During our month in Tucson, we found many excellent hikes of various lengths and difficulties, and through a surprising range of settings and sceneries. Three unforgettable hiking trails led us to a luxurious desert oasis, a brilliant moonlit peak, and a terrifying hard rock monolith.
On our first notable hike, we traversed a hot desert hell to reach the heavenly oasis of Seven Falls in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Starting out across the searing arid landscape, the desert heat blasted us like a fiery inferno. As we climbed through Bear Canyon, signs of life slowly emerged in the desiccated landscape.
At the top of the canyon, we stood at the gates of heaven, and gazed down into a series of desert waterfalls. Before us was a divine string of seven tall and lanky cascades, each tumbling into its own deep and glorious pool. As if we were dying of thirst, we rushed eagerly to the lush desert oasis. There, we removed our hiking boots and chilled our hot and tired feet in the cold restorative waters. Rejuvenated, we kept cool all the way back through the desert hell to our awaiting air-conditioned car.
We found another way to defeat the devil and avoid the desert heat, on our second unforgettable hike. By the light of the waxing gibbous moon, we followed a nocturnal park ranger and a group of like-minded hikers to the top of Wasson Peak, the highest point in the Saguaro National Park. Starting out just before sunset, the moon was already rising above the eastern horizon, as we walked the 8-mile out-and-back trail. By the time we reached the rocky summit of Wasson Peak, the moon was nearly overhead, and the city lights of Tucson were twinkling beneath our feet.
The silvery illumination of the rocks and plants imparted a soft and delicate ethereal quality to the otherwise hostile environment. As the heat of the day subsided and the afternoon winds settled down, the night sky expanded and the moon grew large and luminous. In the moonlit shadows, the rigid saguaro cacti with their stiff outstretched arms seemed to trail us like an army of zombies.
Fortunately, I am not afraid of zombies. I am not even afraid of death. I am; however, terrified of losing my grip, slipping helplessly out of control, free falling off a precipice, and making initial impact with unforgiving and unemotional rock. Hiking Picacho Peak, I had to face my fears.
For our third unforgettable hike, we came to this stark volcanic outcrop halfway between Tucson and Phoenix, to climb to the top of this mysterious spire rising from the desert. To aid in the ascent of this solitary prominence, the trail is outfitted with a via ferrata, an 80 year old system of steel cables fixed to the rock along the most extreme sections of the route. The trailhead signage indicated that the route to the peak was rated “difficult”. Since the ascent involved a 1,880-foot accumulated elevation gain over the two-mile path, I assumed that the difficulty rating was based solely on the steepness of the grade.
Ignorant of the perils ahead, we trudged up the extremely steep trail. To reach the top, we found the first of three demanding sections where the steel cables were anchored into a bare rock escarpment on a precipitous overhanging ledge. Half-way up, I could not find an adequate foot-hold, and I froze. Petrified, I clenched the cable for dear life, tried not to panic or look down into the terrible void, and struggled to find the guts to take my next step.
When we finally reached the summit, our celebration was well-deserved but subdued. Anxiously, we passed back down the trail using the cables as a life line. Back at the car, I was still shook up, so we went to Dairy Queen to celebrate our achievement. On this day, even the sweet chocolaty goodness of a Peanut Buster Parfait could not overcome our thrilling feelings of survival and accomplishment.
We achieved a lot during the past month in Tucson, Arizona. We explored the kingdom of Sonoran Desert plants, took a side trip into outer space, and left our footprints on the area’s many hiking trails. Our discovery of desert waterfalls in the middle of hell, our moonlight trip to a zombie-infested mountain peak, and our intense white-knuckle ascent of a steep volcanic spire were three haunting achievements that we will not soon forget.