Trailhead: Douglas Spring Trailhead
Trailhead Elevation: 2,793 feet
Roundtrip Distance: 12 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,044 feet
Date Hiked: Sunday, March 4, 2018
Time Hiked: 8:45am to 2:00pm
Average Roundtrip Time: 5-5.5 hours
Preferred Seasons: Autumn/Winter (September → April)
Douglas Spring was the very first trail that I hiked in Southern Arizona. Back in 2011, before I lived in Tucson and when I would occasionally visit, I hiked the whole way up to a spot called Bridal Wreath Falls (in jeans and worn-down sneaks, no less!) to catch a glimpse of this desert oasis. It was such a memorable experience… and it quickly became one of my all-time favorite hikes.
But Douglas Spring isn’t just about this particular waterfall area. In fact, there are dozens of other connecting trails in the vicinity… from an old abandoned dam in the middle of the desert, to ridgeline trails, to a secluded high desert campground about 6 miles into the backcountry.
The great thing about Douglas Spring, really, is that there’s something for everyone. This can be an excellent introductory hike for someone who normally doesn’t get out there. You can negotiate the trail with ease in a pair of tennis shoes, but hiking boots will enable you to continue farther up the trail. The trek doesn’t end at Bridal Wreath Falls, but it is a common turn-around point for most hikers. The scenery is classic Sonoran Desert scrub, and the further you go on the trail, the more you get.
On this particular morning, I started relatively early (8:45am) before the trailhead parking lot filled up. On busy weekend mornings, the lot will quickly fill up with early risers… and those who opted to sleep in will be forced to park alongside the road. We’ve attempted to hike here before when the line of cars has been over a half-mile down Speedway Boulevard! Pro tip: get started early.
Once on the trail, you’ll follow the boundary of the Saguaro National Park east with elevation increasing gradually the whole way. For the first mile or so, you’ll pass through a high concentration of saguaro, barrel cactus, prickly pear, ocotillo, and various cholla. The terrain is a combination of sandy wash and hard-pack dirt up to the Wentworth Trail split (about 0.6 miles in), past which it steepens into the rocky foothills of the Rincon Mountains.
The week prior, Tucson experienced a front that brought cooler temperatures and snow up on the mountain peaks. By the time I got around to visiting this trail, much of the snow up in the Rincons was beginning to melt… meaning that there was finally water flowing in Douglas Spring! This is a rare sight to behold.
As I made my way across multiple wash crossings and spotted water in them, I began to get excited. I knew that there would be a wonderful payoff once I reached higher elevations, and I kept my fingers crossed for water in Bridal Wreath Falls!
Once I passed a couple of hikers making their way down the trail, I asked them if there was water in the falls. They confirmed my suspicions: the falls were flowing!
The trail tilts sharply up to the Carrillo Trail split (1.1 miles), where it crosses then parallels a stone-slab wash up to the Three Tank Trail split (2.3 miles).
Here the Douglas Spring Trail moderates in a more open, isolated setting as saguaro and cacti plots are gradually replaced by grasses, creosote, and mesquite. You’ll reach the Bridal Wreath Falls spur trail at around 2.5 miles and follow it into a tree-lined canyon up to Bridal Wreath Falls.
By now, you’ll start to notice some more greenery. The alligator juniper is prominent in this area! With scaly, slate grey checkerboard bark, the tree with a trunk like alligator skin stands out from among its fellow desert scrub. It typically grows between 4,000 and 8,000 feet in elevation in dry areas of upland mountains, clustered around areas where water finds its way after rainfall.
At Bridal Wreath Falls, water spills over a 20-foot grotto into a small pool that’s shaded by tall canyon walls and a cottonwood-willow canopy. You’ll hear it as you approach on the trail and your pulse will race with excitement!
On this particular morning, I was joined by three others at the falls. Two women had chosen this hike based on the recommendation of co-workers, and a man (who is a park ranger at Olympic National Park) was visiting on his road trip across the southwest. We enjoyed trail snacks and banter in the leafy corridor before saying our goodbyes and continuing our separate ways.
Once back on the Douglas Spring trail, things got quiet as I found myself to be one of the only hikers who ventured past the falls. I did encounter a group of backpackers making their way down the trail (presumably after having spent the night at Douglas Spring Campground), but that’s it.
Here, the grades began to steepen shortly deeper into the mountains. Saguaros all but disappear, though you still see an occasional prickly pear or cholla cactus scattered on the mountainside. There is an abundance of manzanita that appears as you progress into this more intense landscape.
Though rugged and undulating, there is only a modest net elevation gain on the final 2+ miles to the Douglas Spring Campground (6.05 miles). The campsite has a permanent toilet and a bear locker complete with warning and latches to slow pesky critters down. There was a little bit of water in the spring here, but if I were camping here overnight I wouldn’t consider it a reliable water source.
The trail continues another 2.4 miles to Cow Head Saddle and the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail… but that trek would have to wait for another day. My Camelback was feeling uncomfortably light, the temperatures were rising, and my gut told me it was time to go.
The hike down was relaxing but quick. The view is also very different; there is more of a panoramic wide open area and had a whole different feel, with views of Tucson coming into frame as you get further and further down the mountain. As soon as I passed the spur trail at Bridal Wreath Falls, I began to encounter hikers once more and enjoyed several pleasant conversations with strangers on the way down.