Wilderness of Rock Trail on Tucson’s Mt. Lemmon
When we were leaving Tucson in December, there was just one more thing I wanted to do: hike the Wilderness of Rock trail in the Coronado National Forest. The person who named this trail knew what they were doing — it was irresistible. But on our last day in Tucson it was raining in the lowlands and snowing in the uplands — not the kind of day for a long hike. We went to Biosphere 2 instead.
On our return east, we decided to swing through Tucson again just to do this hike. There are a few options for approaching the Wilderness of Rock trail, and they’re all somewhat difficult. You can start in Catalina State Park and hike about 7 miles (with a 3,200 foot elevation gain) on the Romero Pass trail. We hiked part of that trail and it was one of the more difficult (and gorgeous) hikes we’ve done. For a shortcut, you can drive 45 minutes from Catalina, up the Catalina Highway to Mt. Lemmon, and start from one of the trailheads in the Summerhaven area. We decided to take the shortcut and to hike in on the Mint Springs trail (about 1.7 miles), because it was not one of the suggested routes and I thought it would be more interesting.
I chose wrong! The Mint Springs trail passes through an area that was totally destroyed by a forest fire. It climbs up and around a peak. The north facing slopes were covered in snow and ice, and it took all my courage to scramble across them. On the south facing side of the peak, the snow was long gone, replaced by that pesky early stage plant in forest regeneration, the pricker bush. The thorns had an amazing ability to poke right through our pants and tear at our shirts.
As we were climbing, we realized that we were feeling incredibly sluggish. I felt like I was working twice as hard as normal to move my legs. I commented on the tiny steps Paul was taking and he admitted he was unusually tired too. Then he realized that it’s the altitude, dummy. We had been hiking (and living) close to (or below) sea level for the past few months, and now we were attempting a strenuous hike at over 8,000 feet like this sudden ascent into the sky would have no impact on us.
Feeling better after this realization, we slogged on, over and around fallen trees, until we got to the Wilderness of Rock trail, which starts on the boundary of the forest fire area. Right away, the feeling changed. The ground was carpeted in pine needles that smelled incredible when crushed. Giant granite boulders and formations protruded from the ground and from the tops of the boulders, you could catch amazing views of the rocky south face of Mt. Lemmon and the jagged backs of the peaks more easily accessed from Catalina State Park. It was a bit hazy, but you could also make out the mountain ranges across the valley occupied by Tucson and its burbs.
The trail is hard to follow in the Wilderness of Rock area, and it’s not just because it’s a little trampled. Trees damaged by fire are strewn across the trail, and it seems like funds are lacking to keep the trails maintained. It’s a never ending battle, because each time the wind blows, trees will come down. And little things like trail markers are helpful, if there’s something around to which to attach them.
We decided that we weren’t going to hike back out on the Mint Springs trail, so held a reserve of energy for what would be a few mile hike back to the car via one of the suggested routes, the Marshall Gulch trail. We only made it about a mile into the Wilderness of Rock, before turning back (reluctantly). And thus we found the best way into the Wilderness of Rock. If you actually park at the Marshall Gulch trailhead, it’s just about 1.5 miles in to the WOR trail, but we also had to hike an extra mile on the road back to the trailhead where we parked.
The Marshall Gulch trail runs along a little stream through a gulch between the peaks. It is an easy, pleasant hike with a thousand feet of elevation gain spread over 1.2 miles. Snow still carpeted the bottom and north facing side of the gulch, but snow is no problem when crossed on flat ground! This area had also been impacted by the forest fire, but only the north side of the trail had been burnt, allowing the gulch to retain a deep shadow from the old pines on the south side. It was refreshing and peaceful and is the best way to access the WOR for a day hike. Though the very best way to experience this area would be to spend a night camping in the wilderness area. Just you and the rocks, in sunset and sunrise.