Yesterday I took a rather ambitious hike to Seven Falls in the Catalina Mountains. The trail departs from Sabino Canyon, where I hiked earlier in the week, and runs 1.8 miles to Bear Canyon, then roughly 2.5 more miles to Seven Falls. There is the option to take a tram to Bear Canyon, but that part of the hike is the easiest. The hike from Bear Canyon to Seven Falls is rather technical and net uphill, and the entire 4.3 miles took me about 2 hours and 15 minutes.
You can actually get to Bear Canyon one of three ways: By taking the tram, by walking along the tram road (which is mostly paved and an easy walk), or by taking the trail to Bear Canyon. I took the trail. For the most part, the trail runs right alongside the road, but you do get more hill climbing and some nice views.
Bear Canyon is not so much a “destination” as it is a “place.” There didn’t seem to be much to it, other than some picnic tables and a restroom with a drinking fountain.
From Bear Canyon especially, the trail crosses a lot of water at this time of year. I counted seven stream crossings between Bear Canyon and Seven Falls, and there are an additional one or two crossings between Bear Canyon and the Sabino Canyon Visitor’s Center. The first water crossing was the only one with a bridge. So, yeah, have fun with that. I ended up doing a fair amount of balancing and crab walking. This trail is not recommended for those with balance problems.
Along the way, I met a lot of young people who were off school for the week, some older hikers, and a couple of very ambitious trail runners. I also saw several animals: lizards, quail, some tiny fish in the pond, a deer, horses, an unidentified fuzzy creature on a hillside, and this donkey.
The hike, overall, is a challenge. In contrast to the officially posted trail length of 4.1 miles, my GPS indicated that I went about 4.3 miles each way. Especially with so many water crossings (and with my detours for picture taking) it’s almost impossible to take the most direct route. Plus there are some places where the trail is poorly marked and it’s easy to get lost, especially if you’ve taken a detour to cross a stream at a more convenient point. However, there is a well-worn trail the entire way so you should know fairly quickly if you’re off it. It’s also hard to stray too far since the canyon is so narrow. Worst case scenario is that you can just follow the water back to the Seven Falls (as I saw some folks doing).
The last ~.5-.8 miles of the trail are the most annoying. Most of the uphill occurs here, and the trail snakes up the side of a cliff gradually with lots of switchbacks. There are several signs begging hikers to stay on the trail, and I can believe that some people try shortcuts here for a more direct route up. You will find a lot of annoyed-looking hikers on this part of the trail. But, when you turn a corner and are within sight of the falls and the pool, exhaustion turns to excitement.
And here’s where I got my sweet reward. The Seven Falls is actually various layers of falls, descending from hundreds of feet up. At each layer are pools of various size, some populated with tiny black fish. On a warm day like yesterday, the water felt downright chilly, but this area is also a good place for sunbathing or enjoying a picnic lunch on the rocks.
My overall review and recommendation? The falls are not the most impressive I’ve ever seen (I grew up near Niagara Falls, Letchworth, and Stony Brook… so I’ve seen bigger), and they are dry at certain times of the year. But they are something special in Southern Arizona. The setting and the trail are also very cool, but you will end up exhausted at the end of the day. It took me much longer than I thought it would to get there, and the way back is only slightly faster. Bring lots of water–I went through two 32 oz. bottles–or plan to refill at the Bear Canyon water stops. There is a fountain at the Bear Canyon tram stop and a spigot at the trailhead just beyond that. Also, bring a lunch to enjoy at the falls. I brought just a snack, and I was starving by the time I was done. If I do the work to get here again, I want to stay and enjoy it longer. Finally, bring sunscreen and reapply often! There is little shade along the trail. Several of the teens who make this hike go up shirtless or in their bikini tops. I saw a few of them on the way back looking scratched up and sunburned. Safety first!