Zen On Dirt

A Trans Catalinas Running Adventure


I’ve always had a fascination with skylines. When I was into backcountry skiing while living in Boulder, I was working on a project of skiing the peaks of the Continental Divide skyline above town. In Boulder, the classic skyline run (which I still haven’t done) is the Sanitas/Flagstaff/Green/Bear/South Boulder Peak traverse. There was the Tucson Mountain Traverse I did last year. Let’s not even get me thinking or talking about the Nolan’s 14 skyline traverse here.

And then there were the Catalinas that tower over Tucson. Ever since I started running, I wanted to do a traverse of the “front range” of the massive mound of mountains starting at Pima Canyon on the west, hitting up Mt Kimball, Ventana Peak, cruising over the top of Sabino Canyon, dropping into Molino Basin, and ending with a descent down Milligrosa on the east. It would be about 35 miles of not fast moving terrain and a good bit of vert.

Not really into death marches these days, I shortened the route to end in Molino Basin, which was a convenient pickup spot on the Mt Lemmon Highway, with a bailout drop down Esperero Canyon in Sabino.

And then I invited a bunch of my running girlfriends to join me in the adventure. And this could be considered pretty out of character for a version of me that existed in the past. I’m fully aware that my best chances of success on something like this involves going solo, the whole minimize the variables you can’t control thing. I’m not the type of person who needs external motivation to do something or finish something, I used to love solo adventures (and I still do, just not as many of them).

But when I looked at the Catalinas Traverse and the adventure that would be involved, I wanted to do it with others. Something about life and beauty being best when shared. And I needed Scott to run the shuttle for me.


In the end, I had two takers. Holly, who I’d met in Sedona last fall and gone on a run with after she and Josh camped next to us and then run into again at the Oracle 50k this winter, and Danielle, who was an old friend from Boulder and had recently moved to PHX.

Both were down for an adventure and didn’t ask for many details about the route. I made some mentions about sections of trail that no one ever spoke positively of and bushwacking. There would most likely be bushwacking. And that I hadn’t seen the majority of the route, so there would be some element of the blind leading the blind.



We cruised happily up Pima Canyon in the morning shadows, thankful that the sun was still well hidden behind the towering walls. We were exceptionally thankful of this once we got to Pima Spring and found it mostly dry. As a water source that I was relying on to top of water stores for the next many miles, this was greatly disappointing. It was flowing the whole way down the canyon a month ago!


We soldiered on with a slightly more conscious effort to not guzzle water. I knew we’d be able to find some water in Esperero Canyon if needed, but that would commit us to the shorter version of the route. Maybe we’d find some high on the ridge? (I know, good joke, right?)


Trail navigation went surprisingly smoothly considering the un-use of the trail and soon we intersected the main trail that heads up to Mt Kimball. Never pass up beautiful summit perch for lunch is my general philosophy, so we headed over to enjoy the big views of the Mt Lemmon summit, the Oracle Valley, Antelope Peak in the distance, and all the mountains to the north that I really don’t have a sense of.


Onwards. Once off the main trail that comes up Finger Rock canyon, we were back to overgrown, rocky, Catalina goodness. I worried that if this trail was in such sub-par shape, what would the trail past Ventana Peak, the trail that everyone speaks of with such dislike, be like?

We passed the time chit-chatting about anything and everything. Fun times back in Boulder. The PHX running community. Arizona living in general. Eating-weirdness among women endurance athletes. Relationships that end without being a failure. Girl stuff, really. The hours passed quickly until Lunch #2 at Ventana. The giant arch overlooking Tucson is pretty neat, and we could see the transition in the part of Tucson we were looking at. We were headed west, making good time, and having a ball.


The trail did get rough after Ventana, but no worse that it had been on the traverse over from Mt Kimball. We found a small water seep that would have filled our water stores if we were willing to dig out a little hole and wait for 24 hours, or more. Seeps can be frustrating. There’s water! And moss! But not enough to make a difference.

And water was getting low.


We entertained the idea of trying to complete the entire route, gambling on the idea that Sabino Creek would be flowing 3 miles up the trail, but I couldn’t guarantee it, and if we’d gambled and lost, all three of us would have been in a world of hurt. We even made it a quarter mile up Cathedral Rocks trail before we came to our senses and halted the potential death march in its tracks.

There’s bottomless horchata just six miles down the trail. Plus water at some point in Esperero Canyon. We were all still having fun at the time, but we could all see that another 10 miles could definitely turn a fun day into the mountains in to a slog back to the car.

We did a quick about-face and headed down. There was no debate to be had.

Bridal Veil falls was flowing nicely, cold and fresh. Water in the desert is absolutely fascinating and beautiful to me. Especially when it’s in the form of a waterfall that you can stand under. When you’ve been rationing water for the past 5 hours, it’s even better.


True to Catalina form, the trail down was rough, rocky, and rugged. And slow. I texted Scott that we were three miles out so that he’d know where and when to come get us. It took us well over an hour to get down, picking our way through endless rocks that pummeled our (my?) already sore feet.

I was pretty happy to see the pavement and to be re-immersed in the pavement walking crowd that is found on Sabino Canyon road on a sunny Sunday afternoon. After having seen two people near the top of Mt Kimball and four people on top of Ventana, we hadn’t seen a single sign of another human until the final descent down.

For a route that involved massive views of Tucson for most of it, it felt (and was!) amazingly remote and untraveled.


I wasn’t even slightly concerned that we’d finished at Sabino instead of Molino Basin. I don’t think Holly or Danielle were either. I guess in the end, it must have never been about completing a route or reaching a goal for me, and what a change that is from what used to be my goal-oriented personality.

Five years ago, I would have gone out and done the thing on my own.

I daresay, sharing the route and the time with friends led to a far more fulfilling experience.

And that’s pretty cool.


2 thoughts on “A Trans Catalinas Running Adventure

  1. What a great adventure. So glad we all could share that. Thank you for inviting me! Now I want to know about this skyline traverse in Boulder…the bucket list grows more than it shrinks!

  2. Never a dull moment reading your blog. So much fun to read. Great adventure ladies!

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