A Thunderstorm Interrupts A Confusing Exploration Of Sawmill Canyon Trail.
By Kevin Franklin
A DRY STREAMBED is like a concert hall without the musicians.
If you've ever walked by a wash on one of your favorite mountain haunts and thought, "Sure would be nice to see that running," well, now's your time.
With a pretty decent monsoon season wrapping up, many of the usually dry--or at most damp--drainages in the mountains around Tucson are now flowing. Case in point: Sawmill Canyon on the east side of the Santa Rita Mountains.
In the 1870s Edward Fish, of Fish Canyon fame, ran a small lumber outfit out of the canyon. These days, not much lumber is being extracted from the area, but you can get a pretty good hike out of it.
There are two principal ways to head into Sawmill Canyon: The sensible way and mine. I never set out to do things the difficult way, it just turns out like that. On my Santa Rita Trail and Recreation Map, printed by Rainbow Expeditions, the Sawmill Canyon Trail seems straightforward enough. According to the map, driving in on Gardner Canyon Road eventually leads to a connection of secondary roads, a jeep trail and directly into the hiking trail.
I drive in on Gardner Canyon Road, a.k.a. Forest Service Road 92. A half mile off the pavement, the road forks. FS 163 heads off to the right and Fish Canyon. FS 92 bears left and on to my destination. Around 6.2 miles later there's a dirt road intersection. Turn right and head to Aliso Springs. After 1.3 miles keep left and toward Sawmill Trail; do not go right, toward Cave of the Bells. Shortly after this another fork presents itself. To the left is FS 4084, a road not to be traveled lightly by anything short of a serious 4x4. FS 4084 is not on the recreation map and its ultimate destination is unknown to me. Being alone and with my rear differential on its last legs, I opt to go right, across the now-running creek, and park my truck in a shady meadow.
Here the Jeep trail on the map supposedly follows the creek upstream until it eventually connects with the official trail. Lies! Damned Lies!
While it provides a beautiful walk, it ceased being a Jeep trail some time ago. Pink verbenas, daisies and orange poppies pop up through the rocks, and the whole place feels more like Maine than the Sonoran Desert. But about a mile into it, the trail terminates at a substantial dirt road running perpendicular to the old trail and the stream. I pull out my map to figure out where I am. After about an hour of first hiking one way on the road, then the other, standing on stumps and taking compass bearings, I determine the damn road is not on the map, and neither is the trail that the map indicates in a brazen red line. If I hadn't had a map, and were ambling around, I would have been quite content to bushwhack up the stream. And that's what I do after determining the impossible nature of reconciling the map with reality. Recreation maps bear a certain similarity to computers in times like these--modern conveniences that make your job easier and always save you time and energy. Not.
By merely following my instincts I make much better time. In a half-mile I come to Aliso Spring and the actual trailhead, not to mention another road coming in from somewhere. FS 4084 is my prime suspect for this road leading to the trailhead and the mystery road a half-mile back there.
I start marching along. In three-tenths of a mile I bump into the Greaterville Trail coming from Melendrez Pass and, for everyone else, the more sensible way up into Sawmill Canyon. Around 1.6 miles later I come to Sawmill Spring. My destination and burning desire is to reach Florida Saddle. There the stunning view of Mount Ian (Wrightson's less famous associate) and the vast stretches of land on either side of the saddle wait for the courageous. The last mile up Sawmill is a bear, especially after traipsing around for the better part of a day. It is similar in steepness to the legendary last drive up Rincon Peak. But I'm determined.
Equally determined to reach its destination over and past Sawmill Canyon is a massive thunderstorm. It rumbles its conviction to me and flashes of lightning make it clear what will happen to flimsy humans who stand in its way. I try to bravo my way though, thinking it might pass around the mountain, but a mighty crack of thunder directly ahead of me wilts my determination. I beat a hasty retreat, occasionally jogging through the heavy rain. My boots feel like a marsh.
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