Redington Road had been closed since the start of July due to the Burro Fire – on the first day that it re-opened I drove out along the fire perimeter and hiked to the top of Piety Hill. The Burro Fire was stopped west of Piety Hill and in the sunset light it was hard tell where the Burro Fire burned – I am sure that there are areas that were heavily impacted by the fire but from Piety Hill I can still see green trees and grass below.
Piety Hill is located on Pima County’s A7 Ranch – at 4,714′ it is not stunning high (‘Hill’ is the right name) – but it is high enough to overlook the San Pedro Valley and offer great views of the surrounding terrain! There is no official trail to the top, but the terrain, while steep, is reasonably open and it is not hard to find a way to the top.
From the Lower Oracle Ridge Trailhead it is about 4 miles to get to the top of Apache Peak located on the north end of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Most of the miles are on the Oracle Ridge Trail which traverses below the peak, but there is no established trail for the final steep climb, and in my experience while you can pick better/worse ways to the top there probably is not a ‘great’ way up (the climb is not overly long but expect the standard rocky/loose/brushy off-trail Santa Catalina hillside…).
I arrive at the top just in time for the last light on the ridges to the south, the sun dipping below the clouds on the horizon, city lights coming on thru Charouleau Gap and the moon peaking thru the clouds as it rises over the San Pedro Valley – but tonight it is what I don’t see that is the surprise: no glow from the Burro Fire (currently at just over 27,000 acres), no spots of flame visible on the distant ridges and no obvious/large columns of smoke! The Burro Fire is burning to the south – Apache Peak certainly doesn’t have a view directly into the active part of the fire, but I suspect that the fire would have been clearly visible from here several days ago…
Clouds covering the moon make the hike back down surprisingly dark – spider eyes glint in the headlamp beam and when I finally slow down to look more closely it turns out to be many more spiders than I thought…
Hopeful curiosity and extreme skepticism and his a fair description of how I feel about blue marks on the maps of Southern Arizona. The area south of Evans Mountain down to Buehman Canyon has 11 springs marked on the map – an interesting concentration, I wonder how many of them still flow…
From a ridge-top camp west of Brush Corral Road I drop down into a a dry wash, crawl under barbed wire fence at the forest boundary and quickly find a dry tank where Cedar Springs is marked on the map. Pipes run up canyon from the tank, but there is no sign of water where they seem to end.
Around Mesquite Flat and over to the Georges Spring area – after finding Cedar Spring dry the number of pools of water in the area surprised me!
From Georges Spring it was a short walk to Pearsons Spring – in its small side canyon the only sign of water was a single, small depression with damp sand at the bottom. Returning to the canyon just west of the Brush Corral Trailhead I don’t have to walk very far before both cows and small pools of water appeared in the canyon bottom. It looks like there was quite a bit more water in the canyon earlier in the year. The canyon merges seamlessly into Buehman Canyon a short distance above the Brush Corral Trailhead – from there it doesn’t take long to loop back to the start of my hike.
Thru San Manuel, a sharp left then the familiar right turn at the San Pedro – but today the last turn takes me into unfamiliar territory – a strange, freshly paved, night black road parallel to the river – it takes me a minute to reconcile this new thing with my memory of Redington Road.
It makes me sad and uncomfortable to see more pavement encircling the Santa Catalina Mountains – there is nothing encouraging about its current end at the Pinal County line. Maybe the pavement really isn’t that important one way or another – inconsequential compared to the destruction that the SunZia power transmission lines will likely bring to this part of the San Pedro River Valley in the coming years.
The mountain no longer seems like a thing that can stop a city in its tracks; it seems more like a cornered beast. When I hike the Catalinas now and stare down at the valleys, I feel I am on an island, one that is being constantly eroded by the fierce waves of energy sweeping across the desert floor. When I leave the city for the mountain, I walk past bulldozers on my way to the trailhead.
In the early 20th century the Brush Corral area on the east side of the Santa Catalina Mountains featured a Ranger Station with a 3 room adobe building and a telephone connection up to Mount Lemmon. Today the area is just another indistinct flat along Buehman Canyon… Forest Road 4407 (Brush Corral Road) still allows high-clearance access into the area from Redington Road near the San Pedro River – but I would guess that the area saw more visitors in the the 1910s/1920s than it sees today.
I am not sure when the Forest Service began using Brush Corral on the east side of the Santa Catalina Mountains. It is absent from the 1904 Tucson topographic map and with a number of ranches and other Ranger Stations noted its omission seems notable. Jim Westfall – hired by the Forest Service in 1906 – and his wife Leeta were early residents, spending winters at Brush Corral after working on the mountain during the spring, summer and fall. Newspaper articles from 1911 and 1912 mention Brush Corral because it was on the route of a phone line being built from Tucson to Soldier Camp, down to Brush Corral and south to the Spud Rock Ranger Station in the Rincons. In a 1964 Arizona Daily Star article by Pete Cowgill Gilbert Sykes, a Forest Service employee after WWI, says “Brush Corral was used more as a camp with a guard stationed there two or three months of the year. The guard would work on grazing permits, timber sales and, of course, watch out for fires. But it was not a permanent ranger station like the one located, but not now used either, at Oracle”. The same article mentions that the cabin – possibly built about 1913 – was sold around 1925 and the timber removed.
Our ride dropped us at the Upper Green Mountain Trailhead, our destination was a vehicle we had dropped on FR4407 the previous day – it had been hours of driving to drop a vehicle, but it made our hike much simpler – no need to worry about the time needed to climb back up the mountain, carry overnight gear or make an uncomfortably hot walk out on Redington Road.
The Brush Corral Trail was described in the first three editions of the The Santa Catalina Mountains, A Guide to the Trails and Routes as “fair to very poor” and, after extensive work by the Southern Arizona Hiking Club in the late 1980s, was upgraded to “fair to good” in the 1990s. But those descriptions are pre-2002-Bulllock Fire… There are two notable posts online about this trail from after the Bullock Fire – Scott Morris’s ‘Brush Corral Epic’ from 2004 and Sirena Dufault’s ‘Brush Corral Trail’ from 2010. We knew from those posts, and a hike I made in 2013, that it would probably be difficult, or impossible, to find all of the trail – our planning left a comfortable amount of time for traveling at an off-trail-didn’t-pick-the-best-way-thru-the-manzanita-are-we-on-the-right-ridge kind of pace…
We quickly reached the Brush Corral Trail’s junction with the Green Mountain Trail and started the descent to the junction with the Brush Corral Shortcut Trail – this section of trail is still in decent condition and is easy to follow. Below the junction with the Brush Corral Shortcut Trail the trail immediately becomes overgrown and interrupted by fallen trees, but it was still easy to follow until – at an old metal trail marker – the trail emerged from the trees and became an off-trail ‘route’.
We found stretches of the old trail, and cairns sometimes helped us stay on course – but in sections we just wandered across the ridges, perhaps we could have found more of the old trail but the terrain was not particularly difficult off-trail walking and rather than hunt for the old track it seemed more interesting to just keep moving forward.
The biggest surprise of the hike may have been finding water when we crossed a small canyon – we had planned on the route being dry and it was nice surprise to find water to soak my shirt and hat with – we were thousands of feet lower than when we started and it was getting hot, the edge of the season for this part of the mountain I think.
From the crossing we quickly found the brown trail markers mentioned in other reports and the trail became relatively easy to follow thru the grass and across the ridges. We took advantage of the good trail and ran the final mile+ down to the Brush Corral site before making the hike up the road back to our ride home.
Newspaper articles that reference the Brush Corral Trail that I used for this post:
Arizona Daily Star, 8/24/1911, p. 5, Forestry Will Have Its Own Telephones
Arizona Daily Star, 10/10/1912, p. 8, Brevities
Arizona Daily Star, 11/6/1912, p. 8, Telephones Arrive For Mt. Lemmon Line
Arizona Daily Star, 12/6/1912, p. 8, Government Installs New Telephones
Arizona Daily Star, 3/22/1964, p 55, Pete Cowgill, Hike Up To Brush Corrall Is For Experienced Hikers
Arizona Daily Star, 11/8/1984, p. 51, Pete Cowgill, Old Ranger Station is Just a Memory
Arizona Daily Star, 11/17, 1989, p. 41, Pete Cowgill, Hiking club dug in for Brush Corral Trail