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Seven Falls Day Hike
Bear Canyon in the Santa Catalinas
April 5, 2003
by Chuck Parsons

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.

b_massive c_deeper
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 canyon walls.

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 inevitably occur.

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!
Seven Falls
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.

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updated September 12, 2016