Mount Wrightson

Mount Wrightson 9453′

Total Time: 5:30

Roundtrip Mileage: 12.1 miles

Elevation Gain: 4575′

Class I

Trailhead: Madera Canyon: Old Baldy Trail; pit toilets, trash, fee required




Mount Wrightson is the largest mountain visible from Tucson, rising to over 9400’ from the desert floor. It had been on my to do list for some time, and now that temperatures in Arizona were rising, it was time to start looking to the higher elevations to escape the heat.  Most people hike to the summit via the trails from Madera Canyon, taking either the Old Baldy Trail, or the slightly longer but less steep Super Trail. The two trails cross forming a figure-8, and I was hoping to do at least part of both trails for some variety, which would make about a 13 mile day. I left Phoenix just before sunrise and drove 2.5 hours into Madera Canyon, with Mount Wrightson in view the entire drive once reaching Tucson. The trailhead is situated at the end of the road at 5400’, past a number of small cabins and B&Bs. I set out on the well-marked trail, and was quickly surprised to find how much the range reminded me of the San Gabriels in Southern California. Elsewhere in Arizona, the dominant flora was pinyon pine and juniper with the occasional prickly pear cactus, however in the north facing Madera Canyon, large oak trees predominated.

Trailhead (lower lot)
Trailhead (lower lot)
Peaceful hiking through canyon oaks.
Peaceful hiking through canyon oaks.

I hiked steeply up the Old Baldy trail, enjoying the oak forest along the way passing a number of older hikers that seemed to be bird watching. After a little over an hour, I reached Josephine Saddle, the intersection of about 6 different trails, including the Super Trail, forming the middle of the Figure 8. I took a short break here, reading the small memorial to a group of scouts caught in a winter storm in 1958, unfortunately not rescued in the 3 feet of snow that fell overnight.

Memorial.
Memorial.
Wrightson from Josephine Saddle.
Wrightson from Josephine Saddle.

The summit of Wrightson rose high above with impressive cliff faces to the north. I stayed on the Old Baldy trail as it swung around to Wrightson’s north face and entered a wide open burn area with stunning views of jagged cliffs and rock formations high above. This was the most beautiful part of the hike, and I took my time heading up the switchbacks to the impressive rock face above.

The high basin, cliffs a bit washed out by the sun.
The high basin, cliffs a bit washed out by the sun.
Bellows spring.
Bellows spring.

The trail skirted the rock base and switched up a narrow gully to Baldy Saddle, giving me my first views to the east and Miller Peak in the distance. From the saddle it was only another 400’, but it was hard to see a trail among the steep rock face. After a few quick switchbacks, the trail followed a series of ramps and ledges, some of which appeared man-made and blasted into the rock.

Baldy saddle.
Baldy saddle.
The summit from the saddle.
The summit from the saddle.
Trail through the rock.
Trail through the rock.

The final switchbacks swung across the south face, exposed to some intense wind for the first time all day, and I hurried the last bit to the top. I hunkered down at the summit near the rubble of an old fire lookout, enjoying the views of Tucson and Mount Lemmon to the north, Miller Peak to the SE and my first look at the intimidating Baboquivari Peak to the West.

I always bring my little tripod and almost never use it...
I always bring my little tripod and almost never use it…
View north to Tucson and Mount Lemmon.
View SE to Sierra Vista and Miller Peak.
Summit panorama.
Summit panorama.
Lookout tower ruins.
Lookout tower ruins.
Lookout tower interpretive sign.
Lookout tower interpretive sign.

After about 15 minutes, I headed back down the way I came, passing a number of people on their way to the top. I opted to stay on the Baldy Trail for the upper part of the descent, as I found the high basin to be very scenic, and the Super Trail would subject me to the strong winds from the south. I moved quickly down to Josephine Saddle and decided to descend via the lower half of the Super Trail at this point. From the saddle, the Super Trail passes a dry spring (Sprung Spring) and stays high above the canyon.

The dry "Sprung Spring."
The dry “Sprung Spring.”
High and level Super Trail.
High and level Super Trail.

I started to have buyer’s remorse looking at the Baldy Trail dropping into the canyon towards the trailhead, but was soon rewarded with my choice as the trail swung on the west side of the ridgeline, giving incredible views of the summit cliffs and building clouds. The trail finally began descending into Madera Canyon dropping all the way to the canyon floor and the small spring-fed stream running along the bottom.

Fantastic views back to the summit.
Fantastic views back to the summit.
Bottom of Madera Canyon with small cascades.
Bottom of Madera Canyon with small cascades.

The trail intermittently follows the stream bed before ultimately meeting in the same parking lot, adding about 1.5 miles of hiking to do the lower half the loop, highly recommended if you can handle the extra bit of mileage. I hopped in my car and headed out of Madera Canyon to grab dinner in Tucson, with the skies opening up above me, bringing the desert and Mount Wrightson some much needed rain.

Storms.
Storms coming.

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