Tucson Mountains Trail Hound: The McCain Loop Trails

Well, it’s a couple of weeks after the fact, but 2015 is here and it’s time to get back out and hike, stroll and meander around the desert in and around the Tucson Mountains again. Herein, a primer on possibly my favorite area around (if not exactly in) the Tucson Mountains, the McCain Loop in Tucson Mountain Park.

Featured Trails: The McCain Loop

Approximate drive from downtown to trailheads: 20 mins.
Approximate length of trails: various lengths, all under a mile
Difficulty: easy as key lime pie
Highlights: lovely, evolving desert landscapes; incredible saguaros and other desert plant life; complete accessibility.

To get to the McCain Loop, travel west on Speedway until it turns onto Gates Pass Road, follow it over Gates Pass and down until it connects with Kinney Road. Turn right on Kinney Road (like you’re going to the Desert Museum) and travel roughly 2/3 mile, taking a left at the sign for McCain Loop; it also says ‘Gilbert Ray’ at the turn off. The Loop is approximately four miles long, and has 8 or 9 small turn offs where you can park. It winds up back at Kinney Road, north of the Desert Museum; you can either turn left and head towards Saguaro National Park West, or go right, past the Desert Museum and back towards Gates Pass Road or Ajo Highway.

This is not really a trail system per se, and there’s no major trails other than the Brown Mountain and Cougar Trails that we wrote up in the last column in 2014. But, this is one of the most singularly beautiful spots in Tucson Mountain Park, at least those that are easily accessible. The desert landscape here is unusually gorgeous, with thousands of healthy saguaros, barrel cactus and all of the other Sonoran plant life, a terrain that constantly evolves from one thing to another as you move through and across it, and great views of the Tucson Mountains to the east and Kitt Peak, Baboquivari and several other mountain ranges to the west and south. The sunset views here are spectacular.

There’s two ways to explore this area on foot; on trail or off. Most of the turn-offs on the Loop are on the left as you move around it from south to north; they all have small trails that lead off into the desert. None are very long, and most eventually peter out as they get further away from the parking areas. But you can spend several hours wandering around on these short trails, all roughly 1/2 mile apart. The terrain is generally quite flat, with the occasional wash cutting through, and a couple of gravel roads leading to who knows where. They are dense with all of the spectacular plant life native to the Sonoran Desert; needless to say, the opportunities for desert photography are endless.

I generally prefer to cross the road and head off into the desert off trail, although this has to be done carefully and with great respect for the desert itself. This is where the terrain and landscapes really shift and morph from one thing to another, every 100 yards or so bringing a new elevation, a new set of rocks or small hills to climb around on, all cut through with numerous washes and small crevices. In some areas the cactus and plant life are dense and nearly impenetrable; a few yards away everything opens up and it feels more like a savannah dotted with cactus. The terrain gets rougher and hillier as you go north, and you can see the back side of the Desert Museum towards the end of the Loop. Brown Mountain and the hills that follow it all the way to the Desert Museum are constantly to the east, the main body of the Tucson Mountains further to the east, across the unseen ribbon of Kinney Road.
I’m constantly surprised and amazed by what I see out here. The saguaros alone are an unending source of visual delight, every one unique and every one more or less like all the others, give or take an arm here or there; an endless variation on a common theme. Likewise all of the smaller cactus, trees, bushes, various grasses (not counting the evil buffelgrass) and everything else growing out of the desert floor. The sky, of course, is spectacular, the sunrises and sunsets legendary. There’s also an abundance of animal life here; in addition to the birds, jackrabbits, snakes, lizards, gila monsters, prairie dogs, javelinas and occasional bobcats, I see coyotes in mid-day perhaps every other time I’m on the Loop, generally around the road leading to the Gilbert Ray Campground.

REMEMBER: the desert is both resilient and fragile. Although the plant life here is some of the hardiest and most adaptable on the planet, it’s still a delicate ecosystem, and ideally you want to leave no trace that you were ever there. It goes without saying that you don’t mess with the saguaros and the other living things in the desert (or leave any detritus behind), but the same can be said for the rocks, earth and everything else here. Watch where you are walking; rock and desert dirt are one thing, but the delicate, mossy-like weave of foliage that crusts over the desert floor at various places is absolutely not to be tread on.

Also, repeat from the last column: the area around the McCain Loop and Brown Mountain - and any of the trails close to the Desert Museum - are unusually populated with rattlesnakes. I’ve been told that this is because of leakage or run off from the underground irrigation/water system at the Desert Museum; the snakes are attracted to the water. Whether that’s actually true or not, a notably high number of the rattlesnakes I’ve seen while hiking in the Tucson Mountains are in the area around the Desert Museum.

More, later, again.

The Trail Hound