Hiking Romero Pools is a tried and true Tucson classic. Starting from Catalina State Park, you wind your way up the rocky slopes of the Catalina Mountains for about 3-miels until you reach Romero Pools. Along the way, you see fields of 200-year-old saguaros and jagged rock outcroppings. Once you reach the water, you discover how much vibrancy the Sonoran Desert brings. Like blood flowing through a body, the water brings life, warmth, and nourishment to a variety of desert plants and animals. There are few hikes in the country with this level of biodiversity that also offer a glimpse of the pernicious, and hidden Sonoran landscape.
Update for 2021 – Romero Pools trail is closed until May 2021 at the National Park Boundary
Romero Pools Trail Interactive Map
Below is our interactive Romero Pools trail map. You can download the trail layer to your GPS, or navigate right off your phone. We also put in points of interest to get you around Catalina State Park. If It doesn’t load the first time, hit your reset button 😉
Romero Pools Hike At A Glance
- Trailhead: Catalina State Park. 11570 N Oracle Rd, Tucson, AZ
- Cost: $7 entrance fee
- Distance: 5.9 miles out and back
- Elevation Gain: 900′
- Hiking Time: 3 hours
- Camping Available: Yes
- Dogs Allowed: No
Overview of Tucson Hiking
Tucson is the quintessential city of the Sonoran Desert. She is ringed by five mountain ranges climbing up to 9,000’ with the valley floor at 2,500’. Some people say the desert is lifeless. They are wrong. As we walked up the Romero Pools Trail, we remembered just how special this place is. It’s vibrant, unique and full of life.
Hiking in Tucson is both ephemeral and timeless. There is a narrow window early in the morning, before the heat sets in, that you really want to hike. Because Arizona doesn’t observe daylight savings, this sliver of time starts an hour sooner than you might expect. The Summer Solstice sun peeks above the horizon at 5:15 am but there is hikable light just past the 4 am so there are some days it starts really early. This hike was in early September and we started a tad late with our boots in dirt about just past 6:30.
Tucson is blessed with Mt Lemmon just to the north of town in the Catalina Mountains. Mt Lemmon climbs over 9,000’ with a paved highway running to the summit. A small ski resort and village (Summerhaven) are snuggled in the pine trees of the summit to serve you pie and cookies (but no gas stations). Your hikes can start anywhere from the dusty desert floor to the pine trees of Summerhaven. There exists a time and elevation every day where it is great to be outdoors in Tucson.
Tucson hiking challenged us on multiple dimensions. We had to solve the heat (and water) constraint first and foremost. This is done by picking the right hike at the right time with enough water and keeping a steady pace. Then we thought of sun exposure, trail condition and elevation gain, all of which affects our pace and water consumption.
Plants and Animals of the Sonoran Desert
Romero Pools is a full sun hike, even though we ended up in a riparian area. The trail climbs up an exposed ridge and only drops into the valley at the very end. There is an old (bad) joke about the trail condition in Tucson being very gneiss. For the non-geologists reading – Gneiss ( /ˈnaɪs/) is a common distributed type of rock formed by high-grade regional metamorphic processes from pre-existing formations that were originally either igneous or sedimentary rock. It’s anything but nice to walk on because it’s often rough and jagged.
The exposed geology makes Tucson trekking timeless. An observant hiker can see millions of years of geologic history in the rocks at their feet. I could see the rose quartz crystals on the trail with the bedding plane shifted 90 degrees. There knew there was some serious fault activity in this region at some point in the past. An experienced Tucson hiker dances along these crags, trying to maintain their gait and avoid touching the menacing foliage around themselves. We kept saying to ourselves that the trails were much rougher than we remembered as we slugged along.
It seems like every plant on the trail wants to hurt us, from cactus thorns to agave points to spikes branches of the mesquite and palo verde. Just like becoming one with the heat, we became one with the desert landscape. Once we realize that we are only an observer, we could see the true beauty and diversity of life here.
The first plant we noticed was the famous Saguaro cactus. (say the “g” as an “h”–>“sah-wah-roh”). These giants are the old growth forest of the American Southwest. It takes 10 years for a baby saguaro to reach one inch tall. It also takes the perfect combination of host plants and weather for them to sprout in the first place. They are about 70 years old when they reach the height of a tall man and start blooming. About this time, they are taking in enough water to have choked out their host plant. The first arms come when they are over 100 years. They are fully grown at 200, reaching a height of 45’ with roots growing more than 60’ around in all directions.
Saguaros are the perfect example of life in the desert. They are old and slow growing. Their prickly thorns look like tough and impregnable but they really are following a narrow life path of conditions that give the life. They need their host plant when they are young, which they eventually kill as they grow. Look closer at an old saguaro to see all kinds of cracks and holes that animals live in. They need the saguaros just like the saguaro needs them to distribute their fruit. The mature saguaro’s 120’ root span sucks a lot of valuable water out of the ground, which keeps other plants from growing, but it also stabilizes a considerable amount of soil from washing away in the monsoon floods. They are a juxtaposition between strength and vulnerability, taking and giving that forms this world in balance.
Romero Pools Trail Detailed Description
We could have taken the Romero Trail all the way to the top of Mt Lemmon (it goes). We would be hiking through more climate zones than if we drove from Mexico to Canada. It’s not only the changes in altitude, but also where you are on the hillside that creates different life zone. In each of these zones, an entirely new set of plants animals live.
Our hike started in the Sutherland Wash, a dry waterway filled with wispy mesquite trees that send tap roots down to the water table below. We passed an ancient mortar stone where the Indians would grind mesquite pods into flour. It’s in these washes where we have seen the black and yellow spotted gila monsters, the largest lizards of the desert.
Up from the wash is an alluvial plain of slowly shifting soil eroding from the mountains above. This is where the sagebrush grows that smells so strong after a desert rain. after 1.1 miles, we reached the foothills. Here exposed points of bedrock (Gneiss) poke through the alluvium. Rugged Ocotillo, with their branches covered in thorns, claim the sun and the rocks while the majestic Saguaros dominate the north and east slopes that provide just a little relief from the blazing sun. Lizards of every description dart across the trail. We hiked for another 1.7 miles to reach the pools.
Romero Pools sits at about 4000’, which is just the start of the pinon oak forest. At this elevation, grasses cover the plains while the oaks prefer the valleys. Here they can send their tap roots down to harvest the water below. If you look closely, you can even see a few red barked Manzanita extending their range down from the mid altitude mountains where they thrive. These pools are also home to bighorn sheep, which need surface water to survive. This is why there are no dogs allowed past the first mile of the trail.
Hiking in Catalina State Park
You’ve paid your seven bucks to get in. You might as well explore a little. Here are other trails in Catalina State Park to explore while you’re hiking Romero Pools
- Romero Ruins Interpretive Trail – A one mile loop through an old Indian Village. If you’re expecting Mesa Verde, you’ll be disappointed. It’s more nuanced than that. However, you will learn how the ancient people lived in the harsh desert, including finding water during the dry summer.
- Sutherland Trail – This trail starts out of the Romero Pools parking lot. You can use it to form a loop with the Romero Pools Trail or climb all the way to the ridgeline.
- Nature Trail – A one-mile loop starting from the Romero Pools parking lot. I like to return to my car for more water and, if I am feeling like hiking one more mile, then I head out on the Nature Trail.
- Bride Trail – This is a one-mile connector between the campgrounds and Romero Pools. If you’re camping at Catalina State Park, you need to know this trail.
- 50 Year Trail – I always consider this trail to be a mountain bike trail. It’s a massive trail that will get you up to the Biosphere if you try, but it’s all on the desert flats.
Final Thoughts on Romero Pools
Each mountain, like Mt Lemmon, is a sky island that is an isolated biosphere from other sky islands hundreds of miles away. Most of the mountain-dwelling animals just can’t cross the empty deserts so they have been isolated for the last 10,000 years since the shallow Arizona seas subsided. For example, Mt Graham red squirrels only live on Mt Graham and were thought to be extinct until a new family was discovered fifty years ago. Even though Mt Lemmon is 100 miles away, they have their own flavors of squirrels living at Summerhaven.
I wondered as I wandered off of the Romero Pools trail just what it was about the Sonoran Desert that ignited my hiking spirit twenty years earlier. I was a peak bagger at first, trying to lay claim to every summit I could see. Then, I used Tucson hiking as training for places like Havasu Falls or Angels Landing. After a while, I realized that I just liked watching the diversity of life and land. I loved how the Sonoran Desert shifted in each season, responding to the increases of heat and water. I loved how fiercely independent yet interdependent each plant and animal was with each other. The enigma of Saguaros having thorns and housing birds at the same time made me respect the strength of and forgiveness of the powerful people in my life. The desert isn’t for the meek. It’s for the strong, and spiky who give their own brand of love.