Hello hikers! We have a good one for you today; a largely unknown, little used and (as far as I know) unnamed trail right on the top of Gates Pass. Why this beautiful trail remains such a secret is one of the real mysteries of hiking in the Tucson Mountains, but here’s the scoop, for your hiking pleasure.
Featured Trail: unnamed trail on Gates Pass
Approximate drive from downtown to trailhead: 15 mins.
Approximate length of trail (roundtrip): 3, 4, 5 miles, depending on how far you go
Difficulty: moderate to medium, with a few steep spots, and a few places where you’ll need to scramble over some rocks
Highlights: largely unknown trail that feels isolated although it’s right on the top of Gates Pass; beautiful rock formations; spectacular views of Tucson Mountain Park
To get to the trail, travel west on Speedway until it turns onto Gates Pass Road, follow it over Gates Pass and down the other side to the Yetman Trailhead parking lot immediately on your left at the bottom of the hill.
From the parking lot start up the Yetman Trail, walking about 1/4 of a mile up to the top and a natural saddle; you can continue on over the other side onto the rest of the Yetman, but what we want is to follow the sign pointing off to the left (east and north) that says ‘Gates Pass.’ The trail skirts the hillside overlooking Gates Pass Road and the parking lot below before getting to a second saddle approximately 1/3 of a mile away. The trail here is narrow and rocky, goes up and down a few times and has a couple of feints off to the left or right, but is generally pretty easy to follow if you watch closely. If you get sidetracked it’s easy to find your way back and forward; the important thing is to get to the second saddle.
This part of the trail has great views of the entire westside of Gates Pass and the road winding down from the parking lot on top, Golden Gate Mountain looming on the left, terrific rock formations above, and Old Tucson Studios, Brown Mountain and Kitt Peak off in the (far) distance. It’s a picturesque piece of hillside trail walking, up close and personal with the desert, with lots of thick underbrush and tress growing right onto and almost over the trail as you are moving north and steadily up. Watch for snakes! They curl up under the underbrush, and can be very hard to see. Eventually you’ll wind your way to the top, to the second saddle, with the main Gates Pass parking lot hidden behind a big chuck of rock dead ahead. You can scramble 100 yards or so to the top for one of the most spectacular views in all of the Tucson Mountains, or just jump right on the trail that leads off to the right, going east. This, fellow hikers, in the Gates Pass mystery trail.
The first part of the trail - 1/3 of mile or so - parallels Gates Pass Road, although it’s unseen behind some hills on your left. It winds along the hillside, with some neat looking rock formations above, before eventually tacking to the right and taking you up and onto some rocks; you are now going south. The trail fades in and out a little bit once you get on the rocks, but is generally pretty easy to follow. After few dozen yards or so it leaves the rocks and becomes a regular trail again, with awesome views both up the mountain on your right and down into the interior, a largely trail-less series of hills and washes on your left. I saw a herd of deer here the first time I hiked this trail, presumably the same herd I’ve seen several times south of here, in the vicinity of where the Star Pass Trail meets the Yetman Trail.
Continuing up the trail, eventually you’ll get back on some rocks before the trail comes to a natural end on a promontory overlooking the foothills of the Tucson Mountains below, a sliver of the Star Pass Resort off to the south and east, and one of the bedroom communities on Kinney Road to the south and west. This is a great place to rest, stop for some food or just soak up all the incredible terrain both above and below you, not to mention the hundreds of saguaros spread all over the hillside.
At this point you can either reverse back down the trail back to the parking lot, or continue on for another mile + or so. Continuing on means finding the trail that drops off the hillside as your facing due west several yards back from the promontory - it would be on your left as you reverse back down the trail - which follows a very steep and rocky path/wash down the hillside. At the bottom you may or may not cross a very shallow creek (water depending) before starting back up the hillside, now heading south and east and eventually just east (towards downtown) to a point where you are level with the promontory you just left fifteen minutes earlier. The trail down is steep; it feels even steeper coming back up.
This part of the trail leads off across the ridge line for quite a ways; in fact, it’s the ridge line for a series of 3 or 4 hills that all run due east. You can see the valley part of the Yetman Trail below, a good piece of SW Tucson to your right and the rest of Tucson spreading away off into the distance, with the Catalinas and Santa Ritas in sharp relief. You are really deep in the southern heart of the Tucson Mountain Park at this point, with civilization in the distance, but still in relative isolation. I’ve literally never seen anyone up here; I’ve seen more circling hawks and other large birds patrolling the skies than any humans. I’ve never been all the way to the very end of this part of the trail, but believe that it dead ends above a steep crevice, with the Yetman, Star Pass and Rock Wren Trails on the other side.
As much as we like a good loop trail, reversing course is almost as good, with a whole different take on the terrain as you move back through it to the parking lot. It’s beautiful coming and beautiful going; you really can’t go wrong here.
Also: it’s possible to leave from the parking lot on top of Gates Pass and make your way straight to the second saddle trail head, but it’s steep and very rocky, winds around in oblique ways, and involves actually going way above the main part of the trail before slip sliding your way down a very steep and loose path to get to the trail itself. If you want to go that way, there’s a faint path directly across the road from the parking lot, just before the sharp drop off down the mountain; stay mainly to the left and keep going and eventually and with some luck you’ll get there, but I found the other route to be more appealing in most every way.
Remember: you’ll want good shoes for this one. A lot of the trail is very loose and rocky, and crap shoes will really slow you down.
Enjoy, and please always pack all your detritus out with you!
The Trail Hound