Hike down Sutherland trail - part 1
The Sutherland Trail is another of the older trails in the Santa Catalina mountains. This trail goes from the top of Mount Lemmon all the way to the Catalina State park.
The Sutherland Trail has a reputation for being difficult to follow, and it didn't dissapoint hiking down the trail. Hiking up the mountain it's even harder to follow, because of all the overgrowth and the faintness of the trail in a few places where there needs to be more cairns and signs. The markings definitely could use some improvement, but somehow we were able to figure it out.
As a result of this hike, I decided that I would volunteer to lead a volunteer group to do work on this trail to fix the problems that caused the search and rescue folks to be called out after some older hikers became lost in the dark on the sutherland trail in the summer of 2015. The scope of work included cutting down a few trees and a lot of volunteer bushes, clearing fallen trees, placing a couple retaining walls (flatrocks buried on the downhill side of the trail to prevent erosion of the trail), and a couple places bury rocks on end in line to help make the trail visible where it's very faint, and add a few cairns.
I called the Forest Service in April 2016, and finally got through to the responsible party. He apparently has been working on getting some work performed, however there are many regulations, which slow down the rate of progress on working on these trails. Apparently if one has a work crew, all the water and food has to be packed in on a pack animal (mule or llama), instead of being brought in in the back of a jeep or pickup, which I don't really understand as it would be to support approved projects only, because that upper dual track trail section is not a designated wilderness area. But whatever. Anyway, the Forest Service employee said that he would support the volunteer effort if he can't get the work done through the auspices of the FS with a paid crew over the summer of 2016, as he had planned. So I guess we'll see how his efforts proceed, and be ready if things don't work out with his project. As far as the lower trail work goes moving the rocks, that will have to be a volunteer project next December either way, since the FS employee I spoke with did not have any responsibility in regard to that section of jeep road.
This trail is about 13.1 miles (half marathon distance) and when you get to the end, you feel like you've hiked quite a ways. What makes it particularly tiresome going down is you have all these hills that you have to hike up and down, when you had hoped that hiking north one would only have to hike DOWN the mountain....wrong! Worse than that, the "dual track(jeep trail)" that picks up past the lower end of the Sutherland trail has all of these rediculous dangerous to hikers rocks in the way, so that one has a great opportunity for a twisted ankle or busted knee or doing a face plant on a large stone and dying right there. This should be fixed before somebody gets killed. All the same it can be done in a reasonable amount of time. It took us about 10 hours and 45 minutes, averaging about 1.8mph, which is not too bad of a pace even though it was about 0.2mph slower average than the Oracle trail hike in the previous month.
The trailhead is at the top of Mount Lemmon, downhill a few hundred feet from the observatory. The trailhead is at the end of the catalina highway in the upper end, there is a pit toilet there and a sign and some parking.
You have nice panoramic views South toward Pusch Ridge and Catherdral Rock as you hike down the ridge trail on the upper trail past the first 1.5miles from the trailhead. You can see to the west on a clear day to Picaho peak, and the Tortilitas mountains. The day we hiked the trail, it was fairly clear, with a little haze. To the east you can only see over to the ridge with Mount Lemmon trail #5 headed toward Romero Saddle and Romero canyon and the west branch of Sabino Creek.
We found quite a bit of information about this trail on hikearizona.com, It's the Arizona trails website, and it's a great resource for people who are looking for a hiking trail, especially near Tucson, Az.
hikearizona.com provides lots of very useful information, including distance, elevation, AEG, elevation gain, average duration time of hike, pictures along the trail and a write up of what to expect.
Of course, the main idea is to stay active, and is to get fresh air, good exercise and interesting pictures. The upper section and the lower section of trail is an exposed trail with not very much shade at all, but the middle section - about 4 miles - is fairly shaded. We brought our headlamps and arrived at the lower end of the shaded section at about sunset, and that worked out pretty well. We had very comfortable hiking in the dusk and dark, and had no problem following the trail after the lower sign on the Sutherland trail.
This trail is perfect to hike in the winter when it's sunny, and not too hot... the 70's in the valley is about perfect, because the mountain is about 15F cooler than down in the valley. The exception is when there is snow and ice on the trail making it difficult to hike and slippery dangerous and / or risky.
Generally the best times to hike this trail is before late December, and then not again until after the snow melts off assuming that there is some snowfall. On this year, the mountain had a foot of snow or more from December 23rd until about Mid March, but this is unusual. I think usually the snow cover doesn't last that long. The snow fall was about 6 feet this year in late December, so it took forever to melt it all off. One has to remember that although the trail is nice and cool at the top in the winter, there may be days when down on the last 3 or 4 miles, it may be very hot and exposed especially in late spring. In winter, that is usually not a problem. Probably be mostly ok to great from about November to April, except after a heavy snowfall in winter until it melts. The summer wildlife such as rattlesnakes, gila monsters, tarantulas, scorpions, and other things come out in the summer.
Because of the elevation, one could encounter snow, so it is important to look from Catalina highway down the ridge from Summerhaven to see if the trail is snow covered. It will be unpleasant hiking in deep snow without snowshoes.
We saw several lizards and lots of birds. But didn't see too much other wild life.
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Last Update: April 24, 2016
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