Esperero Canyon

The trail up Esperero Canyon has a long approach just to get into the canyon itself.  Not too many people make it up through the canyon past the falls let alone all the way to Cathedral Peak.  Once on the canyon bottom, the trail becomes a rambling scenic hike through mostly oak forest surrounded by cliffs and spires.

July 29, 2006
The monsoon was in full force and was bringing in enough rain that the temperatures were being held down, so Kathryn and I took advantage of it and accepted the good possibility of getting drenched.  I wanted to follow the road into Sabino Canyon and then split off on the trail at Rattlesnake Creek, but once we got there the creek was raging too much from the rain and it seemed dangerous to cross, so we backtracked to the picnic area trailhead.  The land was saturated from the rain to the point that water was gurgling up out of the bedrock along the trail near the picnic area.  The next night another swell of moisture collided with the lower Catalinas and caused the highest levels of flooding ever recorded there.  Rattlesnake Creek washed out it's crossing, landslide chutes left behind long scars running down many of the ridges, and significant portions of the Sabino Canyon road were destroyed by landslides.  I felt lucky to be immersed in such an infrequent event.  Unfortunately, against public voicing, the road was rebuilt all the way to the last tram stop in order to make money off tourists instead of being returned to a natural state for Tucson residents and better preserving a significant riparian environment.

View up Sabino Canyon as the remnants of overnight rain drizzled down.  The tram is crossing Rattlesnake Creek where it joins Sabino Creek which can be seen filling its banks and flowing through the trees.  Thimble Peak is on the left seen through the rain.

Desert Millipedes were everywhere, they tend to come out in the summer rains.

This is the pouroff at the head of the steep narrow canyon that you have to climb up before dropping into Esperero Canyon, which is on the other side of the ridge on the left.  The creek barely has any watershed above the fall so this is the only time I haven't seen it bone dry.

On left is the view down into the steep lower portion of Esperero Creek.  The photo seems out of vertical but the rock is just tilted as is the case almost everywhere along Pusch Ridge.  On the right is the lower portion of what is labeled as Geronimo Meadow on maps but is really a thick mixed oak forest.  From some parts on the Tucson valley floor you can see this broad valley as a green patch running up towards Cathedral Peak, maybe this all the namer knew of the place, or they didn't know what a meadow is.  The trail drops to the canyon floor near the junction with the creek that's cascading down rock slabs near center .

Kathryn crosses Esperero Creek where the trail finally drops into the canyon.  Cathedral Peak is peaking through the clouds at the head of the canyon in the distance.

Views up at the cliffs and spires through the trees.

View of Cathedral Peak from our turn around point where the trail hooks up the left fork.  A little past this point are the falls that are labeled on the topo map.

Typical view of the trail in the canyon and a Bouvardia in bloom.

A sunnier look back on the tree-filled canyon before heading back down to the trailhead.  The trail makes a sharp left behind the left ridge then climbs a ways before traversing midway up Cathedral Peak to the right to the low point on the peak's right shoulder.  From there it's a trailess climb to the summit, a goal for another day.

The heat and humidity was plenty enough reason for me to try out the falls that had died down a little since coming up the trail.  The amount of sand in the water was unexpected and a little unnerving since it was a long fall for a bigger rock to possibly come flowing over the edge, but it was definitely cooler.

Almost back at the trailhead we saw this Gila Monster which also happened to be right next to a small rattlesnake, not sure what the deal was.  It was difficult to get a photo of since it was moving surprisingly quickly through the brush.

February 14, 2009
This hike had a time limit on account of the date, so Mike turned around where the trail dropped into the creek and I continued until my time expired.

Fairly large Silverleaf Oak framing the cliffs.

These are the falls that are labelled on the topo and a few dead Arizona Cypress can be seen around it.  Just up the trail from here were a few mountain lion tracks in the snow.

Still more dead cypress down in the creek bed which is the left or west fork of the creek and a view up at the slopes of Window Peak.  The Aspen Fire managed to make its way from Mt Lemmon up to Cathedral and Window Peaks and burned many of the trees up there as can be seen on the far ridge.  I think the fire must be what killed the cypress along the creek since some other trees were also burned there.  The cypress must be very sensitive to fire since a lot of the trunks didn't even seem to show signs of burns.

Looking back at the cliffs and spires along the main canyon from my turn around point.  The canyon splits and opens up into a bowl of a multitude of ridges and side canyons.  Rattlesnake Peak is the highpoint at left and some lingering snow is in the shadows..

Cathedral Peak at left crowning the ridge that forms the bowl.  Farther to the left out of view the ridge leads down and then back up to Window Peak.  This view looks lengthwise along Pusch Ridge, the crest of which continues from Cathedral Peak to Rattlesnake Peak at right and is composed of similar tilted ridges along it's length in both directions.

November 11, 2011 
Had the opportunity to do a longer duration hike so I decided to bring the headlamp and make a go of Cathedral Peak.  Wasn't able to get a really early start so I figured I'd probably finish in the dark, which I did.   

The boulder lined creek in Geronimo Meadow where it passes the foot of cliffs that run up to the Esperero Spires.   

Looking up canyon near the falls where large burned out Arizona Cypress still stand in the creek.  There are a lot of cypress saplings starting up here and there in this area along the trail, but there are only a couple existing trees that survived the fire.  The oaks are obviously much less susceptible to fire.   

Sycamores and thick growth along the narrow fork of the creek that the trail briefly follows before ascending up to the ridge above.    

On top of the ridge and looking up the remainder of the creek fork with a patch of thick oak and juniper forest that was spared by the fire unlike the most of the Cathedral Peak's southern slopes to the right.  The Cathedral Rock Trail crosses near the top of this forested patch.   

Looking back down the ascent ridge with the main fork of the creek on the right and the fork with the trail on the left.  Rattlesnake Peak is on the left and Esperero Spires are on the right with the Rincon Mountains in the background.  

Near the junction with the Cathedral Rock Trail looking up to a portion of the western pinnacles of Cathedral Peak and the saddle with Window Peak.  More burned out cypress are visible at what is the base of a large landslide scar that runs down the southwest face of Cathedral Peak and is very prominent from the perspective of Window Peak.  There are many more surviving cypress in the creek bottom here, and Chihuahua and Arizona Pine like the one at right also become more abundant.    

Looking back down canyon from about halfway across the southern slopes of Cathedral Peak on Cathedral Rock Trail.  Most of the slopes immediately below were badly burned by the fire.  The smaller ridge at right is the one that the trail climbs out of the creek on.  The green forest of oaks in Geronimo Meadow is at center with Cardiac Gap just beyond and the Esperero Spires rise above to the left.  As the trail approaches the pass it becomes apparent that the canyon and its east fork, on the left in this view, follow the straight line of a fault that runs up through the saddle itself.  This is similar to the fault that dictates the course of the East and West Forks of Sabino Canyon and lines up with Romero Pass.   

Nearing the saddle and looking along the rocky ridge that extends out to Rattlesnake Peak.    

Looking from the saddle over the scorched but recovering landscape to Mt Lemmon and the large flat ridge that bounds the west side of The Wilderness of Rocks.  Romero Pass is out of view at bottom left and the head canyon of Romero Canyon can be seen at left ascending towards the top of Mt Lemmon.   

Looking up the east slopes of Cathedral Peak from the saddle.  The north and south towers are the two largest outcrops.  The route I took starts up the adjacent ridge at left and basically continues up this ridge towards the rock fin at top left.  

The route starts fading at this point near the rock fin and I had trouble keeping track of the cairns, but the travel wasn't that difficult anyway, other that the steep slope.  I had contemplated finding a passage through these rocks but decided going around to the left or south had a higher chance of success.  These rocks are along the east of two roughly north-south running ridges that somewhat define a summit plateau with a ravine running down the middle to the south.  Once around the south end of these rocks the cairns seemed to be heading straight up the bottom of the ravine, but that route looked tediously choked by boulders and brush.  So I crossed the ravine to the west ridge and traveled below the east base of a large rock pinnacle.  Then I pushed through one short brushy area of oaks along the base of some cliffs and scrambled up a short rocky section to get to the top of the west ridge.  From this point on it was fairly easy travel and route finding.     

This stack of large boulders is just past the rock scramble and is along the top of the west ridge.  These jumbles of differentially weathered granite are all over the summit plateau and present an interesting environment to hike through.    

Incredible view to the northwest of the western pinnacles as seen from a point next to the boulder stack.  I didn't really see any other obvious signs of people on this route compared to when I was near the cairns, but I would definitely rather take this route for the views alone.  The larger trees on the bench immediately below are an Arizona Cypress and Douglas-fir, and at the far end is a Southwestern White Pine.  

Looking west over the western forks of Esperero Canyon to Window Peak and Mt Kimball.  Just visible through Kimball Saddle is the top of Prominent Point.  Wasson Peak and the rest of the Tucson Mountains are in the distance with the Baboquivari Mountains on the horizon. 

Looking along the west side of the west ridge which I followed up towards the right side of the large rock outcrop at left.  

Looking across the east side of the west ridge to the south summit tower at right, which sits at the top of the east ridge and at the top of the ravine which is below to the right.  I basically stayed near the top of the west ridge and headed roughly straight towards the south tower. 

There's a nice bench of rocks perched on the south tower that provides this view of the north tower as well as precipitous views down the cliffs to the east.  The east cliffs of both towers are quite a bit taller than those on the west side, or left side in this view.  As far as I could tell this point is about as high up as one can get without ropes and rock climbing skills, and in my case fear of exposure.  I think the isolated rock at top right is the true high point but it may just be the main part of the north tower behind it.     

View down the cliffs to a patch of surviving Douglas-fir among the rock outcrops on the ridge to the northeast.  Samaniego Peak is the point at upper left and upper Romero Canyon runs up the right side.   

Another view to the northwest on the way back with the western pinnacles behind the Douglas-fir at left and the expanse of Montrose Canyon beyond the ridge below.  The plateau ridge that extends from Window Peak is at left with Mt Kimball, Pima Saddle, and Table Mountain above it in the distance.    

Northeast to south panorama from the top of the west ridge with the north and south towers on the left and the ravine at bottom running between the east and west ridges.  The rock fin that can be seen from the saddle is at the bottom of the east ridge in this view.  Rattlesnake Peak and the Rincon Mountains are obvious just right of center with the depths of the West  and East Forks of Sabino Canyon at center.  Lower Sabino Canyon cuts through on the other side of Rattlesnake Peak while upper Sabino Canyon forks off the West Fork near the little hill down in the bottom of the canyon.  The stack of boulders that I passed by is the farthest right of the outcrops on the west ridge below.  The ridge across Esperero Canyon on the far right leads up to Window Peak out of view farther to the right.  

Even though I wasn't in a rush, this hike is often times finished in the dark.  I was already using my headlamp by the time I took this photo which is actually multiple exposures layered.  It was actually darker than it appears and I'm not even to Cardiac Gap yet, about another hour till I get back to the road.

This is the GPS track for this hike, cathedralsplit.gpx.  I had long intervals between track points for the trail up to the saddle so I think the distance is a little short, plus it doesn't include the road from the parking lot.  I also only included my route back from the top to the saddle which was a bit better than the way up since I knew what I was doing at that point.  I was meandering a bit at the top to check things out but it's pretty easy to pick out any route at that point.  Even though I include the GPS points it's still good to have route finding experience on this tricky terrain, especially after such a long exhausting approach.