Reptilian Initiation in Sabino Canyon
Everyone we’ve encountered in Tucson has mentioned Sabino Canyon as a “must go” destination. By everyone, I mean our realtor, bartenders, hair stylists, neighbors, coworkers and pretty much anyone else who learns we just moved here. So on our first plan-free Saturday in town, back in November while I was visiting for the weekend, we headed up to Sabino Canyon to check it out for ourselves.
We left Saguaro National Park (and its lovely tarantula hawks) and drove north into the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. We parked outside the small visitor’s center, hanging our inter-agency annual pass on our mirror to satisfy the nominal parking fee. We went inside to pick up a map and ask the on-duty ranger for trail suggestions. She peppered us with a few questions, including how much time we had and whether we had water with us. Then she peered over the information desk to look down at our feet. “Just checking,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe how many people show up here in flip flops.”
With our short list of requirements in mind, she recommended we head out on Phoneline Trail then take Phone Link down and across the road, where we’d pick up Rattlesnake Trail and loop it back in the direction of the visitor’s center. It was a moderate, five-mile loop route that would take us less than two hours, a perfect introduction to the area.
Sabino Canyon is fairly accessible, due in part to well-travelled trails and a paved road that leads a few miles into the canyon to scenic overlooks. The road has been closed to private vehicles since the 1970s, but there is an open-air tram that runs continuous loops, stopping at several points along the way. A few of the tram stops feature restrooms and potable water, and most of them are near trailheads, enabling easy access to points further in the canyon for folks not looking to hike all the way in from the visitor’s center. (Like many concessions throughout the national park system, the tram service is provided by a licensed vendor, which means there’s a fee to ride it.)
We skipped the tram and opted to explore the area on foot. We weren’t in a rush but worked our way at a naturally quick pace away from the paved trails near the visitor’s center and into the dirt trails and desert scrub. We gained elevation rapidly as we headed north into the canyon, stopping occasionally to drink water or turn around and admire the view of the valley and city fading into the distance.
I’m a New Englander at heart, but there is something about the West that speaks to me, in both tempting whispers and barbaric yawps. This is not a new feeling…I’ve known it for decades…but it has been rekindled and reinforced during these last few years of travel. Specifically, I’m a sucker for two opposing natural configurations: wide open skies and soaring canyons. Fortunately for me, Arizona has both, as does neighboring Utah, where we’ve been spending a bit of time due to M’s new job. Walking for miles deep into a canyon, leaving roads and cars and convention behind, delivers a feeling of immense smallness that is overwhelmingly freeing. Wandering for hours without an agenda does good things to the spirit.
So we wandered and chatted, wandered in silence, wandered and snapped pictures and drank water and consulted the map when we thought we were off track. We were on our way back in, with about two miles to go, when we were initiated into desert life for the second time that day. M was a few yards ahead of me, navigating around a bend on a narrow dirt path. It’s hard to recall now whether I first saw its coiled form or heard its quiet rattle, but the result was me reflexively sprinting a few feet forward, as if shot from a cannon, blurting out, “Snake. Snake. Snake!” (In hindsight, apparently this was the wrong thing to do. The ranger said we should have frozen and backed away slowly, allowing the snake to retreat, since heat and motion are triggers for the snake to attack. Fortunately we didn’t learn that the hard way.)
Once at a safe distance (we hoped), we stopped and turned to look back at the speckled beast, our hearts pounding and breathing audible. I took two small steps in the snake’s direction, thinking I’d like a better look, but I quickly concluded that I didn’t need the close-up and that my minimalist mesh shoes wouldn’t offer much protection against venomous fangs to the foot. So we turned away and headed briskly up the trail, in the direction of the visitor’s center, hyper-aware of what might be lurking underfoot.
In New England, you generally look up when hiking, scanning the trail and woods around you for people, animals, boulders and the like. In the desert, you look down, scanning the ground and surrounding scrub for snakes, spiders, lizards, cactus needles and any other wiggly freaks looking to cause a scene. A little post-hike Googling led us to conclude that the charming fellow we encountered on the aptly-named Rattlesnake Trail that day was indeed a Tiger Rattlesnake, common in the Sonoran Desert. We’ve been out in the scrub a few more times since our first Sabino adventure, and we’ve yet to see another snake. But I know they’re out there, waiting to greet us and keeping us vigilant as we continue to explore our new home. –J.