Saguaro National Park, East Rincon Mountains Hiking Log -
December 25, 2002
by Dana Farnsworth
Proof that the best-laid plans sometimes don't work out so well. Kelli and I had planned to arrive in Tucson, pick up our rental vehicle and drive directly to the Douglas Springs trailhead in the Northwestern corner of the park. From that point, we would try to cover around 6.5 miles in dwindling light to the Douglas Springs Camping Area. The next day we would hike to Tanque Verde Ridge Trail and head west to the Juniper Basin Campground and then out to the Juniper Basin trailhead on the third day. Sounded like a great plan for a 21-mile two-night hike.
That plan went out the window when our rental car clerk took over an hour to assign vehicles to the three couples in front of us. At the time I was incensed that one incompetent car jockey had used up our valuable daylight hiking time. I would eventually be thankful for this more on that in a minute.
At any rate, Kelli and I loaded up the truck, and against all of my personal preferences that refuse to hurry anywhere when I'm on vacation, sped off in a hurry to find the trailhead. I was determined to make it! However as we got closer and the sun began to get very close to the horizon, it was looking like we were going to need to modify our plan. Generally we hike a mile or two into a trail the first evening and camp. That's not possible in Saguaro East, because every designated campsite lies five or six miles or more from a trailhead. I didn't think it was going to be a wise idea to hike a couple miles in twilight and then four or more miles in the dark on a trail that went up a mountain. Out came the cell phone. We had reservations for two nights at the Sun Catcher Bed and Breakfast that was going to start when we came out of the backcountry. I was hoping they would have an extra room for us available now.
As luck would have it our gracious hosts J.C. & Carleen made room for us! As it turned out we were only a couple minutes from their B&B. Tired, defeated and a little downtrodden, we moped into the Sun Catcher and were cordially greeted with an offer of some wine at their bar! Perhaps this wouldn't be too bad after all! After getting settled, Kelli and I went out for a walk and took in a great view of the Rincon Mountains that are literally only a mile or less from the Sun Catcher. In fact, there are trailheads within walking distance. After going out for some dinner, we hit the sack.
After a wonderful breakfast Kelli and I made our alternative plan. We would go to the visitors center at the park and ask them which of two options for a two-day, one-night hike would be best; Douglas Springs Trailhead to Douglas Springs Camp or Juniper Basin trailhead to the Juniper Basin Camp. After seeing several pictures of each campsite, Kelli and I both agreed that Juniper Basin looked better. The Ranger informed us that there was still several inches, 14" to be exact, of snow still standing at Juniper Basin. I think that was supposed to be a deterrent. Standing there in the desert with temperatures in the low 60s, it was hard to imagine that we would be sleeping that very same evening in 14" of snow. We got our permit and headed off to the trailhead.
Juniper Basin trailhead is a popular spot for people to take their families on short hikes. We started out in the desert with the park's namesake cactus towering all around us. With the mountains in front of us, it was quite a pretty sight. Looks can be deceiving though. The "mountains" that are visible from there are really only the foothills or better yet the approach to the larger peaks which are shielded from view for the first few miles. As we started our slow climb up, we never really had a grasp of the climb ahead. At one point Kelli spotted a ringtail, which is sort of a raccoon/weasel sort of critter. He was enjoying the warm sunshine from a cliff that was only about 20 yards from us. We still had several families following us, so we pressed on. As we continued to climb, the terrain began changing from desert to grasslands. Saguaros dwindled and were overtaken by scrubby little stunted trees that looked like oak to me. Century plants also became more abundant. I commented several times that I was going to be happy to get to the top of "this" ridge. Every time we topped a ridge, we would encounter yet another similar ridge to hike up that was concealed from our previous view. We eventually found a nice spot to stop and have lunch. It was at the top of one of the ridges that gave us a great view of the desert below and Tucson farther to the west. After lunch, we continued up. As we climbed higher, it began to get a little colder. Eventually small patches of snow began to crop up in shaded areas. Eventually we topped out the mountain we were on. From that vantage point we could see the higher mountain peaks that we were heading towards. We decided to take a small brake, have a snack and put on another layer of clothes. We shared our spot with a woman I refer to as the "Bearded Lady" due to her robust amount of dark facial hair. She mentioned that her friend had hiked on to Juniper Basin, which was apparently only two to three miles away and was coming back by 3:00 PM. As we headed out, we began encountering even more snow, but I still doubted that there was actually 14" at Juniper Basin. We traversed one or two mountain valleys and as 3:00 PM approached, began discussing if the Bearded Lady's "friend" actually existed we hadn't seen her yet. We reasoned that it was a story she had made up to provide a sense of security for herself. Kelli and I don't look all that imposing, but I guess you can never tell.
As 3:00 PM neared, we spotted her friend! She had been enjoying taking pictures and apparently didn't pay attention to the time she was supposed to be back. At any rate Kelli and I were both getting a little tired and was feeling pretty good about the possibility of being within a mile or so from the designated camp.
I need to mention that Kelli and I took a look at the Juniper Basin trailhead log and saw that only one couple, Tim and Carol something, were going to be at the camp area. To pass the time while hiking, we discussed freaking them out if we saw them, by calling them by name and acting like we knew them.
At a crystal clear stream I stopped to fill my water bottles up with my Sweetwater filter pump. This wouldn't be an activity I would normally log, but it did provide us with the "quote of the trip". As I stood up from pumping the water, I looked down and had snow all over my knee. What came out of my mouth was "Awww, I got snee on my know" Get it? I guess you had to be there Anyway we got a good laugh out of it and ended up calling snow "snee" for most of the trip.
As we continued on, I started wondering if the campsite was going to have a sign, and started thinking aloud if we had hiked by it already. By this time it was getting late in the day and as I stated earlier, we were pooped from our uphill all-day hike. I pulled out our topo and trail map and began trying to figure out exactly where we were in relation to the campsite. I found a nearby peak on the map and counted our stream crossings that we had done with what was on the map. After both Kelli and I hiked up and down a trail several times looking for the damn campsite, Kelli came up with the theory that at least one or two streams we thought we had crossed could possibly be seasonal snow melt, that may or may not be on our map. What a smart woman I married! She was getting very tired, so after figuring that the site must be farther up, I offered to hike ahead and scout things out. The site was well marked and only about a ¼ of a mile or so farther up the trail. We had been thinking that the stream we were near was actually the one that runs along the camp.
I was the first to get to the site. It was as snowy as advertised, as it apparently is enveloped in shade most of the day. There was Tim and Carol, hanging out by their fire with big smiles. I went back for Kelli. We were too tired to mess with them too much. We only mustered, "Hey, you guys are Tim and Carol". We explained our devious plot and how we knew their names, and then made our way to our designated site.
We set up camp in what appeared to be every bit of 12" of snee, I mean snow, gathered some fallen wood, shoveled the snow out of the fire ring/grill and started a fire. Tim and Carol had mentioned that the temperature was around 15 degrees the previous night and that it was supposed to be about the same again this night. I believed it, it was getting freakin' cold! It still was a little strange to me to have been in the desert this morning in shorts! We made some hot tea, a hot dinner and quickly crawled into our sleeping bags for a well-earned night's rest.
The next morning we made breakfast and took down our camp. We did so in a speedy fashion; not because we didn't enjoy staying there, but because we knew it was going to be warmer a mile or two back down the trail. As we hiked back down the mountains we shed layer after layer of clothes. I even stopped and zipped off the legs of my convertible shorts/pants. Later, we hiked through a very shaded area that still had several inches of snow blanketed around. It was an awkward moment of snow and shorts.
The terrain was every bit as pretty as it was the previous day, and we were covering it much faster this time, going downhill. As we neared the trailhead Kelli starting hiking very slowly. I would never make a comment that could be construed as being negative aloud to her, but honestly I was frustrated at her geriatric pace. Keep in mind I'm never in a hurry; she was moving so slow I worried about rabid tortoises running us down and attacking us. Kelli is very stubborn so it took some prying to find out that she had twisted her knee earlier coming off the mountain. She was even more stubborn to accept any assistance. She wants to prove to herself and me that, "Damn it, I can finish this hike by myself!" We were only a mile or less from the end, so I offered to help her out in a manner, which I am now sworn to secrecy about, because she actually accepted! We returned to the Sun Catcher Bed and Breakfast and had a few celebratory beers over our new adventure that was quite an interesting story!
In summary, this is a great one night hike of about 13 14 miles round trip. I was grateful that we hadn't attempted starting this hike on the first evening. The Douglas Spring Trail follows a very similar profile, which is to say up a mountain to the campground. Going uphill takes a lot more time than hiking on level ground. I can easily see us hiking for hours and hours in the dark and possibly never finding the campsite. As it turned out, we had a really good time and enjoyed the changes in terrain and climate. It sure made for interesting pictures!
Note: The next couple of days, I used the Sun Catcher Bed and Breakfast as a "base camp" for a couple of mountain bike rides that were pretty good. See our additional reviews in the Biking section.
Trail Hiked: Juniper Basin Trail
Distance: 14 miles (out and back)
Outdoor Travels Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Backpacks
- Terrain changes from desert to snow-capped mountains with almost everything in between
- The park is easy to get to and is very close to Tucson
- Trails are well maintained
- Biking opportunities in nearby parks offer other recreation opportunities
- For some, the first day which is almost all uphill, could be a negative
- Snow melting created "false springs" which were not on the map and made it difficult to navigate by spring crossings
- Warm weather as well as well as cold weather gear needed for this hike