This spring, Jeff (my backpacking partner in crime) and I had plans for another big backpacking trip to explore the Grand Canyon. This time starting at the North Rim. Unfortunately, the permit lottery gods were not shining on us this time and we were unable to get a permit. As it turned out, we would not have been able to go regardless, as the North Rim is still closed as I write this, and the trail we were to take had some land slide and erosion damage from the winter snows and is not slated to open until mid-June. Instead, we decided to go back up into the Rincon Mountains, just on the east side of Tucson, to explore some new trails and campgrounds. Our 4-day journey took us up the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail to Juniper Basin Campground for the first night. Then on up Tanque Verde Ridge and on to Manning Camp via Cow Head Saddle and the Cow Head Trail for night two. Back down the south side of the Rincons along the Manning Camp Trail to Grass Shack Campground for night three. Finishing up with a 9.5-mile hike down the Quilter and Hope Camp Trail to the Alta Loma Trail Head.
We started out at the Tanque Verde Ridge Trailhead at the Javalina Picnic area in Saguaro National Park: East. Our goal was to get an early start as we had a 6.5 mile 3,000’ climb ahead of us, and the forecast was for sun and 80 degrees. We got a good start at 7:00.
The first 3 miles or so is a steep climb. But there are terrific views of the city and surrounding areas. As you climb up and out of the cactuses there is a lot of grass and no shade. It was hot. But the ridge had lots of overlooks with 360-degree views and the sky was so clear you could see into Mexico. The saguaros were blooming as were some of the prickly pears.
We did manage to find a couple small areas of shade to sit and rest and have a snack. We ran into a group of backpackers on the way down from Manning. Turned out to be the only hikers we saw all weekend. Our destination was the Juniper Springs Campground. Neither of us had been there before but we were told there were juniper trees large enough for shade, the springs were drying up and the availability of water was uncertain. So we each packed enough water to get us up to Manning Camp where we knew there was water. About 5 liters of water, in backpack weight, that translates to about 12 pounds of water! Needless to say, we both started out that morning with backpacks weighing in the upper 30’s☹.
The campground was a welcome sight; shade and running water. We stayed at site 2 off the trail and with lots of afternoon shade. It was after 1:30 when we hiked in and we both were tired. After setting up camp and taking a rest/nap, we headed out in search of water.
About 300 yards downstream was a nice rocky area with lots of running fresh water to filter and fill our bottles. As we headed back, we noticed the sky was getting darker in the east. The previous few days had seen some afternoon showers in Tucson and we hoped it would stay away. It did not. After happy hour and supper, it started to sprinkle then a light rain. So we were in our tents early. It pretty much rained all evening till about 1:00 in the morning.
Our second day started out cool and sunny, but damp from the rain last night. This was out biggest day. Almost 9 miles with a lot of up and down, about 3300’ of total elevation gain. Our big event of the day was the climb up to Tanque Verde Peak (7064’). It was a little over two miles and about 1200’. Fortunately, after finding water at Juniper Basin and knowing there was water at Manning, our destination, we did not have to carry as much water.
Tanque Verde Peak was amazing. It is one of the highest points in the Rincons and we could see for miles. There was a cool breeze at 10:00 when we got there. The trail to the peak is a short 100 yd walk/climb off the main trail. There is a neat little registration station and of course we put our names on the list. At the top is a sign and elevation marker for the peak and there was a cache box with stickers and a journal to write notes in. It was a highlight of the trip.
We then descended 1000’ or so into Cow Head Saddle. I hate giving back elevation I have gained, especially knowing I was going to be forced to earn it back to get to Manning. Cow Head Saddle is the terminus of the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail and the intersection of Douglas Spring Trail and Cow Head Trail (up to Manning). We had stopped here the last time we went to Manning and did again. A great place for lunch and a brief rest before starting the steep climb up to Manning. The first mile or so is all steps. They have built steps into the trail to help with erosion. I hate steps. I can never seem to get in a rhythm with them. I really was surprised however at how much better I did this year than the last time I did it.
Bonus! Fortunately the weather stayed cool and about halfway up it turned into pine forest with lots of shade and a breeze. Manning really is a nice camp. It is at 8000’ in a pine forest. The cabin there was built by the first mayor of Tucson back around the turn of the century and is now used as a ranger camp for the national park. There were 4 rangers there the night we stayed. They were doing ash surveys and other data collection. We stayed in the same camp spot we did last time. There is an emergency helipad there and we saw a great sunset and managed to get a cell signal to check in with the gals at home. The weather was wonderfully cool and no rain.
As it got dark, the birds started in with their evening songs. Wow, there were lots of them and they were loud. Unfortunately, the sky was obscured just enough we did not get a good star viewing this time.
We were up early as we had a diversion hike planned for the morning up to Helen’s Dome before started our first leg down the mountain. It is one of the most prominent rock formations in the Rincons and a visual landmark from down in the valley. It is about a mile from Manning. The only thing is there is no trail to the top, so we had to bushwack and rock scramble our way up. On the way there we saw three deer grazing in the grass. They did not seem bothered by us and just kept doing their thing as we walked by. I was amazed at the view from Helen’s Dome. It provided an even better and more broad view to the east then Tanque Verde Peak, which we could look down on in the distance. Nine miles away to be exact which we had just hiked yesterday! We managed to wave at Jennifer at the house, and texted, but she could not see us 😊.
After taking in the great views it was time to start the 5 miles down to the Grass Shack. It is a campground used by the rangers as a rest and overnight spot on their treks up to Manning. About a mile from Manning is a short trail to Devils Bathtub. A big waterfall and pool in a rock cove. It was very cool but unfortunately the water was about dried up, so it was only a trickle of a waterfall and not a very big or deep pool.
The hike down to Grass Shack was fairly easy and mainly in the shade. It was really one of the prettier stretches of our trip. We saw more deer as we were leaving Manning Camp but no hikers. Once we arrived at camp we chose site 3. Nice, shaded area with running water to fill our water bottles. We got there early in the afternoon and basically just relaxed and explored locally. As evening approached and we settled in for our third and last happy hour the mosquitoes decided to join us so out came the head nets.
One more evening meal of dehydrated food. We took some new ones to try but our favorite is still the Peak Performance brand. One of our goals of this trip was to do better with how much food we take. Usually, we bring way too much and end up just hauling it out and back. This time we did much better and pretty much came out even. Goal achieved.
Another quiet, cool night on the mountain. Once again, we were the only ones in the campground. Our route on our last day was a little over 10 miles and about a 2300’ steady decent. Thank goodness. The Quilter and Hope Camp trails back to Loma Alta trailhead are all open and exposed. No shade. Forecast was for the mid 80’s and sun. That translates to HOT. We were up at dawn, quick breakfast, packed up, filled water and were off by 6 AM. The first half was much nicer than I thought it might be.
We were reentering the saguaro zone and they were in full bloom. For those of you unfamiliar, saguaros bloom in May with beautiful white flowers, which I am told, only last a day or two, then turn into a red fruit. There were some great views both down into the valley and back up into the mountains. Tanque Verde Peak was overlooking us most of the way down. I ended up out in front on point for this leg. Usually, it is Jeff who is smelling the barn and fast on the return. But this time he hung back and let me lead. A few miles down is the junction to Madrona Ranger Station. This is the trail the rangers use to get up to Manning Camp. The road to its trailhead is on private land and not accessible to the public.
Just past halfway down is a stream and rocky area Jennifer and I usually hike up to and use as a rest, snack, turnaround. I was looking forward to some shade and fresh cold water. Wrong on both accounts. The water was mostly gone, and the only shade was in the extended shadow of a tall saguaro cactus. Just as I was rounding a bend on the trail approaching the spot, I heard a noise and looked up the trail to see a big rattlesnake meandering its way across the trail. It was loud, shaking its rattle and telling me to keep my distance. Like I needed it to tell me to stay away!!! I gave it a wide berth as it slithered across the trail and on its way. Needless to say, I was on high alert the rest of the day. Just as I was settling down into my saguaro shadow, Jeff showed up and he had run into a Gila Monster. That was the most traffic we had seen on the trail since we started.
After a nice rest we headed out for the final 3.5 miles of our trek. All in the open sun, and all HOT. We did run into a couple groups of hikers just setting out and a group of horse riders. At about 10:45, we arrived at the trailhead parking lot just as Jennifer was arriving to pick us up. We were sure glad to see her, and her cooler and the air-conditioned Jeep.
In total, about 35 miles and around 6000’ up and down. Four days, one night of rain showers, lots of sun and some great views. It really was worth the effort. We have now pretty much hiked every trail on the west side of the Rincons, so if we are to go to Manning again, it will have to be on a trail originating on the east side.