Lost in the buzz of Mt. Lemmon, Rincon Peak, and Mt. Wrightson, Mica Peak is Tucson’s mountaintop stepchild. It’s located in the heart of Saguaro National Park East and is the highest point in the Rincon Mountains, but its summit is an unheralded hillock marked by an abandoned radio tower foundation. Nearby is the most obvious but lower “spud rock,” which taunts the summit with a tectonic inferiority complex. Aptly named for its abundant amount of the mineral mica, the mountain nevertheless sparkles both in rock and in challenge!
Starting at the north end of Camino Loma Alta, it’s an 11-mile waterless uphill trek to the Grass Shack campground. Nearing the camp area, I filtered gamey water with floaties from a depression in the rock. The water was seriously unappetizing but it was the first water I had found in my 2,600-foot climb. Grass Shack, on the other hand, was gorgeous with its crystal clear babbling brook and canopy of pines. If I had only waited a few more minutes, I would have saved myself the giardia infested sludge for a fresh alpine drink.
After a cool mountain sleep, I proceeded 4.5 miles to Manning Camp, a backpacker’s bivouac 8,000 feet high in a mountain meadow near the Mica summit. Manning Camp was established in 1905 by General Levi Manning as his family’s summer getaway from the hot valley below. Today, it’s an active ranger station and backcountry way station for hikers. Manning Camp is watered by a spring-fed meadow and adjacent holding pond. The water then cascades through a narrow canyon creating pools and waterfalls for summer hikers. For me, the snow was my water, as I prepared a scrumptious backcountry dinner on my 11-ounce backpacking stove before watching the stars dance from a nearby exposed rocky promontory. It’s worth the hike just to see Manning Camp. I could have stayed there a week!
Rather than pitch my tent, I constructed a snowball igloo for sleeping. An igloo in Arizona seems incongruent but in this setting, it was just right! Protected from the wind, my igloo shelter provided the warmth for a cozy night in the frozen air.
After breakfast, I rambled over Mica Peak’s 8,664-foot summit way-finding my way through a foot of fresh snow before my descent on the Italian Spring trail. The Italian Spring Trail is marred by a recent forest fire and the spring itself was even less appetizing than my gamey pool on my ascent! I sucked on snow instead. While the burnout exposed me, it also provided fantastic views over gnarly hoodoos and the San Pedro river valley below. Also propelling me was the mental aroma of Dutch oven pizza my friend agreed to make upon our reunion in the Italian Trap plain 4,000 feet below. He was not only my Redington pass shuttle but, also my chef – the perfect way to end my late winter up-and-over backpacking excursion in Southern Arizona.