The Sky Islands of Saguaro

In lushness and variety of life, the Sonoran Desert far surpasses all other North American deserts. And yet it is one of the hottest and driest regions on the continent. Summer midday temperatures commonly climb above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Less than 12 inches of rain falls in a typical year. Between the summer and winter rainy seasons, it is not unusual for months to pass without a drop of rain.
— National Park Service, US Department of the Interior

This past weekend, I spent three days backpacking through the Rincon Mountain District of Arizona’s Saguaro National Park. Saguaro National Park is a subdivision of the larger Sonoran Desert (mentioned above), which spans from California and Nevada down through Arizona, New Mexico, and northern Mexico. The Sonoran Desert covers 100,000 square miles in that region, and it is the hottest, driest desert in North America.

Based on the looks I received from day hikers, not many people make the same trip that I took. A park ranger I met on the second day of my trip confirmed that my trek was uncommon for people with fully functioning brains. But, on paper, it didn’t seem like it was an outrageous journey: my plan was to travel about thirty miles over three days, climbing up to Spud Rock or Mica Mountain, which both stand at about 8,600 feet. When I planned that trip, I didn’t think that was crazy. I once backpacked 70 miles in five days through the Santa Cruz Mountains in California. I didn’t think my thirty-mile jaunt through the desert was really that aggressive.

 Day 0 – The Trip Before the Trip

Tip #1: You can learn just about anything with the right Google search. I got the idea for my trip route from an old article, called Secrets of Saguaro National Park. If you stumbled across an article with that title, how could you not click the link to it? After a click, I read: Saguaro (sah-WAH-roh) pulls in 93 percent fewer visitors than the Grand Canyon, most of them dayhikers, and its sky islands – verdant mountain ranges rising dramatically from the barren valley floor – are as much as 30 degrees cooler than the surrounding desert. Translation: easily attained solitude, a welcome break from triple digit temps, and no elbowing for choice campsites. On this three-day, 28.5-mile reverse lollipop route, you’ll accumulate nearly 10,000 feet of elevation gain as you rise and fall through six different ecosystems of cacti and pines rife with mountain lions and bears, and vistas so long you’ll swear you can see the curvature of the earth. Mica Mountain, the highest sky island on the trek, is so close to Tucson and its 515,000 people that it might as well be considered another skyscraper. What’s more startling is how easy it is to rise above it all.

A few immediate reactions to the passage above:

1. I’m going to Tucson for three days… this trip plan is for three days… this is awfully convenient.

2. No clue what a “reverse lollipop route” is, but I think I get the idea.

3. Uh… why wouldn’t I do this? My trip is practically planned for me. Backpacker Magazine is a reputable publication within the outdoors community.

I take a few screen shots, I send in for my backcountry camping permits, and I’m on my way down to Arizona for the first trip of my National Parks Project.


Day 1 – Denny Spring Trailhead to Grass Shack Campground (10.3 miles)

It’s Friday, day one of my trip. I’ve got a 9:40am flight out of Seattle; I get in to Tucson around 1:00pm. My bag is waiting for me in baggage claim by the time I get to the carousel. I booked my rental car ahead of time, so I breeze through the counter. I’ve got a 90-minute drive to the trailhead, plus a stop at REI for a fuel canister and a stop at Whole Foods to grab lunch and a couple bottles of water. I arrive at the trail head at approximately 3:30pm. I’m wearing my Chaco sandals, and I’m looking at my hiking boots, seriously considering leaving them in the car and just doing the trip in my hiking sandals. For the record, the fact that I just typed “in my hiking sandals” makes me want to throw up a little bit; I hate myself for owning a pair of Chacos. I digress; more on the sandals later.

I decided to leave my Chacos in the car I’ve rented. I lace up my hiking boots, wrestle into the 37lb pack that holds my livelihood, and I start up the trail. It’s 4:00pm by the time I start my hike. The sun sets at 7:08 in Tucson on day 1 of my hike. That means, that if I want to get to my first campsite by darkness (let’s call that, 8:30pm), then I’ll need to be traveling between 3-4 mph for the next 10.3 miles. No problem, I tell myself.

I don't know it at the time, but I'm so screwed. The terrain is rocky, and it seems to be nothing but uphill. The trail isn’t all that difficult to follow, but it’s lined with prickly things on both sides; even the grass here seems to cut my hands open. Still, my spirits are high as I’m climbing into the desert hills: this is hard, I tell myself, but I’m cruising; we’re good (I even think in semi-colons). Except, “we” weren’t cruising. After an hour, covering one of the flatter sections of the trail, I’ve barely traveled 2.5 miles. An hour later, as the grade of the trail increases, my pace hasn’t.

After three hours of hiking, at 7:00pm, I stumble into Denny Spring Campground, just as I finish all the water in my pack. I’ve only traveled 5.9 miles, instead of the 10.3 I intended; but I can’t make it any farther tonight without refilling my camelback with water. There’s water at Denny Spring, I remember reading in the Backpacker magazine article. I drop my pack at one of the empty campsites and head toward the spring located just beyond where I’ve stumbled in to camp. When I arrive at the spring, I find yet another dried creek bed; I passed several dry creeks on my hikes in to Denny Spring, but this one is supposed to have water year-round.

What the fuck. I look around for a few minutes, and I’m eventually able to find a couple small puddles that are just deep enough for me to submerge my filter. There are all sorts of bugs swimming on the surface of the water that I’m collecting to drink; they’re all trying to avoid being sucked into my canteen. This is the dirtiest-looking, most stagnant, questionable water source that I’ve ever relied on for survival. But, I’m dehydrated, and I need water for cooking dinner. Instead of climbing 4.4 more miles and 1,500 feet farther into the darkness to search for the Grass Shack Campground, I decide to stay the night at the Denny Spring Campground. Tomorrow was going to be a shorter day, anyway, I tell myself. Now, I’ll have two moderate days in-a-row, and I’ll be able to start way earlier tomorrow than I did today. It’ll be way easier tomorrow. I crawl into my tent and am asleep within minutes, not at all aware of how badly I was lying to myself.


Day 2: Denny Spring Campground to Manning Camp via the Cow’s Head Saddle Trail (6.3 miles)

After filtering two liters of Denny Creek Puddle Sludge into my Camelbak, I start climbing up the trail toward Cow’s Head Saddle. Cow’s Head Saddle is a junction in the trail where the Denny Spring Trail intersects with the ridgeline of Mica Mountain; it’s 2.4 miles and about 1,500 feet of elevation gain from the Denny Spring Campground. I’ve been hiking for about an hour when I run into the first human being I’ve seen all day: he’s a trail runner; he seems delirious; he tells me that he thinks I’m still about a mile from the Cow’s Head Saddle. A mile!? I’ve been hiking for an hour! Am I seriously only going 1.5mph!? Sure enough, about 40 minutes later, I arrive at the Cow’s Head Saddle, having traveled about 2.4 miles in just under an hour and forty minutes. Even on paper, that was the easiest part of my hike for the day. Why is this so brutal? I’m asking myself as I take a break at the Saddle to grab a snack and take off my pack for a few minutes.

Over the next 4.9 miles, as I make my way up to Manning Camp, I distinctly remember five separate occasions of thinking to myself, There’s no way I have to climb any further; I have to be at the top, now. All five times, I was wrong.

I ran out of water about a mile from Manning Camp. My premonition about this trip suddenly becomes fulfilled: I’m wandering through the desert, alone, looking for water. The only way to water is to keep climbing, I tell myself. And I keep going.

I wrote in my journal that night that the hike from Denny Spring Campground to Manning Camp along the Cow’s Head Saddle is one of the most physically brutal things I’ve ever done to myself. Outside of a wicked case of food poisoning and altitude sickness in Cusco last summer, I can’t recall a point in my life where I’ve been so physically wreaked by a hike. As humbling as it is, it’s refreshing, too – in a sick sort of way.

Upon entering Manning Camp, I spot a woman in her thirties sitting at a picnic table outside the ranger station, there. Many ranger stations around the country aren’t permanently staffed, but I’m relieved to find that the woman sitting at the picnic table is indeed a park ranger. Alas, sanctuary.

The water source at Manning Camp is fed by two strong springs that actually don’t ever run dry. They create a cascading waterfall whose pools are deep enough to jump into from the cliffs above the water’s surface. There are fire pits at each of the camp sites. And the park ranger, Shannon, has been assigned to the Saguaro for six years, now – so I’ve got access to an incredible knowledge source.

As a result of neither of us having seen another human being for more than 24 hours, we fall into a conversation neither of us is anxious to end. I pry her for all sorts of information on the area: from where the best places to find water are, to what her 15+ years of experience in the National Parks Service has been like, to where the best spot to catch a sunrise or sunset would be. She’s wildly helpful, and she goes out of her way to make sure that I have everything I need. Park rangers – at least, ones like Shannon – are saints.

I spend the afternoon relaxing and exploring the region around Manning Camp. I find the spot where I’ll watch the sun rise the next morning. I build a bonfire at my camp site and make myself dinner. I doze off on a bench, next to the fire I’ve built, gazing up through the canopy of trees into the brilliantly star-lit sky. I could take photos of this, I tell myself, but I don’t want to. Some moments are just for me, and this is one of them, I tell myself. At the same time, I’m scared shitless of seeing a mountain lion, which is also a deterrent to any of my night-time photography ambitions.


Day 3: Manning Camp to Denny Spring Trailhead (12.2 miles)

I’ve been waking around 5:00am each morning to the sound of birds chirping, and this morning is no different. I crawl out of my sleeping bag, slip on my hiking boots, and take my camera down to a spot where I can watch the sun rise. It’s beautiful. The sky over Saguaro is a shade of blue that doesn’t look real to me, even as I sit there and watch it unfold. As hellacious as the climb up to Manning Camp was, the region around the campground is an oasis: the water is plentiful, there are several peaks nearby to summit, and the views in every direction are vast and sweeping. I take few minutes to myself, take it all in, and then I head back to my campsite to make breakfast. Before long, I’ve packed up camp and am headed out again.

Less than a mile into my descent from Manning Camp, I hit the trailhead for Spud Rock – the second-highest point in the Rincon Mountain District, only 50 feet shorter than the highest point, Mica Mountain. Though I’ve got a long day of hiking in front of me, I decide that I can’t pass on summiting Spud Rock; I’m already kicking myself for not jumping into the pools at Manning Camp. I climb the 700 feet up to the summit of Spud Rock in less than thirty minutes, take in the views from up top, and resume my descent down to Cow’s Head Saddle. I reach the saddle in a couple hours, and am down to my car a couple hours after that – an hour before sunset.


A Few Takeaways From This Trip

1.     No matter how fast of a hiker you are, you’re slower in the desert; you’re slower with a multi-day pack on; you’re slower when you’re climbing up a rocky mountain.

2.     If you can avoid it, avoid leaving both the soft and hard cases for your sunglasses in the car you parked at the trailhead.

3.     Despite how brutally I described the trip that I went on, I’d recommend it to anyone interested in exploring the Saguaro region (though, I’m not in a rush to come back, myself). The hike is truly one of the more beautiful that I’ve ever done, and the physical and mental challenges of the climb are only surpassed by the feeling of accomplishment that you’ll feel at the end of your trip.

4.     The dayhikers I ran into at the end of my trip were all really, really friendly. I don’t know whether that’s just an Arizona thing, or whether it was because I was the only person they saw carrying a multi-day pack. But, it was as if I was immediately embraced into the community of outdoorsman in the area by each of the people I met on the trail. Interestingly enough, each person I spoke to on my way out seemed to either have not known campgrounds existed up where Manning Camp was, or they seemed to think I was crazy for having attempted to go up there. In hindsight, I don’t blame them.

5.     Had I taken my Chacos on this trip, instead of my hiking boots, my feet would have gotten destroyed. The brush all around the trail was prickly; everything was sharp; I’m convinced the plants were competing to see which species could cause me the most physical harm.