Back when I was in undergrad, I thoroughly messed up, and didn’t enjoy the AMAZING hiking opportunities that abound in the Tucson area. But one of the trails that I did explore (and have since revisited) is Romero Pools Trail. This is a challenging day hiking up into the Catalina Mountains to a beautiful oasis. Every view is amazing on this trail, and for any hiker, local or visiting, this should be on your bucketlist. However, Romero Pools has recently been impacted by a massive wildfire that happened in 2020- so besides being an attraction for its beauty and work out status, this trail is also a showcase of what fire can and does do in Arizona. Everyone needs to be aware of this huge impact, how to help mitigation the impacts of these natural disasters, and what it means for us here on the West Coast.
Join me now for this guide of the Romero Pools Trail- if you are visiting Tucson post-2020, this is a must-add for any hiker’s bucketlist.
- 1 General Information for the Romero Pools Trail
- 2 On the Trail
- 3 How to Get There
- 4 Safety Tips
- 5 Fire and the Desert
- 6 Learn More About Arizona
- 7 Love it? Pin it!
General Information for the Romero Pools Trail
Trail Length: 5.5 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 1,300+ ft
Bathroom Facilities: Yes, at the trailhead
Entrance Fee: $7.00 per vehicle (4 people) via Catalina State Park
*Note: Always check for trail closures and weather information when planning your trip, beforehand or the day of.
On the Trail
When you start out from the parking lot at the trailhead for the Romero Pools Trail, you will cross a creek bed and get a nice little warm up on your first hill. This part of the trail is not as steep as what you will need to tackle further on, and it also features two different ecosystems. First, as you traverse the hills on your way towards the mountains, you will notice some of the charismatic plants that everyone envisions of when they think about the Sonoran Desert- like the saguaro. Lively mesquites, and flourishing prickly pear will also be found in these lower sections of the trail, along with something a little different than the true desert- grasslands.
The lower reaches of the Catalina Mountains, as well as many other places throughout Arizona, were once used as ranching land and during these times, people encouraged the growth of grasses. Some of these were native and others, like buffelgrass, were introduced from other parts of the world. In fact, at the time that buffelgrass was brought to Arizona in those days, it was considered a wonder plant. It was highly resilient and cattle seemed to prefer it as forage.
Up Into the Catalinas
After passing through the desert, you will begin your true climb into the mountains. The trail will become steeper and steeper and the hills will shift into the towering expanses of Catalina Sky Island. Here, you will find that the plants become more green, more lush. The mountains are also powerful and awe-inspiring, with craggy peaks that reach up from the desert to heights that make forests possible. Here, the trail will bring you across cliffs that stretch over narrow valleys.
Up and up you will travel, until you find the trail arching down into one of those narrow, mountain valleys. The trees will grow bigger here, and the ground will become that distinct, soft sand of oases in the Sonoran Desert. And it is here, that you will begin to see the pools for which this trail is named. Each pool sits in a stone basin, with water running down from the highest points of the mountains and down towards the desert below. Continue your trek upwards, exploring the small riparian forest and particularly bushy grasses surrounding the water.
When you reach the final pool, turn around and go back the way you came. Marvel at the heights you gained on this walk up into the wilds of Arizona on the Romero Pools Trail.
After the Bighorn Fire
In 2020, we here in Arizona suffered from many devastating wildfires, including the Bighorn Fire, which burned throughout the Catalina Mountains. This fire destroyed many of the landscapes that we locals have loved and enjoyed for decades, and this means that our familiar trails are no longer familiar. While the land will heal to some extent, please know that this process will take many many years. The scars of Bighorn will be apparent when you hike Romero Pools Trail now, and it may be quite depressing for a very long time. Shape your expectations based on this, and please, help us protect our mountains from further destruction.
How to Get There
Getting to the Romero Pools Trail is pretty simple, because it lives in Catalina State Park.
If you are in Tucson, take the 77 north to the state park. If you are coming from Phoenix, you can take the I-10 down into the city and then head east to the 77, or the 79 south to the 77. From anywhere south of Tucson, head into town and then jump on the 77 north.
Google Maps should be able to direct you to the park, and you can ask the rangers for directions to the trail when you arrive.
(1) Be Prepared
The Romero Pools Trail is a day hike, not a short romp, and you will be traveling into wilderness areas, where rescues aren’t easy, safe, or cheap. Thus, for your sake and the sake of the local community, go prepared. Bring enough water. Bring snacks. Wearing hiking shoes. Bring appropriate clothes (it can get cold in the higher reaches of the mountains in the mornings and in the fall/winter/spring). Bring a map of where you are going.
(2) Always Let Someone Know Where You Are Hiking
Tell a friend or family member what trail you are planning on hiking. Let them know when you are leaving, when you expect to get home, and that you will check in when you are done. Make sure to check in when you return to your car!
(3) Know Your Limits
This isn’t an easy trail. It’s important that you are honest with yourself if you are feeling too tired or run out of key supplies like food or water. Daylight and weather are also key- do not hike during monsoons and avoid hiking this trail at night.
(4) Bring First Aid Equipment
First aid supplies can be helpful in dire situations or in the case of an accident, however, they come in handy quite often even on hikes that go basically without a hitch. For instance, if you develop blisters and/or hot spots, you can use your supplies to prevent further damage to your feet and continue moving.
(5) Take Responsibility
Your safety is your responsibility. The Romero Pools Trail is not appropriate for people that are not prepared via supplies and physical ability. Only attempt this trail if you know that you can do so safely, and turn around immediately if the hike becomes dangerous for any reason, at any time.
You should also insure that you limit your impact on the trail and the environment. Pack ALL of your trash out (including toilet paper), and stay on the trail at all times (except in cases when remaining on the trail would be dangerous). Never cut switchbacks as this causes major erosion that destroys the trail and the mountain.
Fire and the Desert
You may think that wildfires are natural to the Sonoran Desert, and in a way, you are right. In the past, lightning could light fires in the desert, but the pre-colonial Sonoran Desert was patchy. This means that there were many areas of open space between plants. Thus, when fires started, they were generally small and didn’t burn at extreme temperatures.
Today, however, things are different. Remember that grass I mentioned earlier, buffelgrass? The wonder grass for Arizona’s ranching days is something that we ecologists call fire-adapted. This means that buffelgrass thrives after wildfires; it grows back quickly, it’s seeds benefit from the fire, and in Arizona, fires also wipe out competitive species, making more room for buffelgrass. It also burns extremely hot, making the impacts of fires that are fueled by it more destructive and devastating.
What we have on our hands, with buffelgrass and other exotic plant species that are spreading rapidly and hurting our native species (e.g. invasive plants), is a dangerous cycle. These invasive plants cover ground previously open, allowing fires to spread further, faster, and hotter. These larger fires then burn and kill more native species. (Did you know that if a saguaro is burned 30%+, it will die?) When native species die, buffelgrass has more space to grow, and thus, provide more fuel for fires.
And of course, Climate change makes this worse by shifting our rain patterns, and making our droughts worse. And more people using the land, especially people who aren’t responsible, increase incidences of human-caused fire.
This cycle will change the landscape of the Sonoran Desert forever, unless we do something.
How You Can Help
The vast majority of fires that get out of hand, here in AZ and elsewhere, are human-caused. Sometimes these are mistakes or accidents that couldn’t be helped, but other times, they are stupid mistakes or outright negligence. If you are camping, never leave your fire unattended, clear a safe area around your flames, and make sure that your fire is completely out before leaving camp. Also, follow all fire rules while camping and ensure that you know what land managers are allowing at any time. Fire rules are meant to help prevent fires, so please respect them.
If you have a trailer, ensure that your chain isn’t able to touch the ground. Dragging chains spark and in the dry conditions of Arizona, this can easily spark a fire. Likewise, but more surprisingly, if you park your vehicle in grassy areas, even starting your car could spark a fire- to please be sure to avoid parking in or near grasses.
If you live in the area or are here for a while, consider volunteering for invasive plant management activities- these might include removals or treatments. Both should only be done with organizations that know how to safely carry out these activities. You might also consider donating to this work.
Finally, please help us find solutions to climate change. Vote for leaders that are committed to making positive changes that help us successfully transition our economy away from dirty energy. Help hold major polluting companies accountable for their impacts so that they will innovate on solutions. And make whatever changes you can in your own life to help- donate, volunteer, plant trees, and save energy.
Nature, and everyone that loves nature will thank you!
Learn More About Arizona
The Nightborn Travel team was born and raised in Arizona. We know our state well and we love it.
Explore more of our guides to get an inside view on the best places to visit and explore in our state. Our work will help you visit bucketlist destinations that everyone sees, but more importantly, to find mind-blowing destinations that most might not be aware of. If you explore different places, you will help us mitigate overtourism here, and further protect our beautiful state.
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