Charouleau Gap / FR# 736
Oracle, Arizona (Pima) Technical Rating: 5-8
Last Updated: 10-26-2017
Permit Required - Click Here
Mount Lemmon Control Road
Coronado National Forest / Santa Catalina
Charouleau Gap / FR# 736 Highlights
Charouleau Gap, (pronounced shar-lou) is the quintessential southern Arizona 4x4 trail and a must do for anyone with a modified off-road vehicle. This is one of the more difficult trails near Tucson, and as such requires a modicum of planning. Count on a full day of traversing this trail from Catalina to Oracle while you negotiate the many obstacles such as Kiss Rock, Unsurvivable, The Car Wash, the Bumper Eater, the Steps and the Escalator. You will encounter almost all varieties of 4 wheeling challenges on this trail, from rock climbing, sandy washouts, deep water crossings, off-camber gullied hill climbs, steep descents, rocky boulder gardens and absolutely stunning trail scenery. Running this trail almost assures the need for a strap or winch evolution for someone in your group. (But, that's what makes it fun)
Technical rating: (5-8) Moderate-Difficult
Heavy rock and/or severe ruts. Rocks exceeding hub height frequent. Shelves to 12". Deep mud or uphill mud sections. Steep grades to 25 degrees and can be loose or rocky. Water crossings may exceed 30" in depth. Side hill to 30 degrees. One vehicle wide. Body damage possible. Experience needed. Vehicle Modifications helpful.
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Directions to Trailhead
From Tucson take Oracle Rd North/Northwest to Golder ranch rd, set your odometer to 0.0 here. (Note, all mileages are measured from this spot). This is not the actual trailhead but it is a very convenient place to designate as a gathering point for a group ready to traverse the Gap. There is gas and snacks here at the Valero, and a Basha's supermarket to get more substantial supplies, like lunches, wood, etc. Proceed East until Lago Del Oro Blvd then make a left turn. Head North for 4.3 miles to the trailhead on right at the cattle guard. There is a sign in kiosk and information board here.
This is a trail that can either originate in Catalina/Oro Valley and terminate in Oracle AZ, (S-N) or can be run in the reverse (N-S), Running the Western Slope, up and over the gap and then down into the Canada Del Oro headwaters/Canyon, involves climbing most of the obstacles described below. No matter which way you choose, this is a long trail, involving slow speeds and several 4x4 challenges. You will encounter sand, ledges, basketball size+ boulder gardens, trees, deep V washouts, and difficult route finding on the northern end. There are significant dangers on this trail and it should not be taken lightly.
You can think of the trail in four parts:
- The western Slope Ascent - Climbs up over granite rockface, with shelves and washouts in some parts. Some steep climbs up to the pass.
- The Eastern Slope Descent - head down the shelf roads, with some significant V washouts to the canyon floor (Canada del Oro canyon)
- The River Bottom - Canada Del Oro river headwaters. Most often full of water and the beginning of the difficult sections. Expect at least slider contact here in the boulder gardens.
- The Eastern End Ascent to Oracle - Some good hill climbs with significant washouts, spotting requirements, and tight switchbacks.
This trail 'could' be completed by a stock vehicle intended for this kind of use, but at a minimum, you should have rock sliders, and skid plates or a very skilled spotter. Longer wheelbase vehicles will have difficulty on some of the obstacles. Due to the potential for damage and incapacitation of your vehicle, it is recommended that you never attempt this trail alone.
It's a good idea to limit the number of rigs in your group to 10 or less (There will very likely be recovery requirements to get some people through) and more vehicles equal much more time on the trail.
1: Trailhead/Kiosk (4.3mi)
Turn right (northeast)This is the actual beginning of FR736 which is the Charouleau Gap trail. You will remain on this road for the entire trip. The trail begins to the left of the sign in/information kiosk and there is a #736 sign on the right. The trail will immediately get rutted and steep here, preventing passenger cars from any further progress.
Don't forget to sign in on the register
There is a sign here that the TUCSON ROUGH RIDERS maintain this trail. There is another TRR sign on the other end of the trail that you will encounter in several hours.
2: Small but Deep Wash 4xLow Spot (4.9mi)
Continue straight (southeast). This is basically a small wash that drops about 12' down kind of abruptly, along with a power line. This is a good spot to engage 4LO as there are many climbs ahead. There's a pretty big power transfer station near here on your left.
3: Canada Del Oro Wash - West Side (5.4mi)
The Canada Del Oro River/Wash (depending on the time of year), which journeyed from east to west through/around the Gap, spills out here along the trail and just beyond this hill, opens out to a wide flat valley. There are still homes on the river banks so please tread lightly.
Route finding is pretty obvious, you will cross the wash after descending a steep hill and not follow it for more than 50 feet or so. This is actually a pretty impressive descent and ascent down into the Canada Del Oro Wash. This is one of the major drainages in the northern Tucson Basin and the Charouleau Gap trail follows the stream bed for a significant portion of the eastern slope. This is the only spot you encounter it on the west slope. Continue along the powerline for a short distance and the road bends right across the valley where you will cross another streamlet of the Canada Del Oro.
Keep an eye out for wildlife here, it's a pretty good area to spot some deer, coyotes or javelina.
4: Private Road - Gated Off (5.7mi)
Continue straight. You will cross this without even noticing it but on the topo map, it appears that a road crosses the trail here. The left side looks unused and the right has a fence that says "Private Property" so there is no path for you here.
5: Roads Split (6.0mi)
The road "Y"'s here and it doesn't matter which way you choose as the roads rejoin about 200 yards further on. The left is easy sandy wash bottom, the right is rocky and a slight climb.
6: Unknown Side Road (6.4mi)
Stay right. To the left, an unmapped small rocky side road takes off up the hill. This is a good example of the kinds of shelves/washouts you are dealing with on the western slope portion of the trail.
7: Optional Hill Climb (6.5mi)
This is a fun little jaunt up a hill to the left, that reconnects to the main #736 road over the crest. This is entirely optional as FR#736 continues to the right.
8: Mini Moab - Kiss Rock Optional (6.6mi)
Turn right to access this optional area. Stay left to bypass it and continue on the trail.
This area is renowned on the Charouleau Gap trail for a fun little optional set of granite rock obstacles. There is a big wall of rock here called "KISS ROCK" that some 4x4's can climb. This area is typical of the Santa Catalina Mountain range and many exposed, and weathered (Rounded) boulders and rock faces appear on the Western slope.
Travelers are not usually successful climbing this because of how far things hang out over the bumper. Items such as a rear-mounted spare tire, gas cans, etc which can contact the ground before the vehicle breaks over the top.
If you decide to turn around somewhere further up the trail, be aware that route finding in the dark can be very tricky here as all of the granite tends to look the same.
The trail can either be rejoined at the point you turned right or there is an exit up the rock to the east that will re-connect to the main trail.
9: Dispersed Camp Spot (6.9mi)
Off to the left is a small road that climbs a hill to a pretty neat dispersed campsite. The road is a loop that descends back to the main trail. There was a fire ring here and great views of the Oro Valley.
10: Unsurvivable Bypass (7.4mi)
Turn left for the "Unsurvivable" obstacle bypass route. "Unsurvivable" is the one of the most iconic obstacles of the Charoulea Gap trail. "Unsurvivable" was jackhammered by the USFS to improve wildfire fighting access back in 2010, and it's easier to get up now, but still challenging and intimidating. This is the Bypass route to the left, and even the bypass is tough, with big boulder climbs, and a tight turn to the right that must be navigated. The bypass is about 150 yards from the obstacle and comes out just above it at Waypoint 12.
11: Unsurvivable Obstacle (7.4mi)
Here it is! The obstacle everyone tests their courage on. But it's not as hard as it seems. It was once much worse than today. Nature is slowly returning this obstacle to what it once was, pre-2010.
If you approach slowly and put your passenger tire in the groove to the right, you can climb right up this obstacle. If you are unlucky and put your tire too far to the right, you can easily roll over into the crack. This is a good location to use a spotter.
12: Bypass Rejoins (7.5mi)
The Unsurvivable bypass rejoins the trail up here near a cattle guard. The bypass comes in from the left (west) There is very limited foliage to hide behind should you need an undergarment change after the obstacle. But, the cattle guard is a good landmark that you have completely cleared this obstacle.
13: 4 way Intersection FR#4432/FR#4496 (8.5mi)
Two Forest Service roads intersect with FR#736 here in a rather large confusing intersection. FR#4432 is the first you encounter which heads off to the south and dead ends at Cherry Tank. About 150' further up (Stay straight) FR#4496 heads off to the west/Northwest. The top shows this road heading all the way back down to civilization in Catalina, and also linking up with FR#4495, you can explore this road if you care to. Both roads are clearly marked.
14: Dispersed Camp Spot (9.1mi)
To the left, is another non-descript flat spot and fire ring. Very nice views of the western slope and valleys below.
15: Unknown Road Camp Spot Likely (9.3mi)
Stay left. To the right, is a road unmarked on the topo map which appears to head down into a heavily wooded wash area. One would expect there to be a camp spot down under the trees. The road looks almost as well traveled as the main road.
16: Geographic Charouleau Gap (10.4mi)
This is the actual geographic point of Charouleau Gap. A saddle between the western and eastern slopes. Don't congratulate yourselves just yet. From here, many choose to return down the western slope as the most challenging part of the trail is ahead. This is a great spot for lunch as there are some oak trees up here for shade. There is a cattle guard here that makes for a good "I'm in Charouleau Gap" photo.
You can also look back down the western slope for a nice view of the climb just made and Oro Valley in the distance.
The Samaniego Ridge trail intersects to the right and actually looks wide enough to have been a road at one time. This trail leads up to the top of Mount Lemmon and Summer Haven which is the end of the Mount Lemmon Control Road trail.
17: FR#4494 & Deepest "V" Washout (11.1mi)
This is an insanely deep "V" near the intersection with FR#4494. You will have to carefully straddle this obstacle as the drop off would tip you onto your door if you drop a wheel down into it. You may want to consider a ground guide here. It's not required. but makes good sense Stay right and straddle the "V" as you descend down from the Gap onto the eastern slope shelf road.
From here you will drop quite a bit of altitude as you descend into the Canada Del Oro Canyon (which means Canyon of Gold) but other than the washouts, there is not much to be concerned about. There are several spots to pass if you encounter an ascending vehicle - which of course, has the right of way. Most of the shelf though is little more than a vehicle width, so a sharp eye down the trail is a good idea to see if an ascent is in progress.
18: FR#4493 (12.1mi)
Stay right. A sharp left turn up the hill leads to Pig Spring. The topo says it is a short road and dead ends near the spring. Stay right and continue down the hill on the shelf road.
19: Red Ridge Trailhead (13.5mi)
Continue Straight. This is part of the Arizona trail and heads back up the mountain side to the top of Mount Lemmon. Seems like an odd spot to be shuttled to for use of the trail, but it crosses the road here, in the base of the valley.
20: 4x4 Warning sign (13.6mi)
You had better heed this warning. If you have them, smacking your rock rails is highly likely here. If you don't have 'em...Well, you should have some. This welded sign was placed here by the Tucson Rough Riders and pretty much marks the part of the trail that will become much more serious. A wonderful boulder garden awaits you here.
The boulders are 12" - 36" here and when the Canada Del Oro has water in it, Navigation and spotting through this area becomes more tricky. At different times the river bottom can be dry, however, the boulders don't get any smaller.
21: Mine Road (13.7mi)
This road leads off to a bunch of shafts and prospects off to the right. Some old dead trees help mark the spot. The topo shows this as a pack trail to the top of a hill at 4,983'.
22: The Car Wash (13.8mi)
The "Car Wash" is another well-known obstacle on the Charouleau Gap Trail. This is the actual headwater section of the Canada Del Oro River/Wash and as such, occasionally has water in it up to 40" deep. This is a particular concern should you be in this canyon during Southern Arizona monsoons in June, July, and August. It's difficult to find a good location to provide spotting as you'll be standing in some cool mountain water.
There are several very rocky boulder gardens to cross until you actually drop down into the river bottom. The Car Wash obstacle is only about 150 yards long and exits out to the right, ascending a small challenging rocky hill.
If you are unsure of your skill at navigating this kind of terrain, this is a good spot to turn around.
23: Unknown Hill Climb Spot (14.0mi)
This is a steep hill that crests and turns a sharp left. (which you may not be able to see over your hood) There is another unmarked road that heads up the hill to the right. The Trail continues over and down to the left. Neither of these roads is marked on the topo.
24: Coronado Camp (14.7mi)
This was a small camp area that housed miners in the early part of the 20th century. Not much history remains other than a single adobe wall atop a large concrete pad. It's a shame that time, vandals and a fire in 2005 have all but erased this spot from the map. In the 1980s, this cabin still had a roof and four walls. click here for an old comparison Evidence of recent camping on the concrete is apparent. This is a relatively flat, very heavily forested area near a deep wash which you will have to cross.
25: Steep Boulder Descent (14.7mi)
The road down from Coronado Camp's ruins has eroded out along the wash bank. There are two lines (Each of which is doable) The one to the right involves a pretty fair sized boulder scramble down, and the one to the left is a bit easier, but may still require a spotter assist.
26: The Steps (14.9mi)
Stay left. (The wash bottom to the right leads to this obstacle). This is an entirely optional obstacle that isn't even on the main trail any longer. This is basically a 4-5' vertical climb, with some slight chance right and left lines that many would never attempt. This is basically a highly modified vehicle obstacle or even a rock buggy climb. To find it, after you reach the second part of the wash, take the right "Y". (It's only about 150 yards to the "Steps". The Main trail continues left at the "Y".
Damage is likely, and recovery, extremely difficult as you are about in the middle of the trail. Think hundreds of dollars for a tow truck in here. On a recent excursion, Three Toyota Tacoma's were traveling in Charouleau Gap, one blew out its differential on the "Step" obstacle. This vehicle was immobile and was towed out with a strap. If you are alone, there is no cell service and if you could send for help, you could have real problems getting your rig out of here. A good recommendation is for a solid axle setup or very long travel capability vehicle to attempt this.
The wash continues to the north and rejoins the main trail.
27: Best Camping Spot (15.8mi)
This has to be the best camp spot on this trail, a nice smooth flat shaded by oak tree area to the right along a wash. You could put 10-15 tents in here.
28: The Bumper Eater (16.3mi)
This is the most complicated obstacle on the trail. It actually starts about 150' back from the tight 90 degree S turn. It is quite a bit more washed out than other parts of the Charouleau Gap Trail. Basically, you begin by staying high left to get over the first rocky outcrop (Where you can be high centered pretty easily if you go too far right).
After you are past this rock (Which really isn't that hard) you are faced with a hard left turn and are confronted with two paths: To the left is loose scree that will slide the back end of your vehicle into the big boulder at the left. The true path is to take the right side, where you have to skirt around another boulder directly in the middle of the trail. To the right, is a severe off-camber dirt wall that you must drive on around the rock in the middle of the trail. Then you are faced with a 3' shelf to climb.
At one time there was a tree at the end that you could winch against, but it's long since been pulled out of the ground so no help there.
This obstacle is probably the main reason you don't want to do this trail alone, as a spotter is highly recommended here.
29: Mine Access Road and Difficult Deep "V" Hill Climb
Immediately after the "Bumper Eater" obstacle, you must climb a 75' high hill that is deeply washed out. About 80% of the way up the hill, a passenger tire can drop into the "V" and flip a vehicle onto to the passenger side. It may save body panel damage to use a spotter at the top of the hill, (Which is quite significant in height)
The road at the top to the left is FR#4491, which leads to a bunch of mining activity off to the west.
30: FR#737 to Burn Tank (16.6mi)
Continue straight. Just another Forest Service road to the right that leads off to Burn Tank (FS#737). There is an FR#736 sign on the right side of the road just before you come to this intersection.
31: Dangerous Rocky Hill Climb (16.9mi)
Stay to the right side. Tire placement is very important. This is a rocky hill climb immediately across a small wash. If you have a locker, this might be the place to use it.
The line to take is to the far right - Then up to the left after climbing the initial 20'. This is a challenging obstacle/hill climb and if you try to go up the left side at the beginning, you cross a very deep wash crossing and the rollover danger is very real. If you are unsure of how to tackle this, ask for a spotter to guide you.
At the top of this Hill to the left is FR#4488 which eventually leads you to the University of Arizona Biosphere II campus.
32: Gate At Top of Switchbacks (17.9mi)
This gate, which is a seemingly odd spot at the crest of a ridge after you negotiate some tight switchbacks, is normally closed. Be careful with your footing up here when you debark to open /close the gate, it's steep terrain with some loose scree. This gate is normally closed, please leave it that way after you pass.
33: Escalator Top (18.0mi)
Another signature obstacle on the Charouleau Gap trail is the "Escalator" (Sometimes referred to as the "Elevator"). A very steep hill that descends 600 feet in 0.3 of a mile. Expect a 30% down bubble on your inclinometer. Be sure your brakes are in good shape. A better technique is to drop into 1st gear low transfer and use the engine as a brake. It will still be a tad unnerving as your engine RPMs climb ferociously. For some, pucker factor may be high.
34: Escalator Bottom (18.3mi)
You made it. But now there's a three-way fork to deal with!. FR# 7705 crosses here (Though the topo only shows it going to the right) in the Dodge Wash. Continue Straight on FR#736 and you will start to climb out of the bottom. As you climb, look back over your shoulder at the amazing hill you just descended. (Or, if you are coming this way, lament at the giant hill you are about to climb).
35: Shortcut Road (20.3mi)
Stay Right. There is a closed gate here, leading to a road that shortcuts FR#736 a short distance. It's much straighter, but considerably rougher. By this point, you'll be happy to stay on FR#736.
36: Dead End Hill (20.4mi)
Stay right. Just before you descend into the Irene Wash (where a windmill will be on your right) there is a road that leads up a hill. This is likely a dead end just up to the hilltop as it is not shown on the topo.
37: Unknown Road (20.7mi)
Stay right, A nondescript road that looks like a two track leads off to the left. This may be a short cut to the town of Oracle, it's terminus does not show on the topo map. you are climbing along the edge of Oracle Hill here (on your right).
38: Coronado Forest Boundary Gate (21.4mi)
Stay right, The gate at this intersection is normally closed, please close the gate once you have passed it. To the left is a shortcut that leads out to the Oracle water tank. To the right is the continuation of FR#736 that leads to the air up spot.
39: RoughRiders Sign (21.7mi)
Make a left turn here - Straight ahead leads to FR#4487 toward the San Pedro River valley. There is a large metal placed by the Tucson Roughriders here.
40: Air Up - Staging Trail END (21.8mi)
About a 1/2 acre, open dirt area awaits at the end of the trail. This is where you would air back up because on the other side of the gate is pavement. This gate is normally closed, please close the gate upon your exit from the Charouleu Gap trail.
41: Callas Dr and N Viento Dr (TURN L) (21.9mi)
The next few Waypoints are not actually part of the trail, however, it can be quite confusing getting out of the neighborhood where the Charouleau Gap trail ends. These waypoints give the most direct route to the intersection with American Way and connecting trail: The Mount Lemmon Control Rd Trail Close the gate and head north for about 1 10th of a mile to the intersection of Callas Drive (Charouleau Gap Road) and North Viento Drive. Turn left here at the "T" onto North Viento Drive.
42: 3 -Way Fork - Becomes N Estil Drive (22.3mi)
This is an interesting 4 street intersection that presents as a three-fingered fork when going south. The roads are North Viento Drive, North Estill Drive and East Nuestro Street (Which you won't be on). If you stay left, the road becomes North Estill Drive. Alternatively, If heading south to start the trail from the eastern end, you would stay at the far right fork. (North Viento Drive)
43: E Maplewood St and N Estill Dr (22.6mi)
Turn left. This is a "T" intersection at East Maplewood Street. You will know you are in the right place when you see the big granite rock, typical of many others in Oracle. Turn left here for about 100 yards.
44: N College Dr and W Maplewood Street (22.6mi)
Turn right, After about 100 yards, East Maplewood Street ends at a 90-degree bend to the right. There is a road to the southwest shown on the topo map but that is just a private driveway. Turn right onto North College Drive to the final waypoint.
45: N College Dr and W American Ave (END) Connect to MT. Lemmon Trail (22.7mi)
This is the "T" connection with North College Drive and West American Way. There is a large white church here as a landmark. To the right will take you to the Mount Lemmon Control Road, or alternatively, through Oracle back to Highway 77. To the left, will return to some convenience stores for fuel and Highway 77. (Yes American Way intersects Highway 77 twice).
This trail is open year round, even when there is snow blanketing the pass.
Though the majority of this trail is on Coronado National Forest, some of this trail crosses Arizona State Land so a permit is required.
Camping and Lodging
Catalina State Park is close to the Catalina trail head/end. Tent and RV sites are available. Many hotels and resorts are near this area as well in Tucson along Oracle Road.
Questions & Answers