Out and about in Arizona: winter hiking on the Bear Springs Trail

Trees line the walk at the beginning of the Bear Springs Trail as hikers look up at Mt. Wrightson. Photo/Stan Bindell

Trees line the walk at the beginning of the Bear Springs Trail as hikers look up at Mt. Wrightson. Photo/Stan Bindell

TUCSON, Ariz. - Bear Springs Trail begins on a tree-lined drive looking straight up at Mt. Wrightson. It's a great way to start this 13.5 mile scenic hike.

As soon as one of the hikers said she came from the Abbey up the road, we couldn't help but hear "The Sound of Music" dancing in our heads as we looked up at Mt. Wrightson.

The Bear Springs Trail is part of the Santa Rita Mountain range and part of segment four of the Arizona Trail. Bear Springs Trail is not to be confused with Bear Canyon Trail in nearby Sabino Canyon, nor should it be confused with the Bear Creek Trail that has been written up by Arizona Highways and is located in the Hannagan Meadow area.

Those hikes are also great, but Bear Springs Trail has a personality of its own because of an old water system, the old Stetson Dam, tunnels, awesome views of surrounding mountains and Bear Springs Creek. The orange reddish leaves in Bear Springs Creek give a hiker a sense that it is still fall.

Those colorful leaves were probably coming from either the sycamores or the cottonwoods. However, there were plenty of other trees along the trail starting with mesquite and palo verde, along with alligator juniper pine, pinon pine, dry oak and scrub oak.

Bear Springs follows a water system built 110 years ago to supply hydraulic mining operations near Kentucky Camp with water from Bear Springs. One can see interpretive signs, old broken down dams, tunnels and century old pipe along the way.

Sierra Club hike leader Don Smith said he selected this hike because of these historical remnants. Smith found the trailhead while out mountain biking, which is great because there isn't much written about this trail and few seem to know about it.

Bear Springs begins at an elevation of 5,200 feet, meaning that it was about 35 degrees when we hit the trailhead at 8:30 a.m., but it warmed to the 60s by mid-afternoon.

Hikers get to rock hop over the cascading creek about 20 times giving great views of the running stream. The hike tops out at about 5,700 feet, but the climb is so gentle along the way that hikers hardly notice the elevation gain.

Bear Springs Trail features awesome scenery with mountains off in the distance in every direction. The trail takes hikers through Casa Blanca Canyon.

Robert Ronning, another Sierra Club hiker on this trek, said he was glad to hike Bear Springs Trail and Smith was a terrific leader as the hikers took time to take photographs and enjoy the scenery. He observed that too often hikers rush through hikes without giving themselves enough time to enjoy the scenery.

Ronning said thanks to Ibuprofen he was only a bit sore and stiff the next day.

"I like a fast pace, but you need to enjoy stops for photos and to admire the scenery," he said.

The hike begins on Gardner Canyon Road, where the better-known Gardner Canyon Trail also begins. Those looking to expand the Bear Springs Trail can go 3.3 miles further to hook into Walker Basin Trail or 18.5 miles further to run into Patagonia.

Along the trail, we didn't see any bears, but we found plenty of bear scat. Oh my. Apparently the hills have more than just music.


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