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Romero Canyon Day Hike
Catalina State Park & Pusch Ridge Wilderness
April 17, 1999
by Chuck Parsons
Kneeling in front: Chuck G. and Tom.
Standing: Peggy, Chuck P., Ben, Elaine, Nancy, Shanna, and Leland.

At 9:15 AM on a warm, sunny Saturday morning, nine Motorola Hiking Club members gathered at the Romero Canyon Trailhead (elevation: 2,700 ft.) in Catalina State Park, just north of Tucson, for the start of our six mile round trip hike into the rugged Pusch Ridge Wilderness area on the western flank of the Santa Catalina Mountain Range. Our destination three miles in the distance and about one thousand vertical feet above us was the lush Romero Pools, where we also hoped to find some waterfalls, courtesy of the recent late spring snowfall.

Waterfalls and pools of Romero Canyon
    After the mandatory group picture taken by Chuck G. at the trailhead, we started out on our journey into the mysterious unknown. The Romero Canyon Trail, named after early pioneer rancher Francisco Romero, actually starts out as a relatively level and sandy old jeep trail for the first half mile or so.

It’s not long before we encounter our first wash crossing through Sutherland Wash, flowing enticingly cool and clear with just a few inches of water, making for an easy crossing only a few feet wide.

Being a veteran of the recent Canyon del Muerto backpacking trip in Canyon de Chelly National Monument, where we encountered many such wash crossings for miles through the massive Chinle Wash system, I envisioned us slogging our way through washes for the next couple of hours. As it turned out, this would be our first and only wash crossing with running water.

The sandy and somewhat slow-going roadbed trail soon gave way to a rough and rocky ridgeline trail of decomposed granite and gneiss, with a generous sprinkling of quartz thrown in for extra measure. We were now leaving the park boundary behind us and entering the wild and remote Pusch Ridge Wilderness, 57,000 acres of some of the most rugged and pristine wilderness lands 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”.

In geological terms – this area really is a geology-lovers paradise – this is a fault-block mountain range, in layman’s terms a great piece of the earth’s crust (tectonic plate) that was split off, tilted over, and thrust upward by unimaginable forces in a great uplifting process several million years ago. Time and erosion has created the mountain and tortured, jagged ridgeline we see today.

As we climb higher and higher in a progressively steeper series of switchbacks (there’s not too much level ground left around here), the air temperature is getting steadily warmer, although we do have a pretty good breeze for awhile to help cool us down.

Falls up close and personal

It soon becomes all too apparent that there is not an awful lot of shade around here, unless you cuddle up real close and personal with one of the many giant saguaros along the trail.

Lack of rainfall is also evident in these foothills in the total absence of wildflowers and grasses, usually pretty abundant at this time of year with even average rainfall.

However, fresh new leaves and blossoms on the ocotillos are a sign of the recent rains and snows of a couple of weeks ago, since this unique desert plant responds virtually overnight to a single soaking rainfall, transforming itself from a collection of dead-looking stalks to lush new green growth. The rains were too little and too late, however, to resurrect the billions of wildflower seeds out of their dormant state. Maybe next year for the wildflowers. Less dependent on rainfall, the prickly pear were just starting to put on a good show with their delicate and spectacular magenta and golden yellow blossoms.

As we struggle along in the switchbacks, we keep a sharp lookout for both rattlesnakes (anywhere on the trail) and desert bighorns (above us in the rocky outcroppings). Fortunately for us, there are no encounters of the rattling kind; but, unfortunately for us, there are also no sightings of the 50 to 150 magnificent bighorn sheep that call this wilderness area home. It seems the best chance of actually seeing the desert bighorns is after one of the fierce winter snowstorms that usually drive them down to the lower elevations. Maybe next year for the bighorn sheep as well. I can see now that I am setting myself up for this one.

In my eternal quest for the ultimate picture, I fall behind the main group to look for photo opportunities. About two and a half miles into the hike, I drift off the main trail to investigate the sound of falling waters. Could it be? Yes it is – a genuine, flowing waterfall! Looking out over the edge of a boulder-filled outcropping, I see a 40-50 foot high waterfall pouring out of the hills about 200 feet below and approximately 100 yards ahead. Unfortunately, there are no readily apparent trails down to the falls. Quite the dilemma here. What to do? Don’t think I will try bushwhacking there from this height – too risky.

Backtracking to the main trail to catch up with the rest of the group (who are no doubt relaxing by Romero Pools by now), I see what surely must be a mirage sent from Heaven coming down the path in my direction – a stunning vision of absolute loveliness with soft, golden locks of silken hair caressing her exquisitely charming face, the very briefest of string bikini tops just sufficient to cover the essentials (how else is a girl to get a good, even tan?), and the shortest of shorts to accentuate the longest and loveliest legs imaginable.

Boy, is it getting hot, or what! I am sweating like a pig. No, I am not hallucinating!

Desperately trying to think of something even remotely intelligent to say, I could only manage to stammer out something to the effect: “Duh, ... hamada, ... hamada, ... hmmm, excuse me, Miss, but do you uh know where the trail to Romero Pools is? I seem to be, uh, sorta lost.”

The Ol’ Swimmin’ Hole

With a warm, inviting smile, but also the faintest look of utter disdain for such an idiotic comment, she tosses back those beautiful golden locks and points ahead in the distance, where any fool with just one half-blind eye can plainly see the trail dead ahead! I mutter a polite thank you, and she silently charges up the trail, leaving me far behind in her trail of dust. I am not complaining one bit. No siree, Bob! I am privileged, even honored, to follow in her dust.

Following in the trail of dust from Her Loveliness, we start dropping steadily in elevation all the way down to Romero Creek and Romero Pools, at last! I shortly catch up to Chuck, Peggy, Tom, and Nancy by the pools, a natural series of potholes carved out of solid bedrock over eons of time by the relentless flow of water. Some of these pools are up to fifteen feet deep and usually hold water year around, offering good swimming throughout the summer; 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, walnut, and ash trees growing along the creek bed provide the first real shade we have seen all day. What a welcome sight this is, and what a great relief from the relentless sun and heat.

Chuck G. suggested checking out the nearby falls, where we found Ben, Elaine, Leland, and Shanna enjoying lunch and a rest break under the shade of a large sycamore tree, bare feet dangling in the cold water of a large pool flowing over the falls. I joined them for lunch, while Chuck went back to the pools to join his wife. This waterfall, at about six feet high, was not as big as the earlier one we had seen from above on the trail, but it still offered a very pleasant retreat from the heat of the day. We later found out there was just no easy way to reach the larger falls, without a major investment in both time and energy.

After lunch and a few pictures of the falls and pools, we started back to Romero Pools. After a very brief discussion of continuing on to Romero Pass – at 6,000 feet, another 4.2 miles away with an additional elevation gain of 2,300 feet. We quickly discarded that idea in favor of starting back to the trailhead. The hike from the trailhead to Romero Pass would make a good, but challenging, day hike (14.4 miles round trip, 3,300 foot elev. gain) in cooler weather and with an earlier start, probably no later than about 7:00 AM.

Tranquility Pool

We reluctantly leave our cool and shady retreat and start the short climb out of this lush oasis and back to the heat on the main trail that would return us to our starting point. The hike back was fairly uneventful and, although easier because it was mostly downhill, it was still a bit of a challenge to stay focused and alert in this heat. What any of us wouldn’t have given for an ice-cold drink of anything at this point!

Chuck Giovanniello and I were hiking out the final mile or so together as we approached Sutherland Wash on this final leg of the trail. I don’t know if the thought crossed his mind, but I had an overwhelming urge to throw myself into the wash and wallow like a pig in the cool, inviting water. However, I quickly discarded that notion in exchange for a return ride to Phoenix with Ben and Elaine (didn’t think Ben would appreciate all the sand and water on his back seat). After a final cool down in the shade of the picnic area, we all said our good-byes and were on the road back to the valley by 2:30 PM.

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updated September 13, 2016