The Phoneline Trail - Winterlude 2021 - CycleBlaze

January 10, 2022

The Phoneline Trail

Another sunny but quite windy day, strong enough that a bike ride doesn’t sound that enticing.  We’re due for a hike so I look at the wind direction and come up with Sabino Canyon as a promising destination.  With a strong east wind it seems like it should be fairly sheltered up there today.

We’ve never hiked in Sabino Canyon before.  We’ve started out from its visitor center twice but both times we hiked east from there and up Bear Canyon to the Seven Cataracts, a terrific hike that was actually my first thought for today too - it’s been on my mind since looking down into it from the Thimble Peak viewpoint on the climb to Mount Lemmon a few days ago.

The other thing that’s on my mind though is water.  I was surprised to see water flowing in Rillito Wash two days ago, and it makes me wonder how much of a challenge it might be hiking up Bear Creek where the trail crosses the creek seven times, in both directions.  The first time we took this hike there was enough water in the creek that crossing the creek was a bit of a challenge in a few spots, so maybe this isn’t the right day for it.

Instead, I look again and find the Phoneline Trail.  It’s name doesn’t inspire us, but the reviews are excellent and it looks perfect for the conditions - after a gradual climb it parallels Sabino Creek as it works it’s way northeast into the canyon, more or less maintaining a constant elevation  partway up the east wall of the canyon, the creek about five hundred feet below and the canyon walls towering fifteen hundred feet above.

After an easy fifteen mile drive we’re at the visitors center, happily finding that our national park pass lets us avoid the $8 entrance fee.  A few hundred yards into the walk we cross Sabino Creek, its level high enough today that it’s flowing across the road and we get our feet wet with the few giant steps we take crossing it.  In another half mile we come to the junction of the Telephone Pole and Bear Creek trails and start gradually climbing. 

On the Telephone Line Trail.
Heart 6 Comment 2
Bruce LellmanI've never thought of coordinating my attire with the color of the sky but Rachael thinks of everything.
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2 weeks ago
Scott AndersonTo Bruce LellmanYes, even her water bottle matches although you can’t see it here.
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2 weeks ago

The name for this trail is odd and must have a history, because there’s no sign of a telephone line - now, or residual from the past.  They should rename it to something more characteristic to make it sound more attractive.  As it was, my first reaction was to keep looking, imagining a walk along a clearcut beneath a row of utility poles.

It’s nothing like that.  It’s an excellent trail and a hike with outstanding scenery that becomes more dramatic with every mile.  Really, it’s the best hike we’ve taken in any of our stays here in Tucson.

For about a mile the trail climbs as it gains a thousand feet at a steady grade.  The trail alternates from dirt to rocky slabs and steps but is well maintained and technically unchallenging.  Before long we’ve risen enough to start enjoying impressive views back out the mouth of the canyon and down to the creek below and the paved road that follows it.  The water is high enough that it flows over the top of the road in a half dozen different spots, high enough that we can see that walkers on the road are stopping for second thoughts before fording it.

The view back and out the mouth of Sabino Canyon. our hike began at the visitors center, visible as a whitish smear at the road junction in the center of the frame.
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Sabino Creek washes over the top of the paved road that extends about five miles into the canyon. You can see that it’s fairly deep from the splashes of the hikers’ footsteps. I’m really surprised that there’s so much yellow still on some of the trees this late in the season.
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Bruce LellmanI feel like this is a flying dream.
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2 weeks ago

This is a popular hike, and for the first two miles we see hikers fairly frequently - perhaps a dozen or so parties in all, nearly all of them walking in the other direction.  After that though the traffic drops sharply, and by the time we stop for lunch two miles later there’s no one around at all.  Perhaps these are mostly folks that caught the shuttle to the end of the road and are hiking their way out?  Or maybe most people only hike the first few miles and turn back.

If they’re only hiking the first two miles of the trail they’re making a big mistake because the hike gets better and better as you walk deeper into the canyon.  The cliffs above are dramatic and even sobering as you look at the giant blocks perched on the slopes around you; and the views ahead and across the canyon become breathtaking.

(An update: these remarkable banded and striated cliffs are gneiss, composed of Oracle granite that is 1.4 billion years old with intrusions fromWilderness Suite Granite 50 million years ago. Here is a good reference to the geology of the Catalina Mountains.)

Fifteen hundred foot cliffs soar straight above us.
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It wouldn’t do to find yourself here at just the wrong moment.
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Bruce LellmanWhat kind of rock is this? Doesn't Bill do rock?
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2 weeks ago
Scott AndersonTo Bruce LellmanBill rocks alright, but I don’t think he does rock. Thanks for the reminder, I’d meant to research it myself. My first guess is gneiss, but I’ll read up and report back.
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2 weeks ago
Scott AndersonTo Bruce LellmanNice, it’s gneiss! I love it when I’m right more or less through a lucky guess. I’ve updated the text to include a good reference to the geology of the Catalina Mountains, but here’s an excerpt: “ The gneiss formed about 25 to 35 million years ago from the deformation of two kinds of rock: the 1.4-billion-year-old Oracle granite and granite and pegmatite that were injected into it as sills about 50 million years ago.”
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The view up-canyon. I’m not sure but I think that’s Thimble Peak jutting up on the right, she formation we’ve seen from its opposite side on the climb of Mount Lemmon
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Zooming in on my partner up ahead.
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Another view back out of the canyon, looking across the city to the Tucson Mountains.
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There’s a lot of diversity in the vegetation on this wall of the canyon, which is cooler and shaded from the sun for much of the day. This is a miniature fern garden, the fronds only about two inches long.
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Bill ShaneyfeltI'm delving into a bit of learning here...

Might be some species of lipfern.

https://wildflowersearch.org/search?oldstate=gms%3A10%3Bgmc%3A32.375%2C-110.726%3Blocation%3AGeneral+Hitchcock+Hwy%2C+Mt+Lemmon%2C+AZ+85619%2C+USA%3Belev%3A6427%3Bcat%3AF%3B&buttonName=none&hab=&Elev=&Submit=Submit+Values&PlantName=Myriopteris+
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2 weeks ago
Scott AndersonTo Bill ShaneyfeltLip ferns! I’ve never heard of them but it looks exactly right. I saw a different but similar species not far off this that looks like it’s likely a lip fern also.
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2 weeks ago
Rich FrasierBill is just amazing.
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2 weeks ago
Agave and lichen.
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Rachael gets ahead of me as always, and just as I’m finally about to call and suggest we should be turning back soon I hear her calling from up ahead.  She’s sitting in the sun in the ideal lunch spot, tucked on a rocky bench above the trail.  She’s very pleased with her discovery of this place - it’s warm, sheltered, and off the trail enough that there’s some privacy.  But in fact for the whole time we’re stopped here not another soul passes by to intrude on our solitude.

Perfect!!
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We’re just shy of four miles into the hike, which is starting to feel like a complete outing to me.  When we resume walking after lunch I head for the exit until Rachael states that I’m going the wrong way.  I’ve arbitrarily mapped the route for another half mile up the trail which just keeps going as far as you have legs to carry you, but we agree that we should walk a short ways more to see what’s around that next bend.

She’s right, because around the next bend the views are even better - as they continue to be for the next six bends beyond that.  Finally though, a half mile later it’s time.  We don’t want to be finding ourselves out here too late in the day.

Another look back , from deeper in the canyon.
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Ocotillo and a creeper of some sort.
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On the Phoneline Trail.
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This far into the canyon we start getting views out its upper end to Mount Lemmon.
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Another ocotillo/creeper shot, with a staghorn cholla tossed in.
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A fantastic place, one to return to someday.
Heart 4 Comment 4
Rich FrasierYou’ve got a serious tan going there, Scott.
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2 weeks ago
Scott AndersonTo Rich FrasierNice of you to pick up on that rather than the white sideburns.
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2 weeks ago
Rich FrasierTo Scott AndersonCommenting on other’s grey hairs would be risky on my part.
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2 weeks ago
Quartz teeth.
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Andrea BrownHa, that was my impression too!
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2 weeks ago
Bruce LellmanPetrified crocodile.
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2 weeks ago
One more view out. Really, we have to come back and go even deeper into the canyon someday.
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Yup, I’m pretty sure now. Thimble Peak.
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What do you think - is this one saguaro or two?
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Bill ShaneyfeltOne or two? Yes.
:-)
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2 weeks ago
Scott AndersonTo Bill ShaneyfeltThanks, very helpful as always.
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2 weeks ago
Bruce LellmanOne hard life at first but it seems to have found its way to a better one. Persistence paid off.
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2 weeks ago
Bill ShaneyfeltActually, I believe it is one cactus, with the top being a branch from the lower section. At any rate, it sure is a tough one! Almost nothing to root into.
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2 weeks ago

We make as good a time as my knees will allow on the four and a half mile walk out.  It’s a good terrain for me, with no really steep or difficult spots.  It’s pushing the limits for the day though and at the end Rachael decides to walk on ahead and get to the car so she can change into her long pants for dinner.  

When I arrive at the parking lot and start looking for the Raven, the phone rings.  It’s Rachael, wanting to hear how far down the trail I still am.  She’s surprised to hear I’m here already because she’s just arriving herself.  She added a few hundred yards to take the short nature walk by the visitors center while she was waiting; and when we meet up at the car she pulls out the phone to show me the photo of the crested saguaro she’s just seen - an incredible specimen, the most amazing one yet.  I’ve had enough walking for today but obviously I’ll be coming back to see for myself.

I love it out here this late in the day when the saguaros almost have an aura from the low sun.
Heart 3 Comment 1
Oh, good heavens.
Heart 5 Comment 2
Bill ShaneyfeltInteresting! Never seen a crested turned normal before...
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2 weeks ago
Bruce LellmanI love these!
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2 weeks ago
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Hiking stats: 9 miles, 1,500’

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Comment on this entry Comment 5
Gregory GarceauI thought I'd increase your comment count with a bunch of one-word remarks. I really wanted to make a one-word joke about the gigantic seamstress who uses that thimble on Thimble Peak, but I couldn't come up with the right word to do so.
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2 weeks ago
Andrea BrownWhat a gorgeous hike, thanks for sharing.
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2 weeks ago
Scott AndersonTo Gregory GarceauThanks, I was about to say something about your uncharacteristic brevity until I came to this comment.
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2 weeks ago
Bruce LellmanWow!! I want to experience this hike.
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2 weeks ago
Rich FrasierAlmost makes me want to come to Tucson!
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2 weeks ago