A daytrip to the summit up the 27-mile Catalina Hwy. is like traveling from Mexico to Canada. The road leads from lush Sonoran desert at the base to cool, shady Rocky Mountain forest near the top.
My typical route includes half a dozen stops, including the Molino Basin campground at mile 5.5, a great spot for Hooded and Scott’s Orioles. At Bear Canyon, at mile 9.9, look for Arizona and Acorn Woodpeckers and Dusky-capped Flycatcher.
Last spring, at an ephemeral pool not far up the trail from the General Hitchcock campground (mile 11.7), I spent more than an hour watching a group of confiding warblers and flycatchers as they bathed and foraged in and around a remnant puddle in the streambed. Another memorable encounter occurred along the same stretch of trail one evening when a pair of Flammulated Owls tooted in the darkness. At most campgrounds and trails from around Bear Canyon to the summit, look and listen for Red-faced, Grace’s, and Olive Warblers and Painted Redstart. — Erin Olmstead
At a Glance
Click on coordinates below to view map:
Sonoran desert at the base; desert grasslands, oak-juniper woodlands, and conifer forest as elevation increases.
Paved two-lane scenic byway with many turnouts suitable for most vehicles. Some graded dirt roads (high clearance not necessary). Mountain trails vary in steepness and length.
Year-round: Mountain Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, Gilded Flicker, Mexican and Steller’s Jays, Yellow-eyed Junco, Arizona Woodpecker, Common Raven, Olive Warbler, White-throated Swift, Canyon Towhee, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Western Bluebird. Spring/summer: Flammulated Owl, Zone-tailed Hawk, Costa’s Hummingbird, Painted Redstart, Red-faced, Black-throated Gray, and Grace’s Warblers, Greater Pewee, Dusky-capped and Cordilleran Flycatchers, Plumbeous Vireo, Scott’s Oriole, and Black-headed Grosbeak. Red Crossbill (possible), Northern Pygmy-Owl (uncommon), Short-tailed Hawk (rare).
When to go
Spring and summer.
General store and a few restaurants in the mountain village of Summerhaven. Restrooms available at many campgrounds, picnic areas, and trailheads.
National forest. Day use pass required in some areas; for fee info, call Santa Catalina Ranger District, (520) 749-8700.
Picnic areas and campgrounds can be crowded on warm weekends; birding on weekdays is better. Dress in layers; temperatures near the summit can be 30 degrees cooler than at lower elevations. A good plan is to bird low elevations in the morning and head up the mountain as the day warms.
For more info
Coronado National Forest
Tucson Audubon Society, (520) 629-0510.
Agua Caliente Park
12325 E. Roger Rd., Tucson. Natural spring and pond, mesquite bosque, and mature palms. Desert birds and riparian species. Go early. Birdwalks Thursday mornings; check times.
Sabino Canyon Recreation Area
Within Coronado National Forest at Sunrise Dr. and Sabino Canyon Rd. in Tucson. Hotspot Near You No. 34. Elf Owl, Bell’s Vireo, Lucy’s Warbler, Hooded Oriole.