Crested saguaro

Marylee Adamson of the green Valley Hiking Club admires a crested saguaro on the way up to Wasson Peak. Over 25 crested saguaros have been found in Saguaro National Park.

How to get there

Wasson Peak is in Saguaro National Park (West) and the Sweetwater Trail is one of several that lead toward the peak. Access for the Sweetwater Trail from the Camino Del Cerro trail head is 38 miles from Green Valley, all on paved road. Take I-19 north toward Tucson to I-10, then west toward Phoenix. Leave I-10 at exit 252 (for El Camino Del Cerro/Ruthrauff Road) and go west for 5.8 miles to the Camino Del Cerro trailhead. Once on El Camino, signs will lead you to the trailhead at the road’s end.

Cost

The hike takes place in Saguaro National Park, and therefore a pass is required.  A pass good for a week costs $10 and admits a vehicle and its occupants. A $5 pass, also good for a week, admits an individual on foot or bicycle.  Yearly passes are available at a cost of $25.  Alternatively, for those who are eligible, an America the Beautiful Senior Pass will provide admission.  Passes may be obtained at a visitors center or online at http://www.nps.gov/sagu/planyourvisit/feesandreservations.htm.

Difficulty

The hike is rated demanding by the Green Valley Hiking Club. It is 4.8 miles one way, 9.6 return, with an accumulated elevation gain of 2100 feet. Expect to take five hours plus time for stops. The trail is rocky but generally sound underfoot. Clear signage at all intersections makes it easy to follow. While there are a few steep sections, most of the elevation is gained gradually.

A map of the area can be downloaded from the Saguaro National Park website at http://www.nps.gov/sagu. Follow the link to Maps of Saguaro National Park and click on the Tucson Mountain District (west) map. You will find this map more helpful because of its greater detail than the one obtained by clicking on “View Park Map.”

Features

The Sweetwater Trail leads west from the trailhead and up a slight grade for 0.2 miles, when it meets the Thunderbird Trail. Stay left, on the Sweetwater Trail. The trail will now meander for almost two miles, heading vaguely south and cross four distinct washes. The first two miles will have little elevation gain, but the rolling foothills, the forest of saguaros and the Tucson Mountains provide an attractive backdrop and pleasant hiking.

In about 1.6 miles from the trailhead, watch for a crested saguaro on your right. The Saguaro National Park website indicates that over 25 crested saguaros have been identified in the park, and this is a fine example indeed. Cresting occurs when the growing tip of the saguaro mutates into a fan shape. Why cresting occurs in plants such as the saguaro is still open to debate. Biologists have identified several possible causes, ranging from genetic mutation to freeze damage or a lightning strike.

After the fourth wash, the trail begins a gradual but steady uphill ascent, coming to a wide saddle 3.4 miles from the trailhead. As you crest the saddle, the view to the west opens out, providing broad vistas down into King Canyon and, beyond to the Avra Valley and countless distant mountain ranges. Winding its way up the canyon is the King Canyon Trail where it meets the Sweetwater.

Go right and head up the mountain in a north westerly direction. The grade now increases, with a series of switchbacks, a few steep sections, and a steady uphill grind. Along the way and close to the trail, you will pass two old mine sites encircled by barbed wire. Mining and prospecting was very active in the Tucson Mountains in the late 1800s and early 1900s with over 120 mines, prospects and quarries having been worked in the area. We can thank those early miners for many of the trails that snake their way through the Mountains. Indeed, an earlier map identifies the Sweetwater, King Canyon and Hugh Norris trails all as “Packer Trail.”

In 0.9 miles from the junction of the King Canyon and Sweetwater Trails you will come to the Hugh Norris Trail. Look right – your destination, the peak, is but 0.3 miles distant. Turn right onto the Hugh Norris as it roller-coasters gently to the top of Wasson Peak.

At the peak, enjoy views in every direction from your perch 4687 feet above sea level, with Tucson and the Santa Cruz River Valley at your feet to the east and the Tucson Mountains to the south and west.

To return to the trail head, retrace your steps.

Equipment

There is little shade along the way so in hot weather you will need extra water. You should also take normal hiking supplies and equipment – hiking boots, back pack or fanny pack, food and clothing (appropriate to the weather for rain or warmth), and sun protection (hat, sun screen). Within your group you should have a first aid kit, map and compass and whistle.

David Colpitts hikes with the Green Valley Hiking Club.

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