For two weeks in February, Gretchen Luepke and I visited her mother in Tucson, Arizona. While the Sierras are covered in snow and the Bay Area weather was cold and rainy, the weather in Tucson was warm and sunny. Tucson, a city surrounded by several mountain ranges, is a hikers heaven. Within a few minutes of the city there is every type of hiking anyone would want. Terrain includes perfectly flat hiking right in town along the Rillito (Spanish for little river) to various degrees of strenuousness in mountains ranging from 2,500 feet to almost 10,000 feet. In addition, there is plenty of technical rock climbing. Gretchen and I went out on three different hikes.
Geologically, Southern Arizona is what is know as basin and range country. This means that you have mountain ranges rising out of the flat basin areas. In some cases there are just individual mountains that look like they have been placed on a flat surface like chess pieces on a chess board. Tucson (elevation 2410') is located in an area known as the Sonoran Desert, an area that covers most of Southern Arizona and extends into the Mexican state of Sonora.
The flora on the Sonora desert is unlike anything else in the United States. On my first trip to Tucson several years ago, I walked around in awe, feeling like I had landed on another planet! Having lived in New York, Alabama, and the Bay area, I was more accustomed to broad leafed trees and pine trees.
In the Sonora desert the only trees you find are mesquite and palo verde. These are bush like plants that grow to about 10 feet in height. In size and structure, they are like the manzanita which we find in many of our Bay Area open spaces.
Many of the plants in the desert are cactuses. They come in all shapes and sizes. Most prominent is the saguaro (pronounced sow-war -owe), which is the stereotypical cactus that is always associated with the Western United States. It is the giant cactus with multiple arms. They often grow to over 15 feet in height and can be as old as 200 years. Although many cheap western films show these cactuses as being in Texas and Nevada, they only grow in the Sonoran Desert in Southern Arizona.
Other cactuses include the prickly pear that we have here in the Bay Area, the cholla(pronounced choy-yah), which has cute fuzzy-looking branches that are actually tiny sharp spines, and the barrel cactus which is shaped like a beer keg and has fish hook shaped spines on it. There are many other varieties as well.
At first the desert appears barren, but with a little experience, you learn to look for the small things such as different types of lizards scurrying about, the teddy bear cholla glistening in the sun. Appreciating the desert is a like appreciating a Beethoven symphony or fine Cabernet Sauvignon wines. It is a special place that is appreciated only after some study and hiking there several times.
Some people associate the desert with hazards such as poisonous snakes and Gila Monsters. However, much of these hazards are myths created by corny westerns or cheap science fiction movies. Poisonous snakes and Gila Monsters are there but in many cases they are elusive creatures that avoid confrontations with humans. According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum snakebite victims for 1995 were 95% male between 15 and 25 who were handling the snakes, 80% were white, 98% were drunk, 85% of bites were on the hand, and 90% of the victims had tattoos. So go figure how great the hazard is.
With regards to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum that I just mentioned, this is a great institution for learning about the natural history of the Sonoran Desert. On display here are all kinds of desert animals in natural habitats, plus geological and plant exhibits. If you are in Tucson, this museum is a must see.
Our first hike was on the David Yetman trail. This trail goes around Golden Gate Mountain, a 4288 Ft peak in the Tucson Mountains, a range to the northwest of Tucson. We hadn't set out to do this mountain, but were just passing by, saw the trail and decided to go on an impromptu hike. As is true of most of the trails in the Tucson Mountains, the Golden Gate Trail is basically a desert ramble with your usual assortment of prickly pear, cholla, and ocotillo (a spiny member of the lily family).
There are no trees to provide shade here. This is the land of mesquite and palo verde, of the saguaro, prickly pear, cholla, and hedgehog cacti, of creosote bushes, ocotillo, and catclaw.
The terrain is a jumble of boulders and craggy ridges and is of volcanic origin. Winter is the perfect time to hike here. In summer it becomes way too hot.
The trail itself has little elevation gain so I decided to go off trail and head straight up the peak. Going off trail and up a peak in the Sonora Desert can be tricky. Although there is plenty of space to step among the cactuses, you need to be careful not to actually bump into one. The spines on cactuses have a structure similar to fishhooks such that they enter the skin with ease, but are very difficult and painful to extract. The worst spines are the little hairlike ones found on the teddy bear cholla. You can hardly see them, but they are quit painful and can remain embedded in you skin for weeks.
I knew that we didn't actually have time to summit. It was late afternoon and we were expected home for dinner. When I went off trail, I headed straight up a chute for several hundred yards so that I at least could get a good view. I did a little of class 3 climbing. One needs be especially careful when doing this because cactuses can grow in the smallest of rock crevices.
As you gain elevation you can see Old Tucson Studios. Built in 1939 by Columbia Pictures for the filming of the first outdoor western, Arizona, the set has been home to many Westerns since then. Also the TV series Gunsmoke, High Chaparral, and Bonanza used this set. In the exact area where we were hiking, outdoor scenes in many westerns have been filmed because there are no power lines in the area. When you look out over the desert from a high elevation, it seems to stretch out endlessly.
Picacho Peak is a 3374' peak that rises majestically 2000' out of the Sonoran Dessert about 35 miles north of Tucson and is a state park. It is just off of I-10. Difficulty wise it is comparable to Mission Peak in the Bay Area. In the spring, there is a brilliant display of wildflowers, if there have been winter rains.
This peak is an extinct volcanic neck with a dual summit. When seen by moonlight, it looks like the Night on Bald Mountain. scene in Walt Disney's Fantasia. During a thunderstorm at night it is a quite a show!
We started out late and began hiking at 3:00 PM. Due to a 6:00 PM dinner engagement, we did not go all the way to the summit, but we had a great hike and had spectacular views. We decided to hike independently and I decided to turn around in 45 minutes. On this peak you take a trail up to a saddle between the dual peaks and them drop before ascending the taller left peak on the back side. There are lots of cables along a rocky trail. Many types of cactus grow out of the rocks. Gretchen made it up to the saddle and I made it partially up the peak on the back side. This was mostly class 1, but on the steeper parts was class 3. Our hike lasted about an hour and a half and was a nice little climb for an afternoon.
On Thursday, February 18 we climbed Mt. Kimball which is a 7258' peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Tucson's highest and most rugged mountain range. The trailhead was at 3100' and the trail is five miles long or 10 miles round trip. Elevation gain is 4158'. This hike is comparable to climbing Half Dome from Happy Isles due to similarities in elevation gain and elevations of trailhead and summit. Since I had not reached the summit on our other two hikes, I was determined to reach the top this time.
For the first mile or so, the trail is relatively flat and goes through an impressive forest-like stand of saguaro cactuses. After that the trail climbs relentlessly for the next four miles through a steep canyon. As the trail ascends in elevation, the flora changes. Saguaro cactuses disappear and then at the higher cooler elevations, the flora changes to pinon pine, juniper, manzanitas, and oak.
We started hiking at 11:19 AM and I summitted at 3:21 PM. I returned at 5:55 PM. Gretchen did not go all of the way, but she had a good 5 hour, 25 minute hike. She decided to turn around at 2:00 PM and returned at 4:45 PM. I summitted in 4 hours and took 2 hours, 25 minutes to return. I was absolutely exhausted and I drank water constantly for the next several hours.
This was a very exhausting day, but I had the satisfaction of reaching a goal. The views were worth every step and the scenery was spectacular. There are stark cliffs towering above tall pines. On the summit you can look out in all directions with views comparable to what you find in the Sierras. It is great to be able to do such a peak climb without a six hour drive.
Note: Some of the material in this report is taken from the book Tucson Hiking Guide, by Betty Leavengood (1997).