With the recent rain storm having passed through the area and the days warming up a bit, I took one last chance to get a hike in before Christmas. We had visited Sabino Canyon just east of Tucson when we first came down and I knew I wanted to go back and do another hike in the same area. Sabino Canyon is pretty commercialized and had a little tram that takes you 3 or 4 miles up the canyon. A guide gives you the history and myths of the area as it makes stops about every half mile. If you’re not much of a hiker, this is an ideal way to see the canyon. You can get off at any stop and catch another tram later. You can also walk between the stops and ride any time you like that day.
The next canyon to the east was called Bear Canyon and had a good hiking trail up to a place called Seven Falls. I did some research on Bear Canyon and the Sierra Club had a very informative webpage on this hike. Here is what they had to say:
Sabino Canyon Tours’ Bear Canyon Trail tram is a non-narrated 2 mile ride that travels to the trailhead of Seven Fall. Visitors may get off the tram at any of the stops and re-board later. Trams arrive on average every hour. The Bear Canyon tram ride has 3 stops along the way for hikers to select their choice of trails.
Santa Catalina Mountains
Total Length: 7.8 miles
Highest Elevation: 3250 feet
Lowest Elevation: 2600 feet
Elevation Change: 650 feet
Difficulty Rating: C
Best Seasons: Spring Summer Fall Winter
Hiking Time: 3 hours
Dogs: Dogs not allowed
This is a very easy and popular hike to the incredible Seven Falls. Everyone who lives in Tucson should make the trip at least once. Even though this hike is in the hot lower elevations, I list it as a summer hike because you can cool off in the pools at Seven Falls, and get your clothes wet so they keep you cool on the hike back.
Directions to Trailhead
From the intersection of Tanque Verde and Grant/Kolb Rd head northeast on Tanque Verde. Turn left at the second light on Sabino Canyon Rd. Go about 6 miles up Sabino Canyon Rd, and pass the Hidden Valley Restaurant, an old west theme restaurant. About a mile or two after the restaurant you come to a four-way stop with Sunrise. Go straight through the intersection and take the next right into the parking lot of Sabino Canyon Recreation Area.
The Sabino Canyon parking lot can fill up on nice weekends, so get there early or park on the side of the road near the entrance.
Dogs are not allowed in the main canyon area, or on the Bear Canyon or Sabino Canyon trails.
Bear Canyon Trail, FS #29
(Sabino Canyon Visitor’s Center to Phoneline Trail)
Length: 0.8 miles
Hiking Time: 0.2 hours
Highest point: 2700 feet
Lowest point: 2600 feet
In the parking lot at Sabino Canyon, head to the eastern, or far right hand (as you face the visitor’s center) end of the parking lot. This is the end farthest from the entrance. Take the wide dirt track that heads straight east from this point. There is a sign here indicating that this track is the Bear Canyon Trail.
The wide track continues nearly level, and completely straight, for about a half mile. Turn right on the pavement when you hit the road, although it is possible to take a trail that parallels the road to the south. Take this paved road a few hundred yards until you get to restrooms at a road junction. Turn right here, and cross the bridge that is a short distance from the restrooms. At the far side of the bridge there is another road intersection (T shaped). The Phoneline Trail is directly opposite you as you reach this intersection, and there is a sign a short ways up the trail.
If you are continuing to Bear Canyon, you can either turn right on the road at this intersection, or go up the trail a short distance, and turn right on the trail that parallels the road.
Turn right on the road here.
Bear Canyon Trail, FS #29
(Phoneline Trail to pavement end)
Length: 0.9 miles
Hiking Time: 0.3 hours
Highest point: 2750 feet
Lowest point: 2700 feet
Trail goes uphill
This trail runs parallel to the road from the last bridge crossing Sabino Creek up to the end of payment in Bear Canyon. There is an hourly tram that can take you from the visitor’s center to Bear Canyon, but it is usually quicker to walk it unless you happen to be there just when it is leaving.
After you cross the bridge over Sabino Creek, turn right on the road, or head up the trail opposite you at the road junction and turn right on the trail that parallels the road.
The road climbs up a small rise, then descends toward the mouth of Bear Canyon and you pass a picnic area near the top of the rise. After a short while, you come to the end of the pavement where there are restrooms. The trail takes off from the left side of the restrooms and continues in the same direction as the road was going.
Bear Canyon Trail, FS #29
(Pavement end to Seven Falls turnoff)
Length: 2.2 miles
Hiking Time: 1.1 hours
Highest point: 3250 feet
Lowest point: 2750 feet
Trail goes uphill
This scenic but easy trail segment is very popular because it leads to picturesque Seven Falls. If you only do one hike in the Catalinas, this should be it. There are exactly 7 stream crossings on the way to Seven Falls.
After the trail leaves the restrooms, it continues straight and climbing gently until it descends a bit to the first stream crossing after about 7 minutes. The second through seventh crossings are about 3 to 6 minutes apart, so you reach the seventh crossing after about only 35 to 45 minutes.
The seventh crossing is the hardest when the water is up. After this seventh crossing the trail climbs up the south wall of the canyon on a couple of long switchbacks and then heads up-canyon, gently ascending. After you round a corner, you see the rock formation that towers over Seven Falls ahead. About 20 minutes after the seventh crossing you are directly opposite Seven Falls, which is a gorge on the north wall of Bear Canyon with a series of small waterfalls and pools. The trail forks here, with the left fork taking you down to a large pool at the base of Seven Falls. The Forest Service sign indicates the right fork leads continues on to Bear Canyon Trail.
Seven Falls has a number of pools large enough for swimming and large smooth rocks for sunbathing and relaxing in beautiful surroundings. Get there early if you want to avoid the crowds. There is enough water to swim even in the driest months, so this is a good destination, even in the hottest part of the summer.
To return, go back the way you came.
Well, that sounded pretty interesting. Friday, December 24, 2010, I got to the Sabino Canyon Parking area about 9:00 am. The parking lot was pretty full and I was hoping that most of the people would be going up Sabino Canyon and not up Bear Canyon. As it was only a couple of miles over to the Bear Canyon Trail head, I decided to walk rather than take the tram. The tram leaves every hour, on the hour, from 8am -4pm and costs $3/per person round trip.
From the parking lot, the first half mile was a dirt, jeep trail and was basically flat. At that point the trail hit the paved road which took you across the creek that comes out of the Sabino Dam and over a little hill to the beginning of the canyon.
From that point on, the trail follows the canyon and crosses the creek 7 times before it gets to the falls. There are no bridges at the crossings and the creek floods in the summer during heavy thunderstorms. At the first crossing I began to get the idea of just how much water can come down that canyon by noticing the high water line and the wide, washed-out creek bed. You surely wouldn’t want to be caught up that canyon in a storm like that as you could be there for a while.
The trail is in pretty good shape with the exception of the creek crossings. In the lower part of the canyon, the grade is fairly gentle, but the further up the canyon you go, the narrower the canyon becomes and the steeper the grade.
At the 6th creek crossing, the trail leaves the creek and begins making a couple of big switchbacks up the side of the canyon. That is the steepest section of the trail and is only about a quarter-mile long before it flattens out. It wasn’t long before I could see the pools and falls at the 7 Falls site. There was a tiny ribbon of water coursing down over the rocks and that kept the pools filled. This would be very beautiful with a good flow in the creek, but that would also mean having to wade each creek crossing.
This is a very cool place and I can see why it is a favorite swimming hole during the warmer months. I was told that the creek rarely dries up. A ranger reported to expect to wade the creek on the way up from July until mid-October.
The ridges surrounding the canyon are very steep and rugged. The rock has a lot of horizontal banding and is very pretty. With the dry desert environment, the cactus and low shrubs give you a spacious view of everything. Several trees along the creek still have a few colorful leaves that make for a nice contrast.
I spent about an hour at the 7 Falls site and waited for the sun to get high in the sky so it wouldn’t shade the canyon so much. The sharp contrast of the bright sun on the rocks and the shadows made it very hard to photograph. It would be much easier on an overcast day.
This hike was pretty popular as I saw 50 people or more along the way. This hike is easily accessed and has a gentle grade. If you are ever in the area and looking for a good half day hike, this one is highly recommended.
Enjoy this adventure and seeing the world through my lens. Keep looking for the beauty in your life too.
A few parting shots: