Saturday, February 7, 2015
Hiking from Sabino Canyon to Catalina State Park, via Cathedral Rock
In light of the Grammy’s going on this weekend, I’d like to nominate this hike for a few awards:
-Most Physically Challenging
-Longest Hike Ever
-Most Painful I’ve been Afterwards
Oh, guess what, this hike wins everything it was nominated for! How often does that happen? I have no idea, I don’t pay attention to this stuff. Whatever.
Anyway, what made us so excited about this hike was that we were doing a through hike. We love through hikes and loop trails, because it means we don’t have to retrace our steps and we can be seeing new territory the whole way through.
Another reason why we were so excited was because we were literally hiking over the Catalina Mountain Range. The Catalinas are the mountains to the North of Tucson, and so far we had hiked to Window Rock, Mt. Kimble, and had driven up the highest peak, Mt. Lemmon, and done multiple hikes at the top, and through canyons at the bottom. Today, we were actually hiking up one side, reaching one peak, and coming down the other side.
Finally, we were finally getting to hike to Cathedral Rock, one of the more prominent peaks in the mountain range that has been taunting us for so long. Our friend Mitchell has told us that this one is the hardest hike in the Catalinas, and even harder than hiking to the Colorado River via Supai.
This picture was taken a couple days before the hike, on our last run through Sabino Canyon. A piece of advice we got before hiking Cathedral was to begin in the dark, when you can’t see it, because no matter how close you get, it always seems so far away. And so these are our official “Trailhead pictures.” 🙂
Look out Cathedral, we’re coming for you! (I believe it’s the 2nd peak to the left in this picture, far back behind the others.)
Sabino was just so pretty that night! To get to the trailhead, we had to walk down the main road in Sabino, where it spurs off maybe ½ a mile down.
On Friday, the day before the hike, Curtis and I drove to Catalina State Park where we left our Jeep, and Mitch came to pick us up and bring us home. He came back around 5:15 Saturday morning to pick us up, then we picked up his brother Austin, and drove to Sabino Canyon. We began the hike at 6 am, on the lookout for other early morning creatures that roam around there. We saw a few other people, mostly jogging on the main road.
It’s not every day that you get to enjoy watching the sun rise AND set while hiking! We had started at a great time though – we were hiking in the shade for most of the morning. This helped during a few especially steep parts.
The beginning of the hike is relatively easy for seasoned hikers. It goes up and down, through different canyons, with not a whole lot of elevation gain. Even though it’s easy walking, it’s easy to get discouraged by all the downhill sections, because you know that at some point, you’ll have to make up for every step! After about 2 hours, we came to the first steep section, affectionately known as Cardiac Gap, aka Cardiac Arrest. In hindsight, it really wasn’t that bad compared to what was to come though, and we were able to push through and make it to the first “saddle” of many.
|Cathedral is now the 2nd peak to the right, far in the distance.|
We took our first “official” break at that point. We snacked on cookie bars, took pictures, and found Curtis’ letterbox. While we weren’t worn out, it was nice to stop and take in the beauty in the sun.
That rock there is referred to as “Tramere Rock.” I don’t fully get it, but Curtis explained to me that it’s the fake “Cathedral Rock” – and where most people hike to on this trail. We still had a long ways to go to get to the REAL Cathedral Rock.
|Us, with Cathedral watching over Curtis’ shoulder!|
After this point, the trail goes back to being relatively “flat” while it goes through a meadow until it meets up with a river, somewhere in the canyon along the trail. Okay, to be completely honest, I have no idea how many miles are between each point, and I’m blanking on a lot of this hike. Most of it seems like a dream. Mitch, Austin, and Curtis had done this hike before, and they all used memorable points to know how far we were. I pretty much just followed the trail and went along with it all. I can tell you that there was a lot of walking, many “Would You Rathers,” and plenty of “Homeward Bound” trivia. (I beasted them at that!)
|Crossing the river!|
One thing about the hike that was both a blessing and curse was that due to the rain, there was a lot of water. It was a curse at some points because we had to cross the river many times. It was never too deep, but it just took up more time.
But it was a blessing because we were able to see several beautiful waterfalls! Above is Bridal Veil Falls, 6 miles in to the hike. (We were able to reach it by 10:30, which we considered to be making great time.) We met another hiker around this point. He said he had done this hike at least 7 times, and this was the fullest he’d ever seen the falls. It was gorgeous! We took our second break here and took in the beauty.
|Can you spy Curtis? He climbed up to the to of the falls!|
|Just another kissing picture next to a waterfall.|
|See U Rock in the distance?|
After this, the trail grew much steeper. We still had 3 miles to summit Cathedral Rock, and these would be the steepest yet. The trail didn’t even bother to switchback, it went straight up a steep slope for about a mile before we came to a trail intersection, where we left Esperero Trail behind and began on Cathedral Rock trail. We were starting to wear out, but we still had 2 miles to get to the actual peak!
The first mile of Cathedral Rock Trail started off steep, but soon evened out and slowly ascended along a ridge. It was easy walking, but I had heard too many stories about mountain lions around this trail to enjoy it. The trail is obviously rarely used, as it is much more overgrown than the earlier parts. We finally made it to the saddle, where a spur trail breaks off and goes up to Cathedral. If you look at the above picture, you can see where we’re headed – the jagged rocks on the top of that mountain. It almost hurt just looking at it and knowing that we still had a mile and 800 feet of elevation gain to go.
At this point, I honestly had no desire to even go that far. Just being able to say that I “hiked over the Catalina mountains” was good enough for me – I didn’t want to do this mile-long spur trail (that doesn’t really exist – read on!) just to have to come back to where we were and continue on down the other side. But the guys weren’t stopping, and there was no way I’d stay behind by myself to be eaten by a mountain lion. We took a short break, then continued on up.
Yes, like I said, after a steep incline to the second and last saddle to Cathedral Rock, there is no clear path. Instead, you have to scramble up and around boulders, climb steep rock face, avoid prickly bushes, and look out for mountain lions. This mile (and the mile coming back down) took the longest out of the entire hike, because you have to carefully plan each step and path you take. If you get off, it could result in taking up even more precious time.
The above picture is halfway up the scramble. We are headed for what they call the “Key Hole,” which is the small gap in the middle, between all the jagged boulders.
Now once you reach the Key Hole, there is a very steep rock face that you must climb up to reach the throne room. It is the only way to reach Cathedral Rock proper without trailblazing much more steep and dangerous parts. Every other time that Mitch and Austin have done this hike, there has been a rope helping you to climb up. However, today it wasn’t there. But as always, Curtis comes prepared, and happened to have 30 feet of rope in his backpack! He quickly scaled the rock face, tied the rope around a boulder at the top, and the rest of us used it to help walk up the rock face.
I don’t have any pictures to demonstrate, but basically what we did was hold on to the rope, then stand perpendicular to the rock and walk up. It was something I had learned to do as a kid, but I had learned to do it while having a harness, pulley, and several spotters behind me. Thankfully, I did have the 3 guys there supporting me, but it just isn’t the same without the harness. 😉 I find that in these situations, it’s best to not think about what I’m doing, and instead just do whatever they say. Really. And when I did that, I made it up just fine!
|Standing in the keyhole, looking at Mt. Lemmon|
I have to say this before I show you the pictures of Cathedral Rock: There are some hikes that we do where we get to see breathtakingly beautiful sights at the end, that nothing in the world can compare to. Hiking in Supai was like that – lots of reward for our effort. When we hiked Supai, we were able to take pictures that could capture the beauty of it – never as beautiful as seeing it live, but still undeniably beautiful.
Then, there are some hikes where the end doesn’t seem as incredible to those who have never hiked it. I can show you pictures of the Throne Room of Cathedral Rock, but you won’t ever understand the beauty of it unless you’ve hiked 9 miles of steep, rocky ground to reach it. Pictures cannot do Cathedral justice. I stood there in awe, taking in the splendor of it all, but no matter how I pointed my camera, I couldn’t capture the moment. My breath was taken away by the sight, the feeling, the exhaustion, but when you look at these pictures you won’t feel the same. Now, when I look at them, it’s kind of hard to believe I hiked all this way just for this. But that isn’t what this is all about.
This hike was about learning how big the mountains are. This hike was teaching me how long a mile really is. This hike showed me pain, fear, struggle, yet it also gave me great reward. It showed me accomplishment, it showed what I could overcome, it gave me peace. I didn’t think I needed this hike to Cathedral Rock, but God knew I did, and He opened my eyes to so much on this hike. He used every trial, every joy, every step to speak to me and show me things I didn’t know I needed.
All the beauty that you are about to see through these pictures is beauty that comes through experience. Enjoy the Throne Room:
Okay, serious part over, let me tell you: this place is clearly a lion’s den. It’s like it was taken straight from The Lion King. We really only spent 15 minutes there before beginning our trek back. If a lion were to show up…well, there’s honestly nowhere that we could have gone to get away fast.
We climbed back down the rope section, trail blazed back to the clear trail, then hiked back to the spur trail intersection where we had lunch. It was both a relief to be done with Cathedral proper, but we also realized that the peak was NOT the halfway point…No, we still had to go another mile or so to even be halfway. We still had some uphill sections. We had gone 10 miles at this point, but still had 11 more. About 9 of those 11 miles were trails that we had never seen or set foot on. We had no idea what to expect…all we knew was it was time to get going. On the plus side, we made it to Cathedral Rock around noon, which was the fastest that Mitch and Austin had ever made it up to that point! However, after lunch it was around 1:30…There was no denying the fact that we’d be walking past sunset.
The next part was 2 miles of downhill… a steep, steep descent. It took a lot longer than expected because it was so steep, and really hard on our knees and toes. Sometimes downhill sections are used for making up for lost time – not this one. It took a whole hour to reach the intersection with the West Fork trail. I think it was during this section that we began creating the Squiggle Monster in our minds… The Squiggle Monster was responsible for all these ridiculous switchbacks.
If we had wanted to, we could have just taken the West Fork Trail back to Sabino Canyon…but even though it was 2:30, we still were determined to hike to Catalina State Park. We HAD to do a through hike!
The next 2 miles was all uphill – but thankfully, it was MUCH less steep than what we had just hiked down. This was definitely the right way to do this trail! We refer to this section as the “Lazy Switchbacks.” (Fun fact: It also happens to be following the Arizona Trail!) However, we had to walk in the sun for most of this part. You could tell by the silence how we were all feeling – usually, there is always constant discussion or “Would You Rather’s” going around, but here, there was just silence.
Until I saw a snake. I was NOT so quiet when I saw the snake.
Thankfully it was only a Bull Snake, and not venomous, but I didn’t know that when I saw it. I was in the lead, and setting a decent pace, but happened to notice it lying across the trail, sunning itself. This is why I am always thankful to have guys with me when hiking! We continued on once it moved, but I was no longer in the lead.
I know, I’m pathetic.
From that point, we had at least 7 miles to go. We were pretty sure we were past the hardest parts, but we were losing daylight fast. The trail descended until we met up with the river that runs through Romero Canyon. (It’s also the river that makes up Romero Pools!) This river was also flowing, and it created many more waterfalls along the way. We had to cross it many more times. (I was thankful for my waterproof hiking boots!) It was clear that this trail is hardly ever used though, just by how overgrown it was. We were able to cover ground a lot faster than before, but after hiking 14 miles, the human body just naturally starts to feel tired. I’m sure I don’t have to explain that.
It was around this point that we came across 2 different runners within a 5 minute span. It turns out that they were together, and they had created a race for themselves that day. They started at Molino Basin off of Mt. Lemmon, ran 25 miles to the In-N-Out across the street from Catalina State Park, then ran back to Molino. A 50 mile run. Maybe we aren’t as crazy as we thought?
We did enjoy seeing all new sights of Romero Canyon. We got great views of the backside of Cathedral Rock and Window Rock. We came across a group of people camping. They were the last people we saw that day.
At this point, you might be thinking, “Does this hike ever end??” Trust me, we were all thinking this too. Now that we are done, I’d say we’re glad we did it, but more glad that it’s over. It was beautiful, there were waterfalls, it was green, it was quiet, but it was long. There isn’t a whole lot to say besides the fact that we were starting to go crazy. Not “Let’s go run a 50 mile race against ourselves!” crazy, but almost.
We reached Romero Pools about the same time that we pulled out flashlights – around 6:30. I suppose we can be thankful that we were able to see most of Romero Canyon, because we had all hiked to Romero Pools before multiple times, we knew what to expect about the last 2.5 miles of the trail. Yes, that’s right, we still had 2.5 miles in the pitch black. And that 2.5 miles was not all downhill…it was downhill, it was uphill, it was steep, it was rocky, it was painful, it was long. And it was dark. We were very thankful for Mitch’s very powerful flashlights.
At one point, we smelled a skunk. (PTSD to hiking Elephant Head!) I was in the lead and I continued on because hey, what else could I do? But I heard Mitch behind me say “Look! I see something!” The 3 guys were 10 feet behind me, shining a flashlight up at some rocks. They saw 2 green eyes watching them. I stayed put. Mitch made a loud noise and the eyes disappeared. A skunk would make the most sense because of the smell, but they said they thought the eyes were too far apart for it to be that. Oh well, all we could do was keep walking…and walking…and walking. I’m pretty sure this trail got longer since the last time we were there.
But finally, we reached the final stretch. Finally, we crossed over the last river crossing. FINALLY, we made it back to our Jeep – and all I can say is praise God it was still there, and we had the keys, and we were able to go home! Lol. We reached the Jeep around 8 – after 14 hours of hiking.
So yes, the never-ending hike has a happy ending: It ended, and we all ended up safe in our beds that night. All different levels of sore and stiff the next day, but we are all safe and glad to have done it, but maybe more glad to be done with it!
Stats from my phone: Sadly, my phone died 13.88 miles in, as you will see below. However, even when it’s dead it continues to count steps, so the step counter is accurate. Yay for a new personal best?!
Here’s the Map My Hike App, with the first almost 14 miles recorded. The red trail would continue Northwest through the canyon to the flat part.
And here is the elevation gain – it does have the highest part recorded, which of course is Cathedral Rock, and it stops somewhere after we are in Romero Canyon.
Whew, thinking back over this hike just made me exhausted again!