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Oracle Ridge-Canada del Oro Loop

Santa Catalina Mountains

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Total Length18.6 miles
Highest Elevation:9080 feet
Lowest Elevation:4900 feet
Elevation Change:4180 feet
Difficulty Rating:A
Best Seasons:Spring Summer Fall
Hiking Time:9 hours
Dogs:Dogs allowed

The description and pictures are from before the Aspen Fire. I will probably not get a chance to visit and prepare a revised description, so please email me a report and/or pictures if you do this hike.

Update 2008-01-22:Someone let me know that he was unable to follow this hike. Here is his account:

I am writing with some concerns I have about the Oracle Ridge-Canada del Oro Loop. I planned to take the full 18 mile loop and the first problem I stumbled upon was that the trail to Red Ridge trail from Dan Saddle had some alarming markings. Firstly the steel pipe you mentioned doesn't have an Arizona Trail marker on it any longer, however it is still there. Next after walking about 10 minutes downhill there is a rock with the words "KEEP OUT PRIVATE ROAD" spray painted on it. After much confusion I decided this was most likely a joke (in poor taste). Throughout the following miles of this loop I became lost due to the ambiguous destinations, and worn conditions of the trails, most notably in the Canada Del Oro region. Well into the last third of the hike, and with daylight dwindling, I abandoned all hopes of finding the trail again and bush-wacked my way up Mt. Lemon (a trek that I don't wish to ever do again!). I do not know what the conditions of the trail were when you last hiked this loop, but in light of my experience I would say this hike is, in my opinion, ill advised. As I found out about this trail loop from your website I think it would be a good idea to warn hikers of these setbacks until further notice.

This hike goes through the Canada del Oro, one of the most scenic and remote areas in the Catalinas. The trail starts out going down Oracle Ridge, then drops into the Canada del Oro, passing through an old mining area. You then hike up the Canada del Oro to its headwaters, and then up and over Mt. Lemmon to return to your starting point. The biggest trees in the Catalinas are found along this hike. At the start there are some huge alligator junipers on Oracle Ridge (5-6 feet in diameter at the base), and in the upper reaches of Canada del Oro there are some of the biggest firs and ponderosas in the Catalinas (4 to 6 feet in diameter). You probably won't see any people for most of this hike. The Canada del Oro valley is seldom traveled, and when you are back there you feel like you are miles from the nearest civilization, which you are.

Directions to Trailhead

•Getting to the trailhead takes about an hour, and can be done with a passenger car, although the last 200 yards is on a dirt road.

•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. Catalina Highway is the next light after the light for Bear Canyon Road.

•Turn left on Catalina Highway (the only way you can go on Catalina Highway), and drive towards the mountains. After a few miles the road begins to climb into the Catalinas. You will stay on the main Catalina Highway for most of its length.

•You will have to stop at the U.S. Forest Service toll booth located near Molino Basin and pay $5 per car. These fees for recreational use will hopefully allow the Forest Service to continue to subsidize grazing leases and timber sales at their present generous levels.

•About thirty miles from Tanque Verde, turn right on Control Road. It is the last right before Ski Run Rd. If you get to Summerhaven you have gone too far; turn around and go back less than a mile to Control Road.

•Just after you turn right on Control Road you will pass the Mt. Lemmon Fire Department on your right.

•Just after the fire department the road turns into a dirt road and a sign says that it is not maintained for passenger vehicles, and a 4x4 is recommended. Don't worry about this; you are only going to go a couple hundred yards, and this part of the road is fine.

•About 200 yards down the dirt road you will see a large gravel parking lot on the left. Park here. The trailhead is on the right hand edge of the parking lot and is marked by a sign.

Trail Description

Oracle Ridge Trail, FS #1
(Control Rd to Dan Saddle)

The shady first section of the trail.

Reef of Rock seen from the first part of the trail.

View from the open ridgetop.

Length: 2.5 milesHiking Time: 0.8 hours
Highest point: 7800 feetLowest point: 6900 feet
Trail goes downhill

From the parking lot the trail takes off uphill through ponderosa forest. After a short uphill stretch, the trail levels off and begins contouring along the west slope of the ridge, descending gently. This first part of the trail has big trees, and is shady and pleasant on a summer day.

After 15 minutes of going through the ponderosas, the ridgeline drops down to the level of the trail, and the trail runs along the top of the ridge. Here the vegetation changes to sparse forest made up of small oaks, pines, firs, and alligator junipers. There are great views of the Reef of Rock to the west, and in places you get views of the San Pedro Valley to the east. To the northwest and below you is the beautiful Canada del Oro valley. This valley is very wide and long and is forested for its entire length. You can also see Biosphere II once you are a ways down the trail.

The trail starts descending steeply here, and gets rocky. Keep your eye out for some really large alligator junipers in the next mile or so. Some of them are about 5 or 6 feet across at the base, and are the largest I have ever seen.

About 45 minutes in, the trail turns into a rocky jeep trail (presumably closed to traffic) and continues along the ridgetop. Another five minutes and you come to a road coming in from the left. Keep going straight, and uphill, for another 50 yards or so and you come to a signed junction where there is a cattleguard on the road to your right. This is Dan Saddle.

The sign at Dan Saddle says that Oracle is 12.5 miles to the north on the trail that continues straight along the ridgetop, and that Catalina Camp is 1.7 miles along the road/trail that takes off downhill to the northwest (left as you come into the junction).

Turn left and downhill and take the trail to Catalina Camp.

Catalina Camp Trail, FS #401
(Dan Saddle to Catalina Camp)

View up the valley as the trail descends.

One Park Place.

Length: 1.7 milesHiking Time: 1.0 hours
Highest point: 6900 feetLowest point: 5680 feet
Trail goes downhill

Note that although the Forest Service calls this the Catalina Camp Trail, the "Trail Guide to the Santa Catalina Mountains" calls it the East Fork Trail.

From the Dan Saddle junction, take the jeep trail which goes downhill to the northwest. You will know you are on the right trail because there is a steel pipe with an Arizona Trail sticker on it a short ways in.

The vegetation around here is sparse forest of small oaks.

This rocky jeep trail switchbacks steeply down the slope of the ridge into the Canada del Oro valley. The valley spreads out below you, wide and green, with the Reef of Rock and Mt. Lemmon rising over it. The size and beauty of this valley comes as an unexpected surprise for those who think they have seen all the Catalinas have to offer.

After about 50 minutes the jeep trail comes to a small shack on the left, with a sign over the door that says "One Park Place." This shack is stocked with food, sleeping bags, some books, and other assorted old gear, apparently for the use of hikers. There is handwritten history of the area tucked in a tube on the back side of the front door, and a roster where you can sign in.

From the cabin the trail takes off downhill, and passes another shack a little bit further on. This one is empty.

Past these shacks the trail is no longer a jeep trail, but just a footpath that is a little indistinct. It passes through thin forest of oaks and junipers, which gets thicker as the trail reaches the bottom of the valley.

About 15 minutes after the shacks the trail comes to a signed trail junction in a flat area with lots of fire rings and camp sites. This is Catalina Camp. The sign says that the Red Ridge Trail takes off to the southwest (left as you come in), and that Ski Run Rd. on Mt. Lemmon is 3.1 miles down this trail. The sign also says that the Canada del Oro Trail is 1.9 miles down another trail which goes straight ahead (northwest). Although the sign does not give the name of the trail that goes northwest to the Canada del Oro Trail, the "Trail Guide to the Santa Catalina Mountains" calls it the East Fork trail, while the Forest Service considers it the continuation of the Red Ridge Trail, FS #2 (This is deduced from published Forest Service trail descriptions; there is no sign on this trail segment identifying it as the Red Ridge Trail.)

Continue straight (northwest) on the trail to the Canada del Oro Trail.

Red Ridge Trail, FS #2
(Catalina Camp to Canada del Oro Trail)

The end of the Reef of Rock rising above the trail.

Looking up Canada del Oro valley towards Mt. Lemmon.

Length: 1.9 milesHiking Time: 1.0 hours
Highest point: 5680 feetLowest point: 4900 feet
Trail goes downhill

Note that although the Forest Service calls this the Red Ridge Trail, the "Trail Guide to the Santa Catalina Mountains" calls it the East Fork Trail.

After leaving Catalina Camp, the trail winds its way across the bottom of the Canada del Oro through thin juniper/oak forest with manzanitas, going up and down over small rises. The end of the Reef of Rock rises above you to the south, and you can see the ridges all around you.

This trail is fairly overgrown, and is indistinct in places, but you can find your way by keeping your eye open for cairns.

The trail ends at the trail junction the Canada del Oro Trail, FS #4. There is an old iron sign with cut-out letters for the Canada del Oro Trail, and its says that Charouleau Gap Rd. is 1.5 miles to the right (north), and Shovel Spring is 5.9 miles to the left (south).

Turn left (southwest) and upcanyon here on the Canada del Oro trail.

Canada del Oro Trail, FS #4
(Red Ridge Trail to Samaniego Trail)

Typical view of the Canada del Oro Trail.

One of the big trees along the trail, with some crazy hiker.

Length: 6.1 milesHiking Time: 2.8 hours
Highest point: 7680 feetLowest point: 4900 feet
Trail goes uphill

From the junction with the Red Ridge Trail, FS #2, the Canada del Oro Trail winds its way up the valley, crossing back and forth across Canada del Oro creek.

For the first couple of miles the trail goes through oak forest with some maples and sycamores along the creek bed. This area is very green and lush, and it seems more like an midwestern hardwood forest than an Arizona forest. Keep a sharp eye out for the trail here since it is indistinct and makes frequent and unexpected crossings across the creek bed. There are cairns along the way, so look for them if you are unsure of where the trail goes. If you lose the trail just follow the creek bed upstream until you find it again.

The creek didn't have any water in it in August, but it looks like it would have water through most of the rest of the year.

After about 45 minutes some ponderosas start showing up, indicating that you are gaining elevation. As you continue up the valley it narrows down to a steeply rising canyon, and the forest changes from mostly oak to primarily pines and firs. There are some really large (4 to 6 feet in diameter) ponderosas and firs near the trail in this upper section.

About 2 hours up from the trail junction the trail leaves the creek bed and switchbacks up the west wall of the canyon. This section is very steep, but not too long.

Right after the trail tops the rise, there is a signed trail junction with the "C.D.O. Shortcut Trail," FS #4A, which takes off to the right, or north. Continue on the Canada del Oro Trail which heads south, or to the left, here.

The trail now climbs gently up a draw forested with ponderosas. This area has been fire damaged recently, but most of the trees are still alive. About 10 minutes after the junction you come to Shovel Spring, which no longer has a cabin as described in many guide books. All that remains is a green steel tank on a concrete pad.

After Shovel Spring the trail climbs steeply up through ponderosa forest a short distance to the signed junction with the Samaniego Trail. Here the Samaniego Trail takes off towards the right (north) and towards the left (south).

Turn left (southeast) and uphill here.

Samaniego Trail, FS #7
(Canada del Oro Trail to Sutherland Trail)

Length: 0.6 milesHiking Time: 0.3 hours
Highest point: 8000 feetLowest point: 7680 feet
Trail goes uphill

From the junction with the Canada del Oro Trail the trail climbs steeply up the slope through open ponderosa forest. After about 15 minutes, the trail comes out on a grassy open ridgetop and there are incredible views of Cathedral Peak and the rocky crags of the north side of Pusch Ridge.

Very soon after gaining the ridgetop the trail comes to the signed junction with the Sutherland Trail. Going east and uphill here on the Sutherland Trail will take you to the Mt. Lemmon Trail. Going southwest and downhill will eventually take you to Catalina State Park.

Turn left (east) and uphill here.

Sutherland Trail, FS #6
(Samaniego Trail to Mt. Lemmon Trail)

The burned section of the trail.

Length: 0.8 milesHiking Time: 0.6 hours
Highest point: 8550 feetLowest point: 8000 feet
Trail goes uphill

From the junction with the Samaniego Ridge Trail the Sutherland Trail climbs steeply up a grassy slope to a ridgetop, and then follows up the ridge. As the trail goes up the ridge it passes through an area of extensive damage from the fires in 1995. Here all the trees are dead, but the ground is covered with a thick carpet of grass, flowers, and assorted plants and bushes.

After one last steep climb the trail reaches the junction with the Mt. Lemmon Trail, FS #5. If you turn right (southwest) and downhill here the Mt. Lemmon Trail will take you to the Wilderness of Rocks Trail. Turning left (northeast) and uphill here will take you to the summit of Mt. Lemmon.

Turn left (northeast) and uphill here on the Mt. Lemmon Trail.

Mt. Lemmon Trail, FS #5
(Sutherland Trail to Meadow Trail)

A view towards the front range of the Catalinas from the Mt. Lemmon Trail.

Length: 0.7 milesHiking Time: 0.3 hours
Highest point: 8800 feetLowest point: 8550 feet
Trail goes uphill

This segment runs from the intersection with the Meadow Trail to the intersection with the Sutherland Trail.

From here, the Mt. Lemmon Trail is basically a dirt road, though it is closed to public access. The trail runs through thick fir forest, with occasional views down towards Sabino Basin.

This segment ends when you reach a signed junction with the Meadow Trail, which takes off to the left. Since you are walking on a wide dirt road, and the Meadow Trail is just a footpath, you will need to keep an eye out for it.

Turn left (northeast) on the Meadow Trail here.

Meadow Trail, FS #5A
(Mt. Lemmon Trail to summit of Mt. Lemmon)

The meadows along the Meadow Trail.

Another view of the meadows.

Length: 0.8 milesHiking Time: 0.3 hours
Highest point: 9080 feetLowest point: 8800 feet
Trail goes uphill

This short trail parallels the top end of the Mt. Lemmon Trail, rejoining it very near the end of the Mt. Lemmon Trail. The Meadow Trail is much prettier than the part of the Mt. Lemmon Trail that it bypasses, and is about the same distance.

This footpath leaves the dirt road and climbs through thick fir forest. After a relatively short climb you come to large flat park area with open meadow under large pines. This spot is very beautiful, and is certainly much more attractive than the alternative of remaining on the Mt. Lemmon trail for the last climb to the top. Towards the end you pass a small fenced-in military facility which has signs saying that the use of deadly force is authorized to prevent trespassing. Despite the dire warnings, this facility looks old and neglected. Shortly after the top secret facility you pass along the edge of the University of Arizona observatory. The trail ends at the brown gate at the top of Mt. Lemmon.

To get to the parking lot, go to the paved road about 100 yards past the brown metal gate and turn right. The parking lot is on the right just past the metal gate across the road.

Go to the parking lot next to the electrical substation here.

Radio Ridge Route
(Mt. Lemmon to Radio Ridge (Aspen Trail))

Length: 0.3 milesHiking Time: 0.15 hours
Highest point: 9080 feetLowest point: 9050 feet
Trail goes downhill

This is not an official forest service trail, but rather a route which connects the end of the Mt. Lemmon Trail with the trailheads of the Aspen Draw Trail and Aspen Trail.

This trail segment starts at the dirt parking lot at the end of the road near the summit of Mt. Lemmon. This parking lot has a fenced in electrical substation right next to it.

To start, go to the corner of the parking lot diagonally opposite from the electrical substation. There is a rough, unmarked track which goes downhill about 30 yards where it meets up with another unmarked trail. Take this track down to the unmarked track and turn left, heading away from the electrical substation. After going about 200 yards the trail hits the paved road at the last switchback before the parking lot. At this point there is a large dirt parking area, with a gated dirt road heading off towards all of the radio towers. Cross the dirt parking lot and take the gated dirt road. As you go down the dirt road you will pass a number of radio towers and the upper end of the ski lift.

Just past the ski lift there is a sign off to the left of the road for the Aspen Draw Trail, FS #423. This trail goes down to the bottom of the ski lift.

About 50 yards past the sign for the Aspen Draw Trail the road forks, with the left hand fork being blocked with piles of dirt, and a sign saying that it is not a USFS road or trail. The trailhead for the Aspen Trail, #93, which goes to Marshall Gulch, is a short ways down the right hand fork.

Turn left on the Aspen Draw Trail at the top of the ski lift.

Aspen Draw Trail, FS #423
(Radio Ridge to Ski Valley)

Length: 1.6 milesHiking Time: 0.75 hours
Highest point: 9050 feetLowest point: 8320 feet
Trail goes downhill

This trail starts on the top of Radio Ridge, right next to the top of the ski lift. It goes down through the heavily forested slope to the east of the ski run in a series of long and gentle switchbacks. The ponderosas and firs here are very large.

At the bottom of the trail there is a signed trail junction. To get to the ski resort turn left (west) and go about 0.2 miles. The trail to the right (east), which is not shown on the Rainbow Expeditions map, parallels Ski Run Road and goes down to Summerhaven.

Turn right on the trail to Summerhaven here.

Ski Valley Trail
(Ski Valley to Summerhaven)

Length: 1.0 milesHiking Time: 0.3 hours
Highest point: 8320 feetLowest point: 7680 feet
Trail goes downhill

From the trail junction at the bottom of the Aspen Draw Trail this trail goes down the bottom of the valley to Summerhaven, paralleling Ski Run Road. This area is heavily forested, and the trail is wide and easy, even paved in parts.

In Summerhaven turn left and go uphill up the Catalina Highway about 0.75 miles, and then turn left on Control Road and follow it back to where you started.

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