Mount Wrightson via Old Baldy Trail

Coronado National Forest, Arizona

Trip Date: Saturday, December 22nd, 2018
Last Updated: Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019
By Ricky Holzer

Hike Information

Rating ★★★★★(5/5)
Overall Difficulty Very hard
Navigation Difficulty     Easy
Distance 10.8 miles roundtrip
Time 6 hours
Terrain Strenuous climbing, 4000 feet of elevation gain
Best Seasons Spring, Summer, Fall
Family Friendly No
Dog Friendly Yes
Accessible No

Highlights

Hike Walkthrough

While Mount Lemmon seems to get all of Tucson's fame and glory, lesser known Mount Wrightson is perhaps a more fun and scenic climb thanks to the lack of development on its summit and heavily shaded trail to shield you you from the Arizona heat. Rising over 4,500 feet above the Sonoran Desert to a respectable 9,456 feet above sea level, Mount Wrightson is the tallest mountain in the vicinity of Tucson and the highest point in Santa Cruz County. Though the top's panoramic views extending to Tucson in the north and Mexico in the south are the primary reward, the entire hike is chock full of scenic viewpoints -- each of which you will definitely use as an excuse to take a breather on this high altitude climb with over 4,000 feet of elevation gain. Despite the physical demands of the hike, you'll forget the aches and pains in your legs and look back on this hike with fond memories of natural splendor and personal achievement.

The Old Baldy Trail described here is one of two primary routes to the top, the other being the Super Trail. These trails meet near Josephine Saddle to create a figure 8 on the mountain and can be combined to make a more interesting loop hike. Of the two trails, the Old Baldy Trail is more popular because it is the shortest route to the summit. Though the Super Trail is longer, it's a more gradual ascent, which may be preferable to some people.

No matter which lot you park in, walk to the north end of angled spaces on the eastern side of the picnic area to find the Old Baldy Trailhead -- the Super Trailhead begins on the south end of the lot near the restrooms. From the parking lot, Mount Wrightson and its jagged rocks prominently rise above the forest in front of you. Although it may not look like it, the mountain towers 4,000 feet above where you stand. The trail starts traveling gently uphill until you reach a rusty metal sign indicating you take a left turn turn for the Old Baldy Trail. The steepness of the trail will increase, then you'll pass a sign informing you are now entering the Mt. Wrightson Wilderness. Occasional breaks in the trees reveal glimpses of Mount Wrightson taunting you as you make seemingly little progress, as pictured below.

Rocky Mount Wrightson looms above the treeline

Rocky Mount Wrightson looms above the treeline

Pretty much the entire 2.5 miles from the parking lot to Josephine Saddle is shaded by pine and oak forest, making the many switchbacks to the first notable destination on the hike much easier. The saddle is a prime resting point with fallen logs and rocks for sitting. Even if you aren't tired, take a moment to drink and eat to ensure you are energized and hydrated -- staying hydrated is a key component of preventing altitude sickness.

Also at the saddle, you'll find a memorial (pictured below) to three Boy Scouts who died on the mountain during an unexpected snowstorm in November 1958. Six boys from a troop in Kansas were day hiking the mountain on what seemed like a perfect day: the forecast predicted temperatures in the 70s and some wind. After three grew tired and turned around, the weather started to turn on the three remaining hikers, beginning as wind and rain then freezing to snow -- 6 inches of snow fell on Tucson (!), with several feet falling on the high mountain. Despite the efforts of 700 volunteers, no one was able to locate the boys until their bodies were found three weeks later just east of this saddle. This serves as a tragic reminder that mountains can be dangerous, even when you think you are prepared.
A sign memorializing the deaths of three young Boy Scouts during a freak snowstorm

A sign memorializing the deaths of three young Boy Scouts during a freak snowstorm

Many people only hike to Josephine Saddle, so you'll start seeing fewer people from this point on. Follow more rusty metal signs for the Old Baldy Trail since this is the place where the Super Trail intersects. Another thing to note is that Josephine Saddle sits just above 7000 feet of elevation; if you're like me, 7000 feet is the point at which you'll really start feeling the effects of less oxygen, and hiking uphill will become more difficult as you climb higher and higher. Further amplifying the difficulty is the fact that the trail becomes gradually steeper the closer you are to the summit. Luckily, you'll have plenty of scenic opportunities to take a breather where space between trees opens up fantastic views of the dusty brown desert below, a dramatic contrast to the lush green forest you are standing in.
Openings in the trees provide beautiful views

Openings in the trees provide beautiful views

About 1000 feet above Josephine Saddle, you'll pass Bellows Spring, a trickling pipe of fresh water fueled by snowmelt. If you need to refill your water, treatment is absolutely necessary here. In the winter, be prepared for ice and snow as pictured below -- the hulking mountain above constantly covers the spring with shade, so ice remains even when temperatures rise above freezing!
Snow and ice at Bellows Spring

Snow and ice at Bellows Spring

Just beyond Bellows Spring, you'll ascend above treeline, providing dramatic views of the towns you passed along Interstate 19 and the giant open pit mines beyond, pictured below. The trail begins a long series of switchbacks (be sure to stay on trail and not take shortcuts, although at this altitude I'm not sure why anyone would want to take a "shortcut" that is steeper than this trail) until reaching the Baldy Saddle at about 8800 feet of elevation.
Near treeline, you can start to see civilization along Interstate 19

Near treeline, you can start to see civilization along Interstate 19

You'll definitely be feeling the altitude by now, and Baldy Saddle provides a welcome stopping point before the final push to the summit. Enjoy your first views to the south and east, where the rugged green-speckled foothills of the mountain give way to a light sand desert, pictured below. This desert is more barren and completely undeveloped, a stark contrast to the scene directly behind you, a less obstructed version of the picture above.
The view southeast from the Baldy Saddle

The view southeast from the Baldy Saddle

You're now on the summit's home stretch! It's just another 0.9 miles with almost 700 vertical feet to gain on a trail that switchbacks and curves around to the south side of the mountain. In the winter, the first half of this section can be treacherously icy due to the high elevation and near constant shade; this was the point I was very thankful for bringing trekking poles. You'll have new views to the south as you round the mountain, but you are likely to spend more time staring at the ground as you plod your way to the top.

Finally, after all your effort, you will reach the summit. A sign histories a previous fire lookout that was built on the summit (imagine having to do this hike every time you had to report to work!) and eventually dismantled. As the highest peak near Tucson, you have an unobstructed 360 degree view, and with the exception of Mt. Graham and Chiricahua Peak to the northeast and east respectively, nothing else in view is higher than you. The two pictures below do not do justice to the sheer splendor that is this panoramic view of Tucson and its surrounding mountain ranges.
The view southeast from the summit of Mount Wrightson

The view southeast from the summit of Mount Wrightson

Looking north from the summit towards Tucson and Mt. Lemmon

Looking north from the summit towards Tucson and Mt. Lemmon

After resting up and absorbing the gorgeous scenery, you're ready to begin the second half of this hike: the descent. As long as there isn't any snow and ice, going down is straightforward, just take breaks when necessary. In the winter, going down is when traction devices and trekking poles become necessary. In any case, reaching the bottom will take you around half the time of the ascent.

While this is no doubt a challenging hike, the effort is more than worth it for this tremendously beautiful trail through pines to the top of the tallest mountain near Tucson. I cannot recommend this hike enough, and I hope you accept the challenge yourself! Let me know what you think in the comments section below and be sure to use #nocoastbestcoast on Twitter and Instagram!

Important Information

Dogs are permitted on leash. With over 4000 feet of elevation gain and over 10 miles of hiking, this is no place for kids to hike; nearby kid-friendly alternatives include the Nature Trail to the amphitheater or the accessible trails at the Proctor Parking Area or Whitehouse Picnic Area -- read the Hiking Trails Descriptions published by the Friends of Madera Canyon for more information.

The best seasons for hiking are fall and spring when temperatures are mild at the base and the summit is clear of snow. In the summer, this is a good trail to beat the heat thanks to the trailhead starting at a cooler 5,500 feet of elevation, the trail's location on the shady north side of the mountain, and the shade of the pines in lower elevations. Winter hikes may also be possible, depending on snow conditions at the top -- a good estimate for summit snow/ice conditions is to google weather and webcams on nearby Mount Lemmon, which is only a couple hundred feet shorter than Mount Wrightson and is heavily monitored thanks to its ski resort. Even if there is no snow on top, ice is usually present at the higher elevations in the winter; I highly recommend bringing trekking poles and/or traction devices like Yaktrax to prevent you from slipping and falling.

In any season, bring ample water and snacks to fuel this grueling journey to the top and wear sun protection, especially above treeline where shade is minimal and sunburn risk is higher due to the altitude. Remember, the thin, dry air at higher altitudes makes it easier to become dehydrated. Bears, rattlesnakes, and mountain lions may be encountered, so know what to do around dangerous wildlife. At over 9,400 feet, climbing Mt. Wrightson may cause some people to experience altitude sickness, which typically occurs above 8,000 feet. Since most summit this peak as a day hike and start the day from the desert lowlands of Tucson, you won't have a chance to acclimatize your body. Learn to recognize the signs of altitude sickness and descend if feeling sick -- you'll immediately feel better once you reach lower altitudes.

This is the most popular route to the top, so expect to see plenty of people. The first part of the trail will be the most crowded since many hikers turn around at Josephine Saddle. You will see fewer people the closer you get to the top, and there will probably be people resting at the summit.

Directions

From Tucson, take Interstate 10 to Interstate 19 heading south. Exit the highway at Continental Road in Green Valley, then turn left. From here on, brown signs for Madera Canyon will indicate the turns and assure you are heading the correct direction. Turn right at White House Canyon Road. Continue following the paved road all the way until the end at the Mount Wrightson Picnic Area, then find parking.

Google Maps Directions

Parking, Fees, and Facilities

Parking currently costs $5 per vehicle, paid in cash or check at the self-service kiosk pictured below and displaying thes stub on your dashboard. Coronado National Forest Weekly ($10) and Annual Passes ($20) are available for purchase at the Santa Rita Lodge, which you'll pass in Madera Canyon on the drive to the trailhead, or at any district office (found in various places in southeastern Arizona). The Forest Service also honors all Interagency Annual Passes. More information is available at the Coronado National Forest Passes and Permits Page. Note that at the time of writing, there is a proposal to increase daily fees to $8 and annual pass prices to $40 that may be implemented sometime in 2019.

The pay station near the Old Baldy Trailhead

Pay your fees at this kiosk near the Old Baldy Trailhead

Not only is this a popular trailhead, this is a heavily frequented picnic site, so parking may be difficult to find on the weekend. There are pit toilets and bear-proof trash receptacles near the lots.

External Links

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