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caninus xerophilous
1,741 Posts
Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
Punchin’ Doggies on Mt. Lemmon.

Last Friday all the trails that had been closed since last years Aspen Fire were reopened. As a purveyor of tall tales on such Mt. Lemmon classics as Red and Samaniego Ridges I was compelled to launch a reconnaissance to survey, for myself, the state of the mountains recovery.

There were some folks interested in “shuttling” the Aspen Draw Trail and riding the Meadow Trail around the ski valley and observatory. Although fun sounding these trails did not command my attention and I had my sights set on checking out the condition of Samaniego and the CDO East and West Forks. Reluctantly I turned down an offer to ride Aspen Draw with Dave the Brave and his Merry Freeriding Men, which is always a great time.

Canada Del Oro is the drainage basin on the north side of Lemmon and was hit particularly hard by the Aspen Fire. CJ and I watched it burn from above one Saturday afternoon last June when we rode and hiked up to the northern flanks Samaniego Ridge. We had a grand view of the fire as it burned in the vicinity of Red Ridge and the CDO West Fork two of my Mt. Lemmon favorites. CJ and I watched in awe as the power of nature fanned and swept the flames creating a dynamic fire that burned hot in some places and looked to spare others.

So for over a year I had been apprehensively wondering about the condition of Sammie and the CDO. I thought it would be at best a few years before they opened up Sammie and Red Ridge because of the fire and subsequent erosion. I was pleasantly surprised when I read the announcement in the paper last week about the reopening of ALL the trails closed by the Aspen Fire.

It didn’t take much to motivate myself to attack Sammie, one of Lemmon’s burliest and wild trails. My wife knowing my passion for MTB’ing, adventure, and the calling of the mountain was easily convinced to allow me to embark solo on such a feisty adventure, she understands me so well she was even willing to shuttle me to the top for an early morning launch.

Samaniego Ridge which in my opinion and likely any others who have shredded its wild spine is the roughest and toughest combat mountain biking experience on the Lemmon so after being denied for a year it was quite easy for me to decide on riding Sammie versus Red Ridge or the CDO West Fork. Also Sammie would offer a commanding vantage point of the CDO basin and allow me to view first hand the extent of the fire and erosion damage as well as the state of recovery.

My weapon of choice for this defacto wilderness assault would be my old buddy Punches Doggies, a.ka. my trusty Quasi-moto freshly equipped with a Push Industries modified Fox Coil. I packed a heavy adventure excursion load in my Tran Alp Camelback consisting of 250 oz of fluids, assorted bike spares and tools, a bunch of trail mix and a pair of peanut butter and date roll ups, a cell phone and a digital camera. I reckon my pack weighed in at 25 lbs.

Having ridden Sammie a few times previously I was familiar and confident with the route. I allocated a full 8hours of riding, exploring and observing for the ride. I know Sammie can be run in 4-5 hours at a good pace from the Observatory parking lot down to the Charouleau Gap and on down to the 50 Year Tail and on to the Dog House. However I was going solo and would not be in a hurry, this was supposed to be about quality and also I figured that the fire and erosion might make the route finding difficult despite the USFS stating that the trails had been brushed and repaired. CJ even called the Catalina USFS office and inquired about the condition of the Samaniego Ridge Trail. The ranger said it was in good condition for the most part but with a few washed out places where I would have to portage my bike which would not be dangerous.

So we pulled into the observatory parking lot after waiting for the rangers to open the access road to the top at 9AM. We almost aborted because the road from the ski areas was closed with a sign stating that access to the road and area above was closed. Fortunately a nearby ranger said not to fret the gate opens at 9AM. While waiting it was plain to see that the Aspen Draw Trail, a local DH favorite, was appeared to be completely intact and if it did burn it must have been a low intensity burn.

After gearing up and saying my goodbyes it was around 10 AM when I hit the Meadow Trail just off the observatory parking lot. Off I went on another solo adventure!

The Meadow trail was 100% intact and had apparently suffered a low intensity ground burn, likely a back burn by the fire fighters. If you had not seen the fire raging atop the mountain one would have no idea, for the most part, that the area had been burned. On the Meadow Trail I saw sign of MTB tracks from Friday, the day before when the trails officially re-opened, and I encountered a few happy hikers.

I bombed my way down the forest service road to the Sutherland/Lemmon Trail Junction, which runs along a ridge and also served as a fire break where the fire was quelled. To the south side I could see that there was significant fire damage to slope and the basin below, off the trail and to the north the forest was healthy.

The old power line jeep road (reclaimed 1 track) from the junction on down to the Sutherland/Samaniego Trail Junction was a familiar sight, apparently completely untouched by the fire but with all the dead fall removed or bypassed. This area had been burned previously in the 90’s and is nearly treeless and a bit overgrown and washed out. It’s also a fun and challenging section on a mountain bike and serves as a go/no-go reality check as it’s fairly raw and technical in addition for the trail beginning to become difficult to follow for some. A fact echoed by the comment of a man hiking with his son that I encountered there. They would be the last people I saw until I staggered home at 7:30 PM to my wife.

From Sutherland/Sammie Junction to the CDO Cutoff was nearly unchanged from before the Aspen fire. It may have had a low intensity ground burn in the area because it had been a mature open floored section of forest with long term signs of a natural fire cycle. This was and remains one of the healthiest stands of ponderosa on the Lemmon, if one desires to see a truly healthy forest this is the place. Also the trail was in spanking condition!

I rode down to the CDO Cutoff to survey the trail to the Samaniego Shortcut/CDO West Fork Trail Junction. The forest remained very healthy and undamaged with the only signs of the Aspen fire being some charcoaled trees that had fallen years previously. Just before the trail junction the trail becomes a little washed out and overgrown and thus difficult to follow. After scouting around I located the trail and plied on taking the shortcut back up to Samaniego Ridge proper.

Once back upon Sammie the trail remained more open from the fire or the USFS brushing effort and the going was fairly easy in stark contrast to my first solo effort when this section was a tangle of scrub oak and manzanita. It was in this section between the Samaniego Shortcut and Samaniego Peak that I began to encounter the effects of the Aspen fire.

I encountered sections that had burned moderately, with some surviving trees, and some that had burned hot, with no surviving trees and minimal vegetation. Many of the burned oaks had already started to recover and were spouting new growth near their bases. The areas that had burned hottest seemed to be stands of juniper and oak. The burned areas seemed to be small swaths 25 to 50 yards across broken up by sections of healthy forest 100 to 300 yards across. There was significant erosion and the trail became mixed in with dry runoff streams that made trail following pretty challenging. Occasionally there was a well placed cairn to get me back on the trail.

In one of the hot burned areas I stopped for a bit to survey the CDO Basin down below. Much to my joy the CDO East and West forks were swaths of green! This meant that Red Ridge and the CDO East Fork should remain viable MTB routes depending on the amount of erosion damage. I followed both routes sighting in a few key terrain features like Cow Springs, Catalina Camp, and Reef of Rocks. To the rock climbers; Reef of Rock looked pretty intact as well. However the majority of the basin had been scorched something akin to the Molino Basin area. Only a true ground reconnaissance through the CDO East Fork and on through the CDO Narrows will determine the amount of erosion damage and viability of a contiguous MTB route, another adventure for another day.

Pushing onward towards Samaniego Peak the trail became exceedingly difficult to follow and nearly impossible to differentiate from the dry runoff channels. However the cairns became increasingly frequent the closer I came to Sammie Peak. As I neared Sammie Peak the burned areas became contiguous with much of it having been burned hot, resulting in significant erosion.

Once in the vicinity of the peak around noonish I sought out and found Walnut Springs. There I set up a temporary base and I lunched, napped, and explored for an hour or so. Samaniego Peak’s backside (eastside) used to be blanketed by a thick matt of manzanita and oak but it is now barren rock with blackened tree trunks protruding like a really bad 1970’s hair transplant. This denuding has led to significant erosion and runoff that has affected both the east and west slopes of Sammie and had me pondering the erosive impact on the CDO West Fork down below.

Exploring about I reveled in the eerie Daliesque beauty of the once majestic charred junipers and oaks, some hundreds to perhaps thousands of years old, their standing black skeletons in stark contrast to the white gravel from which they arose. Ash filled holes in the ground showed where other trees had been completely consumed and in places I found charcoal lumps the size of basket balls.

My mind filled with thoughts of the fire cycle and its impact on man and nature. Man has proven in-adept at forest management and I remain a bit skeptical on the general forest thinning initiative. What I saw this day was how natural fire works a landscape into a patchwork from hot burns on down to moderate ground burns which are mutually supporting. The hot areas are clear cut fire breaks that will protect the healthy and mature stands of forest. This is exactly what happened with the burn from the 90’s, which pretty much spared the old growth ponderosa stands on Samaniego Ridge form a potentially catastrophic canopy fire. Also the higher intensity of the burn indicated areas of where drought had dried the trees into tinder and areas prone to updrafts and it seems it is just nature’s way of preventing another dried overgrowth by removing the dead stuff and topsoil. I could also see numerous signs in the areas burned from previous fires.

I remounted Punches Doggies and plied onward toward the Catawalk, a.k.a. “the Vaunted Corkscrew”, a series of narrow overgrown switchbacks on a near shear cliff that drop off the north side of the Sammie Peak complex and back down onto Sammie Ridge. On the way we played around on some exposed granite surfaces amongst giant boulders, some of which were precariously perched due to the significant erosion in the Sammie Peak area.

Once at the top of the Catwalk I surveyed the area as it had been the toughest obstacle on my previous adventures on Sammie. Down below where Sammie picked up again in a short jaunt to Mule Ears I could see the individual trees and that had been burned last year when the fire spilled over the ridge while I observed from my house through my 5 inch Meade telescope. I mentally and physically psyched myself for the test of wills to come descending the Catwalk which appeared untouched by the fire.

Right from the start it was unrideable due to erosion with array of daunting ruts and baby head rocks. Just a few feet after making that observation the narrow poor excuse of a trail became a familiar nearly impassible tangle of vegetation. Experienced in this type of endeavor I led with Punches Doggies, lofting the stout 40 lbs beast ahead of myself into the evil tangle to clear the path.

The next obstacle was one which I had yet to encounter, the dreaded washout. I came to a point where about 6-10 feet of precious catwalk had been washed away. This washout and those to come were a result to the denuding of Sammie Peak to which I referred to earlier, the loss of vegetation led to the runoff of soil which enhanced by the monsoon rains found its way to this lower section of cliff with enough force to carry away the trail.

I gingerly tossed the Quasi across the gap and leapt/pulled myself across using the vegetation. I would soon repeat this task several times before losing the catwalk trail altogether. I found the first switchback but a short while later I came to a gap that appeared too wide to cross, however I had no choice but to try. I didn’t make it and slid 30 or so feet down the extremely steep slope before arresting myself by snagging the Quasi on some vegetation.

When I stabilized myself I could find no sign of the catwalk trail so I proceeded eastward along the slope towards Samaniego Ridge. I slid down some more, partially voluntarily and partially out of control. At on point I slid down to what I hoped was the catwalk trail but alas I was led astray. Every movement seemed to snag the Quasi in a bush and every footstep had to be carefully calculated in this high risk traverse of the densely overgrown and extremely steep slope.

Somehow I managed to reach stable and level ground but was unable to tell if I was too high or too low on the slope. I reconnoitered the area, sans Quasi, attempting to locate the catwalk trail both above and below with no success. Next I climbed, again sans Quasi, up the steep slope toward Sammie to where I knew I needed to be. It was a tough climb but I found a viable route and slid back down to retrieve Punches Doggies this time sans Trans Alp. If climbing up the first time was tough this second haul up with the Quasi was damnation to a dark region of a lower layer of some Chinese Hell. It took a great amount of determination, patience, perseverance, and strength to safely lug myself and the vegetation snagging Quasi up 100 or so feet of near cliff side.

Soaked in sweat and reeling from the effort it took to extricate myself and the Quasi from the Hell of the Catwalk I rested and allowed myself a look at the clock. 2:30 PM! It took nearly two hours to get down and back up to the ridge, covering a straight line distance from start to finish of about 40 feet but with a very vertical up and down of around 500 feet and perhaps a lateral of around 500 feet. One heck of a detour, what the hell was the ranger thinking when CJ spoke to him! For this reason I strongly recommend that Sammie beyond the Catwalk be avoided by MTB’ers until the USFS repairs it or you are a hardy Johnny Quest adventure type and posses the moxie to endure the hell I just described.

After a brief break I headed for Mule Ears, my next way point. The route to well known rock formation was short but tough to follow. A route, that’s exactly what the “trail” had become once I left Walnut Springs. Along the way I stopped and had a moment of silence amongst the ancient junipers that I had seen smolder, shimmer, and then burst into flames through my telescope last year.

Between pushing and riding and hitting and missing the route I made Mule Ears in about 20 minutes. I was tired enough not to seek a view from the top and rounded the formation to the base of the “ears”. Here I had a laugh, thinking about last year when CJ and I were posting Aspen Fire updates on MTBR passion and someone questioned CJ’s knowledge of Mule Ears when he posted that the fire had breached Samaniego Ridge at Mule Ears.

Once relaxed I pulled the cell phone out to let my wife know how I was doing. “Yeah buddy the dangerous part is behind me and the rest should be fairly straight forward and safe. I should be at the top of the Gap around 5PM and home by 7PM. I could go faster but I’m playing it safe”.

Off I went, rejuvenated by the rest and the voice of my wife. The trail began to sweeten up just like I remembered it, a narrow pine needle covered swath through a healthy stand of trees. Well it wasn’t long until the sweetness became bitter. The next peak on the ridge had also been denuded by the fire and there was some sever runoff damage and the trail was lost. I spent nearly an hour trying to re-locate the trail.

Entry into the deepest layers of hell in a vision quest, this was my destiny. Failing to relocate the trail after burning yet another precious hour I had to take some sort of positive action. It was then that realized how haphazard I was in my preparation by not bringing along a topo map nor even doing a map study as I so felt confident of the route. Well I am a tough boy and I’d just have to deal with it. I knew fairly well where I was on the ridge, above the Cherry Spings drainage.

Something in my id clicked, something that said go for it you know you want to do it. Then the voice of reason then chimed in “No don’t do it its fricking insane!” “Just hump up and over that rocky peak in twenty or so minutes and you’ll be on some good trail and safely on your way home”. The dark side of the id said “Do it, you need to test yourself, you may never get this chance again”. The id began to take hold and the voice of reason rang hollow in my soul, the route of the strong heart it was to be.

At around 4PM I began my insane soul searching endeavor. Straight down the mountainside off Samaniego Ridge into the dangerous terra incognita and onto Cherry Tank I went Quasi in hand. Don’t ask why I did this as the only thing I could say is that I had a premonition of just such an adventure, I could always just wing it off the side of the mountain!

And wing it I did sliding pell-mell down the mountainside late in the afternoon on after a full day of hiking, biking and soul trail by fire on the Catwalk. It was a highly risky endeavor negotiating the treacherously steep, overgrown, sketchy, rooty, and rocky and drainage slopes solo and somewhat exhausted. I was wrong the Catwalk was not the deepest layer of my Chinese Hell, this latest endeavor was several magnitudes higher in danger and effort. Just the drug I needed.

After humping about a quarter of the way down I stopped for a well deserved break after a bone chilling moment atop a 50 foot boulder. I pulled out the cell phone and called my wife to let her know what and how I was doing. I told I was OK, that I was bushwhacking off Samaniego Ridge down the Cherry Springs Drainage just north of Mule Ears. I added that I was being very careful and that this was not unlike some of our misadventures in Egypt.

My wife knows me well these years. “How’s your water supply”. “OK then, be cautious and take your time.” “Right you expect to be at Cherry Tank by 7PM and you will call me then and definitely by 8PM”. “How about light”? “Oh, yeah the moonlight”. “I Love you and have fun”.

About halfway down it began to thunder and rain a bit. The humidity was also ungodly for an Arizonan. I also began to feel the fatigue of my self imposed trial by fire but I managed to keep a steady pace plodding through the wall like vegetation, hauling the Quasi along like a disabled colleague occasionally cursing as the bike was constantly snagging vegetation. Occasionally I would have to work out how to get down some steep waterfalls and rock falls. I just kept moving at a steady pace knowing that stopping would allow my body to mutiny.

Just keep moving, just keep moving. The steep grade began to slacken and the vegetation began to transition into a layer I knew would soon be rideable. But before that would happen I had to negotiate the layer of hell known as the wait-a-minute thickets. I didn’t allow them to slow me down or dictate my path I just bore on through ignoring the pain.

My reward was a broadening wash in the drainage below. At long last I straddled the saddle and began free riding the lower flanks of Sammie down the Cherry Springs drainage. At some points I had to carry down some rocky spillways or around thickets of vegetation. Somewhere in the wash I though it would be best to climb up and out in search of an old jeep road that I knew was in the area. Somehow my dead reckoning was spot on and I emerged but a few dozen yards from the end of the jeep road.

There was no stopping me now as I zipped onto Cherry Tank riding a wave of Quasi stabilized gravity. At Cherry Tank I rested and drank the remainder of my water and then called my wife for the last time. The time was around 6:30 PM.

Another hour to go! My feet were screaming in agony and pulsating in painful fits. My entire body ached and just wanted to go offline and sleep, but I couldn’t allow that to happen knowing the dangers of exposure. I summoned the strength to straddle the Quasi and then let the Quasi repay me for my efforts in getting it down the drainage.

What followed was a fairly fast and relaxed descent, the kind where you’re just too damn tired to care and let her roll free with minimal pedaling and braking. The ride down into Sutherland Wash was quick, silent and efficient. Somewhere in there the sun went down and I was on twilight.

Soon I was out Mid-Gate and moto-ing towards the Dog House. Once I hit the neighborhood my body began to quit, I had finally begun to run out of gas, conveniently near home. The last couple of hundred yards of dirt roadway was torturous as it seemed to be full of soft deep sand which virtually emptied my body’s tank.

When I staggered across the cattle guard into our driveway my wife shouted a happy greeting and offered me a pitcher of ice water. We sat quietly for some time before she offered me some pizza. I slept soundly as ever that night.

Like I said don’t ask why I did it. I am glad I did it and I probably won’t do it ever again unless it’s a life threatening situation. But I knew I could do it and I did it. God, I feel great!

caninus xerophilous
1,741 Posts
Discussion Starter · #3 ·
Paul B said:
So it sounds like Sammie got whacked but CDO East/West and the other ridge trails may have survived. Could you actually SEE Red/Oracle from your vantage? Any sense of the damage?

Glad, as always, you made it down safe,

Sammie wasn't so bad except for the deal breaking Catwalk section if you have excellent route finding skills or just want to slide down the mountain.

On the drive up to the top the Red Ridge Trailhead did not appear burnt. I never had a good vantage of Red Ridge as the Reef of Rocks masks it from the upper two thirds of Sammie. However having ridden it numerous times and knowing that the majority of the pine forest there, or that after the first ¼ mile, is a mature open floor healthy forest, I'd think Red Ridge proper should be in good shape. Of concern is the lower scrub oak layer just before Red Ridge terminates into the East Fork.

The East Fork looked pretty good, a finger of lush green all the way to the CDO junction near Cow Springs. From there on through the CDO Narrows the erosion and runoff damage is any ones guess.

I had a good view of the upper third of Oracle Ridge which looked like it took some severe damage near Marble Peak. The Dan Saddle area above Catalina Camp looked unburned.

So depending on erosion, a rather large variable, most of the stuff survived intact!


318 Posts
SunDog is Crazy

Hey Louis ,
Great story but i don't know anyone else crazy enough to do something
like this, You are the MAN... Glad to hear Mt. Lemmon is still good. I
need to get back over to Tucson to go riding with you.

Later Pal,

863 Posts
Louis' Pictures of His Ride

SunDog said:
Punchin' Doggies on Mt. Lemmon.

Like I said don't ask why I did it. I am glad I did it and I probably won't do it ever again unless it's a life threatening situation. But I knew I could do it and I did it. God, I feel great!
I have more of his shots, they'll have to wait, I have to leave. Some great ones of CDO East & West forks. I'll get them on here Sunday.

Some pics (he used my camera…)

Louis will have to supply the text for locations for most readers, with the obvoius exception of the first picture. ;)


caninus xerophilous
1,741 Posts
Discussion Starter · #7 · (Edited)
Thanks a BUNCH Bro.

For those whom my words were not descriptive enough.

2. Junction of CDO/AZ Trail and CDO Cut Off/Samaniego Shortcut down below Shovel Springs. Note the Carsonite A Trail sign has been burned off.

3. Dead Tree's on backside of Samaniego Peak near Walnut Springs.

4. Mule Ears from below.

5. From near Samaniego Peak between Walnut Springs and the Catwalk looking North towards C-Gap with Mule Ears about midway down the ridge. Note the erosion but also the new growth at the base of the burned scrub oaks.

Keep um comming CJ, thanks a bunch!


863 Posts
More Photos

SunDog said:
Keep um comming CJ, thanks a bunch!

I was gone over the weekend, sorry for the delay in posting these shots. I'll get them on here. Again, Louis used my camera, all his photos…


caninus xerophilous
1,741 Posts
Discussion Starter · #9 · (Edited)

1. Burnt trees anlong the lower flanks of Sammie Peak’s backside (eastside).

2. Traversing the area that was burnt in the 90’s (View of Pusch ridge from the SE).

3. Looking back at Mt Lemmon and Reef of Rock through a stand of burned pines on Sammie.

4. Saddle Brooke and the Bio Sphere from Mule Ears. Somewhere below is Cherry Tank. I descended 3000 vertical feet down the drainage to the right of the ridge in the foreground.

5. Canada Del Oro (East Fork) from Sammie Ridge. From forground to background:
a.) Closest ribbon of green is lower 2/3rds of CDO (East Fork). b.) The 2nd converging patch of green is the creek that merges with CDO at Cow Springs near the camping flat. c.) The CDO Narrows are to the extreme left. d.) Lower portion of the Reef of Rock. e.) Emerging from behind the Reef O’ Rock one can make out the faint draw that the CDO West Fork follows from lower Red Ridge. If you’ve ridden it you’ll remember it as a sick rocky canyon with a fairly technical trail on a catwalk on the south side. Some crazy individual, other than myself, rode UP it and Red Ridge via the CDO this past week end. f.) Oracle Ridge fills in the background with the Dan Saddle to the right.

Scott in Tucson
1,331 Posts
CDO/Red Ridge

SunDog said:
e.) Emerging from behind the Reef O’ Rock one can make out the faint draw that the CDO West Fork follows from lower Red Ridge. If you’ve ridden it you’ll remember it as a sick rocky canyon with a fairly technical trail on a catwalk on the south side. Some crazy individual, other than myself, rode UP it and Red Ridge via the CDO this past week end.
Crazy individual here, checking in. Thanks for the additional photos, Sundog/CJ. Good work with the extensive recon on Samaniego. I'm glad you made it out OK. It's amazing to compare my pre-burn photos of some of the same views you've posted here. It used to be so green!

If anyone is curious about CDO and Red Ridge, my (very long) report is at:

Here's the executive summary:

CDO Trail: Barely a trail before the burn, now it is almost gone and
extremely difficult to follow. If you have never ridden it before I
strongly recommend you not try. If you have ridden it before, well, I
still wouldn't try (unless you're Sundog).

Red Ridge: The very top is a graveyard and the trail is a mess. But the
middle section is largely in tact. The catclaw is very thick so
definitely wear shin protection. Even in the unburned areas erosion has
changed the trail quite a bit, but it should be OK for people riding down
it. It wasn't exactly in the best shape before the fire, anyway.
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