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Name: Charouleau Gap Author's Rating:
Author: Matt Marine Avg. User Rating: (based on four user votes)
Type: 4WD Difficulty: (challenging to difficult)
Time: 6 - 10 hours Region: SE Arizona
Length: 19.0 miles (one way) Elevation gain/loss/change: +4020 / -2649 ft / +1379 ft (one way)
Type: Through Trail Avg Elevation: 4000 ft
Best time to go: fall, spring, winter Fees: NA
Fitness rating: Low Educational Merit: Low
Danger/fear rating: Medium Scenic Beauty: Medium
Hours of Operation: NA Last updated: August, 2011
Short Description: The quintessential difficult trail in Tucson that has a little of everything on it
Geocaches: Charouleau Gap Redux
References / Contact Information: Coronado National Forest; Expeditions West
Points of interest: The Steps, The Car Wash, The old Kiss Rock, The Elevator, creek crossings and nice scenery.
Special Considerations: This is a difficult, long trail. Driving experience and the right vehicle needed.
How to get there: You can start this trail from either the Catalina or Oracle side. The Oracle to Catalina route is the easier direction, but I usually start in Catalina because I want to get on the trail as soon as possible. To get to the Catalina trail head, drive north on Oracle Rd (highway 77) until you reach Golder Ranch Rd, take a right, then a left on Lago Del Oro Pkwy (after 1.2 miles). Drive for 3.1 miles and you’ll come to the trail head (Waypoint 001) on the right. There are forest service trail signs as you get close. Click here for directions. Sign in at the information box and you’re ready to go

Trail Description

July 2012 Update: The trail has become washed out in many areas due to recent monsoons. I ran this trail this summer and was surprised by how much it's changed in a year. Last year the FS had graded more of the trail and it was the easiest I'd ever run it. This year, that's all changed. HUGE washouts on some of the loose hills near the Oracle side. I do not know if some of these were passable. We took a side loop and bypassed some of the gap road. We saw some Jeeps at the top of one hill, the drivers out surveying the steep and washed out hill. I do not know if they ever made it down. I don't know what level they were comfortable with or if I could have made it (they were about 1/2 mile away). I do know that some of the hills we went on were very washed out. Also a large boulder had broken loose and is now blocking the first 100 yards of the wash (near the Catalina side) and we had to make our own trail through the wash (which happened to be the old trail from 10 years ago or so). Finally, "Kiss Rock" is reverting back to it's old bad self (probably about 50%-75% there right now), though when we went back there in August, someone had filled in the hole and it was easy again. I guess you just never know what the conditions will be.

Offroad Passport Forum Discussion

Click here to go to Offroad Passport for pictures and discussion on the trip. I hope to have more updates soon.

January 2011: I've added some video (click here) from a trip in 2001. Very interesting to see how the trail has changed!

Charouleau Gap (pronounced shar-lou) is one of the most well-known and difficult trails around Tucson. It connects the towns of Catalina and Oracle through a “gap” in the Catalina mountain range. It has a long history of tearing up stock 4wd’s and spitting them out. Those with modified trucks need not worry, this trail has enough bite to give you a workout if you look for it. And it’s a ton of fun to boot.

General Information and History

“Doin’ the gap” has been a Tucson 4wd right of passage for as long as I can remember and some will say you can’t call yourself a real four-wheeler until you’ve driven through it. Twenty years ago when a friend first showed me this trail, he was amazed that I was able to drive my 1977 CJ-5 through it without any body damage. I guess it was his first time through the gap without tearing up some body panels. But my lucky streak didn’t last long. This trail has torn up vehicles like no other. To date, I’ve blown three tires, had to be pulled out twice by (a humble sigh here) ATV’s, dented my steps and the people I’ve driven with have bent drive shafts, rolled their vehicle, and had crumpled bumpers, steps and rocker panels. Yep, it’s a bitch on vehicles.

A few years ago, there was a bad fire out there. When I did this trail in February 2006 a large portion of the trail along the wash and near the Catalina side looked like a lunar landscape. It was really sad. That’s the bad news. The good news: four years later, the area is making a dramatic comeback. Smaller trees, cacti and desert grass were all green and healthy. I still miss the big trees, but considering what it looked like the last time I visited, it was surprisingly beautiful out there.

Recently, the gap has been full of controversy: a fight between local 4wd enthusiasts and the forest service. I’m not going to get into the politics of whether the forest service was justified and all that. I’ll just try to tell you about the trail, what was done to it, and what it was like when I went out there this August.

One of the nastiest places on the trail known as Kiss Rock was jack hammered and filled in by the forest service. The forest service “improved” the first three miles of the trail to provide easier access for fire crews. Their vehicles were having a difficult time making it up Kiss Rock. This was done earlier this year and the hardcore 4wd fans were up in arms that the forest service took out one of their favorite obstacles. I remember reading a post on a 4wd site where someone said, “They [the forest service] made it so my neighbor could drive his Prius up there.”

Well, I don’t know what it was like right after they made the improvements, but I can tell you that no one is taking their Prius up there now. Yep, Kiss Rock is gone (sort of). They filled in the nice hole, but the summer rains have torn up the loose soil fairly good. It’s not as nasty, but it ain’t easy. A few more good summer rains and the ruts will be deep enough to swallow that neighbor’s Prius. Just getting to the old Kiss Rock can still challenge many stock 4wd. Trails have a tendency to return to their natural state. 2011 Update: The trail up to Kiss Rock (actually up to the pass itself) has been "improved" even more since 2010. Most of the ruts and washed out areas up to the pass have been graded. This portion of the trail is much easier now in this area.

It’s true that the improvements the forest service made on the trail have made it easier, but the bottom line is that for most of us (without highly modified trucks), it’s still a difficult trail that can challenge your vehicle and driving skills.

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The Trail

The trail starts of in the foothills of Catalina, winding its way up and down these small hills, gradually climbing toward Charouleau gap. Not long after you start, you’ll pass through a wash. The last few times I’ve gone, it was running. Not a deep crossing by any standards, but it’s always nice to see water running in southern Arizona.

As you begin climbing up the foothills more in earnest, the washouts become more fun. There are also some areas of granite rock along the trail that you can test your vehicle on. You’ll also see some right and left turns along the way. I have never been on any of these and I don’t think they go anywhere of significance. Stay on the main trail. At Waypoint 003, you’ve reached what used to be Kiss Rock. About 100 yards before you get to Kiss Rock, there’s a side trail called The Bypass. You can either go up the old Kiss Rock or take The Bypass. Both are fun in their own way and link up at the top of Kiss Rock.

After Kiss Rock, you can begin to see some of the switchbacks leading up to the gap (the pass through the mountains). Portions of this part of the trail has some HUGE washouts. The crawlers and modified vehicles can play in these. Most people have to be careful navigating them just right to make it through. Good articulation and ground clearance here is helpful. 2011 Update: All of this has been recently graded. No more washouts.

At Waypoint 004, you’ve reached the gap. Congratulations, but don’t get too cocky yet. Some of the toughest portions of the trail are yet to come. When we last made the trip, the cattle guard was so washed out that it required a locker to get over it. If you don’t want to go up and over the cattle guard, there’s a gate to the left.

Now you start your decent into the Canada Del Oro Wash. This is the area that was ravaged by the fire about four years ago. It was green and lush when we went through (thanks to a recent monsoon activity), but you can still see all the burned out tree husks.

Just after Waypoint 005 is an old sign that says 4wd required beyond this point. You’ll also be wondering what you’ve been doing for the last 10 miles if you weren’t four-wheeling. Many years ago, this used to be a REAL nasty spot in the trail. The rocks getting down to the wash were large and the water deep. I believe the trail used to be maintained (sort of) up until this point and a high-clearance 2wd truck could have made it. As you are no doubt aware, those days are long gone.

When you look down into the shallow water as it stands now, try to envision that 20 years ago on one of my first trips out here, the pool was big and deep enough for someone to come out with a six-wheel-drive amphibious vehicle and they were doing a little “boating” in the pool. It was really cool.

Immediately after going through this spot, the trail switches to the other side of the creek and there’s one little nasty spot of boulder crawling. This is where, me being stupid, decided to go down the wash. There didn’t used to be a trail along the side of the wash and I wanted to have a little fun. Well, the rocks are really slippery here and I slipped off my precarious spot in one area and got my Rubicon’s front differential high-centered on a big-assed rock. And this wasn’t one of those times where you tap the boulder with your differential, then back out. My front tires were barely touching the ground and even with both lockers engaged, I didn’t budge. Long story short, a nice group of people in a Rhino came by and with three people pushing, my tires spitting water and rocks, the Rhino got a good jump start and yanked me off the rock. Coming off the rock, my tires slipped off the other side of the rock and I slammed into another rock, giving my steps a nice dent. But at least I was out! With a spotter and a lot of rock piling, I managed to place my tires just right and come out of the wash.

This gave my friend a good laugh. I was about 100 yards from the place where 20 years ago, I got stuck in my CJ-5 and wasn’t able to gain purchase on the wet, slippery surface. A guy with an ATV and a 1000 lb winch helped me out. The winch was just enough to get me over the rock I was slipping on. Both incidents were very embarrassing.

The trail meanders along the wash (crossing it back and forth) for a while. At some places, it can be hard to tell where the trail is. If you get confused, pick the least rocky path and go for it, you’ll see it soon.

At Waypoint 006 are the remnants of an old cabin at Coronado Camp. This used to be in fairly nice shape before the fire, with large trees for shade—a great place for a picnic. Well, as you can see, it’s not so much anymore.

The dreaded Steps resides at Waypoint 007. You can try it if you like. Going up is definitely harder than going down. This is where many people get body damage. Three people out of our group last time suffered some sort of damage here. I took the bypass this time, which is easy.

A few more creek crossings. These used to be much tougher (deeper) back in the day. One time we had to make a “rock bridge” across one of the deeper crossings at what used to be called The Car Wash (Waypoint 008). We piled rocks about 12”-18” high in the water just so we could cross without water coming in our doors. I don’t think it was any deeper than 6” this time (and it had rained a good 1.5” there the night before).There are some nice, steep exits out of the wash along this area. When these are rutted, they can be challenging.

At Waypoint 009, you’ll go through another small pass. On the left is a road that leads to an abandoned mine. I’ve never taken the road, but I was told (20 years ago) that a winch was required to get there. I don’t know if that was (or still is) true or if there’s anything out there. One of these days, I’m going to have to try it. If anyone knows about this side trail, please send me the information.

There’s another side trail that I HAVE been on (20 years ago) at Waypoint 010. It leads off to the right and up a long hill. It ends at a small pond called Burn Tank (Waypoint 010A). This hill was real nasty. Steep and covered with loose softball sized rocks. The tires on my old Jeep (no lockers) would spin for a few seconds, spitting out a bunch of these rocks, then gain traction on the ground beneath and jump forward a few feet. This would be repeated over and over and over until we got to the top of the hill. It tore up my tires. Another story by the guy who showed us this trail was that he and his brother were up here deer hunting and were “treed” on top of their vehicle by a pack of wild dogs. Not coyotes, but Rottwiellers and big dogs of mixed breeds. They were supposedly alerted when they fired their rifles into the pond. This guy guessed the dogs thought they had killed a deer and were coming into steal it from them. I don’t know if this was true and I’ve never seen any wild dogs out there, but he wouldn’t ever go out there without a weapon.

The hill known at The Elevator is at Waypoint 0100. This is a long, steep hill that’s more fun coming up, but that’s for another day (when you’re coming the other way).

Now you’re in the Oracle foothills. Stay on the main road. A look off to the northwest and you can see The Biosphere. Again, keep on the main trail. Soon, you’ll find yourself at a large gate and pavement (Waypoint 013). Guess what? You made it! Now go up to Walmart and get yourself some big boy pants :-)! Getting back to Oracle Rd can be a little tricky. Click here for directions.

Have fun and be safe.

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Member Comments

Doin' the Gap as a Learner's Trail

My first off road experience was on this trail!  I had a new stock CJ-7.  It rained ALL 13 hours.  That was before they opened the trail at the sign and there was no bypass for the step.  What a great trail.  The best part is mother nature makes some kind of a change every monsoon season.

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