Sabrina: When winter grips the high snowy north, hikers seeking warmer trails look to the desert climate of southern Arizona. My recommended hike features stunning views, Sonoran Desert flora and a lush riparian corridor along the Gila River Canyons Passage of the Arizona Trail.
The passage begins at Kelvin Bridge over the Gila River before rising to high ridges with views of The Spine, Walnut Canyon Narrows, Copper Butte, and The Rincon, and then dipping into the canyon where the turbid waters of the Gila provide nourishment to the desert landscape.
One marvels at the hardiness of the early settlers who staked out a life in this desert, depending on rare water sources running out from the distant mountains.
Bark scorpions frequent the tall grasses of the lower, wetter areas. Watch for them when taking a snack.
Gila River Canyons (Passage No. 16, ESE of Phoenix)
Access: Kelvin Bridge Trailhead. From Superior, go south on AZ-177 for 15.2 miles. Turn south on Florence-Kelvin Hwy for 1.2 miles. At Kelvin Bridge, turn onto Centurion Rd to trailhead.
Notes: This is a lengthy passage (25.2 miles), without easy access on the northern end. Out-and-back dayhikes work well. Backpackers can continue through Alamo Canyon (Passage 17) to Pickpost Trailhead (36.7 miles total).
Wendy: I, too, have a special passion for the Sonoran Desert. The unique plants and animals that survive in this extreme environment deserve respect for their resilience and inspire awe for their beauty.
Hiking on Passage No. 8 in the Rincon Valley highlights the incredible biodiversity and geological beauty of this region, and makes for a fantastic day on the trail.
From the trailhead, the trail north drops into Cienega Creek, a perennial water source bordered by towering cottonwoods. Then the trail climbs the rolling hills of the Rincon Valley, with jaw-dropping views of the southwestern flanks of the Rincon Mountains.
It’s a land of saguaros, ocotillos and barrel cacti. Hike into Colossal Cave park at mile 4.7 and visit the historic La Posta Quemada ranch. At mile 7.2 lies La Sevilla campground;, stay overnight and explore the cave the following day.
Rincon Valley (Passage No. 8, SE of Tucson)
Access: Gabe Zimmerman Trailhead. From Tucson, take I-10 east to Exit 279. Go left 0.2 miles to Frontage Road; go south (right) on Frontage Road for 5.2 miles to trailhead.
Notes: Hiking with a car shuttle or doing an out-and-back are equally satisfying here. There are numerous access points and loop hikes from Colossal Cave and Saguaro National parks. The passage is 13.9 miles to the boundary of Saguaro National Park — but 3 miles more to Hope Camp, the nearest trailhead.
Matthew: Or consider heading to Oracle. This small community one hour north of Tucson has four nearby Arizona Trail trailheads. Passage No. 13's singletrack wends through sublime oak groves and past granite boulders, with wide vistas of the San Pedro River Valley, Galiuro Wilderness and Santa Catalina Mountains. It's a premier wintertime hiking destination.
The southern Trailhead sits adjacent to American Flag Ranch, oldest standing territorial post office in Arizona. The adobe building doubles as Visitor Center; corrals and other historic features lie nearby.
On the Trail, you can head south toward High Jinks Ranch or north toward Oracle State Park. The former is mostly uphill; the latter crosses rolling terrain. High Jinks Ranch — site of an historic gold mine owned by Buffalo Bill Cody — makes an excellent day hike destination.
Or from Oracle State Park, the Trail northward is a recently-built singletrack through oak grassland biome, where the views get better and better, encompassing the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix down to the snow-capped Pinal Mountains near Globe.
Happy Trails 'til 2018!
Oracle (Passages No. 12 & 13, N of Tucson)
Access: American Flag Ranch Trailhead (south end of Passage). From east side of Oracle, take Mt Lemmon Rd 3.1 miles to American Flag Ranch Rd. Turn right a short distance to trailhead.
Notes: Dayhikes and car shuttles both work here. Other access points lie within Oracle State Park (connector trails from Kannally Ranchhouse and Visitor Center), American Ave (AZ-77) and Tiger Mine Trailhead at Passage No. 13's northern end.