The beauty of Sabino Canyon from the Phoneline trail. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

There was no waterfall.

This had nothing to do with our excursion being in late October. It had everything to do with being on the wrong trail. A trail that has no waterfalls no matter the time of year.

It didn’t matter. Our unplanned route was stunningly beautiful. A ranger’s suggestion to make it a loop made it even more sensational.

Looking toward Tucson from the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Sabino Canyon leads to the Pusch Ridge Wilderness Area. The 57,000-acre wilderness area was designated such in 1978, the same year private vehicles were banned from the canyon road. The whole area is part of the Coronado National Forest in Tucson, Arizona.

Today, an emissions-free shuttle takes people up the three-plus mile road to where an abundance of trails begin. We opted to walk the road with a few others. (The Sabino Canyon Recreation Area has more than 30 miles of trails.)

The rocky ridge line above us made me feel small. Saguaro and other desert plants grew from these rocks, looking other-worldly at times because it seemed like there was no dirt binding them to the ground.

While we didn’t see much wildlife, a roadrunner couldn’t decide if it wanted to cross the road or stay to the side where it was almost camouflaged against the terrain.

Roadrunners are popular in this part of the world. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Once off the pavement, the trail was entirely single-track. Some was decomposed rock, other times it was like stairs of rocks. Much of it necessitated looking down.

Information provided by the U.S. Forest Service says, “The Santa Catalina Mountains were formed over 12 million years ago, Over time, the land around them sank, forming valleys while the mountain range was left standing. Episodes of erosion produced thousands of feet of sediment which now liked beneath Tucson.”

Large rock formations line the canyon. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

What I was surprised to learn is most of the rock is granite. Surprised because it doesn’t look like the granite of the Sierra. There is also a “banded gray-and-white metamorphic rock called Catalina Gneiss,” according to the Forest Service.

The road was a gradual climb, with the dirt trail ascending as well. It didn’t feel like we had climbed more than 1,400 feet. But then when peering down at the road the people looked like ants.

Various kinds of cacti grow throughout this national forest. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

A few spots had substantial drop offs. It would have been painful tumbling onto sharp rocks and prickly cactus. Fortunately, when my fear of heights was triggered, I could lean away from the drop and grab onto the rock wall.

We finished the day hiking 9.72 miles, with an elevation gain of 1,463 feet. We reached a maximum elevation of 3,788 feet, and a minimum of 2,671. It should have been a little shorter mileage-wise, but I said we should zig when should have zagged.

There is a $8 parking fee, no pets allowed in the recreation area, and cycling is limited to certain days and hours. The tram is an extra fee.

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