Hike | Esperero Canyon Loop | Tucson
- Length: 22 miles (round trip)
- Trail Type: Loop
- Trailhead Elevation: 2,800 ft.
- Gain/Loss: +2700 ft.
- Difficulty: Difficult
- Dog Friendly: No
The Esperero Canyon Loop Trail is located in the Santa Catalina Mountain Range in Tucson. This is a long, hot, steep loop hike that has fantastic views with a refreshing surprise to end the 22 mile loop. I recommend this to intermediate to advanced hikers who want excellent views and something different than following the crowds to Sabino Canyon or Seven Falls.
The Santa Catalina mountain range is northeast of Tucson and is the most prominent range in the area. The Catalinas are home to Mount Lemmon, the impressive 9,157 ft. peak which gets plenty of snow in the winter. In the spring and summer this place gets very busy as it is a popular destination for trail runners, old people, and those who like to do short day hikes into the watered canyon areas. Sabino Canyon is the ranges hot spot due to the year round water and a shuttle that takes lazy people in and out of the canyon.
The temperature was hotter than we had planned (roughly 85 degrees) when we arrived so I lightened my pack by ditching the rain-fly and jacket. We decided to hike Esperero Loop, a 22 mile round trip hike that takes you up into the west side of the mountain, loops you around one of the highest peaks of the range (7,006 ft) and drops you back down through Sabino Canyon. We bought a topo map and began our journey.
This was Casi’s first real “desert hiking” experience with heat and exposure to the sun. The trail begins on the west side of the visitors center at the Cactus Picnic area. As we hiked the first couple miles we knew that this was not going to be easy. The first saddle we came to (4 miles in) was a difficult accent but with great views of Tucson. The trail, for the first time, took us off the saddle and down into Esperero Canyon with some nice shade from large Cottonwood trees and White Oak. Shortly after some back and forth through the dry beds, we began our accent to the peak. We passed very few hikers on the trail. This was definitely the road less traveled by, for a vast majority of the hikers spend the day on the east side in Sabino Canyon playing in the nice water.
Somewhere in the middle of our accent, we began running low on water. This spooked us a little because it was around 90 degrees and at the hottest part of the day. We found water at Mormon Springs but it was nothing more than a shallow puddle of muck (see photo below). We needed it so I unpacked the filter and with my hands I pushed the moss and flies to uncover a clear spot to filter water. After two more hours of hiking from an elevation of 2500 ft. to nearly 7000 ft., Casi and I were exhausted. There was still snow on the north side of the mountain which indicated to us just how high we had climbed.
We hiked a three mile connecting trail to the West Fork of Sabino Canyon. It was much cooler following the canyon with overgrowth of trees than it was on the west side of the brutal mountain. It was 4 p.m. when we hit the trail at W.F. and we were in high spirits because the map showed a steady 3.4 mile gradual decent into Sabino Canyon. After about two more hours of hiking we reached Sabino Canyon just before nightfall. We had hiked around 13 miles of brutal terrain in 90+ degree hiking. Casi and I were both stoked to reach a beautiful sandy campsite right next to the ever-flowing Sabino Canyon. At this point in the hike, it would be a great idea to take the 2 mile jaunt to Hutch's Pool, a popular swimming hole that fingers off of Sabino Creek.
In the morning we hiked in and out of the canyon and then eventually up onto a mountain ridge overlooking the water the rest of the way. We decided to take the road back into town rather than Telephone Trail because the road is much closer to the water than the trail. All in all we had fun spring hike in the Santa Catalinas. Although we underestimated the hike in general, we came away with some great memories and even greater tan lines.
- Get to the trailhead early!
- Make a stop at Hutch's Pool before setting up camp.
- Buy a weekly parking pass from the visitors center (same price as two one day passes)
- Set up camp on Sabino Creek. The sites are beautiful, sandy, and you fall asleep to the sound of the creek.
map to trailhead
Directions: Make sure to park in a designated parking spot. Officers will write you a ticket for parking on the road.