Manning Camp is a 6-site backcountry campground in Saguaro National Park. It features Manning Cabin, a structure that was originally built in 1905 by Levi H. Manning. The Manning family used it as a summer home until the Forest Service annexed it and the surrounding land to create Coronado National Forest in 1907. For further reading on Manning Camp, see the National Park Service’s article on its history.
There are numerous approaches to Manning Camp, but the Turkey Creek approach is the shortest (7.5 mi) with the least amount of elevation gain (4300 ft).
In this guide, I will cover a different route: Douglas Spring Trail to Manning Camp. I took this route in late June 2018 and completed it as a solo overnighter. According to signs placed along the trail by the National Park Service, the trail is 12.4 miles one way with 5050 feet elevation gain. However, Gaia GPS app recorded slightly higher measurements in both areas. In addition, I hiked to Devil’s Bathtub and part of the Fire Loop Trail which further increased total mileage and gain.
One thing that is unique about Saguaro National Park is that it does not have any car-accessible campgrounds. If you want to camp there, you have to go to the backcountry. Permits are easy to obtain and must be picked up at the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center. Call 520-733-5153 for more information.
- Distance: 31.4 miles
- Hike Time: 2 days
- Elevation Gain: 6620 feet
- Fee: $15 per vehicle for a 7-day pass. Backcountry permits are $8 per campsite, per night
- Dogs: No
- Difficulty: Hard
- Distance: 18.4 miles
- Ascent: 6364 feet
- Descent: 1289 feet
Unless you do it from Turkey Creek or some other trail, the hike begins at the trailhead for Douglas Spring. From Tucson, head east on Speedway Boulevard until it banks left for the first time. Instead of turning and heading north toward Tanque Verde Ranch, look for a dirt parking lot on the right.
The hike begins in an impressive Sonoran Desert biome that features enormous saguaros, palo verde, mesquite, creosote, cholla, prickly pear, and barrel cactus. The trail’s first 0.8 miles are somewhat flat, but soon the climbing starts. Over the next 5.3 miles, you will ascend around 2,000 feet to Douglas Spring Campground.
If you pay attention, you are likely to observe a difference in the vegetation on the way up. Between the trailhead and Douglas Spring Campground, the biome transitions from Desert to Thornscrub to Semi-desert Grassland.
Unlike the trailhead, Douglas Spring Campground (3 sites) features a pit toilet. It also has a spring, but do not count on it to flow. During peak monsoon or 1-2 weeks out from a good rain it will run, but otherwise it goes dry. For the most reliable source, hike upstream from where the trail crosses the wash.
The 2.4 mile section of trail between Douglas Spring Campground and Cow Head Saddle is rather overgrown with chaparral. Despite my best efforts to move quickly and dodge branches, I was left with several scratches. Long sleeves and long pants are advisable for this portion of the hike, which ascends another 1300 feet.
At Cow Head Saddle, elevation 6100 feet, your hard-earned efforts are rewarded with exceptional views. To the north, the Santa Catalina Mountains loom over Redington Pass and to the south, the Santa Rita Mountains rise from the valley floor.
From here, bear left and continue on Cow Head Saddle Trail. 3.3 miles and 2,000 feet elevation gain later, you will arrive at the signed junction with North Slope Trail. The hike to Cow Head Saddle is difficult enough as it is and this final ascent will test your endurance. At the junction, bear right toward Manning Camp to complete the final 0.6 miles. Thankfully, it is all downhill from here.
- Distance: 12.9 miles
- Ascent: 256 feet
- Descent: 5353 feet
This is an out and back hike, so follow the same set of trails you took on the way up back to Douglas Spring Trailhead.
Manning Camp has a perennial water source a short walk east of the cabin. Near campsite 1, there is a sign that marks the trail to it. There are two pools in a bowl-like granite formation that resembles a small slot canyon. During my visit, the water had a fair share of algae, tadpoles, and bugs swimming around in it. The upper pool was cleaner, but somewhat precarious to reach with four bottles in hand.
Devil’s Bathtub is a worthwhile, prominent feature to visit while you are in the Rincon Mountains. To get there from Manning Camp, follow the Manning Camp Trail south for 1 mile, then bear left at the signed junction with Devil’s Bathtub Trail. From here, it is 0.7 miles to a spring-fed waterfall with a series of pools below it that continue down Madrona Canyon.
The hike begins at Douglas Spring Trailhead in Saguaro National Park East. From Tucson, head 17.4 miles east on Speedway Boulevard from I-10 Exit 257.
- Rattlesnakes: I have had some close calls with rattlesnakes on nearby trails. They camouflage extremely well, so keep an eye out.
- Scorpions: Shake your sleeping bag out before you get in it.
- Bears: Do not sleep with food or cooking items. The campsites at Manning Camp include bear bins. Use them!
- Lightning: On the ridge line above Cow Head Saddle, there are dozens of trees that have been hit by lightning. This is not a safe place to be during a storm.
- Water: It can get extremely hot on the trail systems below 6,000 feet. Unless it is wintertime, do your lowland hiking early in the morning.