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Box Camp Trail to Sabino Canyon

Santa Catalina Mountains

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Total Length13.4 miles
Highest Elevation:8000 feet
Lowest Elevation:2600 feet
Elevation Change:5400 feet
Difficulty Rating:A
Best Seasons:Spring Fall
Hiking Time:5.5 hours
Dogs:Dogs not allowed

This trail is open again as of 30 July 2004. The description and pictures are from before the Aspen Fire. I will not get a chance to visit and prepare a revised description for many months, so please email me a report and/or pictures if you do this hike.

This is a wonderful hike that is all downhill. You start out in shady ponderosa forest, and end up with the saguaros down in Sabino Canyon. On the way you pass through every life zone of southern Arizona. There are also lots of spectacular views, and the trail is in good shape. Although the hike is technically an "A" hike, it is all downhill so the hike is really not that hard if you have been doing B hikes.

Directions to Trailhead

•From the intersection of Tanque Verde and Kolb/Grant, head east on Tanque Verde until you get to the Catalina Highway, about 5 or 6 miles.

•Turn left on Catalina Highway, and drive towards the mountains. After a few miles the road begins to climb into the Catalinas. You have a long way to go to the Box Camp Trail, so don't worry about looking for it until you have passed the Windy Point lookout, the San Pedro Vista, and the Palisade Ranger Station.

•After you pass the Palisade Ranger Station go about another mile and a half. Look for a big brown sign which says "Box Camp Trailhead" and turn left into to parking lot.

Trail Description

Box Camp Trail, FS #22
(Catalina Highway to Box Spring Trail)

Box Camp Trailhead.

Typical section of the trail.

Large ponderosas in the park area.

View of Cathedral Rock from the trail.

Length: 1.8 milesHiking Time: 0.66 hours
Highest point: 8000 feetLowest point: 7600 feet
Trail goes downhill

This section of the Box Camp Trail is heavily forested, so it is shady and cool even in the hottest months.

From the parking lot, the trail takes off up a hill for a few hundred yards through large ponderosas. The trail then levels off and follows along near the top of the ridgeline. After about 10 minutes you come to a small sign marking the edge of the wilderness area. Just beyond this sign there is a short side trail over to a overlook rock where there are excellent views of the Wilderness of Rocks to the north.

The trail continues gently descending along the ridgeline. Sometimes it is on the top of the ridge; sometimes it is down a hundred feet on one side or the other of the ridgeline.

About 25 minutes in the trail drops down into a shallow drainage and starts following it. The drainage widens and levels out as you follow it, until you are in a park area with widely spaced ponderosas, grass, and ferns. After a few hundred yards the drainage abruptly narrows down again and the trail drops steeply for a short while and then levels out and contours to the left along the slope to the signed intersection with the Box Spring Trail, which takes off to the right.

Continue straight on the Box Camp Trail

Box Camp Trail, FS #22
(Box Spring Trail to Apache Spring)

View of Thimble Peak and Tucson from the trail. Mt. Wrightson is on the horizon.

Mt. Lemmon and the Wilderness of Rocks.

The trail near Apache Spring.

Length: 3.0 milesHiking Time: 1.2 hours
Highest point: 7600 feetLowest point: 5600 feet
Trail goes downhill

Most of this part of the Box Camp Trail is steep and rocky, and passes through forest of small oaks and junipers.

After the signed intersection with the Box Spring Trail the trail curves along the slope to the left and then begins descending down the ridgeline. Around here you suddenly leave the ponderosa forest behind and start hiking through forest of mixed small oaks, junipers, and pines.

As the trail descends the ridgeline through thin forest you have views of Cathedral Rock to the northwest, Tucson down to the west, and Thimble Peak to the south. Manzanita starts showing up around here, as well as alligator junipers and some yucca. About 25 minutes after the trail junction you get to an open spot on the top of the ridge where there are unobstructed views in all directions. To the north you can see the large rock formations that tower over the Wilderness of Rocks. To the northeast is Cathedral Rock. Down below is Sabino Basin, where you will be soon.

After the open spot the trail gets very steep and rocky as it rapidly descends down the ridgeline. As of 1997 the trail had been recently trimmed back, so although it is steep and rocky you at least do not have to fight the underbrush.

As you near Apache Spring you see a rock wall ahead, made up of numerous large boulders. The trail then crosses a small dry streambed, which is Apache Spring. There was no water in this spring in late May, so don't count on getting water here.

Box Camp Trail, FS #22
(Apache Spring to Sabino Basin)

Agave in bloom. There were dozens around in June of 97.

Close-up of Saguaro flowers.

Saguaro in bloom, with Cathedral Rock in the background.

View of the canyon to the south of the ridge.

Length: 2.3 milesHiking Time: 1.25 hours
Highest point: 5600 feetLowest point: 3700 feet
Trail goes downhill

This part of the Box Camp Trail is steep and rocky, and traverses from saguaros up to juniper/oak forest.

After you pass Apache Spring the trail winds through a scenic area of small to medium rock formations as it descends the ridgeline. The trail then drops down the north slope of the ridge part way down into Box Camp Canyon, and then gently contours along the canyon wall. The canyon is narrow and steep here, and you can see down to the bottom far below.

After contouring along the wall of Box Camp Canyon for a while, the trail curves left onto the ridge top again in an area of rock formations. Here the vegetation is shifting towards grasslands, with grass, amole (shindaggers), and occasional small oaks and junipers. As you descend farther down the ridge barrel cactus, cholla, and ocotillo start to show up.

About 50 minutes after Apache Spring the trail curves to the left off the ridgeline, and you enter an area of some low hills. The trail crosses through this pretty area, descending gently, and then turns to the right and begins the final descent down to Sabino Basin, which is the wooded area directly below. At this point saguaros appear.

The trail drops to the oak forest at the bottom of Sabino Basin. This is a great place to stop and rest in the shade. The trail passes through the forest, and crosses a dry streambed with lots of large boulders. Shortly after crossing the streambed you reach the signed intersection with the East Fork Trail #24A. Turning left, or east, here takes you toward the Palisade Trail and Bear Canyon. Turning right takes you toward Sabino Canyon and the West Fork Trail.

Turn right on the East Fork Trail and go a few hundred yards to the signed intersection of the East Fork Trail #24A, the West Fork Trail #24, and the Sabino Canyon Trail #23. The trail to the left, or southwest, is the Sabino Canyon Trail and will take you down to the end of the road in Sabino Canyon. The trail to the right, or northwest is the West Fork Trail which heads up towards Hutch's Pool and points beyond.

Turn left on the Sabino Canyon Trail.

Sabino Canyon Trail, FS #23
(Sabino Basin to Phoneline Trail)

A view up the west fork of Sabino Creek, from near Sabino Basin.

A nice resting spot in Sabino Basin.

Looking down Sabino Canyon from near Sabino Basin.

The view up Sabino Canyon towards Sabino Basin from the midpoint of the trail.

Blackett's Ridge, as seen from near where the Sabino Canyon Trail and Phoneline Trail meet.

Length: 2.0 milesHiking Time: 0.75 hours
Highest point: 3700 feetLowest point: 3550 feet
Trail goes downhill

This easy and almost level trail segment runs up high along the south wall of Sabino Canyon, connecting the Phoneline Trail to the East Fork and West Fork trails.

From the junction with the East Fork and West Fork Trails the trail climbs up the slope, while heading downcanyon, for about 5 or 10 minutes. It then levels out and begins a long gently descending contour about halfway up the southern wall of Sabino Canyon.

At this point Sabino Canyon is steep and deep, and you can see the wooded stream down below you. The canyon then gets less steep and you can no longer see down to the stream. The view downcanyon is spectacular, with sheer rock faces on the opposite side, and a large rock promontory next to a narrow gap about a mile ahead.

About 45 minutes after leaving the trail junction the trail passes through a small saddle to the left of the large rock promontory which sits in the middle of the canyon. I believe this promontory is where there had been plans to build a dam many years ago.

After you pass through the saddle the canyon is very narrow and deep, and there are amazing views down to the bottom from the trail. The trail then curves to the left and drops down to the signed junction with the Phoneline Trail #27. Turn left to go on the Phoneline trail back to the Sabino Canyon Visitor's Center. Turn right to continue on the Sabino Canyon Trail down to the end of the paved road in Sabino Canyon.

Sabino Canyon Trail, FS #23
(Phoneline Trail to end of road)

Length: 0.5 milesHiking Time: 0.3 hours
Highest point: 3550 feetLowest point: 3300 feet
Trail goes downhill

This short trail segment goes from the end of the road in Sabino Canyon up to the junction with the Phoneline Trail.

This half mile segment is one of the most frustrating in the Tucson area, since is takes a half mile of almost level switchbacks to cover about 300 feet in elevation change and about 200 yards in horizontal distance. You will feel like you are walking on a treadmill and never getting anywhere.

If you see the tram pull up while you are descending this part don't even bother to rush to get to it unless you have already gone about 10 minutes down. The tram will come and go well before you get down.

Sabino Canyon Road
(End of the road to Phoneline link trail)

Thimble Peak, seen from the road.

Length: 2.6 milesHiking Time: 0.9 hours
Highest point: 3300 feetLowest point: 2800 feet
Trail goes downhill

This is the upper part of the road through Sabino Canyon.

From the tram stop just follow the road downhill. After passing over a number of bridges you will come to a sign for the Phoneline Link Trail on the left just after you pass a restroom and about 50 yards before the road crosses a small bridge and curves to the left.

Sabino Canyon Road
(Phoneline link trail to Sabino Canyon Visitor's Center)

Sabino Canyon from the road near the visitor's center. Blackett's Ridge is on the right.

Length: 1.2 milesHiking Time: 0.3 hours
Highest point: 2800 feetLowest point: 2600 feet
Trail goes downhill

This all pavement route is the first section of the road up Sabino Canyon

There is a restroom on the left, and about 15 yards beyond the restroom there is a sign on the left for the Phoneline Link Trail, #27A. This sign says that it is 0.7 miles to the Phoneline Trail, #27.

A short distance beyond the Phoneline Link Trail the road crosses a bridge, and there is a sign on the near side of the bridge on the right for the Rattlesnake Trail, #50. The road curves left at this point and begins gently climbing as it passes the 1 mile marker on the left. The road then curves to the right and climbs up a short but relatively steep stretch to a small saddle. After you pass through the saddle the road descends gently straight down to the Sabino Canyon Visitors Center, passing the sign for the Esperero Trail on the right about 50 yards before the drive leading off to the Cactus Picnic Area.



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