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Matt Marine

Matt Marine is an Arizona resident who loves exploring Arizona's wonderful outdoor adventures. To find out more about Matt, click the link below.

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Sara Harelson

I’m Sara! I’m 21, a senior in college, and a journalism major.  I love to read, write, travel, and listen to music.  I’m always on to my next adventure.


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Name: Bug Springs Trail (and Prison Camp Trail) Author's Rating:
Author: Matt Marine Avg. User Rating: Not rated yet
Type: Bike Difficulty: (difficult)
Time: 2 - 4 hours (shuttle) Region: SE Arizona
Length: 7.5 miles (one way shuttle) Elevation gain/loss/change: +600 / -2150 ft / -1550 ft (shuttle)
Type: Shuttle top to bottom Avg Elevation: 5000 ft
Best time to go: fall, summer, spring Fees: Requires pass to Mt. Lemmon.
Fitness rating: High Educational Merit: Medium
Danger/fear rating: Medium - high Scenic Beauty: High
Hours of Operation: NA Last updated: June, 2012
Short Description: A trail made for downhillers, this is a very scenic, but difficult trail on Mt. Lemmon
Geocaches: A few geocaches in the area. Manzanita Falls; Aces & Jacks; Lizard Rock
References / Contact Information: SDMB Mountain Biking; Summit Hut; Youtube; MTBR; Hike Arizona
Points of interest: The Catalina Federal Honor Camp (Old Prison Camp); Mt. Lemmon; Windy Point; Summerhaven; camping, hiking
Special Considerations: Get ready to hike - 1/2 mile of hike-a-bike in the beginning; some dangerous spots
How to get there: From Tucson, head northeast toward Mt. Lemmon. From Tanque Verde, turn left onto Catalina Highway. Continue to Mt. Lemmon Highway. Molino Basin is about 5.5 miles up the highway on the left. The Prison Camp is about 7 miles and Bug Springs Trailhead at mile marker 11.5. Click here for directions and a map.

Trail Description

I'd waited a long time to do this trail and finally got a chance to ride it. A shuttle for this trail is a must for everyone except the most hardcore riders. The "ride" starts with a half-mile of hike-a-bike up a steep hill. Then it's mostly downhill for about 7 miles. But it's not an easy downhill. It's rough and tough for those who may not be true downhillers.

This IS one of the most beautiful trails around. The views are incredible. You ride through a wide variety of vegetation and scenery, from pine tree forests, desert ridgebacks, hoodoos and everything in between. This certainly isn't a boring trail.

The downhill sections can be challenging and a little intimidating to beginner and intermediate riders (like myself). Those who are afraid of heights may want to choose another trail.

Google Maps and Google Earth

GPS tracks for this adventure were recorded with My Tracks software on my Android cell phone. This is an awesome piece of free software that allows you to record GPS tracks, waypoints and historical data. It will tell you things like elevation gain, time history, average speed, etc. It will also let you take a tour (similar to playing a time accurate movie) of your track on Google Earth. You can send your tracks to friends or upload them to Google.

Google Maps
Click here to view this adventure's track on Google Maps.

Google Earth
You can also download a Google Earth movie (called a tour) of this adventure (must have Google Earth on your computer). Right click here to download the .klm file, then select "save target (or link) as..." For help on how to play the movie on Google Earth (not very intuitive), click here.

General Information and History

There's an area about 7 miles up along Catalina Hwy (Mt. Lemmon Rd) which most of us who have been around Tucson for a while know as the Old Prison Camp. This area is now known as the Gordon Hirabayshi Campground or Recreation Area (for a former prisoner as we will discuss later).

For many years, the only way to access the top of Mt. Lemmon was either by foot, horse, mule or a road completed in the 1920 that connected the town of Oracle on the north slope to Summerhaven at the top. This road is known today as either the "back way to Mt. Lemmon" or the "old control road". The control road designation comes from the practice that it used to be a toll road.

In the late 1920s, a big push for a southern access (which was much closer to Tucson) to Mt. Lemmon began. After a few failed attempts, the 25 mile southern approach was approved (mainly due to the efforts of Frank Hitchcock which the road was aptly named after). Now, that the road was approved, the problem was to find someone who could build the road. Cheap labor. Hitchock came to the rescue again when he suggested federal prisoners build the road.

Between 1933 and the early 1950s, over 8,000 prisoners worked on the road, which finally opened for automobiles in 1951. During WWII, some 44 Japanese-Americans who had refused Executive Order 9066, which called for the forced evacuation of anyone with 1/6th or more Japanese blood from the Western states and interned in concentration camps, stayed at the prison camp.

One such prisoner was a Japanese-American by the name of Gordon Hirabayshi. He refused to submit to the Executive Order, but lost all his appeals. He wanted to work outside and received approval to move to the Catalina Federal Honor Camp from the Washington site he was interned at, but federal authorities refused to pay for his trip. Gordon hitchhiked his way to Tucson. When he arrived, the prison could not find his papers and Gordon went out to dinner and a movie while they found them.

The camp never had any walls to keep the inmates from escaping. Painted white line and stern words were the only things used to keep the prisoners inside.

Gordon served out his time at the camp and after the war, went on to become a professor of sociology. In 1987 a Federal Appeals Court unanimously overturned Gordon's conviction and in his honor, the old prison camp was renamed the Gordon Hirabayshi Recreation Site.

Click here for a map of the prison site.

Click here for more information on the Catalina Federal Honor Camp.

Click here for more information on Gordon Hirabayshi.

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The Trail

The best way to enjoy this trail is to shuttle it. You can either shuttle from the Gordon Hirabayshi Camp Ground or the Molino Basin Camp Ground (which adds another 2+ miles to make the trail 7.5 miles). If you decide not to shuttle, you can ride up Catalina Hwy or the trail itself. If you can ride up the trail, my hat's off to you. You should go on American Ninja! For the rest of us, we shuttle :-)

The Upper Bug Springs trailhead is at about mile marker 11.5 and is the third big parking area on the right in the Bear Canyon area (Waypoint TH). Park and head up the trail to the right.

After a few feet, you'll start to climb up a steep hill. If you don't like this hike-a-bike stuff, turn around now, there's a lot more to do. Keep climbing up the water bars. And climbing. And climbing.

When you FINALLY reach Waypoint 001, you're at the top of the mountain! Take a rest and enjoy the view. It's good idea to start out refreshed, the downhill is more than just an easy ride in the park.

When you're ready, take the plunge. Much of the trail is cut into the mountain, so you're on the side hill. If you don't like heights (like me), this can be a little unsettling. Also, much of this hill is loose dirt. I've read posts stating that you should avoid skidding on this trail, which I agree with. I just don't know how you can accomplish this. My choice was to 1) ride too fast and crash, 2) over use the front brake and crash, or 3) do my best and skid a little to keep from crashing.

Keep going, when you get to about Waypoint 002, you'll be riding through the trees. This was one of my favorite portions of the trail. Fast and fun, and can be a wild ride. My only problem with this portion of the ride is that it's over too soon.

You'll have another hike-a-bike soon (I believe it's just before Waypoint 003). Then you're up on the hoodoos. This is another awesome part of the trail, riding along the rocks. Some of the views are worth stopping for and walking around a little.

After Waypoint 003, you start a long ride on a side hill down to Waypoint 004. This was my least favorite part of the trail, since I don't like heights. Keep your bike on the trail, you don't want to go off the side.

Just before Waypoint 004, take a left (which is the main trail) to go over to the old Prison Camp. A right here will take you to the Lower Bug Springs Trailhead, which you could also shuttle from if you wanted.

You will cross Catalina Hwy at Waypoint 005 and will soon be at the Old Prison Camp. If you have some time, take a while to explore the area. I remember when I first visited the site in the early 1980's. Not a bunch has changed, except access. It used to be just a dirt road that not many people took. It turned into 4WD shortly and you could drive up to the saddle and walk down to the dam. It was one of my favorite places to go.

Looking at the beautiful stone architecture of some of the buildings, I get angry that the Forest Service bulldozed the area in the 1970s. Just think about all the history that was destroyed.

When you're ready, ride down the dirt road to the end (a large turn around place with a few metal horse corrals). The trail at the end of the road is part of the Arizona Trail system (Waypoint 006). Head up (and to the left) along the Arizona Trail. This is a rolling, slow decent that leads to Molino Basin.

At Waypoint 007, keep right to stay on the Arizona Trail that leads to Molino Basin. Be careful in this area, some sections have some loose rocks that surprise you and when you're tired, may lead to a crash. Keep rolling until you hit Molino Basin (Waypoint 008).

If you're tired like I was, head down the short connector trail to the pavement. If you want a little more trail, you can ride the Arizona Trail that parallels the road back almost all the way back to where you parked your car (Waypoint 009). After more than 7 miles of rough trail, the last half mile of mostly downhill on pavement was fun and fast.

Have fun and be safe!

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Have you been on this adventure? What did you think? Comments and updates welcome. Please send me your comments from the contact page. You can also rate this adventure by clicking here.

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