From the center of town, driving west into the Tucson Mountains, Speedway becomes Gates Pass Road. The pass itself is twisty and attractive. About a quarter mile past the high point is a scenic pullout on the left and the David Yetman trailhead. Tucson Mountain Park is a few miles from Saguaro National Park, so it has a similar density of saguaro cactus. Neither park charges admission.
The Yetman trailhead has a sign with a map and distances. There are more signs throughout the park, at almost every significant intersection. As we unfortunately found out later, not every intersection is clear.
Our intended route was about 7 miles in a lollipop with some rolling ups and downs, amounting to a little over 1000 feet of elevation gain. We followed the Yetman Trail for 2.8 miles until we reached Little Cat Trail. Little Cat does some interesting switchbacks as it hikes over a ridge. We had this trail to ourselves for its 1 mile length. There are sweeping views of the Tucson and Santa Catalina mountains, with numerous saguaro cacti and very few visible roads or buildings. From Little Cat, we turned right onto the Explorer Trail, then right on the Sarasota Trail for 1.4 miles, completing the lollipop and reaching the Yetman Trail again.
From there it should have been about a mile and half of trail we had already seen, but as I hinted earlier there are some confusing intersections. We took our best guess and went down a fair distance on one of the choices when we decided to make a correction. We could see the direction we wanted to go, so we left the trail and bushwhacked towards it.
There were some difficulties. The first was a steep dry wash with a short downward scramble, picking our way through pointy vegetation on gravelly footing. Not graceful, but we got through it. There was a lot of animal scat around, particularly the small pellets that were probably from deer. In the wash we found a tunnel about a foot and a half wide that was probably a javelina den. (A javelina is a southwestern boar.) We never saw the animal itself, which is probably just as well.
Besides the area’s trademark Saguaro cacti, there were also numerous chollas. (Pronounced choy-a. See picture below.) This variety is called “teddy bear” cholla because they look cuddly. As we left the wash on the other side, Marcy had a painful and non-cuddly encounter with one, and a small piece attached itself to her leg. The spikes hurt going in, and they hold on tenaciously so that they hurt coming out as well. I went to check it out and another cholla attacked me too. I assume that the hitchhiking nature of the cholla helps to spread seeds in a wider area, but it could just be vegetable sadism.
We were more careful after that and regained the Yetman Trail without further incident. Our route took about four hours from start to finish. The area is open to bicycles as well as hikers, and it’s beautiful and uncrowded. There isn’t much shade, so distances can seem harder than you might expect. Whenever you hike in the desert, bring water, salty snacks and sunscreen. And stay on the trail.