Saguaro National Park consists of two disconnected units, formally called “Tucson Mountain District” and “Rincon Mountain District”. Most people just call them “west” and “east” respectively. In the west district along Kinney Road is a modern, well-paved parking lot for the King Canyon Trailhead. There is a confidence-inspiring sign with a reasonably detailed trail map. We take a cell phone picture of the map and begin.
Almost immediately, the trail forks. There is a sign that suggests the left fork is King Canyon Wash (at the time of our trip, a mostly dry creek bed). There are some distances to other trails. The sign says nothing about what the right fork does. From my research, I know that we want the Wash, so we go left. That turns out to be the right way.
The channel of the creek starts at about 20 feet wide where we enter it. Along the bottom is sand, gravel, loose roundish rocks up to about softball size. Walking is slow. There are a few shallow puddles of water, full of algae. The canyon meanders and becomes narrower. In places it has sheer rocky walls, but mostly it’s low hills abundantly dotted with the Park’s signature Saguaro cacti. As we go up-canyon, there are a few slabs of rock we must climb, generally pretty easy: a few steps and we’re up. Many of the climbs have bushwhacking alternatives. The wash is pretty dry and preserves footprints, so following where other people went provides a useful navigation technique.
After about a mile, we encounter a sign for Mam-A-Gah Picnic Area to the left. Again, the sign gives distances to other trails, but doesn’t say what trail we choose by going in this direction. Slightly further along is a branch to the right that says “Trail”, and a few feet past that another sign and another branch. This sign suggests King Canyon continues if we go straight, and that the branch leads to some other destinations with their distances. We continue straight up the canyon, following the obvious footprints of many others.
A quarter mile past this point, we come to the first difficult scramble. We climb a small dry waterfall about 6 feet tall to get to the next level and more footprints. We go a bit further, passing the remains of an old mine (probably copper in this area). Finally we face a sheer wall 20 feet tall. Climbing it is not a serious option. On the right is a break in the vegetation that climbs up the steep slope of the canyon side, covered in loose rock. Again, it looks reasonably well traveled. We climb up, not liking it. It’s very difficult, and as we start to contemplate that we might be in the wrong place, we like it less in the down direction.
It isn’t the right place. The trail disappears altogether moments later. I wander about a little bit looking for a trail we can bushwhack to, no luck. I do find some more evidence of the old mine activity: old rusty bits of metal, some cans, a deep shaft that the Park Service covered with a chain link fence and labeled “DANGER”. We climb back down into the Wash, improvising a different and slightly better path.
We walk back to the Picnic Area. We’ve wasted three-quarters of an hour and are tense and annoyed. From the Picnic Area, we find the Sendero Esperanza Trail. We wanted this trail as the end of a counter-clockwise loop, so we know it gets us to our goal, Wasson Peak. Going this way, we can do an out-and-back instead of the loop. Okay.
Sendero Esperanza becomes wide and easy to follow, and it has some nice views. Our mood improves. This trail is longer than King Canyon, with a steady gradual uphill. After a while it intersects the Hugh Norris Trail, which will take us to Wasson Peak (4687’). Hugh Norris is spectacular, quickly attaining a ridge with wide views in the north and south directions. Again, a relentless but mostly gradual uphill. Finally we connect with the top of the King Canyon Trail we had hoped to use, at an interesting intersection. We’ve been walking along an east-west ridge, and Wasson Peak is now north of us, along a narrow ridge perpendicular to the main one. We walk out towards the Peak, only a few tenths of a mile away. Shortly we come to a podium with a lid that says “Please register”. Inside is a notebook where we add our names and the date. Most of a page is filled out with today’s hikers, so moderately popular. The summit has great views in every direction. Truly a worthwhile destination.
Now, about going down again. We go back to the King Canyon sign. It says that this route is over a mile shorter, and will include terrain that we haven’t previously visited. I want to go this way, but Marcy prefers to take the out-and-back route that we know we can follow. We can see the general direction of Kinney Road, and I am confident that we can find the right paths. Also, we ran into a couple that had completed the route in the other direction and they told us what to look out for. Reluctantly she follows me.
This part of the trail is beautiful, with some welcome shade and switchbacks that show the neighboring mountains from a variety of perspectives. We reach a five-way intersection with a sign, and again it doesn’t say what all of the directions do. We go down one of the routes not mentioned on the sign because it’s where King Canyon should be. Why isn’t it on the sign? Fortunately it is the right way.
In short: highly recommended hike for views and interesting desert flora and fauna. Navigated correctly, it’s a nice loop: about 7.5 miles and 1800 feet of elevation gain. Not recommended for the signs on the King Canyon side. Sendero Esperanza to Hugh Norris is a much better marked option than King Canyon, and both can be reached from other trailheads. You might prefer these different options, but King Canyon Trail is required to make a loop.