a strenuous day hike to the summit of Saguaro National Park’s most prominent mountain
Miller Creek & Rincon Peak Trail Guide
MAP: Trails Illustrated
PERMITS: required for camping, permits are managed through recreation.gov
FEES: Entrance to Saguaro National Park is $20 per vehicle, but there is no fee station at Miller Creek. Backcountry camping permits are $8 per night.
DESIGNATION: Coronado National Forest (Rincon Mountain Wilderness Area) and Saguaro National Park
BEST SEASONS: spring and fall
DISTANCE: recognized as 16 miles round trip, though some maps indicate as little as 13.7 miles round trip.
ELEVATION: trailhead ~4,200ft – peak 8,482ft – gain ~4,300ft
ACCESS: dirt roads – high clearance is recommended
DIRECTIONS: Despite being a Tucson-area hike, it takes almost 1.5 hours to get here from downtown. You’ll follow I-10 east for about 40 miles, beyond Vail to exit #297 (Mescal). Follow the Mescal Road (dirt) north for 16 miles, watching for a sign marking the Miller Creek Trailhead on your left (west). Entering the Turkey Creek Trailhead in Google Maps will set you on your way, but but sure to turn for Miller Creek, as Turkey Creek is a different destination.
ROUTE: well maintained trail , signed junctions
GUIDEBOOK: Hiking Arizona’s Cactus Country
On average, the temperature will be about 20 degrees (Fahrenheit) cooler on the summit of Rincon Peak than the weather that’s found in downtown Tucson, since you lose about 3+ degrees for every thousand feet gained in elevation.
The difference in climate also lends itself to a higher probability for rain and snow, as well as lingering snow in the uppermost, shadiest areas.
Rincon Mountains Trail Map
If you’re looking for a paper map of the area, it’s best shown on the Trails Illustrated map for Saguaro National Park.
Below, however, is the National Park’s schematic trail map for Saguaro’s entire east district. You can right-click on the image to view a larger version or download it.
This is a strenuous and rewarding hike that soars for 4,300 feet up to southeast Tucson’s most prominent mountaintop. Wonderful 360-degree views await you at the top, with a diverse journey from a riparian zone to Sonoran desert, capped with juniper and pine on the peak.
The hike begins along Miller Creek, which is lush and flows well in the spring. The climbing soon begins up dry, east-facing slopes, where cacti are abundant in more classic desert terrain.
Views quickly materialize, showcasing the long valley that you followed on the drive to the trailhead.
After 3.5 miles and almost 2,000ft of climbing, you’ll reach a proper saddle and ensuing trail junction. Routes for further exploration to the north are available via the Heartbreak Ridge Trail, but today we’re hiking up Rincon Mountain!
The Miller Creek Trail technically ends at the saddle. You’ll turn south on the Heartbreak Ridge Trail, following it for 0.4 miles before branching to the left for your final grunt up Rincon Peak. You’ll pass Happy Valley Saddle Camp in the flats before this final junction.
An additional 2,400ft of climbing over the last 3 miles brings you to the summit, featuring wide views and a gigantic cairn. Return the way you came to complete this day hike as described.
Camping along the majority of this route is regulated by Saguaro National Park, and is restricted to the site at Happy Valley Camp. Permits are available through recreation.gov, and cost $8 per night. Happy Valley has 3 campsites, each with fire rings and bear boxes, with a nearby pit toilet.
The camp is at 6,200ft, and is located about 4 miles from the Miller Creek trailhead.
Unless otherwise posted, camping is allowed along the first half-mile of the Miller Creek Trail, as this is within the boundaries of Coronado National Forest.
Water is seasonal and unreliable, though with luck in the spring you may find a delightful flowing steam.
Car camping is possible along the Mescal Road (USFS 35), as this is also within the boundaries of Coronado National Forest. Just be sure to pay attention to signs along the way, since there’s some patches of private land along road.
My Trip Notes and Photos
I hiked this route as described in late March of 2019, with my friend William. It was a great workout with diverse scenery and a rewarding mountain peak, taking us most of a full day.
We didn’t see a single other hiker on the trails, despite the prime timing with wildflowers and spring runoff.