Hiking Rincon Peak by Rob Samuelsen
Iconic to Tucsonans but especially to Vailites, Rincon Peak rises majestically on the eastern horizon of the Tucson basin. Its distinctive knob on its 8,482 foot summit visually distinguishes it from its higher neighboring peaks. Rincon means corner in Spanish representing the Rincon Valley, which is nestled in the corner of the “L” shaped Rincon mountain range. The slightly higher non-distinct Mica Peak is its northern twin named for its prolific deposits of glittering mica flakes.
Summiting Rincon Peak is not for the timid. The 8.1 mile long summit trail rises over 4,200 vertical feet and returns by the same route. The 16.2 mile round trip is rugged, sometimes hard to find, and rigorous. While there are several ways to reach the summit segment, the shortest and easiest way (not to insinuate that it’s easy!) to climb it is from the backside of the mountain using the Miller Creek trail. I’ve successfully climbed it several times and been thwarted twice, once on a bushwack attempt from the front and another time because of snow.
Starting before sunrise one Saturday morning, I loaded my truck with daypacks and drove to the Miller Creek trailhead near the end of Mescal road (I-10 exit 297). The first time I climbed it, despite all my preparation, in the mind fog of my pre-dawn departure, I had forgotten my hiking boots. Rather than cheer on my compatriots from below, I decide to challenge the peak with Nikes. The first mile follows the Miller Creek riparian drainage through a beautiful broad valley. There were a few pools of water,but most of the water was subterranean in the alluvial plain. Unexpectedly and not obvious, is an isolated spire just south of the trail which awaits my further exploration.
The valley narrows and the trail veers to the left of the creek as it starts to quickly rise. As the hike becomes a climb, I noticed the preponderance of the unusual red bark of the fascinating Manzanita tree. After passing through a National Park gate and signing the register, I’m now fully surrounded by the Manzanita forest and gnarly rocks. The trail winds around the rocks as the forest starts to change to cedar and later pine. At times, the trail is hard to find because of the many rock faces, step ups, and bends. About the time when my legs started to complain, the trail enters a narrow pine filled gorge and finally enters the Happy Valley saddle, the flat land between the two Rincon Mountain peaks. There is a nice remote campground there complete with solar toilets and traces of gamey water. (Note: This water must be treated. Better yet, bring your own water!)
The Happy Valley saddle is the half way point, a nice resting place, and a great place to stash extra gear and water so you can complete the climb with less weight. While there are several trails that enter the saddle, there is only one trail to the top. The saddle was also the turnaround point of one my failed attempts to the peak. Instead of summiting in the deep snow, we built igloos and had a giant snowball fight!
From the saddle, the trail hugs the ridgeline giving me great views of the Rincon valley and the greater Vail area. It’s a steady climb through the mixed pine forest until the last ½ mile. About this point, I almost stepped on a five foot long Arizona black rattlesnake aggressively guarding the trail. Most cold-blooded animals prefer the warm of the lower elevations,but the Arizona black has adapted to the higher elevations. This one was living at almost 8,000 feet!
There is a small sign on the trail that prohibits horses from the final summit. (Note: Horses are not allowed on the Miller Creek trail either.) To the average hiking Joe, this sign means nothing. To one who has climbed the peak previously, this sign means the trail is about to become a monster! Remember the distinctive knob shape we see from the valley? That’s what lies ahead.
For all the work it’s taken to get to this point, the last ½ mile makes the rest of the hike seem like a cakewalk. The approach is from the backside which helps a little bit, but the pine forest succumbs to hardier wind blow piñon oak and scratchy brush. At this point, your lungs and legs compete for mindshare, as you fight through the brush up the steep slope. Just as you are about to quit, the bald summit appears. The wind and the rock, not the altitude, keeps the foliage from growing on top. The summit is about the size of a basketball court. There are pockets of hardy grass and on the western edge is a giant cairn (pile of rocks) put there in the mountain tradition of acknowledging the summiteer’s accomplishment. The first time I was there, someone had hung a pair of underwear on the cairn leaving my mind to the imagination of WHY! As I often do on summits, I lied down for a quick rest on the summit and I decided to do so in one of those pockets of hardy grass. Little did I know that ladybugs had the same idea and soon I was covered from head to toe by these creepy, crawly creatures! How they got there is still a mystery to me!
The view on top of Rincon Peak is amazing! You can see the magnificent sky island mountain ranges and alluvial valleys for miles in all directions. For all the work to get there, the reward is worth it! It’s a time for contemplation for as long as the wind, cold, and pending twilight allows. There is a sacredness of Mother Nature to be above everything from on high. It’s almost as the Almighty might view us from his holy perch.
Resurrected from my strenuous climb, what goes up must come down. The descent is easier, even with lethargic legs. The exhilaration of the adventure and the call of the hot tub makes the return route seem almost effortless. At the saddle, I rested for a few minutes, pick up my stash, and hoofed it down for the last quarter of the trip. By the time I hit the funky rocks, twilight is upon me and wayfinding is harder. With a few hiccups, I am ultimately able to stay on the trail and by the time I finally arrive back to my vehicle, full darkness is upon me.
It’s been a great day. I’ve seen amazing scenery, pushed my body to its limit, and contemplated life while resting at the top. Besides the rock I placed on the summit’s cairn, the only evidence that remains of my effort, resides in my memory. I have “bagged another peak” and have earned bragging rights!