Every day hundreds of people drive by the Coyote Mountains without ever suspecting that less than ten miles away lies a hidden valley lined with sheer rock faces rising hundreds of feet. This valley is called Mendoza Canyon, and from it many of the cliffs and domes can be reached by the determined soul. Also known as the "Coyote Domes," the area is less than an hour from Tucson, but a combination of factors conspire to make this a place which is rarely visited. First, there is only one main trail which leads into the canyon, and even this grows itinerant and hard to find after a couple of miles. Also, access is sometimes restricted (see below), and the dates of restriction have changed in the past.
Mendoza Canyon, seen across a sea of cholla cacti.
Nevertheless, the Coyote Domes are absolutely worth a trip. One of the largest of these is called Elephant Dome, and its imposing south face towers more than a thousand feet above the desert below. It boasts an airy, run-out 5.7 route on this face, an easier line (5.5) up the east wall, and a number of other routes both tried and unexplored. Furthermore, there are a myriad of other climbs that can be reached from Mendoza Canyon, which provides access to the area.
The Coyote Mountains wilderness can be found just east of Kitt Peak. To get there from Tucson, drive west on Ajo Way (Highway 86) for about 15 miles to Robles Junction (Three Points) and then turn left/south on Highway 286. Continue for eight more miles to the King Anvil Ranch (There is an earlier sign that says "King Ranch" - this is not the turn you want). Turn right at King Anvil, and you will almost immediately encounter the ranch. Go through the ranch house yard, then stop and sign in at the Arizona State Fish and Game register. You'll also need a pass to put in your vehicle - they're at the sign in. Don't forget to return it when you come back and sign out.
Now go through the gate and drive west across Brawley Wash. Shortly after you come out of the wash you're going to take a right onto another dirt road; the one you want to take is about 3/4 of a mile after the sign in. Turn right and continue to near the mouth of the canyon. There are a number of dirt roads and tracks in this area, and it can be somewhat confusing getting to your goal. Take a copy of the topo and just keep heading toward Mendoza Canyon - the domes will become more visible the closer you get. After you've gone about six miles on this road, it will reach a fence. There's a road right after the fence; drive over the cattle guard and take an immediate right. You should be in a cleared parking area with a firepit, cattle pens, and a sign across another fence that states "foot access only." Park here. Past the fence there is an itinerant trail heading up Mendoza Canyon and toward the domes.
It's possible that navigating this area will change as access issues arise and as new roads are created and others are closed off. I try to stay current, so if you have new information about the access, please let me know.
There's some red tape to be found here. While the Mendoza Canyon area itself is not on private land, the only reasonable access is through King Anvil Ranch, which IS private. The access road, which runs through the ranch, is currently closed from March 1 - August 26. Arizona Game and Fish officials have stated that the road is open at other times, primarily to give hunters access to the area. When the road is open you still must sign in and get a pass at the gate, which is just past the ranch. The owners are generous enough to let folks drive through their property to get to Mendoza Canyon, so please be respectful of their property and their wishes.
For access status or questions, call the AZ Fish and Game Dept. at 520-628-5376.
When To Climb
The altitude in Mendoza Canyon - which is the main approach to the Coyote Domes - averages around 3600 feet. The area can be cooler than Tucson, but generally is only marginally so. So late spring, summer and early fall are probably undesirable - and the road through King Anvil Ranch is closed over most of the spring and summer anyway. You're liable to find the most pleasant temperatures here in November, December, and January.
While a climb of Elephant Dome doesn't take more than a day, camping is possible near the dome. You also can camp in Mendoza Canyon itself, but make sure that you don't camp on the private land that comprises the King Anvil Ranch. The easiest way to make sure is to not camp anywhere short of the trailhead itself. Once you start up the trail to Mendoza Canyon, any of the spots you see should be fair game.
While Elephant Dome and the other rocks in its complex are indeed comprised of granite, it's not the hardest form of granite you'll ever encounter. A number of people who signed the summit log complained of yanking out handholds and of the routes being loose. I personally broke off a couple of good-sized chunks myself on the way up. Take the proper precautions!