Hiking Tucson: Butterfly Trail Loop

Trail: Butterfly Trail LoopButterfly Loop Trailhead, Mt. Lemmon, Catalina Mountains
Total Length If You Don’t Get Lost: 10.2 miles
Elevation Change: 2070 ft
Season: Summer (July)

It’s kind of hard to get motivated to leave the safety of your air conditioned house, let alone hike, this time of year.  I did a Google search for summer hikes in Tucson and the Butterfly Trail Loop came highly recommended.  It’s a decent length hike, with not too much elevation change, and the best part is that it’s mostly in the shade.  E and I drove up to Mt. Lemmon, parked at the trailhead, and then descended into the foggy (!), densely wooded (!!) forest.  I continue to be amazed by what you find at the tops of mountains in the middle of the desert.  As we made our descent, the air became more muggy and we were beset by bugs (nota bene: wear bug spray).  At some point the trail begins to ascend and we found ourselves on a ridge just in time to hear thunder rolling in from the distance.  Nervous about being caught in a thunder storm at the top of a ridge surrounded by trees, we picked up the pace and E, who knows something about thunder storms, tried to reassure me that more than 2/3 of the people struck by lightning in Arizona were struck doing some sort of water sport.  

The trail eventually leads down to the Catalina Highway and then you take Bear Wallow Rd. up to Mt. Bigelow, which is where our troubles began.  Somehow we managed to come up the wrong side of Mt. Bigelow and so when we found our way to the TV towers, we completely missed the trail sign for the Butterfly Loop.  We paced around the TV towers for a while before finally discovering the signs pointing us back to the Palisades Ranger Station (where we parked), at which point we thought our problems were solved.  That is, until we started down the trail and realized that it was the same way we had come up.  We knew we were really close to the car and so we didn’t want to make a wrong turn lest it take us several miles in the wrong direction.  After nearly an hour of circling the top of Mt. Bigelow and becoming more tired, cranky and hungry, we decided to commit to a direction and see where it took us, just so we could get off the mountain.  Somehow the decision we made put us back on Bear Wallow Rd, where luckily we ran into some campers and asked for directions.  One of the campers gave us a pained expression and said that there were three ways to get to the Palisades Ranger Station: 1) The fastest/sketchiest way was straight down the side of the mountain behind us, which would drop us in the middle of the Catalina Highway just a short distance from the station, 2) The safest and easiest way was to follow Bear Wallow three miles back to the highway and then another three miles along the highway to the ranger station, and 3) the most physically demanding way, and the way in which we had clearly just failed, was to go over the top of Mt. Bigelow.  He gave us an appraising look and told us that it looked like we had some pretty solid footwear, so he recommended the first option.  E and I were “over it” at this point and still had plenty of water, so listened to the camper’s vague advice and decided to trail blaze down the side of the mountain.  We could hear the freeway in the distance and used that to orient ourselves.  After what was probably not actually that much time, we slid down a steep rocky slope and landed in the middle of the Catalina highway, just 1/4 of a mile away from the ranger station.  As we neared the car, we saw the TV towers looming above us and briefly entertained the idea of following the trail back up to them so that we could reverse engineer the last part of that hike.  Ultimately, we decided that we’d have to save our re-do for another day.    

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