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Don’t Waste Your Time in the Sonoran Desert

Don’t Waste Your Time in the™
Sonoran Desert

The winter vacation guide to hiking Arizona

Sample of a Premier Arizona dayhike

TRIP 13 Palisades Descent

location Pusch Ridge Wilderness, NE of Tucson
one way 11 mi (17.7 km)
elevation change   4025-ft (1227-m) loss, 960-ft (293-m) gain
key elevations upper trailhead at Palisades Visitor Center 7945 ft (2422 m), lowpoint near mouth of Pine Canyon 4160 ft (1268 m), lower trailhead 4880 ft (1487 m)
hiking time 6 to 7 hours
difficulty moderate
map Green Trails Santa Catalina Mtns


The pavement climbing to the trailhead is a national scenic byway, an engineering wonder, and a world-class road-cycling route superior in every respect to Mont Ventoux, of Tour de France fame. The trailhead is high on Mt. Lemmon—the sky-island peak towering above Tucson. The trail wends through wilderness, allowing a one-way hike from snow to sand, from ponderosa pines to saguaro cacti, from bears to scorpions. Along the way, views are constant, often panoramic. Gravity is your friend nearly all day, because most of the trek is downhill. The through-trip ends near an unofficial monument: the former site of a small, sequestered, mountainside, federal prison, where an American civil-rights hero was incarcerated.

Few trails anywhere have so much to recommend them. The Palisades Descent, as we call it, deserves gold-star priority for hikers exploring Arizona. It does, however, require athletic endurance. And, though route-finding in the strict sense is not required here, the topography is complex and junctions are numerous, so you’ll need backcountry confidence born of experience.


On Foot

Behind the visitor center, follow the unpaved road signed for Organization Ridge. It descends W through pine forest. In a couple minutes, pass the right (W) spur to Showers Point campground. Ascend left (S) briefly, then depart the road, turning right (NW) onto the signed, Palisades trail, at 0.4 mi (0.6 km). Early editions of the Green Trails map do not indicate the length of that initial stretch of road, but we’ve added it to all our stated distances.

The Palisades trail immediately enters the remains of a forest ravaged by a month-long wildfire during the summer of 2003. A few, lone, ponderosa pines survived. The trail was mercifully engineered with comfortable switchbacks that ease you down the spine of Organization Ridge. Descending generally SW through scrub oak, lose 1000 ft (305 m) within 1h0m.

At 1h30m, 2.7 mi (4.3 km), 6480 ft (1975 m), reach Mud Spring, where the trail crosses a trickle in a small drainage. The trail resumes on the W side of the drainage. Follow it SW, still descending along the ridge, which separates Pine Canyon (left / SE) from Palisade Canyon (right / NW). At 1h40m, above a dryfall, rock slabs grant an expansive view and afford a comfortable rest stop.

Cairns again help you stay on course where the trail descends among granite slabs, manzanita, and scrub pine. At 2h15m, 5430 ft (1655 m), the heart of Pusch Ridge Wilderness is visible. Several trails that pierce it are within view, so you’re glimpsing a couple days worth of hiking.

Want to read the whole description for Palisades Descent? Get the book.