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Mt. Wrightson from Madera Canyon
Santa Rita Mountains

Total Length: 10.8 miles
Highest Elevation: 9453 feet
Lowest Elevation: 5420 feet
Elevation Change: 4033 feet
Difficulty Rating: A
Best Seasons: Spring Summer Fall
Hiking Time: 6 hours
Dogs: Dogs allowed

This is a popular hike to one of the most scenic mountain peaks around Tucson. The trail is in good condition the whole way up, the views are great, and you will always meet interesting people on the trail and at the summit. Everyone should do this hike at least once.

The hike is not very long in terms of horizontal distance, but there is quite a bit of elevation gain. The effort is worth it, however, once you get to the top and have a 360 degree view of all of southern Arizona, and into Mexico.

In the monsoon season be sure to start out early since you don't want to be on the summit after noon if there is any chance of thunderstorms. The summit is very exposed and lightning is a real risk up there.

There is snow on the upper parts of the trail quite early in the fall and late in the spring. If you go in early spring or late fall be prepared to tromp through lots of snow.

There is an alternate route to the top from Madera Canyon using the Super Trail, but it is quite a bit longer than the Old Baldy Trail route I describe. Don't take the Super Trail thinking it will be easier because it is less steep. The extra horizontal miles will wipe out any advantage you get from the gradual grade, and you can always cope with steepness by just going slow and steady.

This is about the best "A" hike to do by yourself in the Tucson area since the high traffic guarantees that you will be found promptly if you get hurt on the trail.

Directions to Trailhead

Getting to the trailhead takes about an hour and fifteen minutes and is all on paved roads.

From the intersection of Tanque Verde and Grant/Kolb head southeast on Kolb and go all the way down to I-10.

Get on I-10 heading west and go all the way to the interchange with I-19.

Get on I-19 heading south towards Nogales.

Go down I-19 about 20 minutes and take the Continental Road exit, exit 63. There is a big brown sign for this exit that says "Madera Canyon Recreation Area."

At the bottom of the exit ramp turn left and go under the highway. Go straight at the first traffic light. Go about half a mile or so, and then turn right on White Horse Canyon Road as indicated by the brown sign for Madera Canyon.

Go straight down this road about 11 miles, which will bring you to the entrance of the Madera Canyon Recreation Area. They no longer ask people entering the canyon for a voluntary $2 donation. Instead, you are required to pay a $5 parking fee at one of the various self-service boxes located at the parking lots.

Once you are in the recreation area drive straight up the road for a number of miles, passing some cabins and picnic areas. Near the end of the road there is a small brown sign on the right hand sign that says "trails" and points to a road coming in from the left. Turn left here, and a short distance in there are two parking lots off to the right.

Trail Description

Vault Mine Trail
(Parking Lot to Old Baldy Trail)

Length: 0.3 miles
Hiking Time: 0.1 hours
Highest point: 5600 feet
Lowest point: 5420 feet
Trail goes uphill

This trail starts at the far (southern) end of the last, or upper, of the two parking lots, and is a dirt road. There is a sign here that says Old Baldy Trail .3 miles ahead, Vault Trail .6 miles ahead. Another sign says that dogs must be kept on a leash.

Go up the gently climbing road about 7 minutes to the signed intersection with the Old Baldy Trail. One sign here says that if you continue straight it is 2.3 miles to Agua Caliente Saddle and 3.7 miles to Josephine Saddle. Another sign, pictured at right, says that the Old Baldy Trail takes off to the left, and that it is 2.2 miles to Josephine Saddle, 4 miles to Baldy Saddle, and 5 miles to Mt. Wrightson.

Turn left here on the Old Baldy Trail.

Old Baldy Trail
(Vault Mine Trail to Josephine Saddle)

Length: 2.2 miles
Hiking Time: 1.4 hours
Highest point: 7250 feet
Lowest point: 5600 feet
Trail goes uphill

This section of the Old Baldy Trail winds its way up to Josephine Saddle through a forest of small oak trees. The trail is never very steep, but it does climb steadily uphill the whole way. The trail is a bit rocky, but all things considered it is in very good condition.

In some places there are a lot of alternate routes and shortcuts that can be confusing. However, when I last hiked this trail in June of 2003 all the false trails were blocked off with logs and rocks and the correct way was always obvious.

If you start feeling really hot and sweaty on this part don't get discouraged. This is the hottest part of the trail because it is at relatively low elevation and there are lots of unshaded parts. It only gets better!

Starting perhaps half way up this segment there are great views of Mt. Wrightson rising up above you. From here climbing Mt. Wrightson looks like a pretty impressive proposition.

At the end of this segment you come to Josephine Saddle, a major crossroads of the Santa Ritas. This is a nice shady place to sit down and take a break under the oak trees.

It is possible to camp here, but since there is so much traffic through this spot you would never get any peace and quiet.

There is a memorial here for the three boy scouts died near here on November 15, 1958: David Greenberg 12, Mike Early 16, and Michael J. LaNoue 13. Apparently they got lost and then were hit by a snowstorm that dumped 3 feet of snow on the Santa Ritas.

The Agua Caliente Trail is the first trail to the right as you come into Josephine Saddle on the Old Baldy Trail. It heads off uphill along the ridgetop to the east, and it is marked by a sign which says that Agua Caliente Saddle is 3 miles ahead. This same sign says that Josephine Canyon Road is 2.8 miles down a trail which takes off to the left of the sign. This trail is the Josephine Canyon Trail, and it goes off downhill and to the south from Josephine Saddle.

Just past the memorial the Super Trail takes off to the left (north) heading back down to Madera Canyon. There is a sign at the beginning of the trail which indentifies it as the Super Trail, and says that Sprung Spring is 0.2 miles ahead and Madera Canyon is 4 miles ahead.

The Old Baldy Trail heads off uphill to the northeast from Josephine Saddle. Go past the memorial and follow the sign pointing to Mt. Wrightson to take this trail. About 50 yards up the Old Baldy Trail the Temporal Canyon Trail takes off to the right at a sign.

Head north past the memorial. Follow the signs pointing to Mt. Wrightson.

Old Baldy Trail
(Josephine Saddle to Baldy Saddle)

Length: 2.0 miles
Hiking Time: 1.4 hours
Highest point: 8800 feet
Lowest point: 7250 feet
Trail goes uphill

About 50 yards after you leave Josephine Saddle there is a sign for the Temporal Gulch Trail which takes off downhill to the right. Keep going straight here.

The trail switchbacks up a ways, and about 10 minutes out of Josephine Saddle you reach the signed junction with the upper half of the Super Trail, which takes off downhill and to the right. This part of the Super Trail is a alternate route to Baldy Saddle, but it is 3.3 miles long instead of 1.8 miles on the Old Baldy Trail. Continue straight on the Old Baldy Trail.

About 15 minutes after leaving the Super Trail junction, the Old Baldy Trail comes to the crest of a small ridge where there is a good resting/camping spot. There are some large pine trees here, the first large pines of the hike. The trail turns right here and heads up the ridge towards the main slope through pine forest.

Soon after this the trail breaks out of the trees and starts switchbacking and contouring its way across and up the steep west slope of Mt. Wrightson. This is where the hike starts to get very scenic, since you get out of the trees and start getting great views. You can see the Mt. Hopkins observatory to the south, Baboquivari across the valley to the west, not to mention the spectacular rock cliffs above you and ahead of you along the ridgeline of the Santa Ritas.

About 55 minutes after the Super Trail junction you come to Bellows Spring, which is a small concrete tub filled by a pipe from the spring. This spring was running in late June of 2003, one of the driest periods we have had recently, so I suspect that it is a pretty reliable source of water.

Shortly after Bellows Spring is where the trail begins the final long series of steep switchbacks up to Baldy Saddle. There are lots of rock formations here, and the undergrowth seems very lush and well supplied with water, with long green grass growing everywhere. The trail passes one large boulderfield also.

As the trail gets closer to Baldy Saddle it seems to get steeper and steeper, with shorter and shorter switchbacks, but finally you get up to the saddle, where the trail you are on makes a T intersection with another trail. There is a sign here for Baldy Saddle which points the way to Mt. Wrightson, Florida Saddle, and other landmarks.

The trail to the right is the Old Baldy Trail up to the summit of Mt. Wrightson. About 50 yards down this trail the Super Trail comes in on the left. This is the upper end of the Super Trail segment you bypassed earlier.

The trail to your left (north) as you reach Baldy Saddle heads towards Florida Canyon and other destinations to the north.

Baldy Saddle has spectacular views to the east and west, so it is a good place to stop and take a breather before continuing up to the summit.

Turn right (south) and follow the signs pointing to Mt. Wrightson.

Old Baldy Trail, FS #372
(Baldy Saddle to Mt. Wrightson)

Length: 0.9 miles
Hiking Time: 0.5 hours
Highest point: 9453 feet
Lowest point: 8840 feet
Trail goes uphill

From Baldy Saddle head south, and uphill. At first the trail is not very steep, and switchbacks up the north slope of Mt. Wrightson through ponderosa pines. After about 10-15 minutes, however, you come to a place where the trail has been blasted out of solid rock, and there are very few trees around. After the blasted section, the trail moves around to the east slope of the mountain, and passes through some more trees.

Before you know it, you are on the summit of Mt. Wrightson, the single best peak in the Tucson area. There are unobstructed views in all directions, and on a clear day you can see at least 100 miles. This is a good spot to test your knowledge of the southern Arizona mountain ranges, since you can see almost all of them from here.

There is a register if you want to sign in, interpretive signs, and lots of good places to sit. The only drawback is the incredible number of ladybugs that sometimes inhabit this spot, so eat your lunch at Baldy Saddle if you don't like sharing your lunch.

Go back the way you came to return to the parking lot.

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