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Green Mountain Day Hike
Santa Catalina Mountains, Tucson
October 19, 2013
by Chuck Parsons
  GPS Map 
by Eileen Root
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Fifteen smiling Trailblazers gather for the requisite group picture. [photo by Quy]
Front Row: Gary, Brianna, Eileen, Dottie, Edith, and Quy.
Back Row: Lata, Cathy, Linda, Debbie, Barry, Doug, Rudy, Arturo, and Chuck.
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Trailblazers gather in the parking lot for a round of introductions. [photo by Quy]

Its 10:30 AM on another beautiful Saturday morning in mid-October, as sixteen Arizona Trailblazers gather under clear blue skies in the General Hitchcock Campground parking lot for a quick round of introductions. The temperature is a cool and inviting 60 degrees, with just a hint of fall in the air, as we meander through the campground in search of the Green Mountain Trailhead. General Hitchcock Campground is located between Mileposts 12 and 13 on the east side of the Catalina Highway as it makes its way up the southeast face of the Santa Catalina Range in a long series of serpentine curves and switchbacks all the way to the tiny hamlet of Summerhaven near the top.

My guidebook clearly states that the trailhead is located at the north end of the campground, but it takes a collective search of at least five minutes or more before we finally locate the elusive and battered trailhead marker adjacent to a dry streambed.

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In search of the Green Mountain Trailhead. [photo by Quy]
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Crossing a dry streambed near the trailhead. [photo by Quy]
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Green Mountain Trail # 21 trailhead sign. [photo by Quy]
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This first stretch of trail is relatively easy. [photo by Quy]

We immediately cross the boulder-filled streambed and begin hiking upstream on the narrow and relatively flat trail on the opposite side as it runs parallel with the streambed.

But the flat stretch of trail and the easy hiking are both short-lived as the trail gradually begins to get steeper and increasingly rugged and we start to climb through several series of switchbacks and steep rocky steps along the way.

The large wood beams across the trail as seen in one of the following pictures are commonly known as waterbars. Their function is to minimize trail erosion in the steeper areas.

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We continue hiking along a dry streambed.
[photo by Eileen]
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Trailblazers gradually start working their way uphill. [photo by Quy]
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Now we start gaining some serious elevation on the trail. [photo by Eileen]

When heavy rain hits a section of steep trail, thousands of gallons of water rushing down the trail can quickly erode a trail away and even wash out large rocks and boulders imbedded deep within the trail. Waterbars are used extensively along the steeper sections of the Bright Angel Trail and the South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon. But despite that, heavy summer monsoon rains still occasionally wash out large sections of trail, gouging out up to six feet of rock and dirt and resulting in trail closure and days or weeks of trail repair and maintenance before the trail is once again usable.

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Arturo, Doug, and Barry take a short break in the shade of an alligator juniper. [photo by Quy]

As we continue hiking uphill through a chaparral forest of juniper, oak, manzanita, yucca, and scattered ponderosa pine, it quickly becomes obvious that the Santa Catalina Mountains haven’t received nearly as much rainfall this season as both northern and eastern Arizona. The ground and vegetation are both very dry and this late in the season fire danger is still considered extreme in this abnormally dry southern Arizona mountain range.

As the following two photos show, there is still scattered evidence of the 2002 Bullock Fire that burned over 25,000 acres in the Santa Catalinas and the much more destructive Aspen Fire the following year that torched nearly 85,000 acres, including 325 structures – mostly summer cabins – in the town of Summerhaven. Ten years later some of those structures are still being rebuilt. Most of the destruction from those two back-to-back wildfires is further up the mountain, and fortunately most of the area around the lower Green Mountain Trail was spared.

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A charred stump.
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Death and renewal in the forest. [photos by Quy]

Although the Green Mountain Trail is normally one of the most popular trails in the Catalinas for hard-core mountain bikers, for some strange reason we don’t see a single biker on today’s hike. They may prefer the upper stretch of the trail starting out at the San Pedro Vista. Most of the trail so far has been a bit extreme for bikers, although one description I came across earlier had this to say about the subject: “This is a great trail to try when you start feeling you can ride anything. The single-track section is some of the most beautiful and treacherous Mount Lemmon has to offer. It’s not so much a trail you ride as one you survive.” That about sums it up for hard-core bikers.

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Edith, the ultimate multi-tasker.
[photo by Quy]
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This is WB7ATA. Does anyone copy?
[photo by Quy]
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Debbie saddles up — ready to ride her ponderosa pony. [photo by Quy]
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A penny for your thoughts, Doug.   [photos by Eileen]    Eileen sits high atop her rocky throne.
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Over hill, over dale. Up and down the winding trail. Those Trailblazers keep marching along.
[photo by Eileen]

The Green Mountain Trailhead out of General Hitchcock Campground starts from an elevation of 5,868 feet. As we steadily and relentlessly continue to gain elevation on the trail, slightly cooler and damper conditions higher on the mountain support a different life zone. The chaparral cover slowly gives way to increasing numbers of large ponderosa pine, towering Douglas fir, and Arizona cypress with its distinct conical crown and furrowed bark. After nearly two miles of hiking we finally reach Bear Saddle, our highest point of the hike at 6,950 feet. The saddle sits at the head of Bear Canyon, one of the major canyons draining this side of the Santa Catalina Range. Bear Canyon lies just to the east of the more widely known and visited Sabino Canyon.

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Trailblazers pause for a little R&R in the shade. [photo by Eileen]

After climbing almost 1,100 feet we pause briefly at Bear Saddle before moving on a bit farther down the trail and stopping for a short rest break to give the rest of our hikers a chance to catch up with the main group. From the saddle a secondary trail leads 1.2 miles to the northeast to Guthrie Mountain, providing great views of the San Pedro Valley to the east of the Catalinas. But since we’re a bit pressed for time today, that trail will have to wait for the next Green Mountain hike. As the old hiker’s expression so eloquently and often so painfully states: “So many trails. So little time.”

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Quy stands between two massive trail sentries. [photo by Quy]
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A house-sized boulder is split right down the middle. [photo by Quy]
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Maverick Spring Trailhead sign.
[photo by Quy]

After the rest of our group catches up with us and takes a breather, we continue hiking westward on the trail and after another quarter-mile reach the junction with the Maverick Spring spur trail. Yet another trail for another time. Because of the dry conditions we don’t see too many wildflowers on the hike today, but our ace photographer Quy somehow manages to ferret out those few that do lie half-hidden somewhere along the trail as seen in the following pictures. Most of us probably overlooked them completely, but Quy has a sharp eye for flowers, interesting rock formations, and various other points of interest along the trail that many of us would give only a passing glance at best.

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Arizona Thistle [photo by Quy]
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Manzanita [photo by Quy]
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Common Sunflower [photo by Quy]
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Scarlett penstemon [photo by Quy]
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Sumac [photo by Quy]
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Mojave Spurge [photo by Quy]

Somewhere beyond the junction with the Maverick Spring spur trail several hikers decide to stay behind and break for lunch, while the rest of us continue on down the trail for a while longer in search of both the ultimate vista point and the perfect lunch spot. We agree to hike for another twenty minutes or so before stopping, while the others will wait for our return before starting back to the trailhead. After a while we come to yet another trail junction, this time the Brush Corral Trail veering off to the northwest and eventually running due west of Maverick Spring. So many trails. So little time.

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Rudy relaxes on his comfy log recliner. Can someone fluff up a soft pillow please? [photo by Quy]
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Debbie manages to find time for a nap, while Brianna is a study in concentration. [photos by Quy]
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Trailblazers stop for a lunch break in the shade. [photo by Eileen]
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Edith found the ideal lunch spot ... and she’s still boning up for her certification test! [photos by Quy]
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Photographer Quy photographs photographer Dottie. [photo by Quy]

About ten minutes beyond the Brush Corral Trail junction, the rest of us finally decide to break for lunch and cluster together in a small patch of shade with expansive views far to the east of the Catalina Range. The temperature is about 77 degrees in the sun, with a light cooling breeze blowing out of the northwest. It’s a little warmer than we expected for this elevation in mid-October, but still cool enough for comfortable hiking. You just never know about October temperatures anywhere in Arizona.

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East side of the Santa Catalina Range. [photo by Quy]

One year while hiking along the Tonto Trail in the Inner Gorge of the Grand Canyon in early October we experienced scorching temperatures of 105 degrees in the shade. Normally at that time of year it would be in the 70s to low 80s. Fortunately, we seem to have pretty good weather for the great majority of our hikes throughout Arizona — both winter and summer, from the deserts to the mountains. During even the hottest summer months we can always find a relatively cool hike within two to three hours driving distance from the Phoenix area.

Some people can never seem to get in enough hiking no matter how long or how hard the hike. While we’re still at lunch Brianna, our newest hiker from Tucson, asks me if she can check out a spur trail going steeply uphill behind our lunch stop. I tell her she can as long as someone goes along with her, so Rudy and Gary both join her and start hiking uphill while the rest of us finish lunch and continue admiring the surrounding scenery.

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Fall colors near the Green Mountain Trailhead. [photo by Quy]

Most have already left to regroup with the others who stayed back, by the time our three hard-core hikers return from their short post-lunch jaunt. They report seeing nothing unusual, just more great views off to the east.

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Heading back down the trail after lunch. [photo by Quy]
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Watch your step, Barry! [photo by Quy]
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Quy always has her camera ready for action.
[photos by Eileen]
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Trailblazers pass through a large boulder field.
Not a good place to be in an earthquake.

So we gather up our gear and start the long trek back to Green Mountain Trailhead, retracing our steps back down the same trail we hiked up on. Although it certainly seemed like we hiked uphill virtually the entire way to our lunch stop, going back it soon becomes obvious that wasn’t the case at all. There are lots of ups and downs along the way as we head back down the east side of the Santa Catalinas on the Green Mountain Trail. And still no mountain biker encounters. If they’re out at all today, they must all be at the upper San Pedro Vista end of the trail.

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The Catalina Highway slowly makes its way to the top of Mt. Lemmon. [photo by Quy]
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There are big rocks and then there are really big rocks. [photo by Eileen]
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Cathy, Dottie, and Debbie make their way down the trail. [photo by Eileen]
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Lata and Chuck are hoofing it back to the trailhead. [photo by Eileen]
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A lesson in tenacity: two trees growing out of solid rock. [photo by Eileen]

We make good time on the return hike and by 4:00 PM all hikers are back at the trailhead and then the nearby parking area. According to Eileen’s trusty GPS, we hiked a total of 6.3 miles today, although it certainly seemed like more than that. We stow away our gear, clean up a bit, and break out some refreshments of the hoppy nature. Brianna goes over my Tucson map with me and makes a few suggestions about where to stop for dinner. So many restaurants. So little time.

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Trailblazers regroup in the parking lot after the hike. [photo by Quy]
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Brianna and I go over my Tucson map for directions to dinner. [photo by Quy]
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Rudy demonstrates the Catalina Sasquach Walk. Or is it the Chicken Dance? [photo by Quy]

So we all pile into our vehicles and head back down the long and winding Catalina Highway for Tucson. One of Brianna’s recommendations is Opa! Greek Cuisine, and that is exactly where we find ourselves as the sun is setting over Tucson.

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Good Grief! Call 911! Someone’s dinner is on fire! [photo by Quy]
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Oops – never mind. It’s only Rudy’s burger flambé. [photo by Quy]
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Trailblazers enjoy an outdoor dinner as the sun sets on Tucson. [photo by Quy]
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Gary, Dottie, Cathy, and Lata. [photo by Quy]
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Arturo, Chuck, Rudy, and Barry. [photo by Quy]
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Linda, Edith, Eileen, and Quy. [photo by Quy]

Dinner is great and many of us have enough left over for another meal later at home. As we say our goodbyes and part company for the drive back to Phoenix, we discuss a few upcoming hikes. So many trails. So little time.

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updated September 13, 2016