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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), but greatly depends on how far you go
Time: 4 + hours Region: SE Arizona
Length: 7.5 miles (one way) Elevation gain/loss/change: +600 / -2150 ft / -1550 ft (one way)
Type: Out and back 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 Scenic Beauty: High
Hours of Operation: NA Last updated: June, 2012
Short Description: This is a wonderful hike in the Catalina Mountains on your way up to 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, mountain biking
Special Considerations: This is a popular downhill mountain bike ride, be on the lookout for your two-wheeled friends (and horses too).
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

Note: This trail was originally done as a mountain bike ride but is a great hiking trail. Many of the pictures and video are from my original ride.

This is a very scenic trail that bridges the gap between the tall pines on Mt. Lemmon and the cactus in the valley below. The views are incredible. You will walk 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.

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

Note: This trail was originally done as a mountain bike ride but is a great hiking trail. Many of the pictures and video are from my original ride.

You can begin your adventure from a few different points along this trail. You can start from the Gordon Hirabayshi Camp Ground, Molino Basin Camp Ground (which adds another 2+ miles to make the trail 7.5 miles), at the Upper Bug Springs trailhead or the Lower Bug Springs trailhead (not specifically shown on the maps or GPS coordinates). Remember, what goes down must also come back up. Unlike the shuttle mountain bike trip I did, I would suggest you start your hike from the lower elevation trailheads, head up as far as comfortable, then walk back down the mountain. The directions, map and GPS coordinates assume you are starting from the Upper Bug Springs trailhead.

You can also shuttle this trail from either the Old Prison Camp or Molino Basin.

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. This is the longest hill you'll have to climb. When you reach Waypoint 001, you're at the top of the mountain! Take a rest and enjoy the view. Most everything else is downhill from here.

Much of the trail is cut into the mountain, so you're on the side hill. Also, much of this hill is loose dirt. Keep going, when you get to about Waypoint 002, you'll be walking through the trees. This was one of my favorite portions of the trail.

You'll have another short uphill section soon (I believe it's just before Waypoint 003). Then you're up on the hoodoos. This is another awesome part of the trail, walking along the rocks. Some of the views are worth stopping for, maybe have a snack while taking in the views.

After Waypoint 003, you start a long hike down a side hill to Waypoint 004. 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.

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, walk 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 (Waypoint 008).

You can either walk down the pavement or stay on the Arizona trail back to where you parked your car (Waypoint 009).

Whatever you decide to to, 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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