Located just outside of Tucson, the Coronado National Forest provides both an escape from the city and its shaded forest provides an escape from the harsh Arizona heat. Although a number of trails run throughout the forest, the national forest's most famous attraction are the two trails that wind up the 9,543-foot Mount Wrightson, the highest peak in the Santa Rita mountain range. While the Super Trail up Mount Wrightson is longer, its figure eight brother trail, the Old Baldy Trail, remains a favorite among visiting hikers. Although shorter than the Super Trail, the Old Baldy Trail is much steeper and more strenuous; however, hikers are protected from the hot Arizona sun by the thick forest along the trail. Old Baldy is frequently used as a training spot for those who intend to hike the Grand Canyon or other areas with a lot of elevation gain over a short distance. Since the two trails form a figure eight around the mountain, this leads to numerous opportunities for side trips and loops around the mountain as well as into the rest of the Coronado National Forest.
|Trail Length:||5.4 miles||City/State:|| Tucson,
|Elevation:||4,345 feet gain
From Tucson, head south on I-19 until the turn off for Continental Road. After a little over a mile down the road, hikers will want to take the Madera Canyon turn off and follow it all the way to the Madera Canyon Recreation Area and the Madera Trailhead that begins the Old Baldy Trail. On particularly seasonable days, hikers will want to arrive early as it is a popular spot with limited parking.
From the parking lot, hikers can get a clear view of Mount Wrightson in the distance. It is massive, intimidating and, according to the trail, only a little over five miles away. It sounds easy on paper, but the reality of this hike will only sink in when it is seen in person.
The trail begins at the end of Madera Canyon and wastes no time messing around on flat land. Visitors can easily spot the trail weaving in between moderate sized rocks that were left behind after the canyon was created. However, most importantly, they will notice the trail going up. There is no time to waste in terms of elevation meaning a tough trek right from the get go.
After climbing the hill, the trail tucks into hilly forests. Within 10 minutes of walking, the thick brush transforms into tall sycamores and ponderosas. The forest only gets thicker, almost shaggy, as the trail continues on. While most of the Old Baldy Trail is well maintained, some portions can get washed out after rain, making for a tough climb. After about a mile, switchbacks grant a nice little reprieve from a trail that is just a few hard rocks away from mountain climbing. After the switchbacks are through, hikers will climb over a little hill deep in the forest. The hill is covered in ferns, which seems oddly out of place in Arizona, but the tree cover is so thick that they thrive in this area.
Although the ponderosa trees continue to get taller, punctuated with batches of silverleaf oaks and Apache pines, there are breaks in the trees that showcase the magnificent Josephine Saddle. This 7,080 feet high behemoth sits 2.2 miles away from the trailhead, covering the whole thing in its imposing shadow. One of the best views of the saddles sits just ahead on top of it. On the top of the saddle is a clearing with an old wooden memorial that merits making a stop. This spot marks the place where three young boy scouts died during a sudden snowstorm in 1958. It is a sad grave marker, but it serves as a poignant reminder that even in Arizona, hikers should check the forecast before leaving the house.
After absorbing the views from on top of Josephine's Saddle, the trail continues up its side, getting noticeably steeper. It dips back into the forest and follows a series of beautiful switchbacks. During the summer months, everything is so wonderfully green here. While the legs are suffering, the eyes and lungs are treated to the beautiful wilderness. Small sun soaked meadows are abound along the trail, offering an abundance of wildlife within. Mountain wildflowers, deer and butterflies always make the best hiking company, but hikers should also be weary. There is the occasional black bear in the area.
Near the summit, hikers will find the Bellows Spring. It makes for an excellent place to rest and as one of the few water sources in the area, those who linger here are apt to see a number of the native wildlife that dwell in the area.
Less than a mile from the spring, the trees completely disappear for a moment as visitors pass over the rather unimpressive Baldy Saddle. Although the saddle is bare of trees, the forest rises so high around it that the views of the surrounding area are near nonexistent. The summit is less than a mile away, so it merits pressing on towards the highlight of the hike.
Unfortunately, what is left of the trail is better suited to mountain goats than hikers. There's scrambling, boulder climbing and lots of hard hiking to be had. Be sure to take this last section slowly, it is a spot where one misstep can easily ruined a perfectly good day of hiking.
The summit of Mount Wrightson is marked by the ruins of an old fire tower. After being built in 1928, all that remains of the tower is its foundation, but that is not the attraction of the summit. The main affair is the view. On clear days, hikers can see the Sierra San Jose Mountains all the way down in Mexico from the top. On not so clear days, the surrounding mountain ranges of Arizona like the Rincons, Galiuros and Chiricahuas are still visible.
One noticeable little tidbit in the distance is the Smithsonian Institution's Whipple Observatory, a large igloo that sits on nearby Mount Hopkins. Some see this telescope as an eyesore within an otherwise pristine picture while others view it as a scientific marvel.
From here, there are many ways to get down. Hikers can just retrace their steps or take the Wrightson Trail down to meet with the Old Baldy Trail. The Wrightson Trail is rather uneventful, though at times it can be a lot more like a dirt slide than a trail. Those who want to go the extra mile can take the Super Trail back down, but it will add another exhausting 10 miles to the hike.