First published June, 2015. One of the more popular summer hikes on Mt. Lemmon is the loop beginning and ending at the Marshall Gulch Picnic Area at the end of Sabino Canyon Park Road, the narrow paved road that runs through the village of Summerhaven.
This loop sports great views of the Wilderness of Rocks and cool mountain surroundings. Three miles of the Aspen Trail and 1 mile of Marshall Gulch Trail are within the Pusch Ridge Wilderness.
Water is found in Marshall Gulch year-round and is still heavily forested. Just don't drink it. In fact, unless you want some kind of dreaded disease, never drink naturally occurring water in Southern Arizona. Bring plenty of your own.
When hiking in remote areas, go with a companion whenever possible. Always tell some responsible person(s) where you are going and when you expect to return. Up on the mountain, cell phone service is spotty at best. Read More
Heading To The High Country
On a Sunday in June, we decided to get out of the Sonoran Desert heat and head up to cool Mt. Lemmon Wilderness. We do this once or twice a year and always find something we had not seen or known before. This Sunday was no different. For instance, we learned who Gordon Hirabayashi was and why they named a campground and recreation area in his honor. See the whole Gordon Hirabayashi story here.
We also learned that the Arizona Trail (from Mexico to Utah) winds through the Mt. Lemmon Wilderness area and that Marshall Gulch Trail is a segment. We also learned that this is where the Aspen Fire all but destroyed the hamlet of Summerhaven 12 years ago and changed the face of Mt. Lemmon for centuries to come. This fire was human-caused.
First, I will tell you my hiking experience and then the warning and lesson. I, the adventurous Ms. Karen, had wanted to do some hiking on Mt. Lemmon and thought a quick downhill hike from Radio Ridge to the village of Summerhaven would be fast, easy, and cool. My hiking companions were unavailable this weekend, but how hard could it be? After all, this area is well-travelled in summer.
The Iron Door Restaurant
When we drive up to Mt.Lemmon, we almost always dine at the Iron Door Restaurant across from Ski Valley chair lift. Great chilli! And Lorrie bakes the best pies. Sometimes we ride the lift to the ridge at the top that overlooks Tucson and points south. In the summer, the ski slopes are green with grasses, interrupted only by tall pines and colorful wildflowers.
Oops! Wrong Trail
After enjoying chili and pie at the Iron Door Restaurant at Ski Valley, we headed uphill to Radio Ridge where Jim dropped me off. He then drove back down to Summerhaven to await my arrival. Having previously consulted a map, I had figured I'd be there in about an hour. Just ahead of me as I ventured forward were several mountain bikers who took Powerline Road that I should have taken for my one hour journey. This trail heads down the powerline to the north end of Summerhaven by the new Community Center. The bikers, however, disappeared in front of me. I found the trail, Aspen #93, that I remembered from my reading. That's the trail I took.
This whole surrounding area is still badly damaged from the Aspen fire of 2003 that burned for 21 days and destroyed more than 85,000 acres of prime forest. It started near the Aspen Trail not far from Marshall Gulch, thus its name.
Finding the posted sign at the other end of the staging area was not hard, although few signs remain. Now, heading down this burnt out area, I took note of the many switchbacks and regrowth of Aspen and ferns along the way. The trail was used but not well-used and definitely not maintained. At times, the path was barely visible, rocky and at times overgrown with new brush.
After 10 or so switchbacks which headed further and further from the town of Summerhaven, I landed in a flat grassy area which again headed south and east to the southern slope of the ridge. This was definitely not the path I had imagined.
Ye Ol' Conundrum
Have you heard of the story of the swimmer who swam the English Channel, got halfway across, decided that she could not make it, so she swam back? This was my conundrum. If I headed back, it was uphill, but I knew where I would ultimately arrive. If I continued forward, I figured it would eventually lead to a trail which would take me to Summerhaven, and, as long as there were signs of life, (others' footprints in the dusty trail), I should be fine. And it could not be far now. What to do?
Uphill looked dire, so I headed down the trail. After a short time, and a couple of indecisive turns over rock that left no footprints, the path leveled out again, headed east and northerly, becoming a refreshing, wooded haven of conifer, untouched by the inferno.
This forested floor turns out to be where several trails meet: Marshall Gulch and Aspen Trail, the Wilderness of Rocks Trail and the Mint Spring Trail; a regular highway intersection of hiking activity. Nevertheless, it is not well marked.
It is here, that I came upon fellow travelers for the first time since leaving the summit. Seeing that there were several ways to proceed, I asked for directions. "Head for Marshall Gulch," they said. The saddle at Marshall Gulch is shaded and quite pleasant. The route down from the saddle can be wet at times and requires some balance and flexibility to negotiate. All in all, it should make for an enjoyable hike, whether you choose to include the Aspen Trail or not.
The Cautionary Tale
Having described my adventure, which took me 2 hours not 1, here are my thoughts. I am a fairly good hiker for 60+ years, albeit an occasional hiker. I spent much of my youth hiking the back country of the Oregon Cascades. That said, heading out alone, without water, short hike or no, was not the smartest thing I have done, especially since I do not know these woods and topography. The trail was narrow at times, vague at times, and a bit tricky for less sure footed mules. Husband Jim, I am sure, was a bit worried, since one hour had turned into two. So, if you go, bring a topo map which you can get at the Summit Hut. Study it. Learn how to read it. Be careful out there and DO NOT SMOKE or build a fire. Enough said.
Here is another route you can take from Soldier's Camp to Marshall Gulch. Enjoy your cool mountain summer hikes with a friend or two. Although we lost a lot of forest in the Aspen Fire, there is still much to appreciate on Mt. Lemmon.
Read our review about the history of Mr. Lemmon in Look to the Mountains, a wonderful book at the Palisades Ranger Station near the top of Mt. Lemmon. Buy it at the Ranger Station or order it from Amazon here. Look to the Mountains