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SABINO CANYON: Blackett's Ridge Trail
Trail Condition: ***
GPS Trailhead Coordinates: N32° 18.560' W110° 49.317'
Distance & Configuration: 6.2-mile out-and-back
Hiking Time: 3 hours
Highlights: Splendid views of Sabino Canyon from vertical cliffs; Bear Canyon and city views; bird watching; a good physical work-out
Elevation: 2,725 feet at the parking lot to 4409 feet at trail end
Access: Open 24/7; parking $5/$10/$20 for day/week/year
Maps: Santa Catalina Mountains; USFS Pusch Ridge Wilderness; USGS Sabino Canyon; free map at visitor center
Facilities: Visitor center; flush toilets; snack/drink vending machines
Wheelchair Access: Visitor center; toilets; Sabino Canyon Road; and the first 0.8 miles of the trail (will require some pushes)
Comments: No pets; no bicycles; horses permitted, but rarely encountered. The last section is signed and mapped as 1.7 miles but was about 1.3 miles on my GPS. It certainly felt like 1.7!
Contacts: (520) 749-8700; fs.usda.gov/Coronado
Some Tucsonans take a masochistic pleasure in running up this steep trail and pride themselves in getting to the summit in well under an hour from the parking lot. Others claim to climb it most days of the week to stay in shape. I prefer to take my time to enjoy the best views in Sabino Canyon and keep an eye out for the flora and fauna.
From the southeast end of the parking lot the trail follows the same route as the Sabino Canyon Phoneline Trail for the first 1.4 miles until reaching the junction signed Blackett's Ridge Trail (see hike #18), 1.7 miles to end of trail. From 1937 and into the 1940s, a teacher at the Southern Arizona School for Boys named Don Everett used to explore this area on foot and horseback, accompanied by some of his students. He would label unnamed landmarks after some of his boys in this case after a student named Blackett.
At the junction, turn east (right) and within a few yards you'll see a table-sized flat boulder shaded by a mesquite tree on the right side of the trail. You are just 300 feet in elevation above the parking lot, so this rock is a good place to sit and consider whether you have enough water and stamina to climb the steep 1,400 feet from here to the top.
The trail starts climbing moderately for a few hundred yards and then begins a series of steep switchbacks up the western nose of the ridge. Sometimes, I have been accompanied by a raven that likes to hang out around these steep rocks. During the summer, lizards abound, and occasional snakes and gila monsters show up on the sharp, rocky, narrow trail.
After 15-20 minutes of climbing, watch for a flat area on the left side which gives a chance to step off the trail and admire the burgeoning view of Tucson to the west and Sabino Canyon opening up to the north and east (your left). There are two or three convenient flattish areas to break your hike above you, all with fine views, so don't feel as if you need to stop in the middle of the narrow trail for a drink of water.
Because this trail is short and steep, you'll find that the plant life varies both with elevation and time of year. What may be seen at 3,000 feet will arrive later at 4,000 feet elevation.
Look for small blue, yellow, white and orange desert flowers in March; palo verde trees densely blossoming yellow in April; and ocotillos showing off red flowers into May, when saguaros join in with their white blooms. Into the hot months of June and July, there are many agaves along the trail thrusting their 20-foot high spikes into the air and topped with dozens of tight, bowl-like clusters of yellow and orange flowers. Barrel cacti are among the latest of the cacti to bloom, with a ring of golden flowers forming a striking crown.
Meanwhile, the saguaro flowers give rise to red fruits, which attract bats and birds, and which offer traditional sustenance to the Tohono O'Odham Indians who still use the fruit to make preserves or a mild wine (but not here harvests occur on the lands of the Tohono O'Odham Nation to the west of Tucson). Following the monsoon rains, there is another burst of small, colorful desert flowers into the fall.
After the initial series of switchbacks, the obvious trail includes some short flatter sections, and your first views of Bear Canyon are seen to the right (south). About half way up, the trail climbs through some rocky slabs where the route isn't always obvious, but if you simply keep climbing, you'll find the trail within a minute or two. If you don't, look back and around and you should see the route. You have to keep climbing.
Next comes a clear trail heading to a peak: but it's false. There are at least two and some folks say three false summits; I think it depends on how out of breath you feel after this climb. When you come to a narrow ridge with exciting views of Sabino Canyon and Bear Canyon on either side, you'll know you are near the end of the trail. By now, you'll have noticed distinctive Thimble Peak (5,323 feet) on the horizon in front of you, 1.5 miles away to the northeast.
Suddenly, a small marker tells you that you have arrived at the end of the trail. Beyond this sign, you can scramble down a rough path for a couple hundred feet before it peters out in a frighteningly steep saddle; this area is called Saddleback on many maps.
To your left, the sheer cliffs drop for hundreds of feet, so watch your step. Most of the Sabino Canyon Road is visible, with occasional shuttle vehicles crossing the bridges more than 1,000 feet below. From mid-February to mid-October, swallows are commonly seen swooping along the cliff top as they busily capture insects, and hawks and vultures often patrol the area. Enjoy a bird-watching break and then return the way you came.
The Sabino Canyon Visitor Center, open daily from 8.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m., has information and useful, free brochures. It also offers a small but interesting exhibit about the history, geology, and wildlife of the canyon, a short movie in the theater, and a gift shop with a fine selection of maps, books, and Sabino Canyon paraphernalia.
From central Tucson, take Broadway or Speedway east to Wilmot Road. Turn north on Wilmot which veers right at Pima Road and becomes Tanque Verde Road. Travel on Tanque Verde east for a mile and turn left (north) on Sabino Canyon Road. Follow Sabino Canyon Road for about 5 miles to Sabino Canyon on your right.
From I-10, coming from the southeast, take Exit 270 (Kolb Road) and follow it north for 10.5 miles to Tanque Verde Road. Turn right for 0.5 miles and turn left on Sabino Canyon Road and follow it for about 5 miles to Sabino Canyon on your right.
From I-10, coming from the northwest, take Exit 248 (Ina Road) and head east. After 6.8 miles Ina becomes Skyline Drive and, almost two miles further, becomes Sunrise Drive. Follow it for about seven miles until it dead ends at Sabino Canyon Road. Turn left and Sabino Canyon is the first entrance on your right.