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Name: Pima Canyon Author's Rating:
Author: Iain Gordon Avg. User Rating: Not rated yet
Type: Hike Difficulty: (Learner)
Time: 3 - 5 hours Region: SE Arizona
Length: 4.0 miles to dam and back Elevation gain/loss/change: +650 / -650 / +0 (out and back)
Type: Out and back Avg Elevation: 3200 ft
Best time to go: fall, spring Fees: NA
Fitness rating: Medium Educational Merit: Medium
Danger/fear rating: Low Scenic Beauty: Low (overall)
Hours of Operation: Dawn to dusk, 7 days a week Last updated: July, 2013
Short Description: A good trail for newcomers and beginners just outside the city of Tucson
Geocaches: A few geocaches in the area. Urban Assault; In the Foothills; The Medicine Wheel
References / Contact Information: Pima County Natural Resources; Trail Adventures in Tucson; Sierra Club Tucson Trail Guide
Points of interest: Proximity to the city, view over Tucson, and an old rock dam
Special Considerations: No dogs allowed on the trail
How to get there: To get to the trailhead, head north on 1st Avenue until you hit Ina Road. From there, 1st Avenue becomes Christie Drive and it becomes a residential street, but keep following the road. Finally you’ll come to Magee Road, turn right and head east on it until you reach the Iris O. Dewhirst Pima Canyon Trailhead (there will be a parking lot, bathroom, and informational signs). Click here for directions.

Trail Description

This trail is a go-to for beginners who want a nice, easy day hike without having to leave Tucson far behind. This hike will give you a look at both the highland and lowland terrain of southern Arizona, display some of the state’s flora and fauna, and end at the site of an old rock dam. For the more experienced veteran Arizonan hikers, the trail may not impress (it didn’t for me), but for those of you just getting into the game, this could be a great place to get a small taste of what Arizona has to offer.

General Information and History

Pima Canyon is part of the Santa Catalina Mountains, one of the four mountain ranges that border the city of Tucson (the Santa Catalinas are to the north and northeast of the city). Historically, the Santa Catalinas were originally known to the native Tohono O’odham tribe as Babad Do’ag, however, since the incursion of European-descended peoples into the territory they have had the namesake of the Christian saint, Saint Catherine of Alexandria. The Santa Catalinas are part of the Coronado National Forest and because of this are subject to both development and misuse at the hands of uncaring tourists, but also efforts to preserve and conserve the natural landscape of the mountains.

What does this mean for you, the hiker? It means the trails will be well-worn and easy to follow, you will encounter some garbage and vandalism, there will be moments of spectacular natural beauty, the trail will not take you far from the city, and you will likely encounter other hikers during your adventure. It is a good introduction to hiking in Arizona, but it doesn’t quite offer the sublime levels of beauty, seclusion, or adventure that await you at other areas in the state. 

Here’s the disclaimer: I hiked this trail for the first time about a week or two ago. This means I hiked it during the summer. Though the trail is said to be a year-round trail, I found my experience to be a bit bland, and the season may have contributed to this.

The trail at parts was covered in a thin layer of sand, making hiking slow and a bit annoying here and there-- not a huge problem, but a consideration. In the summer especially, sand means dust, and you will be swimming in it by the time you finish the trail. I also found the views in the lowland areas of the trail to be pretty typical, nothing too spectacular (the highland areas are a different story). The plants were dry, common, and unremarkable. I’m sure a hike in the spring or perhaps even fall would cure this lackluster appearance though. The temperature seemed to keep the wildlife, with the exception of the lizards, pinned down too, and I didn’t see much on my hike. With that said, the trail still has much to offer. Keep in mind through your read that some of my experience was undoubtedly a factor of the time of year.   

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The Trail

To get to the trailhead, head north on 1st Avenue until you hit Ina Road. From there, 1st Avenue becomes Christie Drive and flows into a residential area, but keep following the road. Finally you’ll come to Magee Road, turn right and head east on it until you reach the Iris O. Dewhirst Pima Canyon Trailhead (there will be a parking lot, bathroom, and informational signs). Waypoint 001 signifies the trailhead on the GPS map.

The beginning of the trail is a flat, dirt path that winds in between rocks and desert brush. There is a slight incline, but not enough of a climb to be noticeable. The cholla is vicious through the beginning part of the trail, but it only bites when cornered, so you’ll be fine, just stay close to the middle of the path. Waypoint 002 signifies the point where the trail goes underneath a small metal bridge -- possibly a good photo opportunity.

A little bit after the bridge if you look about two feet to the left of the trail, you will see a rock that someone was kind enough to leave their mark on. At Waypoint 003 you will see bright red paint on a rock that says, ‘SIMON SAYS LEAVE HIM’. This is exactly the type of thing I’m talking about when I say you will encounter vandalism. Sigh. This is the most prominent example of disrespect on the trail, but it certainly won’t be the last. Feel free to pick up a few pieces of trash if you can find it within yourself. It would make a difference.

Waypoint 004 marks the actual Pima Canyon Trail sign. This is where the trail begins to ascend. This, for me, was the highlight of the trail. Were the entire trail this awesome, it would be one of my favorite in all of Arizona! It is unfortunately only a small piece of the trail. And those thirty minutes of beautiful trail have a hard time making up for the next two-and-a-half hours.

As you climb upward to the mouth of the canyon, not only do you get an awe-inspiring lookout over the city to the south, but in front of your very eyes the canyon opens before you. Jagged cliffs rise up to your left and right as the trail skirts along the side of the closest mountain. Giant saguaros and intense desert views will be your accompaniment for this part of the hike. Enjoy it. It’s incredible. If at all possible, you may want to hit this area at sunset or at night on the way back. The city lights, man, they’re gorgeous.

Ok!!! Now take a moment to think here... Do you really, really want to see the dam? I will tell you right now that in my opinion, the trail has already climaxed at this point. This is exactly the type of trail (so far) that you beginners will want in order to pique your appetite for more hiking later on. It has the views, the modest hike, the plant life, and some of the wildlife. It doesn’t get any better from here on in. However, if you really want to see the dam, or if you want a bit more of a hike to get your fill, keep reading.

Soon you will enter the lowland section of the trail. Like I mentioned earlier, this part of the trail is less than exciting. Get ready for sand, brush, rocks. A lot of sand, brush, and rocks. That’s about all you’ll see for a majority of the rest of the hike. Waypoint 005 signifies an old campsite at the bottom of the canyon. Old campfire burns and tent sites can be seen if you take a moment’s rest here.

Waypoint 006 marks an area of the trail where the path splits into multiple sections. In these cases, the most obvious path is the correct one. It's best to take the middle path, they rejoin and go in the correct direction. Don’t worry, if you’re not going the right way, it will quickly become obvious! You won’t have to go far. Just keep an eye on the trail, if it seems sketchy: IT IS. Just stick to the most obvious route in all cases!

Finally, Waypoint 007 marks the area in the trail where my guide (a close friend of mine who has been to the dam before) and I left the actual trail to hike up to the dam. At this point, you need to hike west from the actual trail and head up the nearest mountain. It’s not far at all, but here’s the catch-- the dam is easy to miss. When researching this hike before I went, I had been wondering why everyone talked about the dam and yet no one had any pictures. Now I know why. It’s because the dam is nothing to look at. Look for a small little rock structure that blocks a natural crease in the rock canyon. That’s about it. Nothing too spectacular. You could walk right past it, unless you’re looking, you probably won’t notice it.  

The trail continues further up the canyon if you wish to follow it, but the sun was setting and I decided to head for home and retraced my steps to the trail head.

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