Just northeast of Tucson, Arizona, lie the Santa Catalina Mountains in the Coronado National Forest. The mountains rise from the lower elevations of the Sonoran Desert and cast a prominent image on the skyline. It was here we would explore Charouleau Gap.
Habitation of this area dates back about 1,700 years ago when Hohokam people came here to live and prosper for centuries. Later Spanish and French explorers would arrive. While some prospecting for precious metals was done in the area over 150 years ago, much of the range was placed under protection by Congress when the Santa Catalina Forest Reserve was created in 1902.
We started our trek from the north end of the trail, just outside the town of Oracle. We followed the eroded dirt trail into the Santa Catalina Mountains.
Our trail destination on a pleasant fall day was that of following the Charouleau Gap trail. Alternately known as Forest Service 736, it's about a 14-mile trail that begins just outside the small town of Oracle. At about 4,500 feet in elevation, Oracle exhibits a high-desert environment and would serve as our starting point for the day.
The trail meanders over hilly terrain, with some steep climbs and eroded portions. Much of the trail is not particularly difficult but offers interesting wheeling and excellent scenery. Our day on the trail was a dry one, but when rains come, the lower washes can run deep, leaving you faced with multiple water crossings.
The gap itself is reached at an elevation of about 5,100 feet, where you cross a cattle guard situated in a saddle in the mountains. From there, the journey continues westerly and drops back down towards the small town of Catalina. Large granite slabs lay before you during the descent, and we found some play spots and steep faces.
Eric Cattey followed the Charouleau Gap trail in his ’97 Tacoma as it twists and winds up and around hilly terrain. We spotted about a half dozen deer along the trail and all day we would only encounter a few UTVs and a couple of hunters in this remote backcountry.
The trail has changed somewhat over the last 20 years as weather, rain, and erosion have moved earth and rock. Additionally, portions of the trail have been graded in some years for service vehicle access due to fires and other needs. However, seasonal rains have also washed out portions of the trail during summer monsoons, so the trail morphs over time.
Regardless, we always find the trail to be well worth the trip and offering commanding views within the Santa Catalina Mountains. Our group of five Toyotas and one Jeep TJ had an excellent adventure traversing this noteworthy Arizona trail.
We took some time to stop and enjoy some of the vistas from high vantage points. The Biosphere 2 is visible in the far distance. This research lab was created in the late ’80s and was originally designed as a closed ecological system for study. Today, it still conducts scientific research and tours of the grounds are offered.
A side trip took us to the top and back of an unnamed high peak. There are a few old open pit mine remains in the area and some older mine shafts, though those seem to lie on some private claims.
Here we pause to open one of the gates along the trail. The long distance views were incredible, and we were graced with a clear day with little obscurity.
We managed to find terrain that ranged from hard-packed dirt to decomposed rock hills to solid rock faces of various geological makeup.
Part of this area was ravaged by wildfire about a decade ago, but the vegetation has been making a comeback. Remains of charred trees still stand as solemn reminders that the landscape can once again be burned by careless humans, or natural lightning strikes.
We ran across larger rocks in some of the deeper washes and found alternate lines that offered some boulder crawling or ledges climbs where water and time have drastically moved dirt and rock. Tanner Lamb navigated the trail in his 1982 SR5 Toyota truck.
Big rains in the late summer months can bring significant water movement and flash flooding. It was dry when we made our trip, but we've been here during the wetter months when water crossings are numerous. The trail can change significantly from year to year as large doses of flowing water attack the low lying trail routes.
Dave Crosby's ’06 4Runner skated over all the obstacles on 39-inch BFG Krawlers. His Toyota sits on a pair of Dynatrac Pro Rock 60 axles driven by a Marlin Crawler 4.7:1-geared transfer case. This isn't your average grocery getter.
As the temperatures were dropping in the fall season, the trees that were not evergreens were beginning to turn color in preparation for dropping their leaves. We followed the Canada del Oro wash for some distance.
We came across the dilapidated remains of Coronado Camp. This site of an old adobe house has been slowly eroding over decades. The slab and some walls remain, along with piles of old timber and tin from the structure. This is a popular overnight camp spot along the trail as well.
Mark Peterson wheeled his ’06 Jeep Rubicon TJ on the Charouleau Gap trail. We found some small boulder obstacles in the washes with a few optional lines that could keep things interesting.
We're not aware of any major recent mining activities in this area, but we ran across a small number of staked claims. It's usually best to stick to the main trail and not loiter near these claims. Prospectors can get a bit nervous about strangers near their digs.
This image gives you some indication of the grandeur of this area. Peterson's TJ shrinks in comparison to the vast expanses of this mountainous terrain. We only touched some of the reaches of this towering range.
Mark Hild descends one of the steep granite rock faces on the west end of the trail. His early IFS Toyota truck sits on 33-inch BFG KM2 tires aided by a Marlin Crawler–geared transfer case.
As we descended on the western side of the trail headed towards Catalina, we encountered large exposed granite slabs. There is an expanse of huge rock waves and domes. We played for a while and tried our hand climbing some of the high-traction faces.
The Arizona Fish and Game Department maintains a kiosk at the lower end of the trail where those using the trail can sign in and out and leave comments. The trail is also maintained by members of the Tucson Rough Riders and has been for many years. Hats off to them!