The time is 9:45 on another beautiful Arizona Saturday morning, as five
intrepid hiking club Trailblazers – Mike Wargel, Pat Schulz, Amanda Bosco,
Joe Michalides, and hike leader Chuck Parsons – gather at the NE end of
the Sabino Canyon Visitor Center parking lot to study a large, detailed trail
map. In front of us looms the magnificent Santa Catalina Mountains, one of
Tucson’s most prominent and scenic landmarks.
Our destination today is Seven Falls, situated at the lower end of Bear Canyon
and one of the most popular destinations for hikers in the Tucson area.
The late spring snows
accumulated in the higher elevations of the Catalinas are now rapidly melting
under the relentless Sun of these warm spring days. The resulting snowmelt is
following the course of gravity and eventually finds its way to the top of Seven
Falls, where it plunges and cascades 240-feet down the west granite face of Bear
Canyon in a series of seven cataracts, before merging with the cold, rushing
waters of Bear Canyon Creek.
Hikers start down the trail
into colorful Bear Canyon.
The first three tenths of a mile of our trail follows an easy, wide gravel path
meandering through the desert, before merging with the road to Lower Bear Picnic
Area, now closed to public traffic. An occasional half-empty park shuttle bus
passes us with passengers on their way to the trailhead that we are seeking on
foot. We follow the road for another mile, as it winds its way up and down
through desert hills alive with blooming fairy dusters, globe mallow,
brittlebush, desert chicory, scattered California gold poppies, magenta hedgehog
cactus, and the usual array of LPFs (Little Purple Flowers). Although not a
banner year for wildflowers, this year’s early spring rains in the desert
awakened long dormant seeds and brought forth a profusion of flowers and grasses
the drought stricken Arizona desert has not seen in the past few years.
Massive boulders, some the size of cars and buses, choke the canyon.
At 1.3 miles we leave the wide, paved road behind us and start hiking on the
real trail of dirt, gravel, and rocks that these hiking boots and shoes were
designed for. We start a steady, gradual climb, before the trail begins to level
off and we catch our first glimpse of Bear Canyon Creek, coursing its way
through the canyon below us. The creek is dry much of the year, and the only
sign of water is often in the deep pools dammed among the large rocks and
boulders of the creek bed. Bear Canyon Creek is now flowing nicely, thanks to
the earlier snows high in the Catalinas. In another month or so it will likely
be slowed to a mere trickle, buying time until it is revived once again by the
heavy monsoon rains of a typical Arizona summer.
A fresh, cooling breeze greets us as we hike deeper into Bear Canyon and hear
the distant call of the Canyon Wren, carried on the wind and echoing off the
Fairy dusters bloom in profusion along parts of the trail.
Our trail descends to the creek, and we soon reach the first of
seven creek crossings.
Although informed by park rangers only the day before
that water was flowing over the tops of the large stepping stones, strategically
placed at all of the crossings, we find this not to be the case and make an easy
crossing over the stones.
This is prime riparian habitat, and the canyon floor
is lush with palo verde, mesquite, ocotillo, brittlebush, and numerous cactus
species. Closer to the creek, we find towering sycamores, willows, and massive,
spreading Fremont cottonwoods, some a century or more old, as they send down
deep tap roots in search of life sustaining water.
We soon reach the second and third creek crossings, as we penetrate deeper into
the canyon. We begin to see the stark physical evidence of past flash floods
that have raged through this canyon, in the form of branches, limbs, and even
entire logs, deposited neatly at trails edge, as high as ten feet above the
present creek bed. Even higher, at eye level, we catch occasional glimpses of
dead grasses and small twigs lodged in the branches of trees. The canyon floor
is littered with a jumble of huge boulders the size of cars, buses, and even
houses, all seemingly thrown there by some unseen, giant hand. As peaceful and
calm as this creek is now, happily splashing and bubbling its way down the
canyon, it is really difficult to imagine the awesome forces that placed these
boulders where they now lie, that deposited this wood debris at trails edge or
high up in the trees. The raw, unleashed fury of raging water in a confined
space is one of the most powerful and terrifying spectacles in all of nature.
Imagine a towering wall of foaming brown water ten to fifteen feet high ripping
and smashing its way through this canyon, with a brute force great enough to
uproot huge sycamores and cottonwoods, shredding them into small pieces, to move
boulders the size of city buses and houses. The floodwaters quickly pass
through, leaving death and almost total destruction in their wake. Nature
eventually heals itself and prepares for the next flashflood that will
Luckily for us, no rainfall is in the immediate forecast, and we will not worry
about flashfloods on this beautiful, sunny spring day. We are making good time,
as we work our way closer to the falls, and the next three crossings go without
incident, with all of the stepping stones above the waterline. On occasion, we
must thread our way through the labyrinth of massive boulders piled at random
about the creek bed. The granite boulders are cool – almost cold –
to the touch, having retained the cold air temperatures of the canyon nights. We
rest for a bit, as we watch a colorful tiger swallowtail butterfly flitting
about the creekside, looking for a sweet nectar treat among the many blossoms.
Rugged granite cliffs and soaring walls of gneiss, with its very distinctive
black and white striping, rise high above us on both sides of Bear Canyon.
We finally reach the seventh and last crossing before the falls, and although
this is usually the most difficult one to ford during times of higher water, it
proves to be about as easy as the previous ones. The trail now starts to climb
in a series of tight switchbacks, as it takes us higher and higher above the
canyon floor. We finally level off, and the trail is once again parallel to the
creek, flowing far below us. The breeze is growing stronger, as we travel higher
up on the east canyon wall, and would continue to blow steadily for the
remainder of the day, at times seeming to reach almost gale proportions. Hiking
time is about twenty-five minutes between the seventh crossing and the falls,
which should put us there just before noon. There, we will all take a well-
deserved lunch and rest break and do a little exploring around the falls.
In the distance we finally catch our first sign of the falls, not as falling
waters, but rather in the form of a number of hikers relaxing on a large expanse
of flat rock below the trail and just above the opposite side of the creek. We
hike a few hundred more yards before first hearing the sounds of cascading
waters, and then actually catching our first glimpse of a couple of the lower
falls. We hike a bit further up the trail, before finally standing directly
across from Seven Falls and taking it all in for the first time. Although
flowing at only about half the volume seen on a previous visit a few years ago,
it is still a magnificent sight to see this much water flowing in a desert
environment, especially after several very dry years, when the falls were
reduced to a small trickle.
Watch out for those slippery rocks!
Close up shot of the upper falls.
Water pours out of the uppermost falls, 240 feet
above the canyon floor, and cascades into a small pool below, before spilling
over the edge in another falls and then repeating the process in a series of
stair steps and drop-offs all the way down to Bear Canyon Creek.
After passing the falls, we soon come to a fork in the trail. Continuing
straight on the upper route for another five miles would take us to the base of
Sycamore Dam. We take the left fork, which will deposit us directly at the base
of Seven Falls, exactly 4.1 miles from the Sabino Canyon Visitor Center. At the
base of the falls lies the largest of the pools – deep and cold –
and a very popular summer swimming hole. Today, the only occupant is a lone
Mallard duck, paddling about happily by himself and eagerly devouring any food
handouts thrown his way. All this lone duck needs is a mate to complete his
almost perfect world. We join a number of other hikers at the falls and spread
out on some of the large boulders, breaking out snacks and lunches. More hikers
continue to arrive, and the falls soon become a very busy place.
A day in paradise!
U of A coeds enjoying their last day of Spring Break.
A bevy of pretty, young women, most likely University of Arizona students on
spring break, hikes up to a broad, flat expanse of rock above us and at the base
of the next falls. Dressed in bikini tops, tank tops, and shorts, they spread
out next to a small pool of water for some quality sunbathing time.
Occasionally, one jumps into the pool with a loud splash, accompanied by whoops
and hollers from the others. Near us, an energetic two-year old is running
around clad in only a T-shirt, as his parents keep a watchful eye on him.
Other hikers climb up still higher to investigate the upper falls.
After lunch, Joe, Amanda, and I decide to hike up and check out some of the
other falls for ourselves.
The boulders are worn smooth in places, and the footing is a bit
treacherous, but we gradually make our way up to the next two falls, take a few
pictures, and head back down to join Mike and Pat. Soon, we must think about
leaving this beautiful little oasis.
Mike, Pat, Amanda, Chuck, and Joe at the base of Seven Falls.
The ol’ swimming hole is starting to get crowded.
A parting shot of Seven Falls.
We spot a very large contingent of boy scouts and their leaders on the trail
above us, heading down to the falls, and decide to make a quick getaway before
it gets really crowded. We take a couple of quick group shots, bid a fond
farewell to Seven Falls, and head back up the trail. The hike back to the
visitor’s center is relatively uneventful, and we are all back at our
vehicles by 3:00 PM I tell Mike about a special that Dairy Queen is running on
Blizzards for the month of April, and it doesn’t take him too long to make
a decision, since he is fond of making a DQ stop after almost every hike. We
stop at a local Tucson DQ, enjoy our blizzard treats, discuss the day’s
hike, and part company for the drive back to the Phoenix area.