Commanding the skyline above Finger Rock Canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains is an eponymous stone pinnacle that resembles a clenched fist with its index finger pointing toward the heavens. This is your first clue to the nature of the trail, that makes an aggressive, unrelenting ascent of its rugged domain.
The iconic Finger Rock, north of Tucson, is visible from much of town. It looms 4000 vertical feet above downtown Tucson. Balanced like a precarious pencil and surrounded by other cliffs, it’s probably the most striking and commonly recognized landmark in southern Arizona.
The Finger Rock Trail starts at the north end of Alvernon Way, in the Catalina Foothills. You can park at the trailhead and begin your hike as I did. Hiking to the saddle near Finger Rock, or to the base of the formation itself is a steep and challenging hike. Fast and experienced hikers can normally get to the base in about 3 to 3.5 hours. The second half of the hike is on informal trails that involve loose rock, lots of cacti and some trail finding, as you get near Finger Rock.
The first mile consists of moderate climbing and rocky terrain until you reach the creek bed at the bottom of Finger Rock Canyon. This drainage frequently runs with water in the winter, but crossing the creek is usually easy. But don’t get too comfortable, because the party’s over at the 1-mile point, where just beyond Finger Rock Spring, the trail begins its assault on your physical and mental fortitude. The climb begins in earnest. Over the next 1.5 miles you will climb over 1700 vertical feet up very steep rocky steps and slabs of rock. At about 5300 feet, the trail will rather suddenly flatten out with inviting rocks off to your left, and a great view of the upper canyon and Mount Kimball. There is plenty of loose rock on this ascent, so watch your step.
Like a giant staircase, the trail moves uphill via tight switchbacks and high-step maneuvers with few breaks in between. My ascent took me through forests of saguaros up to junipers and pinyon pines. Much of the path clings to the edge of the canyon walls, offering terrific views and plenty of queasy exposure. In some spots, you’re hiking just inches from sheer drop-offs.
Not surprisingly, as the going gets rougher the overlooks get better. Dramatic vistas of Finger Rock, the sheer walls of the canyon, Tucson and the mountains beyond add to the lung-busting grades to give hikers plenty of incentive to stop, take a break and look around.
Many who decide to hike here choose Finger Rock Spring, as a good turn-around point. I chose to turn around at Linda Vista Saddle. I didn’t start my hike early like I should have. I started around 9:30 am and didn’t make it back out until 3:00 pm. On the way back I showed signs of heat stroke and dehydration. My anxiety rose when I lost the trail for a short time. Finger Rock wasn’t a great choice for my first desert hike, and even though I made it further than most do, I felt defeated, because I didn’t finish the hike. I made a smart choice by turning around and it was a good thing I did. One day I’ll go back, more prepared, and conquer the Finger Rock Trail.
- Finger Rock Spring: 1 mile, 3,520 feet (400 feet of elevation gain).
- Wind Cave: 2 miles, 4,500 feet (1,380 feet of elevation gain).
- Linda Vista Saddle: 3.5 miles, 5,700 feet (2,580 feet of elevation gain).
- Mount Kimball: 4.2 miles, 7,258 feet (4,138 feet of elevation gain).
I learned a few things about hiking in the desert, after attempting Finger Rock. Rule number one. Never go by yourself. Always go with a friend. Always let someone know where you’re going and when you’re going to be back. Allow plenty of time and don’t get caught on the mountain after sundown. Why? ‘Cause you won’t be able to see the rattlesnakes. Don’t do this hike if you’re not seriously fit. Take lots of water. In the summer, take whatever amount of water is greater than ‘lots.’ In the summer start at first light. Allow at least 3 hours if you are in really good condition. If you make it, superlative landscapes, grand views and an exhilarating climb to a lofty stone pinnacle are the many rewards of Tucson’s Finger Rock Trail. May God be with you on this one.