The hike from Sabino Canyon to Mt Lemmon is approximately 15 miles and realizes an elevation gain close to 6,000 feet. This blog post will describe my experience doing this challenging day hike with hopes of inspiring you to follow my footsteps.
After having seen the epic backdrop of the Catalina Mountains on a daily basis while living in Tucson over the past year and a half, I knew I wanted to hike to the top before moving out of town.
When I arrived in Tucson in the summer of 2019, the mountain was on fire and smoke was visible from pretty much anywhere in Tucson. It took a few months before the fires subsided and I actually make the hour-ish drive up to Summerhaven via the General Hitchcock Highway (aka the Catalina Highway/Mt Lemmon Highway).
Over the next few months on separate short day hikes, I explored Marshall Gulch Trail and Sunset Trail with family, friends, and solo. But these small hikes barely scratched my itch to conquer Mt Lemmon.
Finally after hiking 1.5 miles up from the Ventana Canyon Trailhead in late January 2022 and realizing this trail ultimately will get you to Mt Lemmon, I knew a backpacking trip up the mountain would be in my near future.
My hiking buddy (31 years old) came into town on February 1, and we did some quick training consisting of running the hills of Tucson Mountain Park, Tumamoc Hill, and the iconic A Mountain.
I (32 years old) was in pretty good shape having consistently ran 15 miles per week over the past year and a half. My friend had just started running low mileage a few months ago.
Tucson sits at an elevation of 2,389′ which I had acclimated to over the past year and a half. My friend on the other hand came from an elevation of 300′. This likely caused him some altitude sickness during the hike.
Our packs were around 50 L each which was overkill, but better than a bookbag. We each carried 5 L of water. There are at least 3 water sources along the trail. Food consisted of fresh apples, oranges, carrots, radishes, and cauliflower in addition to granola bars and homemade trail mix. We also packed omusubi stuffed with salmon and sandwiches.
The day before the hike, we drove 2 cars up to Summerhaven and parked one along N Sabino Canyon Park just before Marshall Gulch Picnic Area. I had no concerns leaving it there overnight.
The morning of the hike, we parked in the overflow lot Sabino Canyon Visitor Center. There is an $8 day fee if you don’t have another pass like the National Park Pass. There are no restrooms here that we could find, but the visitors center has some.
We took off at 6:30 on February 9, 2022 just as the night sky was seeing its first morning light. We walked the first 5 miles to the Sabino Canyon Trail #23 on the macadam road which is closed to cars.
Around 2.5 miles further, the trail intersects with Arizona Trail near Box Canyon Camp. The signs will show West Fork Trail #24 and East Fork Trail #24A. Take #22 Box Camp Trail.
Until this point, the trail is well marked. When crossing the river (which did have flowing water, but passable), look for stacked rocks on the other side. Stacked rocks will be your guide for the next few miles while walking up fields of long dry grass and shrubs.
The Saguaro cacti will fade away as the elevation changes and the trail becomes steeper and more well-defined. This section of the hike is very challenging due to the extreme elevation changes. At first, you’ll see an occasional evergreen tree, but by the time you get to mile 11, you will be walking through forests.
By the time we got to an elevation of 7,000′, we also began to see snow on the “winter side” of the hills and valleys.
The trail eventually will end at Box Camp Trailhead along Mt Lemmon Highway at an elevation of 8,000′. You do have the option of continuing on a trail to Mt Lemmon if you so desire; however, we were exhausted at this point.
We walk towards Summerhaven along the road for a mile or so until we hitchhiked a ride back to our car in Summerhaven. This was around 4:30pm which was just in time to get a 16″ pizza and plate-sized chocolate chip cookie at Mt Lemmon Cookie Cabin before they closed at 5.