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Published: June 11th 2019
near Forest Service sign
In June 1985 I purchased a new 4X4 truck for my new traveling job, and my first assignment was for the summer in Tucson, Arizona. Since my small truck was set up for camping, I chose to stay in the very nice cool Catalina Mts. rather than the slums of Tucson. I had a one hour drive from Bear Canyon to work and back, five days a week. At work in the morning my host company gave out unlimited drinking water and ice to all employees and sub-contractors including me.
Back then the Catalina Hwy was a narrow winding poorly paved road with no guard rails. Starting up the Catalina Mts by the Coronado National Forest sign, clearly visible was a number of wrecked cars and trucks that fell hundreds of feet down the cliffs. (Later major road repairs and guard rails were installed over a number of years to improve traffic safety, and a $5 entry fee.)
The first long switchback was through stands of large Saguaros with a few small paved pull-offs so you could stop and enjoy the cactus and a good view of Tucson. Later they installed a major parking lot there for the Babbot
Scenic overlook; with good walking trails through the Saguaros and other cactus.
Next the road went through Molino Canyon (where the Saguaro got small and ended) where I made my "low camp" only 45 minutes from work. That camp is now the Molino Canyon Scenic Overlook. Molino Canyon had a free campground where I camped sometimes until the summer heat drove me uphill for the cooler night air. (note: there is no more free camping in the Catalina Mts.)
Next was Soldier Canyon where you can see the concrete foundations of what used to be a prison. There was also a long dirt road with unlimited private free camps; with now just a walking trail remains.
My favorite was the next canyon, Bear Canyon, complete with black bears; though I never seen a bear there. First thing in Bear Canyon was a very large canyon leading downhill to Tucson. Then the canyon came to "the narrows" where it retained more water making a large Ponderosa Pine Forest. This section had my favorite free camp (with a dramatic view of upper Bear Canyon); and the one pay campground there. Now that area has nice free picnic areas also.
After the pay camping starts a long steep switchback going to the top of Bear Canyon to the large parking lot of Windy Point Scenic Overlook with a great view of Bear Canyon and Tucson. Windy Point is the major attraction in the Catalina Mts. The hwy continues uphill on the top of Bear Canyon with other nice scenic overlooks. The drive continues by what the locals call "Nixon Rock", then by a neat natural arch. That natural arch can be seen from far below in the narrows of Bear Canyon including my favorite camp.
After leaving Bear Canyon there was a dirt road going to a long abandoned incinerator (and great free camps), so I call it "Incinerator Ridge". From the incinerator was walking switchbacks to the top of Mt. Bigelow and its old fire tower I climbed up a number of times for the good view.
The paved hwy goes uphill and reaches the dirt road to Mt. Bigelow ending at the fire tower; with many free camps on the way to the tower.
The paved hwy goes uphill a long ways; but I only once followed the hwy to the end of road.
Now for a change of pace I would take Tanque Verde Road East of Tucson that passes some nice expensive "dude ranches". Then Tanque Verde Road turns into the Redington Road for many free camps in the Saguaros of Tanque Verde Creek Canyon. At the mountain pass I leave Tanque Verde Canyon and the Saguaros. (This mountain pass seperates the Catalina Mts from the Rincon Mts; though I consider them both the same mountain chain.) Once I followed the dirt road to Redington then circled around the Catalina Mts and returned to Tucson.
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