Arizona is an incredibly gorgeous, wildly diverse state with topography ranging from low level desert landscapes, to high mountain peaks and alpine forest ranges. More than any other geologic feature though, Arizona is widely renowned for its many beautiful and remote rock canyons, deep slot gorges, water falls and pools which are scattered throughout the state. However, what I find even more amazing, is that many of these backcountry wilderness canyons can be accessed through “non-technical” canyon hiking routes which don’t require ropes and are literally within a single day’s trip from either Phoenix or Tucson. For an excellent late summer to early fall day trip and hike, if you’re up for more of an exciting challenge and an extraordinary and scenic day trip, then take a mountain sliding, canyoneering hiking adventure to Seven Cataracts, and explore Willow Canyon, Tucson, Arizona.
It was the Labor Day holiday and early on Sunday morning that I left Phoenix, about 6am, heading out of town on I-10 East and arrived in Tucson by 7:30am. At the Ina Road exit, I swung off the freeway and took a left, heading east 8 miles, and met up with the TLC Hiking Group, led and organized by Eric Kinneman, at the Westin La Paloma Resort and arrived by 8am. Because the parking was said to be limited at the trailhead for this hike, we carpooled it together and set out for the day’s hike and journey heading east on Sunrise Blvd. by 8:25am.
The beautiful drive on Sunrise Blvd across the northern stretches of Tucson and through the rolling foothills of the gorgeous Santa Catalina mountains has always been a favorite of mine. The Santa Catalina Mountains are Tucson’s highest mountain range reaching all the way up to 9157 feet in elevation at its very top, Mount Lemmon. To get there and to reach the trailhead for our hike, we zig zagged it across Tucson, driving east on Sunrise Blvd to Swan Road, turned right (south), to River Road, turned left (east), then a right onto Sabino Canyon Road, left onto Tanque Verde Road and headed east on Tanque Verde Road till we reached the Catalina Highway, aka the “Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway”, and then turned left again.
It was about 4 miles or so after making the left turn onto the Catalina Highway that you enter the Coronado National Forest and start the winding ascent up into the rugged Santa Catalina mountains. Although it’s been a long time since I was last there, I was still amazed at just how beautiful and gorgeous this drive really is. Immediately as you head on up in elevation beginning at 3000 feet, the views are absolutely breathtaking with each switchback and hairpin curve offering a new and amazing rock formation or gorgeous canyon vista off to the distance. If you like to stop and take a lot of pictures, as I always like to do, you have plenty of opportunity to do so because this drive offers a number of vista points to enjoy along the way. However, at about mile marker 5, just past the Molino Canyon Overlook, there is a pay station where you must purchase a $5 Coronado National Forest day use recreation pass if you’re planning on stopping anywhere further along the drive. We purchased the day use passes, one each per vehicle and journeyed on for three more miles until we reached the Seven Cataracts Vista Point, just past Thimble Peak Vista and roughly at about mile marker 8 and about 1/3 of the way up to Mount Lemmon.
We pulled into the Seven Cataracts Vista point, and our trailhead, parked and started out on our day’s hiking and canyoneering adventure by 9am. The view looking down into Willow Canyon below was absolutely beautiful, but also incredibly steep too! Immediately, right from the beginning, the drop off into Willow Canyon on this “day use” trail was intense, to say the very least. Estimated to be roughly about a 1000-1300 feet descent straight down with a 60% grade on all loose dirt, gravel and rocks, each one of us had to literally drop down to the ground on our “butts” and from section to section, slide it on down for about a total of a ¼ of a mile until we had made down to the bottom. What a site it was to see too, really exciting and a lot of fun! However, this “non-official” trail, mainly used by experienced canyoneers, is rated very difficult, some even say treacherous or dangerous, so I would not recommend doing this hike on your own unless you are an experienced canyon hiker or have an experienced canyon hiking guide with you.
Once we had all safely slid our way down and reached the bottom and after a quick group photo, Eric began leading our group on our canyoneering exploration further down into Willow Canyon, scrambling, boulder hopping and class 3 climbing through partially running water falls. Really gorgeous and spectacular scenery all the way down too! We continued on for about a ¼ mile where we had reached a really nice running falls and enjoyed the opportunity to cool off, rest and enjoy the peaceful tranquility and beauty of this remote and lesser known wilderness canyon. Meanwhile, Eric, along with several other adventurous members, journeyed on for another 1/3 to ¼ mile, and after more scrambling, boulder hopping and class 3-4 climbing, reached a gorgeous 100 foot water fall and a larger swimming hole deep enough he said that even with a jump off a 10 foot cliff, they could not hit bottom! Amazing!
After about an hour or so break, we decided it was time to start making our way back. Now it was time for the most challenging part of our canyoneering adventure, making it back! So we began our trek back through Willow Canyon the same way we came, scrambling, boulder hopping, wading through the pools, then climbing it back up through the water fall. It only took a short time though and within minutes we had all made it safely back up and to the base of the side of the hill we had originally “slid” down on earlier. It was here that we met back up with Eric then broke up into two groups. You could decide to either make the ascent in the same place you came down with the 60% grade on all loose dirt and gravel, where Eric said it was for every 3 steps up, a slide of one or two back. Or my friend Dan decided it looked like if you took it up a little further down to the left, you could more easily climb it straight up the rocks and cliff and up to the top. So myself, along with several other members followed Dan’s lead and hand over foot, we slowly and carefully climbed it, section by section until we safely reached it back up to the top. Wow, for me and someone who’s scared of heights, and not experienced at rock climbing, it was challenging but a lot of fun and incredible workout too!
Once back at the top and at the Seven Cataracts Vista parking lot, we waited for the final members to safely return, then by 12:15pm we got back into our cars to drive the rest of the way up to Mount Lemmon for lunch at the Iron Door Restaurant. The views along the way were again, spectacular as you make your way from elevation 5000 feet on up to the Mount Lemmon Sky Valley, elevation roughly about 8200 feet. Although the signs of the devastating 2003 Aspen fire were noticeable, it was still very beautiful and the temperatures by this time of day, low to mid 80’s and very cool and refreshing.
However, with the 2.5 hour wait at the restaurant, due to it being a weekend and also a holiday, we decided it was best to turn around and head back instead.
We arrived back in Tucson at about 2pm and after an excellent lunch at a little restaurant called Renee’s Organic Oven on Tanque Verde Road, we arrived back at the Westin La Paloma Resort by 4pm, where those of us who had just came down for the day, headed back to Phoenix from there to return home again by about 6pm.
In all, it was really an extraordinary canyoneering exploration and waterfall hiking adventure with the TLC Hiking Group, carefully researched, well planned and thought through to the last detail by Eric Kinneman himself. Really had it all, amazingly beautiful, exciting, yet also very challenging. I think that this hike is best summed up though in Eric Kinneman’s own words in which he quotes, “The Seven Cataracts Waterfall Adventure Hike is an amazing hike that I highly recommend people taking. It will test your fears, give you an incredible workout and take you through some magnificent canyons, and a 100 foot waterfall and swimming hole, seldom seen by anyone. What more could anyone ask for!”