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Pine Canyon, Santa Catalina Mountains

Summary: A technical canyoneering trip through a boulder filled canyon in the Santa Catalinas that requires a bit of hiking on slippery water polished rocks. Gear required: helmet, webbing (30 ft), shoes with good traction, harness, descender, and 2x200' ropes (or a 200' rope and 200' pull cord). This trip is suitable for intermediate canyoneers familiar with evaluating and using natural anchors. A car shuttle is required.
Directions: From Phoenix drive south on I-10 to Tucson.  Take the Grant Rd exit and drive east (left) on Grant for 8.7 miles. Turn left onto Tanque Verde and drive 3.4 miles to the Catalina Highway. Turn left onto the Catalina Highway and drive to the fee station located at the 5 mile point, $5 per car if you plan on stopping at any of the trailheads, view points or to use a public toilet along the highway. Spot a car at the lower trailhead, then continue onward to the upper to the start of the hike.
Lower Trailhead: Continue up the Catalina Highway to the turnoff into the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Area (Old Prison Camp) beyond milepost 7. Turn left and follow the road either to a closed gate or beyond if it is open. Low clearance vehicles should park at the last building slab in the prison camp. The Sycamore Reservoir Trail #39 is located at the end of the parking area.
Upper Trailhead: Continue to Organization Ridge Road just downhill from the Palisade Visitor Information Center. Turn left and drive a quarter mile down the Organization Ridge road to the Palisade Trail #99 parking area on the right (note: the sign is sort of subtle). Trailhead parking is not available in the boy scout campground. In winter, Organization Ridge Road is closed, so you’ll have to hike about a quarter mile to the trailhead.
Road Conditions: Passenger Car - as long as there is no snow
Navigation: Moderate
Length: 6-9 hours
Date Hiked: December 2005
Weather Conditions: Sunny & cool
Required Skills:
Hike Description: From the trailhead for the Palisade Trail #99, begin walking on the path as it winds its way downhill along the side of Palisade Canyon. Soon you'll pass a side trail that branches left to the Boy Scout camp, stay straight. Stay on the trail for about 2 miles to a point where it passes within 50 feet of Pine Canyon (where Mud Spring is marked on the map). Leave the trail at this point and begin walking down the canyon. The drainage consists of white granite boulders that have been polished smooth over time by water. When I was here there were a few puddles and pools, which were all easy to avoid. Use care at all times during this hike, the rock is extremely slick. Continuing down canyon, there are a few downclimbs and spots where you'll have to walk around on one side or the other to find a reasonable route down or avoid a small pool. Eventually you'll arrive at a drop off and rappel #1. We used a fairly large, but not terribly alive tree a short way down on canyon right. There are many other options for anchors if this one doesn't appeal to you. From where we rigged the rappel was ~60 ft. Pack up your rope and continue down canyon and about 20 minutes later you'll arrive at rappel #2, a 150 footer from an obvious juniper tree at the top of the rappel (it's a short ways back from the lip, which is why I recommend a 200' rope). Remove your harness and it's more of the same as you rock hop your way down canyon. The last obstacle occurs in an area where the canyon forms a 'V' with a 20 ft drop off formed by a choke stone. We were able to downclimb on the right, but I slipped and almost fell (which could have been very unpleasant). I definitely recommend a belay at this point. Continue down canyon to a point where the drainage begins to level out and takes an obvious bend to the right. At this point you can either stay in the drainage and continue down to a point where you run into the lower end of the Palisades Trail (the long way, be aware I did not take this route so be sure to have a map), or simply scan the hillside to the left of Pine Canyon. The Sycamore Reservoir Trail can be seen a short ways up the left slope of the canyon. It's a short, and somewhat unpleasant, hike up to the trail. If you follow the latter route, you'll then head UP (this will either be right or left, depending on where you hit the trail) the Sycamore Reservoir Trail. The path climbs up a ways, then travels beside Sycamore Creek to Sycamore Reservoir (which is now filled with sand). Sycamore Reservoir was originally constructed to supply water to the old prison camp (a Japanese internment camp during WWII) along the Catalina Highway. After crossing a sandy wash (look for cairns) the path begins climbing once again, eventually paralleling a 4-wheel drive road. The trail climbs up to a saddle, then descends gently into a wash, which it follows a short distance to the old Prison Camp and the vehicle you spotted earlier.
Rating (1-5 stars):
The author and a friend completed the trip in 6.5 hours, we lost about 30 minutes when I realized I had left my camera at the bottom of the first rappel and had to run back and get it.
Maps: Santa Catalina Mountains - Rainbow Expeditions Inc., available in the Sabino Canyon Visitor Center ($6). Recommended!
Books: None used
Photos: Click picture for larger view, click your browser's 'Back' button to return to this page.
The top of rappel #1. Rappel #2. View along the Sycamore
Reservoir Trail..
Panorama view along the Sycamore Reservoir Trail on the hike out.