Last month we celebrated my birthday with a backpack trip in Saguaro Wilderness east of Tucson—perhaps my 14th visit since 1970s hikes with the University of Arizona Ramblers.
The area—astride the Rincon Mountains that roll up from 2,700 feet at Saguaro National Park to 8,666 on Mica Mountain and Rincon Peak—hasn’t changed much since my youthful adventures. You pass up through several life zones: rolling foothills dotted with saguaro, woodlands and pools at Juniper Basin and Grass Shack to serene ponderosa pine forest interrupted by striking granitic formations like Man Head, Duck Bill, and Spud Rock on the gentle slopes of Mica. Most trails are still good although my knees hate the National Park Service’s “stair-like” foot-high water bars. A blog on that soon.
Although this diverse wilderness, remarkably, is more or less the same after 47 years and 11 wildfires fires, I am not. Two parts of our revisit covered an area I day-hiked at age 20 for an earlier birthday. The comparison was not flattering.
On my February 14 birthday in 1975, I looped part of the Rincons (now called Saguaro Wilderness) connecting two day hikes. Sunday morning, I joined an official Ramblers day hike to Juniper Basin. At the destination, 7 miles from the trailhead, the other hikers turned back. I went another 6.6 miles over Tanque Verde Peak and down to Grass Shack for prearranged meet up with another Rambler, David (now my husband) who planned to come from Douglas Spring Trailhead. Anxious to catch my ride out (and in the days before cell phones), I jogged most of the way. No David at Grass Shack. Uh oh. I backtracked almost to Cowhead Saddle, met David, returned to Grass Shack, then we hiked out by moonlight. A 28-mile adventure!
On February 17, 2021, the climb to Tanque Verde Peak was grueling. We had camped at Juniper Basin and got a late start on a cold morning. To my chagrin, two day hikers from the bottom caught us before the peak. Yes, it was tougher with a light backpack. But still, did I REALLY jog over the peak and along the undulating ridge beyond that dropped and climbed more than 500 feet several times before Cowhead Saddle? This time, those up and downs about killed me.
The next parts of trip seemed easier. That afternoon we wound up to Mica Mountain (only hardship cold wind and icy snow near the top) to camp at Manning in the pines. A snowy day hike the next morning to Mica, then then down gentle switchbacks to camp at Grass Shack. (At age 21 I did a solo backpack from the Douglas trailhead, over Mica and down to Grass Shack all in one day—about twice the mileage we did in 2021 including day hikes).
But the next morning I encountered the 2.1-mile climb from Grass Shack to Cowhead, which I did three times in my 1975 day hike. Maybe a bit easier without a backpack. But who was this gung-ho girl dancing down and up those slidy drainages and tiring “stairs” three times? Once was more than enough in 2021.
Returning to the mountains of my youth offers memories—and humbling reality checks.