Climbing to the “A” and Hiking the Cat Mountain/Explorer Trail

Tucson, AZ

As you drive along Interstate 10 through Tucson, if you look to the west, there is a large hill (or small mountain) with a white capital letter “A” near the top.  The hill is called Sentinel Peak and the “A” is representative of the University of Arizona, located near downtown Tucson.

Sentinel Peak looking from Interstate 10

In the very early days of Tucson, an Indian fortification was constructed at the top of a small mountain that would come to be called Sentinel Peak—also sometimes referred to as Picket Post Butte.  This Indian fortification in time became known as the sentinel station because a sentinel or guard was posted there to watch for approaching enemies, likely Apache Indians.  During the Civil War, armed military guards were posted at the sentinel station and a canvas was stretched across the stone fortification, to keep the sun from hitting directly on the men posted there.

After Arizona football’s 7–6 victory over Pomona in 1914, a civil engineering student on the team convinced one of his professors to make a class project of the survey and design for a huge block “A” on Sentinel Peak.  Students finished the project in March of 1916, when the 70 ft. wide, 160 ft.  high “A” was whitewashed. The basalt rock used in construction of the “A” was hauled from a quarry at the mountain’s base which supplied stone for many foundations and walls throughout Tucson, including the wall surrounding the University of Arizona campus.

Looking up at the “A” from the road going to the top

A paved road leads up to a parking area just below the base of Sentinel Peak.  From there it is a short hike to the top, with the “A” just below the peak.

Downtown Tucson below, with the Catalina Mountains in the distance

Looking down at John standing between the legs of the “A”

The view from between the legs of the “A” to Pam at the top

Side view

There are many strange saguaros on the peak (strange even by saguaro standards).  We spotted one crested saguaro along the road about half way to the top.

But along the east side many of the saguaros were very different than the thousands we have seen in our numerous visits to the area.

Recent rains have caused Brittle Bushes to bloom.

Late that same afternoon we were invited to Gay and Joe’s (good-times-rollin) site to enjoy a delicious dinner with them and Sue and Dave (Beluga’s Excellent Adventures).  We had such a nice time that we forgot to take any photos of the group.  But the food was delicious, the conversation stimulating, and the dog and pony show very entertaining (they have three little dogs known as the Tan Clan).

Oh boy, the treat lady is here! That’s Sally, Dover, and sweet little Jack on the right.

Our final day in Tucson was warm and sunny, so we decided to hike up part of the Explorer Trail (also called the Cat Mountain Trail on some maps) in Tucson Mountain Park.  Steve and MonaLiza (Lowe’s RV Adventures) had recently returned to our park after a trip south to Patagonia State Park so we invite them along for the hike.  MonaLiza was at an appointment but texted that she would love to go if she got back in time.  We waited a bit and had just decided to head out when she drove up and said she could be ready in just a few minutes.  Steve had to take their car in for some repairs so he wouldn’t be joining us.

MonaLiza was soon ready to go and we headed west toward the Tucson Mountains.  We took Ajo Way west for 2.4 miles from where it crosses Mission Road.  At that point there is a small turn-out on the north side of the highway with room for two cars.  The Explorer Trail passes right next to the parking area.

The trailhead

Ajo Way is just beyond the small parking area

We hiked the Explorer Trail for about a half mile to where it intersects with the Cat Mountain Trail (or continues as the Explorer Trail on Tucson Mountain Park’s map), then headed west up through a canyon thick with tall saguaros.

About a mile up the canyon we came to what we have labeled the “M.L. Crested Saguaro Arm.”  MonaLiza and Steve have hiked this trail before so she knew just where it was located.

The M.L. Crested Saguaro Arm

After two miles we came to where the Cat Mountain/Explorer Trail ends at a junction with the Starr Pass Trail.  This was our turn around point, so we hiked up on some high rocks overlooking Starr Pass and enjoyed a bite to eat before returning back down the trail.

Two frisky young hikers overlooking a flat plain north of the Starr Pass before crawling to the lunch spot!

Lunch with a view (of the Little Cat Mountain)

Now our stay in Tucson comes to a close.  It’s hard to believe a month can pass that quickly.  We will now make our way north to Boulder City, NV for a couple of weeks.

More on that later . . .

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15 Responses to Climbing to the “A” and Hiking the Cat Mountain/Explorer Trail

  1. Susan Bank says:

    How fitting that your last hike in Tucson was amongst your beloved giants. MonaLiza’s crested arm looks like it has a very calloused elbow! The deformed saguaro near the A seem to have an outbreak of warts, and they’re spreading!

  2. Gay says:

    Love the picture of Pam and the Tan Clan! It’s always a fun time when we are all together! I agree with Sue…your last hike among the Saguaro was a perfect last day!

  3. exploRVistas says:

    On our visit to Tucson last year, I wondered why that A wasn’t a T. Now I know. Great view from up there!

  4. Those are some odd looking saguaros. We always like climbing the lettered hills in cities for the views. Have fun house hunting in Boulder City!

  5. We were wondering what the story was with the giant A on the mountain…. now we know!!

  6. Jodee Gravel says:

    Seems amazing to me that the A has been there so long!! From the view with Pam on the rock bench it’s easy to see why it was a sentinel post. Bet that view looked very different back then 🙂 Those saguaros look they’ve been on reproductive steroids, so strange! Wonderful that you had another day among the beauties and that ML got to share her crested.

  7. Can’t believe you guys have been in Tucson for a month. Safe travels!

  8. pmbweaver says:

    Thanks for the history lesson on the A mountain. We never knew anything about the Indians being there. Boy does it look different up close. On our list to do next time in Tucson. Cool saguaros for sure.
    Pinterest crazy again. We haven’t attacked that last hike. Looks like a good one.
    Enjoy Boulder. We had a great time there several years ago.

  9. Laurel says:

    Those saguaros are unlike any we’ve seen. I wonder why there is a cluster of them in that area? No one seems to know why saguaro grow multiple arms (while others grow none)…so maybe we can make up an answer? :-)) I can’t believe your month is already up in Tucson! I’m excited to see what unfolds for you in Boulder City.

  10. geogypsy2u says:

    Those really are weird and unhealthy looking saguaros. Where does the time go. Enjoy Boulder City.

  11. I am so honored to have a crested saguaro named after me! Thanks John and Pam 🙂 When I first saw those weird and sickly saguaros, I thought a cactus plague must have passed through there infecting them.

  12. Nancy says:

    Amazing! I always wondered what they use up there on those letters we see! And your view was fabulous! And your saguaros… Cease to amaze me! Enjoying your lunch with a view pic toooooo!

  13. Jim and Barb says:

    They certainly have some interesting and odd saguaros there! Have fun in Boulder!!!!

  14. Sherry says:

    Wow that A was some project. Really interesting Saguaros. Wonder why in this one spot?
    Love you with your furry fans! Also love the one with you and Mona Liza climbing up amidst the saguaros. Great lunch with a view. Can’t believe you’ve been there for a month. Our month here is just draggggggging on.

  15. LuAnn says:

    Tucson has so many more interesting hikes than we knew of. Thanks for sharing!

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