The Ventana Canyon Trail starts at an ample parking lot in a luxury golf resort (Loew’s Ventana Canyon) in northern Tucson.  The trail quickly leaves the resort grounds, but it maintains a “private property, stay on the trail” feel for the next mile or so, in places enforced by fences.  The trail follows a seasonal stream.  Depending on recent rainfall, some light boulder hopping could be required to stay dry on the numerous crossings.  Other times, it’s dry enough that this isn’t a concern at all.

The canyon floor starts out pretty level…

Most people take the trail to its first landmark, Maiden Pools.  An out-and-back hike of 5 miles total, with 1000 feet of elevation gain and some nice views, it certainly is a reasonable day’s outing.  We’ve done it several times.  This year, though, we had our eyes on a more ambitious goal: the Window, a 13 mile trek with 4000 feet of elevation gain.  We just finished hiking out of the Grand Canyon, so why not?

Although “Maiden Pools” sound like pleasant places for a swim, they’re really just a few depressions in a rocky part of the canyon floor, barely larger than bathtubs. They make a popular destination because they sit atop a steep slope following some grueling switchbacks, with a nice view back in the Tucson direction. The current pulls water swiftly through the pools and over a waterfall. The falls are unfortunately difficult to see without climbing up a different side of the canyon (where there isn’t a trail).

Above the pools, looking downward

“Ventana” is Spanish for Window.  The Window on this hike is an arch, roughly 15 feet high and 20 across, at the top of Window Peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains.  The peak isn’t even visible at the start of the hike, and it’s several miles before understanding which peak is the destination.

Completely different vegetation

The trail leaves the canyon floor and the stream, hugging and climbing the western slope for a while, then following a confusing path as it encounters tributary streams and canyons. The trail is beautiful and ever-changing, with the plant life going from cactus, to grass and small shrub, to deciduous forest, to conifers. Although we never cross “treeline”, there are large rocky expanses where nothing grows. Finally we sight the window!

The rock protruding towards the camera is “the Paladin”. Window is below and right.

The trail finally commits to the eastern slope, and it starts another seemingly endless climb of switchbacks. The trail is narrow and tilted, with more difficult footing on dry gravel. Finally Ventana Trail ends at an intersection with the Esperero Trail. We turn right.

Pretty up here.

“The Paladin” looks very close. Since we’re coming from the side, the window is hidden.

Paladin and friends

We are finally on top of the eastern ridge, and can see over it. Mount Lemmon is visible in front of us, and some other near-Tucson suburbs. We have seen no other hikers for hours. It’s just us.

We follow the Esperero Trail easily to the non-Ventana Canyon side around
the group of rocks that includes the Paladin. There is an unmarked spur to the right that follows the rock wall. We go that way and suddenly … window.


We noticed later that there is a small plastic-coated paper sign hanging in a tree about 10 feet from the window that says “the Window”. I have to say that the location of this sign is stupid. It would have been much more useful if it were at the unmarked spur intersection.

Sign, you are stupid.

A surprisingly strong wind blows through the Window. We had hoped it would be a nice lunch spot, but we retreated down to the ridge instead. After our meal we went back down the way we came, very satisfied with ourselves.

An alternate route down would be to continue on the Esperero Trail into Sabino Canyon. It is a slightly longer distance with less slope, and we’ve done some of it from the valley. I have heard that the upper stretch has more cliff exposure and difficult footing, and that it is hard to follow.

On our way down, close to the resort we saw a rare giant desert centipede. This creature has a very painful bite. Fortunately it didn’t want to deal with us either. So some exercise, some views, a little danger. Great day.