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Butterfly Trail loop

Santa Catalina Mountains

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Total Length10.2 miles
Highest Elevation:8550 feet
Lowest Elevation:6480 feet
Elevation Change:2070 feet
Difficulty Rating:B
Best Seasons: Summer
Hiking Time:6.25 hours
Dogs:Dogs allowed

This trail was hit by the Bullock fire and reopened in the fall of 2003. People tell me the hike is still the green and shady hike it was in the past. This is a very popular trail in the summer, since it almost all through shade and is always cool. Sometimes the trail almost seems crowded, but not really. Many people do the Butterfly Trail using a car shuttle, since there is no official trail to make it a loop. This hike description includes directions for a nice route to walk back to your car at the Palisade Ranger Station.

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 (the only way you can go), and drive towards the mountains. After a few miles the road begins to climb into the Catalinas.

•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.

•Don't even begin to worry about looking for the trailhead until you have passed both the Windy Point lookout and the San Pedro Vista.

•The trailhead used to be directly across the street from the Palisade Ranger Station. However, it was moved a short distance closer to Tucson sometime around 2002-2003. The trailhead parking lot is now on the right about quarter mile before the Palisade Ranger Station and is about two miles beyond San Pedro Vista. The trailhead has a moderate sized parking lot and an outhouse.

Trail Description

Bigelow Trail, FS #54
(Palisade Ranger Station to Butterfly Trail)

Length: 0.5 milesHiking Time: 0.3 hours
Highest point: 8300 feetLowest point: 7950 feet
Trail goes uphill

This short segment goes from the trailhead parking lot near the Palisade Ranger Station, up to the saddle below Mt. Bigelow, where the Butterfly Trail begins.

The trail climbs though thick ponderosa forest, and it is in fairly good shape. After about 20 minutes you reach the signed intersection with the Butterfly Trail. The Butterfly Trail is straight ahead. The Bigelow Trail is to the left.

Continue straight, on the Butterfly Trail.

Butterfly Trail, FS #16
(Bigelow Trail to Davis Spring Trail)

Typical view of the first part of the Butterfly Trail.

Columbine along the Butterfly Trail in September.

Length: 2.0 milesHiking Time: 1.25 hours
Highest point: 8300 feetLowest point: 7200 feet
Trail goes downhill

This trail segment descends relatively steeply through thick pine forest. Very cool and pleasant even on the hottest in the summer days in Tucson.

The trail starts out descending diagonally down the slope, without switchbacks, through thick forest. After about 20 minutes you pass through an area where there is small oak and occasional grasses instead of thick forest, and there are views of the valley below. The trail passes through some more thick forest, then descends down to, and follows, the top of a ridge with sparse oak forest, where the incline is less steep. After about 10 minutes, the trail dives down the other side of the ridge into thick forest again, and it only about 15 minutes from here to the signed junction with the Davis Spring Trail. At this intersection continue straight to remain on the Butterfly Trail, turn right for the Davis Spring Trail.

Stay on the Butterfly Trail here.

Butterfly Trail, FS #16
(Davis Spring Trail to Crystal Spring Trail)

Signed junction of Butterfly Trail and Davis Spring Trail.

Jet engine at crash site.

Large ponderosa next to the trail.

Length: 1.8 milesHiking Time: 1.25 hours
Highest point: 7150 feetLowest point: 7050 feet
Trail goes downhill

This shady trail winds along the east slope of the Catalinas, passing by the wreckage of a fighter. Although the end points of this trail segment are close to the same elevation, the lowest point is in the middle, at 6480 feet.

About 20 minutes after you leave the junction with Davis Spring Trail, you come to a camping area on your left, with a small stream nearby. Climb uphill about 100 yards from the camping area and in the bottom of the drainage you will see the bits and pieces of wreckage from a fighter plane that crashed there in the 70s. The only large piece is the mangled engine.

After the crash sight, the trail follows a stream for a bit. After about 15 -20 minutes there is an unsigned intersection. Stay to the right for the Butterfly Trail. The other trail climbs steeply up, and then drops back down into the valley.

About 30 or 40 minutes in, the trail starts to climb instead of descend, though there are a few level areas mixed in.

The trail reaches a signed intersection with Crystal Spring Trail. Bear left to stay on the Butterfly Trail, and right to go on the Crystal Spring Trail.

Stay on the Butterfly Trail.

Butterfly Trail, FS #16
(Crystal Spring Trail to Soldier Camp)

One of many points where the trail crosses a dry drainage.

Length: 1.4 milesHiking Time: 0.75 hours
Highest point: 7700 feetLowest point: 7050 feet
Trail goes uphill

This short segment takes you back to the Catalina Highway at Soldier Camp, where there is a parking lot signed for the Butterfly Trail.

The trail ascends after leaving the Crystal Spring Trail junction, and soon (15 minutes) reaches a ridgetop. Turn left here and head up the ridge. There is a trail going to the right, but it just goes to a viewpoint. After another 25 minutes, the trail comes to a fairly level dirt road, which you follow about 5 or 10 minutes to the parking lot along Catalina Highway.

Go to the entrance of the parking lot, and then turn left (without crossing the road) to start the return route.

Butterfly Trail Return Route, FS #N/A
(Soldier Camp Parking Lot to Bear Wallow Rd.)

Length: 0.5 milesHiking Time: 0.3 hours
Highest point: 7700 feetLowest point: 7600 feet
Trail goes uphill

This one end of a route to take you back to your car after you have done the Butterfly Trail.

At the parking lot at the Soldier Camp end of the Butterfly Trail, turn left on the Catalina Highway and walk a short distance along Catalina Highway, and then climb straight uphill until you hit a dirt road about 100 -200 yards up. Turn right on this dirt road.

After about 5 minutes you will hit 3 large posts across the road. Continue on until you get to a junction with a small paved road. Continue straight on the paved road. This paved road will take you back to Catalina Highway, where you turn left, and go about 200 yards to the intersection with Bear Wallow Road. Turn left on Bear Wallow Road (a dirt road).

Butterfly Trail Return Route, FS #N/A
(Bear Wallow Rd. to Bigelow TV towers)

View to the east from the road on Mt. Bigelow.

View of the top of Mt. Bigelow from the road on Mt. Bigelow.

Another view to the east from the road on Mt. Bigelow.

Length: 3.3 milesHiking Time: 1.25 hours
Highest point: 8550 feetLowest point: 7840 feet
Trail goes uphill

This route (not a trail) goes from the junction of Catalina Highway and Bear Wallow Rd. up to the top of Mt. Bigelow via dirt roads.

After you leave Catalina Highway, go straight on Bear Wallow Rd. at the first junction you come to. After the road climbs for a while, it gets close to level, and about a mile from Catalina Highway you come to a road fork where the right fork drops back down to Catalina Highway. Take the left fork. The road winds around to the east side, and after another 15 minutes or so there are views down into the valley to the east of the Catalinas. There are lots of very nice car camping spots along this stretch of road. By this time you will see the TV towers on top of Mt. Bigelow looming up ahead of you. Take the road almost all the way to the end, and look for a sign for the Mt. Bigelow trail, which takes off downhill from near the last TV tower.

Go down the Bigelow Trail here.

Bigelow Trail, FS #54
(Mt. Bigelow to Butterfly Trail)

Length: 0.2 milesHiking Time: 0.1 hours
Highest point: 8550 feetLowest point: 8300 feet
Trail goes downhill

This short footpath goes from the junction of the Butterfly Trail and Bigelow Trails up to the summit of Mt. Bigelow

This very short trail descends moderately until it hits the signed junction with the Butterfly Trail.

Turn right at the trail junction, which keeps you on the Bigelow Trail.

Bigelow Trail, FS #54
(Butterfly Trail to Palisade Ranger Station)

Length: 0.5 milesHiking Time: 0.25 hours
Highest point: 8300 feetLowest point: 7950 feet
Trail goes downhill

This short segment goes from the trailhead parking lot near the Palisade Ranger Station, up to the saddle below Mt. Bigelow, where the Butterfly Trail begins.

From the signed junction, take the Bigelow Trail, which heads SW and downhill. After a short while you come to the parking lot across the street from the Palisade Ranger Station.



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