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Turkey Creek to Douglas Spring, Saguaro National Park East

Summary: This hike will take you through the heart of Saguaro National Park East and will require a car shuttle. The ~4000 ft elevation gain and loss will take you through desert grasslands, chaparral and pine/oak forests.
Directions: Turkey Spring Trailhead: From Phoenix drive south on I-10 past Tucson. Take exit 297 for Mescal and turn left at the end of the exit ramp. Follow this road north. After 2.8 miles the road becomes well graded dirt and eventually enters private ranch land. After driving 16 miles from I-10 you'll reach a large brown sign: Miller Creek Trail is left, Turkey Creek Trail is right. Turn right drive a short distance, then turn left (following the big sign for the trailhead) on FR #4408. After passing through a gate, it's a short drive to the official start of the trail, which begins on a dirt road on the left, under the sycamores. Those with a 4-WD vehicle can drive another 1.5 miles on the rough, steep dirt road to its end.
Douglas Spring Trailhead: Exit I-10 onto Speedway Blvd. Drive east all the way to the end, there is a parking lot on the right.
Road Conditions: Passenger Car - will get you to the official start of the trail if roads are dry
4-WD - will save you a 1.5 mile walk
Navigation: Easy - good trail with sign posts at all trail intersections
Length: 21 miles
Date Hiked: January, 2003
Weather Conditions: Nice, warm in the low lands, cool in the mountains with a bit of lingering snow
Required Skills:
Hike Description: A small metal sign marks at the start of a steep dirt road marks the Turkey Creek Trailhead (0 miles, elevation 4250 ft), it reads: Saguaro NP 3 miles, Dear Head Spring Trail 6.2 miles, Manning Camp 8.7 miles. Begin hiking on the dirt road as it travels north through the rolling, grassy hills of Happy Valley. After 1.6 miles (1.6 miles) the road ends in a small loop and trail. Begin hiking on this path as it winds at a moderate grade in a westerly direction through an area consisting of: manzanita, prickly pear, bear grass, oak, yucca and juniper. Looking up at the mountain above, you will see the prominent feature of Reef Rock. After another 1.4 miles (3 miles) you will reach a sign and gate marking the boundary of Saguaro NP (camping permit is required, no motor vehicles, bicycles or weapons). Another 10 minute walk and you will pass a trail register, after which the path begins climbing considerably more steeply (in fact many sections are like climbing stairs, since the park service has installed many stone blocks to prevent erosion). After climbing for a while, the trail will abruptly enter a forested area and you'll arrive at a sign marking Mud Hole Spring (which lies a short distance up hill from the sign and had a small trickle of water when I was here). Another sign points right for Deer Head Spring, 1 mile (though other sources I've seen agree that it is further than this). Head right and continue climbing very steeply on a semi-shaded trail. Pines will become more prevalent as you gain in elevation. Eventually, the grade flattens out as you reach a shoulder (Reef Rock will be off to your right), then you'll drop down into a shallow ravine. Shortly after you begin climbing again, you'll reach Deer Head Spring (6.2 miles, 7160 ft) which was not flowing when I was here (as a point of reference, the author reached this point 2.5 hours into the hike). The trail continues steeply up, passes the spring & reaches a signed junction 5 minutes later. Turn right at this junction heading towards Spud Rock Spring Campground. You are now on the Deerhead Spring Trail heading north on a mostly level path towards Reef Rock. The trail soon reaches a clearing with a nice stand of Aspen trees and another signed junction (6.8 miles, 7420 ft). The campground is a short distance down the trail on the right, we, however will turn left towards the Switchback Trail. You are now on the East Slope Trail which we follow 0.2 miles uphill to another signed junction. Turn right at this junction onto the Switchback Trail towards Manning Camp (7.0 miles, 7560 ft). True to its name, the Switchback Trail performs a series of switchbacks as it continues to climb through the pine forest. Along the way, you will have some nice views back down into the valley where you started the hike. After 0.3 miles, you'll arrive at another junction (7.3 miles, 7800 ft); turn right, heading towards the Fire Loop Trail. You are now on the Heartbreak Ridge Trail (odd how many of the signs provide distances to other trails, yet omit the name of the trail you are actually on). The path continues uphill, though at a now gentle grade, and is pleasant walking. Soon you will reach a junction with the Fire Loop Trail (8.0 miles, 8240 ft); continue straight, following the sign towards Manning Camp. You are now on the Fire Loop Trail, which climbs a short distance, then actually begins descending (what a concept). It drops down fairly steeply until it enters an open area and junction with the Mica Mountain Trail which branches back to the right (8.6 miles); continue straight and it's a short stroll into Manning Camp (8.7 miles, 8100 ft), which has water available year round (I reached this spot in just under 4 hours).

Here's the story on Manning Camp if you're interested:
"The Manning cabin was built in 1905 by Levi Manning Surveyor General of the Arizona Territory and Mayor of Tucson. Levi and his family spent several summers here raising vegetables and cattle, and escaping the heat of Tucson. He abandoned the cabin in 1907 when the Rincon Mountains were added to the Coronado National Forest. In 1933 this area was made part of Saguaro National Monument which was renamed Saguaro National Park in 1994. The National Park Service uses the cabin for fire and trail crews, researchers and rangers. The cabin provides an important base for prescribed burn operations. Pack mules deliver supplies to this remote cabin which is on the national register of historic places."
Looks more like a nice little resort for government employees, but what do I know.

There are several trails out of Manning Camp; we will take the Cow Head Saddle Trail which is on the right. The path is basically flat as it winds its way through the pines, you may catch a glimpse of Mt. Wrightson in the distance off to the left. The path begins descending gradually and after 0.4 miles, then again 0.2 miles later, you'll pass signed junctions with right branching trails, stay straight (left) on the Cow Head Saddle Trail in each case (9.3 miles, 7860ft). As you continue to descend, the path drops down to the left of a deep ravine where you will leave the forest and enter the chaparral before descending more steeply. After rounding a rock outcropping (shown as a hill with elevation 7244 ft on the map referenced below) you'll have views down into Tucson, as well as across the valley to Mt. Lemmon and the Santa Catalina range. As you approach Cow Head Saddle, you will have to walk down a number of long stone staircases with the steps spaced at awkward intervals which breaks up your stride. There is a signed 4-way intersection at the saddle (12.6 miles, 6100 ft); turn right, continuing on the Cow Head Saddle trail heading north towards Douglas Spring Camp. More descending, this time following a drainage which had flowing water when I was here. The trail exits the wash and begins traveling less steeply through an area of rolling hills and grass. Prominent plants in the area are oak, manzanita, bear grass, sotol, and yuccas. Just after crossing a stream bed, you will reach Douglas Spring Camp (15.0 miles, 4700 ft) which has several camp sites and a toilet. The path bends east as it winds through the rolling hills of the grassland. Eventually, when you catch another glimpse of Tucson, it begins descending again. As you lose elevation, you will begin to see more sotol, stag horn cholla and prickly pear. Soon after you see some prominent drainages off to the left and pass the first saguaro cactus of the hike, you will reach a junction with the Bridal Wreath Falls Trail (0.3 miles to the falls, which flows only occasionally) and a short distance later, a junction with the left branching Three Tanks Trail (18.6 miles, 3700 ft). Continue straight on the Douglas Spring Trail which continues its descent, this time beside a shallow ravine. In addition to saguaro, you will now pass ocotillo, brittlebush and palo verde. The path crosses a wash, climbs a low hill, then descends some more to a junction with the left branching Carrillo Trail (19.9 miles, 3150ft). Continue straight (right) at all junctions as you enter the desert flats below for an easy walk to arrive at the Douglas Springs Trailhead (20.9 miles, 2750 feet).

Rating (1-5 stars):
The author has completed this hike on two occasions. The logistics of the hike involved camping near the Turkey Creek Trailhead, then with an early start the author began hiking while his wife drove around to the Douglas Spring Trailhead. The hike across the mountain was completed in 8.5 hours.
Maps: National Geographic Trails Illustrated - Saguaro National Park
Books: None
Photos: Click picture for larger view, click your browser's 'Back' button to return to this page.
Reef Rock and the long
climb ahead.
Looking back into Happy Valley.
Manning Camp Desert grassland as you
descend towards Tucson.