it out! Perhaps we’ll meet on trail some day.

    1. Thanks Dave, glad you liked it! I checked out your blog too. Looks like you’ve been doing some great hikes in the area. Way to get out there with the kids. If you want, shoot me an email and we can meet up on the trail sometime.

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