Monday, February 27, 2006
Valley to Summit: A Mount Lemmon Odyssey
Yesterday I finally completed one of my "epic" dream hikes: from the valley (Oro Valley, in this case) to the summit of Mount Lemmon, the highest peak near Tucson (~9200 feet [2850 m]). My alarm clock went off at 6 a.m., way too early. I picked up friend Hinako and her friends Javier and Paulina (from Japan, Spain and Mexico, respectively). We drove up to Catalina State Park and paid our $10 for an "overnight" parking pass. From the trailhead (2700' [823 m]) we could see our destination: the pine-shrouded top of Mt. Lemmon, 6500 feet [2000 m] overhead. The morning was chilly and overcast; we all donned our jackets and gloves, if we had them. A quick map stop oriented us all to the lay of the land and the route of the hike ahead. We then marched toward the mountain across the coarse alluvial gravels along the north side of Pusch Ridge. Saguaro stands defined our first biozone: Sonoran desert. Along the trail we also spotted a white-tailed rabbit (aka hop-hop) and a few insects. After a mile on the gravel we abruptly came to pink granitic rock outcrops, and the trail began to climb. Here the trail is often directly on rock, rough and steep in places. Suddenly everyone felt very warm and we stopped to remove our excess clothing. The trail reaches a crude saddle point then descends into Romero Canyon proper. Depending on which map/sign you believe, Romero Pools are 2.2 or 2.8 miles from the parking lot. The pools used to be very deep in places, but were filled in by debris flows caused by a torrential rainfall event in the area about 3 years ago, shortly after the Bullock (summer 2002) or Aspen (summer 2003) fire. (My friend Dave Maher tells me of jumping off high rocks into some of the pools - thus they were 20+ feet deep.) Despite the very dry current conditions in southern Arizona, Romero Creek was running very slightly and nourishing a nice green slime colony. A few larger pools sit downstream from where the trail crosses the canyon. Here we paused for a brief rest and snack, admiring the polished shapes of the canyon rocks. Moving on we had a brief respite from climbing as we crossed a flat "meadow" area traversed by Romero Creek. A few small waterfalls (with trickles of water!) provided some variation in the scenery. Soon the trail turned up again as we climbed into the upper reaches of Romero Canyon, toward Romero Pass. The trail left the canyon bottom and hugged the left (North) wall. To the south the looming canyon wall is made up of a few huge planar surfaces, giving the canyon a "hewn" appearance, as if it had been made by the hands of men. Looking down on Romero Creek we could see that the canyon narrows and winds upstream almost to the point of being a slot canyon. A good destination for another day. Also, high on the canyon walls were a few benches large enough to support an acre or so of forest. I imagined climbing up there and making a little shelter and living there, a hermit on a perch with a nice vista of Oro Valley. The trail became steeper and less well marked, in places covered with brush and fallen branches, apparently due to the fire(s) in this area (how do fires produce so much unburned brush? I suppose during the fire, it was living material. The tree was killed by the fire, then the branches dried out and became tinder. Javier (biologist) expects another fire soon.) The saddle was visible above us as we climbed the last calf-burning half mile. As we crested the saddle we were greeted with a blasting wind from the east and a panoramic view: the west fork of Sabino Canyon, the north side of the "front range" of the Catalinas, much of the Catalina high terrain, and the Rincon Mountains beyond. A lunch stop was in order. As we dined, Javier and I lay on our backs and watched the sky. Dotted with cumulus clouds which raced overhead, the sky eventually cleared to a nearly unblemished azure blue. Hinako pulled out the trail map which flapped like a flag in a gale. Eventually she got it under control and found our elevation to be 6000' [1850 m], 2300' above the trailhead but still 3200' below Mt. Lemmon. To our north we could see a boulder-strewn escarpment capped with progressively larger pine trees. On the other side of this escarpment was the Wilderness of Rocks. After lunch we started up this, the steepest sustained section of the entire hike. I huffed and puffed in the rarified air. Our pace slowed. Tunnel vision began to overtake me as I stared down at my boots, oblivious to the natural beauty around me. Then I caught a whiff of fresh pine scent and was rejuvinated and reawakened. We had entered the forest, 3500 feet above the valley floor below. We crested the plateau and then began a short descent into Wilderness of Rocks. An isolated pile of oso droppings added a bit of excitement to our descent. Wilderness of Rocks is a fairly flat area surround by rounded granite boulders and spires. It is not as spectacular as places like Chirachua NM or Bryce NP, but then it's different rock, too. The area was quite dry and not as scenic as I remember it (from 4 years ago) because of damage done by the fire(s). At the base of the Lemmon Rock Lookout trail we had to make a decision: short and steep (LRT) or longer and more scenic (Marshall Gulch)? I voted for LRT, since I wanted to actually summit the mountain. Marshall Gulch isn't the tippy-top. Just as we were deciding which route to take, two hikers sporting charcoal-stained faces stumbled down from the LRT. They warned us that the route was unmarked, confusing and perhaps blocked by fire debris. We directed them toward Marshall Gulch or the Aspen trail, and off they went. Against their recommendation, we headed up the LRT. Towering overhead we could see the summit rocks, brilliant white in the sinking late-afternoon sun. On one of the easternmost rocks I could make out the Lemmon Rock lookout, a small fire post building. As we continued to climb, the trail gradually got steeper and less travelled. Finally it made a sharp turn and disappeared into faint footmarks among the pine needles. All four of us scrambled around the hillside like Orienteers looking for a misplaced control point, sans compasses or decent maps. Finally we decided to head uphill cross-country, since we could see the lookout building perhaps 1/3 of a mile away and we knew the trail went to the west of it. After crashing through some brush and shimmying past some rocks, we came upon the trail. The sun's rays were tinted orange and the mood turned sharply from afternoon to evening as we stumbled up to the two-track leading to Lemmon Rock Lookout. At the lookout Javier snapped a few cliffside shots of the whole group, with the Rincons, Santa Ritas, Whetstones and Huachucas in the background. Although the atmosphere was hazy, we could see Babquivori and Kitt Peak, the Atacosas and 'Ritas to the south, and the Pinaleños (and beyond) to the east. A cold wind began to blow and we again donned our cool-weather gear, having come full circle, temperature-wise. The last mile to the top is along an old dirt road. At the top, having reached the scenic parking lot and power station, we chowed down the remainder of our comida and gave Victor a call so he'd come pick us up. Darkness fell among the pines and we huddled in the cold. I thought of the pie and warm coffee only four miles away in Summerhaven. We walked down the road toward the ski area and finally Victor, our hero, pulled up with a 12-pack of cold cervasas.