Upper Highway Hikes

Looking down into the valley from the San Pedro Vista it is immediately impressive how high the highway has taken you. These hikes are high enough to take you away from an oppressively hot day in Tucson – stepping out of the car at one of these trailheads and having to reach for your jacket to bundle up can be absolutely wonderful!

This page has hikes from the San Pedro Vista up to the Upper Butterfly Trailhead.

When planning for the weather note that a number of these trails plunge aggressively down the mountain into lower elevations that may be quite a bit warmer – be prepared! These trails spend part of the year covered in snow. Some years there is barely any snow and it is short-lived, but other years the snow may be deep and linger long after the highway has been cleared creating potentially hazardous trail conditions.

 

Recommendations

  • Best Time of Year: Spring, Early and Late Summer, Fall. Fall and Spring are nice at this elevation and are sometimes cool enough that extra layers are needed. In the middle of summer these trails are hot and it is nice to go even higher on the mountain. The edges of Winter can be beautiful – but often at some point in the Winter storms will put snow and ice on the trail (and roads) and with cooler temps adventuring lower on the mountain may be easier and more pleasant.
  • Top Pick: Incinerator Ridge Trail and Kellogg Trail – A great trail east of the highway with several access points and a number of nearby high-points. The Butterfly Trail is probably the more classic/common recommendation but I think these trail, part of the Arizona Trail Wilderness Bypass, have more variety, interest and better view!
  • Best Workout Run: Crystal Spring Trail – Interesting running contouring along rolling terrain with great views. This hike is part of the Arizona Trail Wilderness Bypass and for more challenge/distance you could continue along the Bypass up the Control Road to a number of the Top of the Mountain Hikes or down the Butterfly Trail.
  • Off-trail Challenge: Brinkley Point – a lovely small rocky point in the middle of the Santa Catalina Mountains!

 

Bigelow Trail

A short hike to a prominent high point populated with buildings and towers…

  • Because the destination – Mount Bigelow – is covered with buildings and towers this is not the most scenic hike on the mountain – but if you know in advance that the top is not a great spot to linger there are some beautiful sections of trail.

Bigelow Trail Elevation Profile

Bigelow Trail Elevation Profile

 

Box Spring Trail

The lower part of this trail was destroyed in the Aspen Fire – the sign for this trail has been removed – and it is now best considered an off-trail route. I think if it was not for the interesting access to an attractive part of Sabino Canyon this route might have just faded from existence by now…

  • This trail is drawn on many maps but the original track is gone and this is best considered an off-trail route. Off-trail hiking in the Santa Catalina Mountains can be hazardous and challenging - make sure you understand the skills you need to stay safe, be cautious and know your limits!
  • The hike itself is nothing spectacular – a little loose dirt, some prickly plants, dodging poison ivy and following cairns down a small drainage down to Sabino Canyon – but arriving at Sabino Canyon is awesome! Leave time to explore the canyon and perhaps to just sit by it’s banks and enjoy. By no means the first hike you should do in this area of the mountain – but quite a treat after you have explored the trails in this area.

Box Spring Trail Elevation Profile

Box Spring Trail Elevation Profile

 

Brinkley Point

At a glance it might be a puzzle why Brinkley Point is much of a destination – it is not not particularly high, large or technical – but if you love the Santa Catalina Mountains it is a thrill to stand on top of Brinkley Point and look down into Sabino Canyon and the inner basin of the mountain.

  • Off-trail hiking in the Santa Catalina Mountains can be hazardous and challenging - make sure you understand the skills you need to stay safe, be cautious and know your limits!
  • This is not one of the major peaks in the Santa Catalina Mountains – if you want a spectacular peak to ‘bag’ there are many other destinations to explore first – this is a minor peak and the impact is more subtle… But if you love the Santa Catalina Mountains there are not many spots that give you such a lovely impression of being ‘inside’ the range.

Brinkley Point Elevation Profile

Brinkley Point Elevation Profile

 

Butterfly Trail

A beautiful (and steep!) trail winding in and out of sunny and shaded areas with great views into the San Pedro Valley, Novio Falls and airplane wreckage just off the trail to enjoy!

  • The Butterfly Trail is a great trail – certainly a ‘must do’ for anyone who lives in Tucson – and with Novio Falls and the plane wreckage as destinations there are some satisfying shorter options. Worth noting that the nearby Crystal Spring Trail seems to get less traffic and the first mile after it’s junction with the Butterfly Trail is as – or maybe more – lovely than any section of the Butterfly trail.

Butterfly Trail Elevation Profile

Butterfly Trail Elevation Profile

 

Crystal Spring Trail

Shaded sections with beautiful trees, great views and fun crossing in and out of drainages as the trail contours along the hillside to the control road – what a fun adventure!

  • The Butterfly Trail receives more attention than the Crystal Spring Trail does – but the Crystal Spring Trail is shorter, less strenuous and has nearly as many attractions along the trail as the Butterfly Trail does – if you are going for a shorter hike it may actually be more beautiful than the Butterfly Trail!

Crystal Spring Trail Elevation Profile

Crystal Spring Trail Elevation Profile

 

Knagge Trail

A steep and interesting trek down past the historic Knagge Cabin site and mine with good views down into the San Pedro River Valley and back up to Incinerator Ridge.

  • The highlight of this hike is sitting at the old cabin site, or in the drainage below, admiring the view and musing about what a season would have been like on the mountain nearly a century ago…

Knagge Trail Elevation Profile

Knagge Trail Elevation Profile

 

Incinerator Ridge Trail and Kellogg Trail

A section of the Arizona Trail Wilderness Bypass with spectacular views into the San Pedro River Valley and great short side trips for experienced hikers with the skills to travel off-trail.

  • This trail is a great introduction to hikes on the ‘north’ side of the mountain that look down into the San Pedro Valley, well worth hiking. If you are comfortable with off-trail travel in the Santa Catalina Mountains (be careful!) then this trail is an absolute joy and rockets into ‘must do’ status with Barnum Rock, Leopold Point and Kellogg Mountain all a fairly short distance from the trail!

Incinerator Ridge Trail and Kellogg Trail Elevation Profile

Incinerator Ridge Trail and Kellogg Trail Elevation Profile

 

Palisade Trail

A classic descent starting in the Pines and ending in the cactus!

  • This is a spectacular trail – the Pines to start, the stunning views, great position above Pine Canyon and an ending in the middle of the mountains! The trail is strenuous and the lower (exposed) section can be quite hot in the summer. Continuing from the end of the trail out to the Sabino Canyon Visitor Center has to be one of the most classic trips in the range!

Palisade Trail Elevation Profile

Palisade Trail Elevation Profile

 

Under Construction

  • Brush Corral Trail