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Coronado National Forest Expedition Portal Trip - Gunsight Pass

Posted in Events on June 1, 2007
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Contributors: Scott BradyExpeditions West

The Coronado National Forest is broken into 12 areas separated by long expanses of the Sonoran Desert. These isolated mountains are called "sky islands," as many of the animals are separated from other "islands" by large areas of arid desert, which limits the high-mountain species migration. These mountains are filled with wildlife, from cougar and bobcat to black bear, eagles, and even jaguar. The abundant wildlife, combined with grasslands, oak, pine, and several well-stocked lakes, add beauty and a sense of adventure to the Coronados.

Trail start 31 51.028 110 41.823
Gunsight Pass 31 51.038 110 45.693
Lopez Pass 31 51.284 110 45.448
Sycamore {{{Canyon}}} start 31 51.764 110 44.853
Helvetia town site 31 51.527 110 47.229
A view from Gunsight Pass, looking down into the Santa Cruz Valley.

Our group, from the Expedition Portal (, met up at the parking area just west of Highway 83. The diverse group of Land Rovers, Toyotas, Jeeps, Isuzus, Nissans, and Suzukis was led by John Shotts in his awesome 100-series Land Cruiser. We started the trail by climbing out of Barrel Canyon onto the flanks of Harts Butte, where the desert was alive from the heavy summer rains and the ocotillo was in full bloom.

After dropping into McCleary Canyon, we found a small play area to test the more modified vehicles and stretch their suspension systems. We soon had one of the Tacomas high-centered and worked as a group to winch it free. With that, we continued to climb toward Gunsight Pass, which has a series of switchbacks and a loose surface. Giving sufficient space to the vehicle before us, all of the drivers made the climb without issue and were rewarded with a fantastic view into the Santa Rita Valley and the Sierrita Mountains in the distance.

From the pass, the trail follows a narrow shelf and then climbs again toward Lopez Pass, which proved to be the more challenging of the two climbs. Crossing Lopez allows access to Fig Tree Spring and the narrow and more technical Sycamore Canyon (2.5-rated). The group's progress slowed as we encountered several gullies and crossed-axle obstacles. The trail turns west and begins to drop elevation as the route runs along a gully where we encountered the most technically challenging obstacle of the trail.

Donna pilots her Toyota Tacoma through the trail. Her rig is fitted with a Four Wheel camper and is used extensively for fly-fishing adventures.

The trail exits a deep wash by climbing a loose and rutted obstacle that is also heavily cambered at the crest. The first few trucks had Air Lockers and easily made the climb, lifting their driver-side front tires slightly at the exit. Jonathan Hanson came next in his 30-year-old FJ40, which had open differentials. Between excellent driving and the flexy Old Man Emu suspension, he also made the climb. In the middle of the pack was a nice Tacoma with a Four Wheel camper driven by Donna and Mirian. Other than slightly oversize tires, the truck was stock. Despite a good line and momentum, the rear tire dropped into a hole and brought the front end several feet in the air and they lost traction. With the help of a spotter, they backed down slightly and took a different line, using the clutch start to keep from spinning or stalling. Up they went and Mirian threw her hat in the air with a victorious cry.

With the last real challenge behind us, the group made good time to our campsite and the ghost town of Helvetia. Not much remains of the Helvetia site, save for a few adobe walls and the multiple mine shafts that dot the hillsides. But 120 years ago, the town was booming, fed by copper mining and investment by the Ben Hefti Mining Company. When copper prices fell in 1883, followed by the smelter fire in 1902, the town went bust and by the '20s, Helvetia was abandoned.

Our group made camp in a large clearing by the site, and within minutes, Eezi-Awn roof tents were deployed, ground tents went up, and a fire was lit. We sat around the fire cooking up steaks and talking about our next adventure, and then we watched the sun set over the Sierritas. A perfect end to another Arizona expedition.

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