Mountain lion warning signs greeted us, as is often the case in the Catalina Mountains these days, at the trailhead. "There've been sightings at Molino Basin," says Nina about the campground about two miles down the mountain from us. "Yeah, there were four of them a few weeks ago at Sabino Canyon," I add helpfully.
Sycamore Reservoir trail begins at Gordon Hirabayashi campground on Mt. Lemmon Highway. I'm joined by humans Lisa and Nina, and dogs Sophie and Shadow. It's one of the few places in the Catalina's where dogs are allowed on the trail. We'll follow the Sycamore Reservoir Trail (#39) to the Arizona Trail west and north for a couple miles, and return the same way.
Sophie, the alpha dog on the trail.
Shadow says: "I 'm not a corgi, I am mutt."
Our desination is the reservoir built in the 1940s to supply water to the Catalina Federal Prison Camp on the highway to Mt. Lemmon. Inmates here included 40 Japanese-Americans, Hopi Indians, and Jehovah's Winessess who were conscientious objectors and others convicted of breaking federal immigration or tax laws. The prisoners built the Catalina Highway that was completed in 1951.
We amble along an old jeep road toward a gap in the nearby hills. We cross a stone bridge, and we're surprised to see glamour shots strewn about the shrubbery.
"Is that Fonzi," asks Nina. "No, it's John Travolta," says Lisa. "Someone must really like him." Three photos of John Travolta, lovingly encased in plastic sheaths,welcome hikers about half a mile into the hike.
As we approach the gap, we meet two other hikers on their way back. They chat with Nina about how far it is to this and that point, how maps are incorrect, how the GPS strapped to his walking stick is correct, knee surgery, and the like.
Nina, in orange, guesstimates trail mileage for weary hikers.
We continue the mild climb up to the gap and are rewarded with an expansive view of Sycamore Basin, and a sign telling us we are on the Arizona Trail.
We head down the AZ Trail, then choose an older trail that forks off of it, because Nina hasn't been on the fork. There was also the old road option, which had been proposed earlier to other hikers with bad knees. Lisa and I haven't been on any of these trails, so we really don't care. Plus, the dogs already headed down the fork.
Nina and Lisa walking into Sycamore Basin.
At last, we reach the cool canyon and Sycamore Reservoir. Ash and Cottonwood trees change the trail climate from dry to damp. Smells of lush vegetation surround us rather than drifting by on the breeze. Morninglory blossoms have died en masse from a couple nights of sub-freezing temperatures, but Indian paintbrush survies.
Indian paintbrush flourishes near the reservoir.
We follow the trail, now narrowed by vegetation, walking over branches and roots. I imagine a cool pool ahead for a splash, or even a dip. Instead, the fetid water behind the reservoir barely moves; there's been no rain for a long time. So I focus on the more appealing downstream side of the reservoir, where fresh spring water trickles from the cliffs.
Thimble Peak peeks from the south end of Sycamore Canyon.
We take a snack break on the remants of reservoir infrastructure and wonder what it looks like when there's more water here. Nina gives her dogs some water and Lisa tempts them with carrots. They spit out the carrots. It's chilly in the shade and rested, we decide to head back. But first we explore upstream, where the water disappears underground and the AZ Trail contiues west and north to the top of the Catalina Mountains.
"Is that Wilderness of Rocks," I ask Nina who knows this territory. She's not sure, so we look at the map. We're in an open area where a couple streambeds come together. We can see the Seven Cataracts Vista Point on the Catalina Highway, but not the Cataracts. I see the more highway in mountain above, as the road switchbacks to Windy Point. "No, that's not Wildreness of Rocks," says Nina. "It's much higher up."
Not Wildreness of Rocks, just an unnamed bouldery ridgeline.
After assorted map consultation and mountain viewing, we turn up and out of the canyon. Two trail runners run up the sandy stream bed, looking lost. "The trail is over there, see the cairns" I point. A breathless "thanks," and they're back on the right trail.
We're soon out of breath on the way out. It's always steeper on the way back! The formerly dashing dogs slow to a walk. They walk ahead, then lay down to rest in the shade until we catch up.
We pass two hunters with camoflauged backpacks and floppy sun hats. I ask how long they've been backpacking. "We've been out here four days." Of course, I didn't realize they were hunters, but Lisa later says,"Didn't you see their guns?!" So much for my obervation powers. I'm busy enjoying the sky and hills.
But wait a second, I have hiked this trail before! I see stone pillars that used to support water supply pipes and recall a Christmas Day hike with my family here about seven years ago.My 80-year-old dad had wisely rested and waited for us at the top of the gap instead of descending into the basin. That day, we hiked in an inch or so of snow, and determined it was too cold to make it to the reservoir. I remember beautiful blue skies, brilliant white snow, and cold wet socks.
At last, we're through the gap and on the descent back to the parking area. We spend a few moments with John Travolta, and the hunters catch up. "These pictures were here four days ago," they say. "I kinda want to take this home," says one hunter holding a picture. We continue on, so we don't know if he kept his trail souvenier.
We've hiked about six miles in three and a half hours in the cool sunshine of a Catalina Mountain autumn day, tired out Nina's dogs for her, and made plans to hike together again soon.
No mountain lions on our trail today!