The cliffs surrounding Airmen Peak with the moon barely visible - looking up from Molino Canyon. October 2011
Airmen Peak is a great off-trail destination – tall cliffs, a lovely rocky summit and great views all between two classic Santa Catalina canyons (and like many off-trail adventures in this area steep/brushy/loose hillsides, slippery/wet polished granite and a few scrambling/route finding puzzles)… As always be very cautious and aware of your limits when traveling off-trail.
2,400' Elevation Gain
2,400' Elevation Loss
Highest Elevation: 6,100'
Lowest Elevation: 4,350'
This hike is in the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson, Arizona.
Left on Wilmot and continue on Tanque Verde (4.3 miles)
Left on Catalina Highway (10.1 miles)
Signs will help you find the turn into this trailhead and campground. This area is a fee area ($5 or Interagency Pass - Coronado National Forest Fee Information) - but there are a number of clearly signed free parking spaces for Arizona Trail users.
There are NO established trails to the top of (or anywhere near…) Airmen Peak – be aware of the hazards and comfortable with off-trail travel and navigation in the Santa Catalina Mountains before attempting this hike.
The mileages and elevations below are approximate (don't expect the values below to match your GPS exactly).
0.0 Miles, 4350′: Park at the Molino Basin Parking Area [Waypoint TH MB] and walk across the road (on the crosswalk) to the obvious start of the Bellota Trail (you are now on the Arizona Trail!)
0.1 Miles, 4375′: A few minutes down the trail you will pass a large Arizona Trail sign and then take an unofficial – but well worn – trail to the left before the Arizona Trail crosses Molino Canyon. [Waypoint J BLT MC]
0.45 Miles, 4475′: The trail begins to climb away from the canyon on the hillside to the west [Waypoint MC 01] – the trail comes back into the canyon above a lovely set of falls.
0.7 Miles, 4700′: From the falls work up the bottom of the canyon – pass the drainage described in the Mountain Project description for the Stonewall approach coming in from the left. [Waypoint MC 02]
The canyon will gradually steepen – some scrambling and route finding will be required to work thru the steep sections to the flat area above.
1.5 Miles, 5150′: A few minutes after the canyon flattens out start looking for a drainage coming in from the left [Waypoint MC 03]– sometimes marked with a cairn – from here your goal is the saddle north of Airmen Peak via whatever you think will be the path of least resistance (I have had decent luck staying mostly north of the drainage and/or occasionally dropping into the drainage – in this terrain you are likely to find many possible ways up…)
2.2 Miles, 5750′: From the saddle [Waypoint MC 04] the peak is uphill to the south-west – this section is steep/brushy/rocky and lacks a well worn trail, expect to be slow from the saddle to the top of the peak.
Enjoy the peak! From here reverse your route and go back down to the saddle [Waypoint MC 04].
From the saddle you can go back down Molino Canyon (the way you came up – easier option) or hike down the other side of the saddle into the West Fork of Molino – be aware that the West Fork of Molino is more rugged, more strenuous and has more obstacles than Molino Canyon.
There are three major obstacles coming down the West Fork of Molino – all can be bypassed – while you will need to determine the best way and carefully stay within your limits I suggest – First Falls: exit left to the rocky cliffs above the falls, Second Falls: exit right and follow a small drainage back into the canyon, Third Falls: exit right and look for a faint path contouring along the hillside and around until a chute or hillside offers a way back down into the canyon. While these obstacles are not technical they will require off-trail scrambling to bypass!
4.8 Miles, 4400: The West Fork of Molino continues under the highway [Waypoint MC 05] – continue along the canyon until you find the paved road thru Molino Campgroud – a left will take you to the parking area!