Tucked within the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains in Tucson, Arizona lies Sabino Canyon, one of Tucson’s most popular parks for exploring the spectacular desert landscape and wildlife of Southern Arizona. Ever since my parents moved to Tucson in the mid-90s, it has been like a second home to me and Sabino Canyon has been my playground. Less than a five minute drive from my parents’ home, Sabino Canyon affords an endless supply of hikes and walks within some of Arizona’s finest scenery.
Over the past twenty years, I have done almost every hike within the canyon countless times with my favorite being the hike to Seven Falls and the Phoneline Trail. However, one thing I have never ever done is a hike in the rain. Rain in the desert? This may sound a bit confusing and surreal for a place that receives on average less than 12 inches of rain a year. However, I just happened to be in Tucson when a storm rolled in from California bringing heavy wet snow to the mountains and pouring cold rain to the desert below.
Deeply dismayed by the unusual poor weather I decided to turn lemons into lemonade. I put on my rain coat, packed a sandwich and took off on one of my most favorite hikes in Sabino Canyon, The Phone Line Trail. My kids didn’t want to come and I didn’t blame them. They had no rain gear. However, my favorite all time hiking partner, my dad, of course was up for the challenge. So together we set off into the unknown.
The Phoneline trail climbs up high above the canyon giving you a unique perspective and panoramic view of this amazing place. There are several ways to do the Phone Line hike. You can do the entire 7.6 mile roundtrip hike on the trail or you can take the tram all the way to the end at Stop #9 get off and hike the trail back cutting the hike in half. What I prefer is to hike the Phoneline trail to Tram Stop 9 (which is where the pavement ends) and walk back on the pavement below. This way I get the bird’s eye view walking into the canyon and the lower level cactus and creek view from down below. It all depends on what you want to see and if you prefer to have solitude or company. (Important update: Since this was last written, the tram service is no suspended while the park service decides on its environmental impact.).
To reach the Historic Sabino Trail and the Phoneline Trailhead, we followed the trail towards Bear Canyon and picked it up about ten minutes later. (If you continue on into Bear Canyon, you can take another fantastic four hour roundtrip hike to 7 Falls).
We set out into the unknown weather with dark, rain-laden clouds threatening overhead. The poor weather had kept the regular swarms of hikers and tourists away and we amazingly had almost the entire place to ourselves.
As we hiked, the air was refreshingly pure and fresh and the aromatic scents of the desert filled my nose. It was ironically quite lovely hiking in the desert in the rain. I had never realized what I was missing.
“Over every mountain there is a path, although it may not be seen from the valley”. – Theodore Roethke
The path winds around the side of the canyon like a snake. Each time you see a corner and think you are about to arrive, you realize it is another false alarm. Thankfully I have done this hike so many times that I know where the last big turn is before the train descent down to Tram Stop 9, the end of the pavement.
“I see my path, but I don’t know where it leads. Not knowing where I’m going is what inspires me to travel it”. – Rosalia de Castro
Slowly the clouds become too heavy with rain, it it begins to sprinkle dampening our jackets and bringing in another nostalgic wave of fresh air and aroma. I am startled by how verdant it is for mid-February. There are already signs of spring. I even see a desert rose and a bud on a cactus.
As the clouds lift I am spellbound to see an unusual sight. The tops of the Santa Catalina mountains are covered in snow. It is breathtaking. The snow will soon melt and feed the rivers that formed this canyon long ago. It will also replenish the barren landscape bringing greenery and flowers to the desert carpet.
As we reach the end of the trail, it is time for us to descend down to the road. There are nine bridges that cross rivers which are always dry in the summer and flowing steadily in the spring. We had to take our hiking boots off nine times and walk across the icy cold water. My feet were completely numb!
As we arrived at the parking lot, I pondered how grateful we were to have decided to just do it and go on that hike despite the gloomy weather. Surprisingly it ended up being one of the most memorable hikes I’ve taken in a long time. Sometimes it is only by taking the path that we arrive exactly where we need to be.