Sabino Canyon Retaken: Trip Report


Back in the1970’s, Sabino Canyon was a great place for my friends and me to hang out. There we knew large boulders, and perennial water. There was a creek with pools, not very impressive to most, but in Arizona, it was quite an oasis. There was a paved road wandering up through it with bridges made of rock and concrete. The stream flowed over these often, as we splashed our tires.

We knew the best hidden spots, those without a view from the road. Usually, these were by a pool of water with smooth rocks to lie on, or jump off of. We cavorted, drinking cheap wine and smoked pot, nude. We could get into the water, or the shade of a cottonwood, to stay cooler in the summer heat. Occasionally someone might come hiking through, but they either smiled accepting, or joined us. It was wonderful peaceful fun on a warm day.

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We would park on the side of the road and the bushes were pushed back and crushed along the shoulders. In the late seventies, or early eighties, the forest service closed off the road to vehicles a couple of miles before the actual canyon began. The vehicle’s destruction was hard on the vegetation and population growth had cars parked bumper to bumper all the way up to the end. Sadly, the replacement of the car chaos was a scam that still continues today. This was a shuttle which always charged $5 and now more. Hiking in is difficult in the heat. That two mile stretch is open desert on hot hard asphalt. On a summer day, that can be felt through a thick sole shoe. People are forced to ride that shuttle and pay cash to volunteers. Over one million people go up that canyon each year now, but the private owner claims that they can only just break even running the two trolley trams. Do the math. The people pay in cash. All of this ruined our peaceful skinny-dip spot. I returned only twice over the next 30 years, and never cavorted nude there again. The population in this valley increased over four fold over the years. It had to be, inevitable.

Here’s some background:

It is only on the nights around the full moon, that the tram runs an evening tour. The desert full moon is bright and clear, like daylight with blue skies. The canyon walls light up. It is uniquely beautiful.

I heard from a friend that the parking lot (another five bucks just to park) was open and free all night, after the visitor center closed. She had just been hiking the three miles up to falls and pools after hours and getting naked under the stars, swimming in the ponds. We could reclaim Sabino, an opportunity to enjoy it free and natural once again.

Last Thursday and Friday the moon was to rise at the perfect time. It would be straight up in transit at midnight, giving off optimum illumination. The monsoon rains had just ended, giving optimum water flow. The temperatures were in the high nineties in the day, so as to make for warm comfortable perfect evenings. The monsoon clouds were less likely to be out. With clear skies, the moonlight would likely not be blocked. We just had to do it.

Our friend had arranged to go up there with three others, her ex- boyfriend whom we know and another couple that we didn’t. We would meet them later. We didn’t really care for a talkative group hiking up. We did need some guidance. A few years back the forest fire upstream and then massive rains had decimated the canyon. It wasn’t the same place anymore, and we hadn’t been up there in so many years that memories would make recognition difficult, especially in the darker unfamiliar evening lighting. There are mile marker signs and shuttle stop numbers. We were able to find our way with those to know where to get off the road to the trail. Her cell phone would help her guide us in after that, if she heard it over the sound of the water.

I had been bare the last couple of days at home and just continued. I met DF at her house as that. She greeted me at the door the same and so the tone of the evening was cast. She came up with a tasty dinner and it was then time to go meet the moon.

As we drove into the parking lot, we were flanked by a string of cars leaving from attending the shuttle tours. There were a few in the lot as we parked. DF warned me not to open the door so the overhead light wouldn’t come on, exposing our nudity. She threw on a billowing white shirt and a pair of shorts. I slipped into my tan-through swimming shorts. We had a daypack with water, flashlights and beach towels. We walked through the visitor center and saw that the shuttle had been retired for the evening. The long expanse of the straight road through the desert stretched before us. The moon was very illuminating. By the time we got into the canyon, it would begin to be high enough to shine down into it between the canyon walls. Everything was set perfectly.

As we walked the first mile or so, we occasionally passed people walking back in small groups. Each one seemed to be the same. Women in front jabbering and giving warning, a couple of guys back behind to themselves speaking in a different tone, as guys often do. It was essentially like walking in broad daylight.

When we walked through the small pass into the area of canyon walls, we disrobed. The remaining stragglers would most likely have left the canyon. DF had her baggy white shirt. I had a beach towel to cover with, like we were going swimming or had been in the water. I draped the towel over my pack and we continued nude. There were a few encounters. Mostly we would hear them coming and quickly wrap up. DF had me stand between, during a couple of those times, as her butt hung out of the short shirt. It was difficult to see others clearly, until in closer proximity. We used this information and hiked on.

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It was nearly three miles to the swimming hole that we had targeted. The road was paved and not with any extreme grades. It wound through the canyon crossing the stream with those concrete and natural stone dam like bridges.

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There were many large trees, still there from my youthful days. The sound of the falls, glistening ponds and reflected sky was enchanting. The road stayed mostly well lit, other than the occasional overhanging tree shadow. We could freely walk without concern of not seeing a rattler or stepping on a local toad or frog.

A Healthy Datura

A Healthy Datura

There was no need to be on particular alert except for other hikers. We did get pretty much surprised and caught wrapping up, by the one last couple that one wouldn’t expect. They greeted us and she was smiling at us knowingly. She at least knew that something was afoot, because we were covering up as they approached.

It was a long uphill hike none the less. Our destination was a relief. DF had been ready to stop a ½ mile before. We could hear our compadre’s voices out in the distance. We took our directions, turned on a flashlight and meandered through the growth, river rock and boulders. A short distance opened up into a wonderful waterfall with a couple of ponds.

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Our friends sat on a rock formation, looking out across the pond. Above the falls, two ghostly nude figures wandered in that barefoot “one testing step at a time manner.”

The water was a wonderful cool temperature, but others chilled when getting out of it into the night air. The waters had been warming in the sun as they journeyed about 20 miles down the side of the mountains. We piled up our bag and towels and removed our five toe shoes, becoming that liberated sense of completely naked. We wandered up and through and over the smooth rock surfaces and sandy beaches.

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We dipped into the waters and looked about at the beauty and the wonderful flow of the waterfall from all angles. We said hello to our new acquaintances who were lying nude with their backs on the smooth warm stone, as they watched the moon and stars. We were standing up and the canyon walls ringed around us, everything clear and luminous. There were massive cliff walls and thousands of saguaros. The tree’s and thick bushy foliage’s leaves glistened in the moonlight.

We found a good place to lie back on the rock surface. The full moon was impossibly clear and distinct. Just a few stars could be seen in the bright blue sky. Orion lazily lay on the ridge above. A short brief falling star, and then a much longer one with two orange trails leaped out and turned in a “J” shape. There were a few light clouds threatening to roll off of the mountain. We watched as they danced with each other, seemingly melding together in patterns and then moving on. No words, no photos, nothing can come close to describing the full sense and effect of this miracle, the view, smell, the air, the elemental being, and bare.

The Moon's Reflection

The Moon’s Reflection

We returned to mingle with our friends. I waded into the main pool. I was heading for the experience of being under the waterfall. I discovered the sandbar, whose slope I was navigating, dropped off dramatically, as I felt my way. It would be over my head out there. I treaded water. There is a blanketing presence in the dark waters. It feels like being in two worlds at the same time, the mysterious one and the wondrous, where I live.

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There was a familiarity in that broad, smooth granite playground. There, was the same sense of a place that I was drawn to, so much, so many years ago.

Our friends left, we had all of this to ourselves in peace for a while and then it was after midnight. We still had a three hour hike out. We were drawn to stay.

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The trip back was just as delightful as the trip up. We were getting tired. My feet were sore. As we came out of the canyon, the smells suddenly changed and the air got warmer. The long straight road was before us, but this time the distance to the visitor’s center was more difficult to ascertain. There were several lights in the distance. We didn’t know which ones. No goal to set, just the moment.

An odd colored light was found to be the soda machine. We arrived, saw no other cars in the parking lot and proceeded through the visitor center, this time quite naked, but for shoes and a pack on my back. We were very tired at 2:30am and not thinking of taking pictures of a secret naturist coup in a usually public place. Looking back, yea, hindsight….

We had had over seven hours out there under the moon in the wonderland. We collapsed into bed at 3:00am. We will surely make this hike, or I should call it a treat, again, when conditions come together to be somewhat optimum. If I ever get around to getting a couple of bikes, it would be much more accessible. Our friend tells us that she would like to hike up the three miles, spend the night there, and then hike the remaining four miles in the morning to Hutchinson’s Pool. This is a wonderful deep water swimming hole spot in the mountains. Then, spend the day out there, returning in the afternoon. Most of the time the whole canyon would be to ourselves on a weekday. As an alternative to that, we could come back the next cool morning naked, before the crowds. There could be the option to take the shuttle back for the last three miles. It is definitely in the bucket list.

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