Hands down, one of the greatest hikes in Tucson is to the top of Mount Wrightson. Located about 40 miles south of the city in the lush Coronado National Forest of the Santa Rita Mountains, Mount Wrightson and lesser known neighbor Mount Ian comprise the backdrop of any picture taken in Tucson. At 9,456 feet, Mount Wrightson is Tucson’s tallest peak (Mount Ian is slightly smaller at 9,146 feet) and the views along the way and at the top are quite impressive. Where else in Tucson can you pass through four different ecological zones ranging from the last remains of the Sonoran desert to the Ponderosa pines and finally the majestic Douglas Firs. In a little over five hours, you can have it all and get a challenging hike too.
I first hiked Mount Wrightson over twenty years ago when I was visiting my parents in Tucson. It was in my early hiking years and at the time I found the hike pretty darn challenging. I remember when I reached the top, I realized that it was the highest mountain I’d ever climbed. I’d done a lot of hiking growing up in Minnesota and had even hiked in the Alps but I had never hiked over 9,000 feet before. I’d only skied at that elevation. Being on top of Mount Wrightson felt like being on top of the world. It was exhilarating and set in motion a strong desire to keep climbing.
Five years later, I made another attempt to summit Mount Wrightson but physically it was not meant to be. I was three months pregnant with my son and the morning sickness made the hike impossible. I only got to the first saddle at 7,100 feet. That was in November 2003 and it took another 15 years for me to finally get the opportunity to attempt the hike again.
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Reaching Tucson’s highest peak is always an accomplishment and the hike itself is truly quite stunning, affording sensational views all the way into Mexico and beyond as well as getting a feel for Arizona’s incredible ecological diversity. Of course there are plenty of stunning hikes to do in the desert surrounding Tucson yet a climb to the top of Mount Wrightson is truly special and unique. If you are lucky you may also even see wildlife that only lives in higher elevations like the Whitetail and Mule Deer, Wild Turkey, Black Bear, Coati or even a fox. Plus what is not to love about a nice, demanding leg burning hike.
There are two trails to choose from to reach the top of Mount Wrightson (or Mount Ian if you prefer to climb that peak). For those who want to get there faster and have a more challenging hike, follow the Old Baldy Trail, a ten-mile hike through the forest with switchbacks weaving you up to the top. If you want an easier, less trafficked yet longer hike you can follow the 13.1 mile Super Trail (Also known as the Loop Trail). I prefer the Old Baldy Trail.
Both hikes begin right next to the parking lot at the Madera Canyon Trailhead located at the end of the Madera Canyon Road. The 11-mile drive into Madera Canyon is quite spectacular in itself as you leave behind the dusty desert landscape of cactus and mesquite trees and enter the lush Coronado National Forest composed of Evergreen Oaks, Arizona Sycamores, Fremont Cottonwoods and Alligator Junipers.
Along the way are tiny cabins and a few B&Bs where birders from around the world come to spend a night or two. With over 250 species of birds identified in the area, Madera Canyon is one of the most renowned birding destinations in the United States and it is evident by the number of birders walking around with their binoculars, sun hats and enormous cameras.
The start of both trailheads is at 5,450 feet and by this time you have already left behind the desert landscape that surrounds Tucson and have entered the Coronado National Forest lush with a wide variety of trees. The start of the Old Baldy trailhead is wide and a bit rocky until you reach the woods and the first of many switchbacks winding you up to the Josephine Saddle.
From the start of the trailhead, it takes about 1 hour and 10 minutes (2.2 miles) moving at a good pace to reach the first saddle, Josephine Saddle at 7,100 feet. As you walk, you hear nothing but the birds and the air is crisp and fragrant. It is hard to believe that not far away are the giant saguaros and cactus that make up so much of Tucson’s landscape.
Since it was late January, it was a cool 40 degrees when my dad and I set off for our hike. As a native Minnesotan, it wasn’t cold for me but for the locals like my dad it was chilly. It would warm up a little bit throughout the day but we were glad we had our hats, gloves and warm coats to brace us from the wind.
As you climb up to the saddle, you can catch a glimpse of where you are headed as well as see the mosaic patterned desert landscape far below to north. Once you reach 6,500 feet, the landscape once again begins to change and you find yourself in the thick of glorious Ponderosa pines, oaks and maples common at higher elevations.
It takes another hour and twenty minutes to reach the second saddle, the Baldy Saddle at 8,750 feet. This part of the hike is much steeper and given the time of year, we hit snow. We expected snow yet were honestly unprepared for the ice as it was very slippery on the ascent up to Baldy Saddle. Thankfully we both had a pair of hiking poles however it would have been much easier and safer with a pair of ice cleats or crampons.
Finally, we reached the Baldy Saddle at a much slower pace than expected due to the difficult conditions. We took a break for lunch and then debated what to do next. Unfortunately the last bit of the climb to reach the summit was not going to be possible this time around. It was way too icy and we did not have the proper gear. Going to the top would have been dangerous so instead I just snapped a few photos of it.
Before heading back down, we decided to hike up a little bit from the saddle to neighboring Mount Ian which thankfully was free of snow. There actually really isn’t a defined trail to the top and it mostly involves hiking through the shrubs and bush but the view is equally as impressive. We got up to the crest and took a few photos before deciding to turn around. The top of Mount Ian would have to wait as well if we wanted to make it back to Tucson in time for sunset.
It was a good thing we turned around because it was exceptionally icy and slippery at this point. I almost slipped and fell multiple times. I can only imagine how hard it was for the other hikers we saw wearing sneakers! We got back just in time to make the drive back to Tucson for sunset, something that is not to be missed when visiting Arizona. Once again, the mountain won but I know I’ll give it another try again. This time I hope it doesn’t take another 15 years for the attempt.
When to Go
You can hike to the top of Mount Wrightson year round however the best times to hike is in the Spring and Fall. If you go during the Winter months be prepared for snow, ice or rain. Although it is much cooler than in Tucson, summer months can still be hot so be prepared with ample water and sunscreen. If you love flowers and birdwatching, then go in the Spring where you will see plenty of beautiful wildflowers in bloom and lots of birds. Madera Canyon is world renown for birdwatchers and is home to over 250 species of birds.
What to Pack and Bring
Make sure to wear sturdy hiking boots. The path is rocky, uneven in places and also in winter months can be filled with snow and ice. If you hiking in the winter, be sure to pack crampons or some kind of ice cleats for your boots. I also highly recommend a pair of hiking poles which are mandatory with snow and ice. Pack plenty of water too.
How to Get There
From downtown Tucson, follow 1-19 South towards Nogales. After approximately 20 miles, take the Continental Road Exit towards Madera Canyon Recreation Area. Follow the signs and you will arrive at the Madera Canyon Recreation Area after a pretty ten minute drive through the forest. There is a fee of $5 to park in the lot since you are visiting a National Forest. Old Baldy Trail and the Super Trailheads are on the left and righthand side of the parking lot.
Where to Stay
You can easily make the hike in a day trip from Tucson but be prepared for a full day (5-6 hours hike plus 1 1/2 to 2 hours drive roundtrip). If you want to make it a trip, there are lots of lovely Bed and Breakfasts and cabins to stay at. We passed the Madera Kubo B&B along the way and it looks lovely and has nice reviews on TripAdvisor.
Love hiking? For shorter hikes in Tucson: Check out my Guide to the Best Hikes in Sabino Canyon.
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