B y K e v i n F r a n k l i n
THERE'S ALWAYS TIME for a quickie, I say. Even if you're in the midst of a busy weekend, taking time for a hike of a couple hours can clear your mind and set a pleasant tone for the rest of your day.
The Box Camp Trail in the Santa Catalina Mountains leads to a nice view of Sabino Basin and the entire trip, including the drive up and down the mountain, works out to about four hours. The best way to work in a trip like this is to get an early start. That leaves you in the best of all positions: cooler weather, fewer people and more of the day left after the hike. Even if you don't get rolling out of town until mid-morning, Box Camp Trail does a pretty good job of meeting the first two criteria, temperature and solitude.
Before all the construction during the widening the Catalina Highway, the trailhead was always fairly obscure; most of the crowds still drive past it, toward the heavily used Marshall Gulch trailheads. Now that the roadwork is done, a paved parking area and official-looking signage makes it easier to find the trailhead, just a quarter-mile past the road to the Spencer Canyon Campground. Even so, the actual trail's beginning doesn't stand out very well. When you park your vehicle, look to the north at the hill sloping down into the parking area. The trail begins at the northwest corner of the parking area and heads east up the hill. Eventually the trail does a switchback and starts heading west. There's another trail coming off the parking area almost due west. This one heads down toward the Spencer Canyon Campground and is not the route you want to take.
After climbing up the hill, the trail disappears into the cool pine forest of this 8,000-foot elevation. Then it passes beneath a low-hanging power line, begins heading downhill and the road noise disappears behind the hill and a thick stand of trees. A forest fire passed through here a few years back; you can still see the charred trunks of a few trees among the thick mat of ferns springing up this time of year.
Today I'm hiking with University of Arizona Geology Professor Pete Kresan. His two dogs, Happy and Juniper, join my dog, Shelby, in a rag-tag pack. They sniff and cavort their way through wonderful groves of Ponderosa, Apache and other pines. If you're interested in determining exactly what kind of pine you're looking at, a handy book to bring along is Shrubs and Trees of the Southwest Uplands by Francis Elmore.
An amazing number of gnats are plaguing Box Camp Trail. Buzzing in and out of our field of view (not to mention most of the openings in our heads) the gnats seem bent on annoying us. Times like these make me wish for greater inter-species communication. Pete and I quickly discern that the lead hiker attracts most of the gnats' attention, causing our gentlemanly behavior to reach the very pinnacle of politeness.
"After you, dear friend."
"No, I insist, after you."
"Really, I don't mind following in your footsteps, please proceed."
Even the gnats can't take away from the pleasantness of several flat meadows we pass through. After about a mile the trail descends into a small valley protected from the main blast of the sun's heat. Here a small stream runs almost year-round. But during this driest time of the year, it holds only a few murky puddles.
After 1.8 miles the trail intersects Box Spring Trail. If you want to make more of a day out of the hike, the mile jaunt to Sabino Canyon from here is worthwhile. There is always water there, but because it lies downstream from Summerhaven, I've never been that keen on swimming in the waters of the Sabino.
At the Box Spring Trail intersection, take the left fork, staying on the Box Camp Trail. After this point the trail emerges from the protective valley and onto the eastern flank of the valley. If you didn't get an early start, this is where you'll feel the heat. Begin looking for several granite and gneiss outcrops a quarter-mile past the trail juncture. Here you'll find the excellent views of Sabino Basin and the mountains beyond.
After enjoying a quick brunch, it's time for us to return the way we came, which is mostly uphill, although it's not especially strenuous. The whole trip is about four and a half miles and makes for a great morning getaway.
Getting There--Take Tanque Verde Road east to Catalina Highway. Follow the highway up past mile marker 21. Look for the road to Spencer Canyon Campground. Shortly after that you'll see a parking area on the left. This is the trailhead for Box Camp Trail.
Mapage: As always in the Catalinas, the Santa Catalina Recreation Map works splendidly.
Cutline: Ten paces: Pete Kresan and Out There Dog Shelby split their navigational differences on the Box Camp Trail. Photo by Kevin Franklin
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