The Old Baldy Trail
Being a new to Arizona, I was looking for a good hike close to home. As it turns out, Madera Canyon, in the Santa Rita Mountains of the Coronado National Forest is only about 15 miles from home. I scanned a few maps and on-line sites and decided that the best way to get to know my way around would be to hike up the 9453 foot Mt Wrightson and take a look around. I have been watching the “second sunset”, the bending light ray still warming the peak to the east, after the sun has set in the west, and admired the lofty Santa peak.
I had learned from locals that Madera Canyon was the second-best birding site in the state. A brochure near the park entrance noted that this canyon traverses four life zones, each with many habitats between the desert floor and the mountain tops. This gives this place a variety of climates that are found from Arizona to Canada. Being on a major migration “fly-way”, another brochure, listed about 270 species of birds that can be found here over the course of a year.
The canyon is home to more than just flora and fauna, as there are several bed and breakfasts, the Santa Rita Lodge and Chuparosa Inn. I didn’t take the time to hike the Bud Gode, interpretive Nature Trail or stop and look at the facilities along the way, as I wanted to get an early start on the hike.
Tuesday, November 23rd, I parked at the upper most parking area about 8:30 and pleasantly discovered that the facilities and picnic area were excellent. There are two primary trails that take you up Mt Wrightson. One is called the Super Trail and the other, Old Baldy Trail. The Super trail is longer and a lesser grade. A map at the trailhead showed it is 6.1 miles up the Super Trail while the steeper Old Baldy Trail only about 5.4 miles. As I wanted to catch the morning sun on the rocky peaks, I opted for the Baldy trail that ran up the west side of the canyon, giving me better views of the crags above. This turned out to be a good choice as it was not severely steep and was very well maintained. The elevation at the trailhead elevation 5,450, so the total elevation gain is about 3,500 feet.
The Old Baldy trail climbs the canyon for about 2.5 miles to a place called Josephine Saddle at elevation 7,080. From here you can get a nice view to the South and see both the Mt Hopkins Observatory and the Whipple Observatory to the west. From there the trail climbs to the northeast across the northerly exposed face of Mt Wrightson, past Bellow Springs, switch backing to Baldy Saddle, elevation 8,780. From there, a side trail winds around the eastern side 0.9 of a mile to the summit at elevation 9,453.
It was only about 40 degrees when I left the parking lot and started up the first leg of the trail. I was very impressed with the great condition of the trail and the moderate grade. It wasn’t long before I started getting glimpses of the crags through the forested canopy. It was interesting to see the flora change so quickly as I gained elevation.
By the time I reached Josephine Saddle, I was into a mixed forest with quite a few fir and pine. This was very different from the high desert environment near the trail head. At the saddle, I got my first good look at both Hopkins and Whipple observatories. That must be one heck of a narrow winding road to get up there! I wonder how long it takes a big truck with construction materials or hardware for the observatories to grind up that long grade.
It was less than a quarter mile before the Super Trail left the Old Baldy trail again to wind it’s way around the east side of the mountain. It wasn’t long before the forest gave way to grasslands with scatter large pine. Now I could see Mt Wrightson and the rim to the north of it. Wow, what a view.
A little over a mile past the Saddle I came to Bellows Springs. I was very surprised to find most of the water was solid ice! Only a small trickle of water dribbled out the pipe by the trail. I looked up the draw and saw the little frozen pool that fed the pipe and the rock above it still had ice sickles. The steady grade coming up the hill had kept me pretty warm, but when I saw the ice, it suddenly felt colder and I put my jacket back on.
From Bellow Springs, the trail starts climbing in earnest. It wasn’t long before it became a long series of switchbacks as it slowly climbed toward a small canyon amongst the crags.
The views of the shear cliffs, the canyon and valley below were excellent. It wasn’t too long before I reached the Baldy Saddle and a junction in the trail. It was here the Old Baldy Trail meets up with the Super Trail, a trail called the Crest Trail and the Spur Trail to the top of Mt Wrightson.
The first section of the spur trail was an easy grade as it passed through a burned pine forest. Now I had a great view of the desert to the east and I could easily see the Whetstone Mountains. The early morning, clear sky was giving way to more and more clouds and, since Bellow springs, a chilly wind was beginning to mount. Zip up that jacket and keep moving!
As the trail climbed higher it got into some pretty goat happy (rocky) sections. Even the worst places had been well constructed and at no time did it feel dangerous.
As the trail wound around the south side of the mountain it got rockier. That, with the view to the south, made it very spectacular. It was so beautiful that I was almost disappointed when I reached the top. Two fellows from Colorado where right on my heels and I learned they had left earlier but had come up the Supper Trail.
There is an interpretive sign and the foundation from a fire lookout which had once occupied this summit. I was a bit disappointed that dark clouds had moved in and had obscured the horizon in almost every direction. I could see to the west some break in the clouds so I decided to hang out for a while and see if it would clear. Brrr…..
In a little over an hour, the sky cleared a bit and I did get some pictures. They were not the blue sky, see forever stuff I had been hoping for, but sometimes you just have to take what you can get and be happy. I munch a power bar that had been warming in my pocket and I noticed that there were ice crystals beginning to form in my water. I had been there and hour and a half, freezing my tail, and decided it was time to head down and warm up.
I stopped several times on the spur trail back to Baldy Saddle to take pictures and tried to take advantage of any breaks in the clouds.
It wasn’t long before I was back to Baldy Saddle. It was now about 1:00 pm and I decided to hike out the Crest trail a ways. This trail runs to the north of Mt Wrightson along a ridge with a cliff along the west side. I could see a lot of colorful rock outcrops and thought it would be great to hike along this rugged rim. Soon, I discovered that the trail did not stay on the top of the ridge, so I left the trail and bushwhacked along the rim.
This was a very pretty hike and I loved the rugged beauty of the terrain and the spacious views. They were right when they said everything in Arizona wants to poke, scratch or bite you. I had to be careful to stay out of the numerous thorny bushed or sharp cacti. After a mile or so, I got to a place where the rim made a sudden drop, so decided to drop down the east side of the ridge until I found the Crest Trail. I followed the Crest Trail back to Baldy Saddle and took one more last long look at the easterly view before starting back down the Old Baldy Trail.
It was now about 3:00 pm and I knew that it would be getting pretty dark in the canyon shortly after 5:00. At last the clouds were starting to break up a bit so I took more pictures on the way back down. I really would have loved to have gotten some better shots of the rugged cliff against a dark blue sky, but it just wasn’t going to happen that day. I had thought about going back on the Super Trail but knew I’d make much better time on the shorter Old Baldy trail.
I met another hiker near the intersection with the Super trail, near the Josephine Saddle, as he had taken it up to the Baldy saddle and was now heading down too. We said a quick Hi and bye and started back down our respective trails.
I stopped only long enough to get a couple shots of the flora along the way. Going down was so much easier and in about 40 minutes I was back at the parking lot. It had been a much better hike than I had imagine and I know I’ll go back and hike some of the other trails before long.
As a little bonus, here is what a sunset on the Santa Rita’s looks like from Green Valley. Enjoy the pictures and look for the beauty in your world.