Agua Caliente Hill • Catalina-Rincon Mountains
• Pima County


Agua Caliente Hill
 

Cat Track Tank
 

The trail leading up from Cat Track Tank, and Peak 4773 off behind
 

Now closer to Peak 4773
 

Same vantage, now looking back at Tucson and some of the trail and ridge I followed up
 

The summit is still about a mile away
 

The summit!
 

Looking at Mica Mountain
 

Montage of summit views
 

Looking down on Peak 4773
 

Lower trail as I descend
 

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Date: December 30, 2012 • Elevation: 5,369 feet • Prominence: 1,049 feet • Distance: 9 miles • Time: 4.5 hours • Gain: 2,600 feet • Conditions: Cold and overcast

Agua Caliente Hill is a legitimate mountain, with over 1,000 feet of prominence and a summit elevation of 5,369 feet that stands about 2,500 feet above the surrounding suburban development of Tucson. The peak is tucked into the crook between two gigantic mountain ranges, the Santa Catalinas to the north and west, and the Rincons to the south and east, both towering over Agua Caliente by at least 3,000 vertical feet. Poor Agua Caliente Hill seems to get lost and ignored in the shadows of its giant neighbors, which is a shame because there is a lot to like about a hike up Agua Caliente Hill.

For me, hiking Agua Caliente Hill was just a matter of willing myself out of bed earlier than normal and making the 120-mile drive to the trailhead. I had maps at the ready and with a day free during my winter break, I chose to make the journey and finally see what was so interesting about this “hill”.

Information on Agua Caliente Hill is surprisingly limited. Tucson-area hikers seem to head to the bigger peaks that surround the city, although the feedback from those who had hiked it was positive. The main problem is finding the trailhead, which is located at the northeast part of town in an area of nice homes. It’s not a publicized hike, my guess being that the locals in the area don’t want dozens of cars clogging the small parking area and surrounding streets.

I was up at 4 a.m. this cold, gray Sunday morning, and on the road a little after 5 a.m. I stopped for supplies at Cortaro Road in Marana as the sun was rising. From Interstate-10, I followed Grant Road east to Tanque Verde Road, then east on Tanque Verde to Houghton Road. From this intersection, it is one mile north on Houghton to Fort Lowell Road, three miles east on Fort Lowell to where the road ends and becomes a narrow residential avenue that doglegs slightly left. I then turned north onto Camino Remuda and followed that about a half-mile to its end near a gate.

The trailhead is to the right, strategically discreet. The roads wiggle and change names at some bends, so pay attention. Agua Caliente Hill stands nice and tall for the drive in, which covers about 15 miles from the interstate. When I rolled in, I was the fourth vehicle in the lot. It was 7:50 a.m., and very cold, temperatures at the freezing mark. The sky was steely gray, and there was no breeze.

I suited up and got my pack in order, locked up the truck and started hiking slightly before 8 a.m. The trail starts behind a small kiosk and opening in a fence. I followed the nicely-tended trail through the lower flats full of prickly-pear cactus, barrel cactus, ocotillo and grass. I passed two guys early on, and shortly, started up the steeper switchbacks as the trail gains quickly to surmount a ridge. Once atop this ridge, the trail stays on its spine for about a mile, affording excellent views both left and right. The sun was still behind the mass of the Rincon Mountains to the east, and the sky was overcast. It was cold but not uncomfortable. Moving quickly, I even shedded a layer or two along the way.

The trail then drops into a small basin called Cat Track Tank, which is a small (dry) pond presumably there for the olden days when stock ran the range. As I descended into this basin, I met two older women and their german shepherd dog. We had a chat, and the dog eyeballed me. To here I had covered about a mile and a half in about 45 minutes. Surprisingly, although not known to me at that moment, these women would be the last people I’d see all day until I exited. We parted ways and I bypassed the “pond” by angling right. The trail is visible as an angling line up the ridge ahead of me. In time, I had come to this section and regained about 200 vertical feet, placing me on top of this new ridge.

I stayed the course, and the trail dropped again, slightly steep, losing about 120 feet to drop into a drainage. Shortly, the trail makes a hard left and then starts a steep grind of about 250 feet to top out on a third ridge. The gradient wasn’t too bad, and I made decent time, taking a break about half-way up when the sun finally popped out briefly from behind the ridges and the clouds. The hillside here was a beautiful forest of saguaro cactus. Momentarily, I arrived on top of the third ridge, coming to a trail junction, elevation just over 4,000 feet. To here I had covered three miles in about 90 minutes. I took another quick stop here to check out the sights and rest. Looking north, the wall of mountains of the Santa Catalina Range stood tall, the top-most peaks in snow. The Mount Lemmon Highway was visible too. The acoustics were such that I could hear engine braking and even a siren at one point.


The Santa Catalina Mountains. Some of the highway can be seen in front.


The summit and the final grassy meadow-ridge leading up to it.

By now, the flora had transitioned to more grasses and small stands of juniper trees. There were no more saguaro, but the purplish staghorn cactus now lined the trail. I followed the trail east, looking up at a peak marked by spot elevation 4,773 on the map. The trail just works its way up the slopes, switchbacking when necessary, slowly gaining up the hillsides below Peak 4773. The trail gets fairly high up this peak, then bypasses it on its right (south), emerging onto a beautiful broad saddle covered in grass. The summit of Agua Caliente Hill is visible off ahead, another 700 feet of vertical gain and less than a mile distant.

Walking this long saddle was a delight. It was flat, open, with cleared areas where people have camped in the past. However, the breeze had picked up a little bit, and it was very cold, now nearing 5,000 feet elevation, so I bundled back up, and kept moving to stay warm. The lovely trail eventually meets up with some rocky slopes and thicker vegetation, and the final 500 vertical feet is slightly steep, with sections of rock-strewn trail and loose gravel. But overall, these portions were short and not a problem at all. The trail swung left, then right and led me up to the summit ridge as though I was on a ramp. The very top is a large rock in the grass beside the trail. I tagged it, set down my stuff and relaxed, happy to be here. It was 10:24 a.m., meaning a 2-hour, 25-minute ascent. I felt good.

The views from the summit are stunning. Where else in Tucson can you get front-row seats of the Catalina and Rincon Peaks? The sun even came out, just barely. The wind wasn’t too strong, but it was chilly. I admired the incredible beauty of the Santa Catalina Mountains, and when that got old, turned around and admired Mica Mountain and the rest of the Rincon Range. Tucson laid out below to the southwest. Even in the gray gloom, I could make out Mount Wrightson and the Santa Rita Mountains, Baboquivari and Coyote Peaks, the Tucson Mountains (Mount Wasson) and other hills and peaks dotting the valley and the horizons. Looking way east I could see the Galiuro Mountains. I signed into the log, seeing that someone was here yesterday, and before him, someone from last weekend. I am surprised not more people come up here. The log book bottle held trinkets, suggesting that geocachers may come by occasionally.


The Rincon Mountains: Snow-covered Mica Mountain, Tanque Verde Ridge, and way in back, Mount Wrightson.

I spent about 10 minutes on top. It was too cold to simply sit down, as the soft breeze combined with the cold temperatures would chill me fast. As beautiful as it was up here, I started down to keep warm. I would have liked to stay up here longer. People evidently camp up here, as suggested by a couple fire rings. The hike down went well, and when I was back on the grassy saddle and ridge below the top, the sun came out in all its glory for the first time, not muted by the hazy gray clouds. For a few minutes, I had blue skies above me, and good lighting. I stopped to snap a few pictures and admire the colors. However, looking west, there were more gray clouds. Although at no time did the clouds hint at imminent rain, it was obvious a system was coming in.

I made very good time in retracing my route. I was back to Cat Track Tank in about an hour. I then ascended out of that little basin and up the first ridge I had come up earlier in the morning. It was up here that I saw people again, a handful of casual hikers looking for a workout: college kids, families with kids, and some older folks. No one seemed to be going in very far. I’m guessing that a lot of people hike to the Cat Track Tank and back as a good short workout. Anyway, I was out to my truck at 12:20 p.m., a descent of just slightly under two hours. I was feeling pretty good: sore, but happy. I wasn’t too bushed. I had covered 9 miles with a cumulative gain of about 2,600 feet.

The hike had gone perfectly. I never once got off trail or confused at a junction. The trail was in excellent shape nearly the whole way up, and the views were marvelous, even with muted light. The weather just stayed gray, but never got more threatening than that. For a “hill”, this is a worthy hike, and one I would recommend without reservation. The drive home went well, too. Nothing exciting to report. I retraced my route back to Interstate-10, then followed that home to Scottsdale to ring in the new year with my wife. A system did in fact move in that evening, dropping some rain and perhaps some snow on top of Agua Caliente.

(c) 2012 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.