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Romero Canyon Day Hike
March 5, 2011
by Chuck Parsons
21 anxious Trailblazers are ready to hit the trail running.
Front: Olga, Bobbi, Beth, Rudy, Quy, Arturo, Chuck.
Back: Mike, Perry, Sandy, Cindy, Monica, Kathy, Garth, Alice, Debbie, Wendy K., Michael, Wendy R., Sally.

On a cool and beautiful Saturday morning in early March twenty-one Arizona Trailblazers gather about a mile down the trail from the official Romero Canyon Trailhead, located in Catalina State Park west of the Santa Catalina Mountains that form the spectacular northern backdrop for the city of Tucson. Our photographer, Glenn, is unseen behind the camera lens. Apparently a lot of folks wanted to get outside on such a gorgeous day and experience the joys of hiking near the Tucson area, since this is one of the largest turnouts we’ve had in some time.

Crossing Sutherland Wash.
    The Romero Canyon Trail, named after local pioneer rancher Francisco Romero, begins as a relatively level and sandy jeep trail for the first mile or so. Shortly after leaving the trailhead we encounter this very wide and bone dry desert wash. The last time we did this hike in April, 1999 (yup — way, way back in the 20th Century) we had experienced a wetter than normal winter. As a result several inches of water were still flowing down this wash, and we were wondering if we were going to make it all the way across without having to ford a few deep pools. But it was shallow going back then (although pretty tough sloughing through deep, wet sand) all the way, and we made it across without incident.

Our destination today, three miles in the distance and about 1,000 vertical feet above us at the trailhead, is the lush riparian area surrounding Romero Pools, one of southern Arizona’s premier swimming hole locations. Since this past winter has been drier than normal, compared to 1999, we’re not really sure how much water we’ll find in the pools today. But we still have a long way to go and lots of elevation to gain before reaching these pools, so we just have to keep on trucking down the trail.

Montrose Canyon Overlook [Chuck]

About a mile from the trailhead near our group shot location we find the first signs of water in the form of these clear and inviting pools below the Montrose Canyon Overlook. Beyond here, the wide and flat jeep trail transitions into a rough and rocky foot trail of decomposed granite and gneiss, with a generous sprinkling of sparkling quartz crystal thrown in for extra measure.

We begin a steady and steep ascent as we leave the park boundary behind and enter the Coronado National Forest and the wild and remote Pusch Ridge Wilderness, 57,000 acres of some of the most rugged and pristine wilderness left in the western states.

One Arizona Highways writer described this area as “a geologic junkyard of lichen-crusted boulders heaved out of the Earth by some unfathomable cataclysm”.

First view of Pusch Ridge [picture by Chuck]
    Thrusting its jagged, saw tooth profile skyward, Pusch Ridge forms the imposing southwest face of the Santa Catalina Range.

In geological terms the Santa Catalinas are a fault-block mountain range. In layman’s terms a great piece of the earth’s crust (a tectonic plate) was split off, tilted over, and gradually thrust upward by unimaginable forces in a monumental uplifting process that begin several million years ago. Time and erosion has created the mountain range that we see today, with its tortured and jagged ridgeline of Precambrian gneiss.

Switchbacks and more switchbacks. [picture by Chuck]
Hoofing it up the Romero Canyon Trail. [picture by Wendy R.]
    A series of tight switchbacks await the hiker along this stretch of the trail, as it slowly grinds its way up the rugged north face of Montrose Canyon for the next 1.5 miles. As we steadily gain elevation the views are even more spectacular, looking back down the canyon and to the southwest towards the Oro Valley area. Even though we’re continually gaining elevation, the sun is relentless today and the temperature seems to be climbing along with the trail. I break out my thick sweat band and glance at the mini-thermometer dangling from my camera bag. It is now a toasty 82 degrees with no shade in sight and the day is only going to get warmer. One saving grace, though, is the cooling breeze that sweeps down the canyon from time to time.

Although it’s still a bit early in the season for desert wildflowers, especially at our higher elevation, in a good year we should be seeing at least a few of them on the slopes and along the trail. Rainfall this winter has been pretty meager across the entire Sonoran Desert, and what rains there were fell too little and too late to coax billions of wildflower seeds out of their dormancy state. However, tiny new green leaves and a few scattered blossoms on the spindly ocotillos that dot these hillsides are a sign of the recent rains and snows from just a few weeks ago, since this unique desert plant responds virtually overnight to a single soaking rainfall, transforming itself from a collection of dry and dead-looking stalks to lush new green growth, topped by a crown of crimson red blossoms.

The beginning of Romero Canyon. [pictures by Chuck]

After about 2.5 miles the trail passes through a small but distinctive rocky notch which represents the divide between Montrose and Romero canyons. From here the trail finally drops into Romero Canyon proper, seen in these next two pictures, as we continue to make our way up to the Romero Pools.

The dark wet spot in the lower right hand corner of the second picture represents the remnants of a small waterfall, as water courses a sinuous passageway along the canyon floor and out into the valley below.

This is one of the most scenic parts of the trail, and we can now take the time to enjoy the rugged beauty of the canyon since we have most of the elevation gain behind us at last.

About 100 desert bighorn sheep inhabit the western Santa Catalinas and the Pusch Ridge Wilderness area, but they are extremely elusive and hard to spot. Although they’re probably watching us at this very moment from some of their favorite rocky outcroppings high above the trail and wondering just what the heck we’re up to, they blend in so well with their surroundings that very few people ever see them.

The scenery and the flora continue to change as we gain more elevation. The giant saguaros, barrel cactus, prickly pear, and other cacti that populate the lower stretches of this trail gradually give way to the various trees and scrubs that populate the higher areas. And since trees translate into shade, we stop from time to time to take advantage of the cooling refuge their spreading branches offer from the blazing sun.

Closing in on the Romero Pools. [Chuck]
Taking a lunch break at Romero Pools.
[picture by Chuck]
[picture by Wendy R.]

At 3,800 feet and three miles from the trailhead, several of us reach this scenic overlook where the rest of our group is spread out on the large boulders around Romero Pools, a natural series of potholes carved out of solid bedrock by the relentless flow of water over eons of time. Some of these pools are up to fifteen feet deep and usually hold water year around, offering good swimming throughout the hot summer months; although this early in the season the water is still ice cold due to the incoming snowmelt from Romero Creek. In this beautiful and lush riparian habitat, sycamore, cottonwood, walnut, and velvet ash growing along the creek bed provide the best shade we’ve seen all day.

IMG_0818_WR IMG_0829_WR
Wake me when it’s time to go. [pictures by Wendy R.]

From Romero Pools the trail continues climbing through the canyon for an additional 4.2 miles before reaching Romero Pass at 6,100 feet. At the pass hikers have a choice of heading northeast and either branching off on the scenic Wilderness of Rocks Trail or continuing all the way to the top of Mt. Lemmon, at 9,157 feet the highest point in the Santa Catalina Range. Another option at the pass is to head southeast on the West Fork Sabino Canyon Trail. As enticing as all of that sounds, we decide to pass on all of these options for now and think about heading back.

Pools and yet more pools. [Chuck]
On the trail above Romero Pools. [Chuck]
Daredevil at work. [Chuck]
“I’ll slide down the falls if you will.” [Wendy]

The hike from the trailhead to Romero Pass would be a challenging day hike (14.4 miles round trip and 3,300 feet of elevation gain), but would require a much earlier start than we had today. Hiking to the top of Mt. Lemmon and back would involve an overnight backpacking trip. After a long and relaxing rest break we finally pack up, leave our cool and shady retreat behind, and start hiking back to the trailhead. But some of us decide to head farther up the trail and look for a few more pools and waterfalls before rejoining the rest of the group.

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updated September 12, 2016