By Rob Samuelsen
When you think of the Sonoran Desert the last thing that might come to mind are waterfalls. Yet, with our sky island mountain ranges the desert yields some beautiful cascades during snowmelt and summer rains. One of the most prominent is Tanque Verde Falls on the northern flank of the Rincon Mountains. Easily accessible from Redington Road, Tanque Verde Falls can be viewed from various roadside promontories, a marked trail to the base of the falls, and a well-used social trail to the upper falls. All of these viewpoints give a good prospective of the power and beauty of water.
The 1.8-mile-long lower falls trail is easy to identify with its large parking lot and trailhead signage. The trail takes you from the road down a switchback trail to the heavily-bouldered creek bed. From there, hikers boulder-hop upstream to the base of the formidable falls. During dry periods, the creek has pools of water in between large rocks but you’re able to safely proceed upstream by hopping from one rock to another. During wet periods this stream has fast flowing water, the boulders are slippery, and the trail is dangerous. Every year the Southern Arizona Search and Rescue (SARA) pulls stranded and injured hikers from this perilous path.
The upper falls trailhead is not nearly as prominent and vehicles park in “wide spots” and unofficial pull offs on the side of the road. The 0.8-mile Tanque Verde “beach” trail is well traveled and easy to follow once you find it. It is a short hike suitable for all ages with one caveat – the hiking attire of some visitors may exclude important protective essentials.
My first time there was with my teenage daughter. While hiking in together I noticed an advancing man with nothing between him and cactus spines except for his wool socks and hiking boots! In full au naturel display, I quickly diverted my daughter to an off trail overlook before she discovered this bold display of human erotica. My second thought was of jumping cholla and how that would hurt certain exposed parts of the body. My third observation noted that this bronze hiker had no visible tan lines, not on his arms or around the waist but I mercifully hoped that he had sock lines! At least sock lines would be something!
After our long strategic contemplative gaze at the canyon below, we proceeded cautiously; I watched for exposed wildlife while my daughter was blissfully ignorant of our close call. As we approached the sandy beach at the top of the falls, I quickly realized that our presence would be an intrusion to the thong-less throng and that a quick exit might be more prudent considering the circumstances. I later learned that the upper falls is noted for its clothing-optional status. Two seasons later and with added wisdom I safely explored the beautiful upper falls canyon wearing a warm jacket, gloves, and a hat. With weather on my side, I was rewarded with a fabulous excursion upstream through a tight canyon and a ribbon of riparian habitat without the danger of exposure – both kinds of exposure!
Rob Samuelsen is an executive and adventurer supported by his long-suffering but supportive wife!