Nearing the end of monsoons and being cautious to avoid reference to a "hike," I invited my wife Kris and her sister Lisa, visiting from Seattle, to join me on an "exploration" of the first couple of miles in Sabino Canyon.
Even before reaching the trailhead, we observed a bright orange and black sign warning of mountain lion activity. Good start. Striking north from the visitor center, well before shuttle service began their hourly departure at 9 a.m., a trail paralleling the paved road led us meanderingly through a gloriously green desert.
Barrel cactus dot the landscape, adorned with blossoms in various hues of red, yellow and orange, shimmering in the early morning sunlight with satin-like brilliance. Farther north the Santa Catalina Mountains rose into a mostly clear blue sky, slopes painted a rarely enjoyed deep lush green. Puffy white clouds drifted eastward along gentle breezes. Palo Verde, mesquite, ocotillo, saguaro, desert broom, creosote, ragweed, brittlebush and more have obviously benefited from recent rains. A storm the previous afternoon has left the land clean and fragrant. Trails and washes hold small puddles.
Cresting the initial incline at slightly under a mile, the inviting sound of Sabino Creek tumbling over boulders is welcomed in the canyon to our right. Winter snowmelt and regular monsoon rains have insured a steady and strong flow of sparkling water. Tannin, a product of oak trees on Mount Lemmon, tints the water an auburn color.
According to the Sabino Canyon website, www.sabinocanyon.arizona.edu/, a comfortable 87 degrees will be the day's high. Humidity will reach 73 percent, indicating a somewhat uncomfortable day. Streamflow registers a strong 23.2 cubic feet per second (cfs), 10 times the flow typical for mid-September. During the destructive floods of 2006, Sabino Creek raged at 110 cfs.
Bright verdant cottonwood and sycamore leaves glow as sunlight reaches the canyon floor. Sharing the day with but a few others on our post-Labor Day outing, we're advised by one passer-by to watch for a rattlesnake aside the road just around the bend. Disappointingly, the rattler has vanished into the bushes before our arrival.
Rounding another bend, the first creek crossing is reached, water crashing into deep pools downstream of the bridge. Moist pavement and puddles indicate water recently flowed over the bridge, undoubtedly the case for all seven crossings along the paved route.
Reversing course to the nearest access to the streambed, our exploration continues beside, as well as in, the creek. Thick growth obscures much of the trail. Morning glory vines, with small blue blossoms open, twist upward along stems of numerous plants. Butterflies dance among many flowering plants.
Reaching a point blocked by thick growth on the west bank, to continue along the creek, we must cross. Wading through calf-deep water, colorful stones and sand covering the bottom, legs and feet are refreshed in the cool stream. Boots with good traction and support are advised.
With the streambed widening and water flowing along the western bank, a trail winding through boulders and across open sand is followed to the east. Confirming the might of Sabino Creek, piles of debris are crushed against tree trunks high and far above the current high water mark. Deer and raccoon tracks mark the moist sand.
As the canyon narrows, a trail is spotted descending from the road above, requiring another refreshing crossing, more exhilarating than dangerous. Below a steep granite wall the creek slows and deepens. Waist deep in the middle, a large rock nearly tumbles me into the pool, camera equipment avoiding a soaking through much luck and some swift footwork. In the rock wall just above our heads, a jagged crack resembling a lightning bolt is spotted.
A trailside marker indicates Sabino Creek Dam, a primary goal of the day, is only .1 mile downstream. Soon we're standing calf deep on the lip of the dam, thousands of gallons of fresh water cascading past us and over the manmade stone and concrete structure. In the distance, homes of east Tucson can be seen. On the southern horizon, the Santa Rita Mountains reach into the sky.
Noticed throughout the adventure is evidence of the Forest Service and volunteer efforts to eradicate invasive African grasses threatening the native ecosystems. Work to eliminate both buffelgrass and fountain grass is ongoing. Regular volunteer days are set through the end of the year. For more information on this worthwhile program contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another plant that's challenging to remove is arundo dorax, giant reed. Growing to over 10 feet tall, they quickly eliminate native plants along the creek. Unwanted here, a market for these plants exists in reeds used in the manufacture of woodwind instruments, mainly oboe, bassoon, clarinet and even bagpipes. E-mail email@example.com for more information on volunteering to help.
Now less than a mile from completion of our exciting day, time is spent shaded by trees below the dam, relaxing and recharging with sport drinks, oranges and watermelon, enjoying the sound of water pouring over the dam and crashing onto rocks at the base. Being cautious, it's possible to approach the face of the dam, water showering a person with welcoming spray and mist.
Thirty minutes later we've returned to the trailhead following a delightful day exploring the lower portion of Sabino Creek at a supremely leisurely pace of four miles in four hours.