Monday, January 30, 2012

Up to Wasson Peak

At just under 4700', Wasson Peak is the highest point in the Tucson Mountains, the lowest of the mountain ranges that surround the city of Tucson.  With its open desert habitat, it makes the perfect winter hike, and so, on a perfect winter day, my friend Marilyn and I set out on the loop trail that would take us to the peak and back in just over 8 miles  .Here is a link to the map The trailhead is at 2907', giving us an elevation gain of 1775'.

Although the air was chilly when I left home, by the time we reached the trailhead and got ready to go, we were already shedding layers.  We started out on the Gould Mine Trail which wound upwards and around the old mine until it intersected the Sendero-Esperanza Trail.

Carole on the Trail

It was at this early point that I discovered to my great dismay that my camera batteries were nearly depleted, and guess where my backups were?  Right.  Back home in the charger.  No worries, said Marilyn, I have extras.  My relief last only briefly until it became clear that the extra batteries were so weak that they would only last for about 10 shots.  Between my camera, Marilyn's camera and her GPS, we had a real battery drain going.

Gould Mine tailings.  This was most likely a copper mine.
The leafed-out ocotillos and the saguaro spines were luminous in the early morning sun, and occasional wildflower blooms brought us some color touches.

As we gained some elevation, the views of the valley to the west opened up.  The trail is in Saguaro National Park, Tucson Mountain District, and this photo is looking past the barely-visible Visitor Center to Avra Valley where the recharge ponds of Tucson Water can be seen.  The explosive population growth in the Tucson basin has necessitated taking water from the Colorado River to supplement our depleting aquifer.  Ironically, in the same valley are miles and miles of water-thirsty cotton fields.

Here and there were Mexican gold poppies and the daisy-like flower of bahia.  How odd to see ferns growing right at the base of an ocotillo on a southwest-facing slope.

The dense spines of the teddy bear cholla glowed in the sun's early light, looking so deceptively soft and cuddly.  The hiker is well-advised to steer clear as just barely brushing the cactus will result in one of the joints being attached painfully to the hiker.  With it's barbed spines firmly implanted in the clothes or skin, removing the cactus piece is tricky business.  The cholla is just practicing its successful strategy for dispersal and reproduction as the disjointed piece will take root and grow wherever it lands.

It was in this area that Marilyn commented on how happy she was that we hadn't seen any invasive grasses. Not 30 seconds later I looked to my left and there was a patch of the evil buffelgrass!  I didn't take its picture as it is not worthy of being here among the beautiful native plants.  Marilyn noted its location on her GPS so that it can be removed at a later date.  Below you can see the route we have traveled.

Native fairy duster blooms began appearing, and the flowers are favorites of hummingbirds.  Sure enough, we saw our first hummer before long.  A Costa's I decided.  Mexican gold poppies were becoming more abundant, and we also spotted the tiny purple flowers of filaree and trailing four o'clocks.  The views, mostly to the south and west at this point, were sweeping and spectacular.  We could see all the way to Mexico.

  We soon intersected the Hugh Norris Trail where the sign told us we were 2.2 miles from Wasson Peak, all uphill, of course.  I said, it's kind of like my hike out of the Grand Canyon.  The closer you get, the farther away it seems.  The trail brought us around to the north side of the mountain where we were interested to find changing vegetation as well as completely different rocks and soil.  The rocks took on a soft, rounded, weathered look and the sandy soil of the decomposed granite made the trail easier walking.

Here we began seeing sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri), also known as desert spoonand yuccas, as well as many javelina tracks, crisscrossing the trail.  Javelinas are in the peccary family and, despite their appearance, are not related to pigs.  Peccaries are a new world species as opposed to pigs which came from the old world.

Sotol or Desert Spoon
A little side trail led to a viewpoint that Marilyn likened to a garden, so beautiful and lush was it.  And one of those big boulders was formed into a perfect chair with a little side table.  What a place to take in the views!

Bright green lichen decorated the north facing rocks.  Earlier in the day we had been so excited to see our first butterfly - a lovely little white and orange Sara orangetip - but as the day went on, they seemed to be everywhere and we wondered what their foodplant was.

In the sunshine, a tiny lizard scampered away at our approach, and then we spotted our first mammal - a Harris' antelope ground squirrel sitting atop his empire.  He waited there patiently until just the moment I zoomed in on him.  As a result, this is the best I could do.

All that zooming was the last straw for the dying camera batteries and from here on I relied on Marilyn to document our travels.  She, too, was trying to be conservative with the camera so that we were sure to have photos atop Wasson Peak.

As we settled in for some lunch and a rest, we spotted tiny rock wrens.  Normally quite shy, these guys have claimed the mountaintop as their territory and have become accustomed to hikers and their lunches.  Their antics entertained us all the while, and any tiny dropped morsel was investigated by them.  360° views made us feel as though we were on top of the world. We could even pick out our houses in the city sprawl below.

Back on the trail we marveled at a very elderly couple making their way to the top.  The woman had difficulty walking, almost as though she had once suffered with polio, but there she was, out there hiking up this mountain and inspiring us 'youngsters.

As the day wore on and the sun warmed the landscape, more and more wildflowers appeared, hopefully a harbinger of a spectacular display later in the spring.  The poppies were especially abundant, but we also saw lupine, fairy duster, desert rockpea, bahia, desert zinnia, fiddleneck, rock cress, cliffrose, rattlesnake weed, desert marigold, filaree, globe mallow, trailing four o'clocks, brittlebush and cream cups.

As opposed to the nice, sandy trail on the north side, the King Canyon trail is littered with sharp rocks and loose gravel, making it necessary on our descent to watch every step.  It made us happy to see so many young saguaros and ocotillos, indicating a very healthy population.  Birds for the day included black-throated sparrows (many), rock wrens, Gambel's quail, mourning doves, Costa's hummingbird, Gila woodpeckers, black-tailed gnatcatchers, canyon towhees, white-crowned sparrows, cactus wrens, verdins, common ravens and northern mockingbirds.

When we reached the King Canyon wash, we opted to walk the remaining mile in it rather than on the trail, offering us different plants, fascinating geology, petroglyphs and easy walking.

Thanks to Marilyn for the previous three photos.  This is a good reminder to put a good set of lithium batteries in my camera case.

Winter hikes in the desert are exhilarating and we vowed to do it again before the heat sets in.

May all your trails lead to inspiring places!


  1. Gorgeous hike! The wildflowers are just beginning and I can't wait until they open up en masse around the desert. My favorite are the Globe Mallows. Looks like a really beautiful hike. I wish I could do this everyday right now with the cooler temps. But the weekends limit me:( Thank you for sharing you story and adventure! Chris

  2. Wow oh wow! This post made me drool!! Thanks for taking us along! (I've done the battery "un"happy dance, too! No fun!).

  3. I'm afraid that my nasty ankles won't allow me to do a trail like this any more. :( Thanks for taking me along with you. :) Great pics from both of you.

  4. Oh, Carole, what fabulous photos! Unfortunately, I have 5-mile feet, so can't quite manage such a long hike but I'm glad you and Marilyn did it for me!

  5. Spectacular scenery both near and far on your hike, Carole. I love the bright green lichen and the light shining on the ocotillos. The desert at its best!

  6. The scenery is incredibly spectacular!!!!!

  7. Great hiking country this time of year. I keep spare batteries in my purse, backpack, fanny pack, home, truck. And still I run out sometimes.

  8. Oh, what fun to read. We've done this hike a couple of times, using different trailheads each time. I'd forgotten what a great hike it is. Maybe Odel and I will reacquaint ourselves with it when we are in Tucson soon... though Romero Pools at Catalina SP is first on the list!

  9. the luminosity in the ocotillo is super amazing, and the landscapes are really calling out to me, I love your hike, makes me wish being there.

    Thanks for the blog visit.

  10. Hi Carole, what a fantastic day you had. The landscape really is amazing to my English eyes!! On this (literally!) freezing day I almost felt warm accompanying you on your walk :-) and what a walk it was! You saw a lovely array of birds some of which I have heard of from other bloggers but most of them unknown to me, we have an English wren but I had no ides there was a cactus wren. How I wish we had Hummingbirds here... but that is as unlikely as cacti growing in the wild!

    What a shame about the camera batteries, I have done it myself and it is so annoying, you did get some wonderful photos though.

  11. I have always considered the desert one of the most breathtaking landscapes! You are so lucky.

  12. At one point you were looking down on our place, it seems. We were in SNPW today and checked on the progress of the wildflowers. I hope it doesn't get too hot too quickly now!


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