Day Hike - Mountains of Southern Arizona


Day Hike - Mountains of Southern Arizona

Hike part of the Arizona Trail along the Bellota Trail, continue down into the Aqua Caliente Canyon via the La Milagrosa Trail, enjoying the beautiful flowers and rock formations of the Catalina Mountains along the way.

  • Strenuous
  • Challenging
  • Mileage: 12.5 mi
  • Elevation Gain: 3,000 ft
  • High Point Elevation: 5,000 ft
  • Pace: 1.25-1.5

Molino Basin Trailhead at 6:15 AM. If there are some clouds forecast for the morning, you might want to leave a little early to enjoy the sunrise along the scenic drive up to the trailhead.

A Caltopo map of the route

The main group will do an out and back  along the red route, ending in the floor of Aqua Caliente Canyon. 

The green route shows the extension for the folks that want to go longer and faster. It makes the hike 16.5 miles with 4000' of gain.  This group will do the loop around Aqua Caliente Canyon.

 2020 pictures of the hike

This is 1 of 14 day hikes being posted in the Tucson area from March 17th through March 31st. Sign up for as many or as few as you like.  Note that the tread on these trails is not as easy and fast as a typical WA trail. It can be relatively slow going. While these are all harder hikes, you don’t have to be super fast or strong, we will spend a lot of time on the trails, we won’t race through the hikes. The overall pace will be between 1.25-1.5 MPH. There will be time for gazing, examining, and photos. For those who want to hike faster and longer, 6 of the 7 routes will have optional extensions.  

There will be no organized lodging or transportation down to Tucson. As people sign up, I will share contact information so that people can perhaps make plans to share lodging and or rental cars. We will certainly try to organize carpooling to the trailheads and some dinners. An ideal location would be on the northeast side of the city, but downtown or the university area will not be much further from any of the hikes and will be closer to the 2 trails west of town. Here is a map showing the trailhead locations for all of the hikes.

About the hikes

I got “stuck” in Tucson during the early pandemic and did extensive research/hiking around Tucson. I was meticulous about following all guidelines and regulations in regards to Covid-19. This trail and the 6 others were selected using these three factors:

  • They have relatively good tread 
  • They are March wildflower hikes (photos below)
  • They have tremendous scenery 

The hikes may be rearranged due to weather: If there is a very hot day, we will do one of the hikes that is at a higher elevation. A few of the hikes have lots of nyctinastic flowers (only open in sunlight, poppies, creamcups, chicory, fleabane, etc.), we will do those on sunny days. Bear Canyon has creek crossings, we may need to move the day it is hiked if there is rain or mountain snow. There is a USGS water gauge on Sabino Creek and I know what level that needs to be at or below for the Bear Creek crossings to be passable. 

You may need or want to take a “day off” of hiking. It is OK to sign up for all 7 hikes in a week and then take one of those days off. This way, if there is a hike you particularly want to do, you won’t miss it if it is rescheduled. A list of other things to do in Tucson is below. 

6 of the 7 hikes are within 30-45 minutes of Tucson. We will meet at these trailheads at 6:15. Early starts are the way to go here for a few reasons: these are all popular locations, more wildlife, we will mostly do the uphill in the cool morning, and the sunrises can be very scenic. 

Disclaimer on the photographs, these were all taken with a 3 year old cellphone and I am very much an amateur, they are here to give you a feel for what to expect.  

Reasons to hike in Tucson in March

#1, the weather and the sun - During March, the average high temperature in Tucson is 75 and on average it rains on 2 days during the month. On March 24th, at solar noon, the sun will be at 59.5 degrees in the sky, it will not reach that height in Seattle until May 8th. There are often cool breezes on the trails we will be hiking, the combination of warm, direct sunlight and a cool breeze is incredible. 

#2, the flowers - I’ve learned as a hike leader never promise anything, especially wildflowers. The photos in this album are from 2020 and it was a slightly above average year for wildflowers (according to the locals I queried). It is the only year I have experience with. I do know what to look for in order to predict the flowers, relatively frequent rain showers in the winter and early spring (this criteria was stated by a botanist who is a ranger at Saguaro National Park). I will monitor this and let participants know how this progresses. Washington has some of the best wildflower meadows in the world, it’s hard not to be let down when you go elsewhere. What’s cool on these hikes is how different many of the flowers are. They are often small, but almost always, if you look closely at what’s on the side of the trail, you will see something amazing. A hand lens, or even the zoom function on a cellphone camera, reveals amazing colors and structures. Some of the flowers I saw on these hikes in March of 2020 (creamcups, whisperingbells, fairydusters,  they're as pretty as they sound)

#3 clear skies, high clouds, and tremendous views - on all of these hikes we rise above the elevation of the city and on days with low humidity (almost every day in March), the skies are incredibly clear. The clear skies, in combination with cool looking clouds that are often present, adds to the incredible vistas and makes for stunning views and photos.

#4 the wildlife - There are 562 species of birds in Arizona, if you’re a birder, bring your binoculars. I saw a roadrunner, falcons (there is a nest on a cliff in Bear Canyon that may be in use again in 2021), many hummingbirds, White-throated Swifts, and heard countless calls and songs that I had never heard before. Seeing Gila Monsters is rare, but I was lucky enough to see 3 of them. It is the only poisonous lizard. I saw about 10 other species of lizards. I only discovered (was the first to see) 5 snakes in the hundreds of miles I hiked. They were so quick to get out of my way, I only got a look at and videotaped two of them (one was a rattlesnake).  Twice I came upon others that saw a rattlesnake and I shot some video.  If you want to see reptiles, hike in front, if you don’t, hike behind someone. I saw many small mammals, including a jackrabbit and an antelope rabbit (it made me say “whoa’ if was so big). I saw 2 glimpses of javelinas on trails, on 2 occasions javelinas strolled in front of my car on the way to trailheads in the morning.  Some wildlife photos and videos

#5 the insects (especially the butterflies) - I saw many varieties of beetles I had never seen before, some insect procreation, a desert centipede, lots of different bumblebees, and a wealth of butterflies. There were hikes where a butterfly was in sight every step of the way for miles. Some photos and videos


Reasons you may not want to sign up 

bees - If you are deathly afraid of and/or allergic to bees, this isn’t a good trip for you. In the desert, where there are flowers, there are lots of bees. There are long stretches of trail where the droning of bees is a constant. There are many flowers overhanging the trail and it is impossible not to brush against flowers that bees are feeding on. With that said, I brushed against these thousands of times and never once was stung. The honey bees have crossbred with bees originally from Africa, it is important not to swat and/or kill these bees, that can set off swarming. 

venomous creatures - There are scorpions, black widow spiders, and rattlesnakes. The warnings at the trailheads say to not put your hands anywhere that you cannot fully see because these creatures like those places. The hikes we are going on will not require the use of your hands, there might be a 1 or 2 exceptions to this for some people. You just need to look closely at where you want to put your hand and watch where you step. The trails are wide enough and clear enough that you can always see where you are about to step. ”85 percent of rattlesnake bites are to the fingers and hands. 13 percent of snakebites occur on the feet and legs, rarely above the ankle. 57 percent of snakebite victims were handling the snake at the time of the bite.” If you hike behind someone, you will not discover a rattlesnake. 

There are a few spots of mild exposure on 2 of the hikes - I am a 3 out of 10 when it comes to exposure, and I got a tiny bit nervous in 1 of these spots. If you are really uncomfortable with exposure, send me an email, by comparing notes on which hikes have made you nervous and/or made you stop and turn around, I think we can figure out if you’ll be OK on these hikes.    

There are no water sources on 2 of the hikes, you'll need to carry all of your water. The recommendation in the desert is at least 1 gallon per person. The humidity is so low, there is virtually no shade on these hikes, we will be at elevations between 3,000 and 5,000 feet, and it's usually sunny, your body will lose a lot more water than it would on a typical hike in Washington.    

Other things to do in Tucson:

Chiricahua National Monument (i can suggest hiking routes)

Rougher hikes around Tucson (I have been on many of these trails and can provide info and suggestions) 

The road up Mt Lemmon (we will go part of the way up this for 1 of the hikes)

Kitt Peak National Observatory

Picacho State Park, very easy hiking with lots of flowers

Madera Canyon, an amazing birding location

Karchner Caverns State Park

The Desert Museum (zoo and botanical garden)

Pima Air and Space Museum

Titan Missile Museum


Mountains of Southern Arizona

  • Green Trails Santa Rita Mountains No. 2962S

    Green Trails Saguaro No. 2910S

    Green Trails Santa Catalina Mountains No. 2886S
  • See full route/place details.
Required Equipment

Required Equipment

The Ten Essentials

  1. Navigation
  2. Sun protection
  3. Insulation (extra clothing)
  4. Illumination
  5. First aid supplies
  6. Fire
  7. Repair kit and tools, including knife
  8. Nutrition (extra food)
  9. Hydration (extra water)
  10. Emergency shelter
Trip Reports