Guest post by Mitch Stevens
I’m Mitch Stevens, founder and lead guide for Southwest Discoveries, a hiking and adventure company based in Tucson. Born and raised in New York City, I came to discover the great outdoors and fell in love with Arizona’s special places. My favorite hikes in Tucson include the following wondrous adventures, some of the most awesome treks in the southwest.
For part one in this series, click here.
Simply put, the Red Ridge loop is one of the most beautiful summer hikes in Arizona. In the middle of a desert summer, a group of us embarked on this 14-mile jaunt in the cool pines atop Mt. Lemmon, just north of Tucson. We dropped over 3,000 feet to the floor of the Canada Del Oro drainage. In the near distance stood Rappel Rock, Samaniego Peak and Cathedral Rock. These landmarks appeared even more mysterious and intriguing than usual because of a fine layer of fog which enveloped the mountain.
The route wandered through a landscape of lush forest, as well as burned trees, a reminder of the fires that raged through this area ten years ago. The forest has made an impressive recovery and in many of the burned areas there was beautiful new growth, including wildflowers. Many people hike Mt. Lemmon each year and explore the front side of it on trails such as Wilderness of Rocks and Marshall Gulch but few actually explore the northern backside. Here, where few hikers tread, the Canada del Oro canyon was lush and full of life with water roaring through it. The splendor was mesmerizing.
Massive old Ponderosa Pines, Douglas Firs, Cypress and grapevines cloaked the creek bottom. The scenery was reminiscent of a blend between the Colorado Rockies and the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. A few storms rolled in but for the most part the rain was light and we stayed dry. However, nearby thunder was ominous. As we approached the Red Ridge trail junction, the vegetation changed. We started to see more oak, juniper, huge sycamore trees and blooming yucca, an impressive succulent plant.
To the west rose tilted cliffs of granite known as Reef of Rocks. Tucked into a ravine in the rock face stood an impressive waterfall; an effect of over twelve inches of rain which had pounded Mt. Lemmon during the previous thirty days. Red Ridge is named for an iron bearing formation which gives off a rusty tint from the oxidation of iron during natural weathering. The final three miles to the Red Ridge trailhead is strenuous. In fact, the grade is steep and unrelenting at times. But if you pace yourself, before long you’ll be back in the cool pines and aspens on your way to the top of Mt. Lemmon.
A word of caution, this is not a hike for couch potatoes; it is long and strenuous. Drink plenty of water before and during this hike. Don’t forget the electrolytes and include lots of snacks. You’ll need it!
With dad’s ashes, two days’ worth of water, food and gear, my pack weighing well over forty pounds, I trudged up the mountain, saving my energy for the big push near the end. My father asked me several years ago to scatter his remains on a beautiful mountaintop. He passed away three weeks prior to this trip and to honor him; I chose one of the best hiking trails near Tucson and most spectacular sky islands in Arizona, Rincon Peak.
The steepness of the trail and terrain was unrelenting but the views were outstanding. We started out in desert scrub and hiked through a riparian forest featuring huge oaks, cypress and sycamore trees. But there was no water to be found. It had been a very dry year and all of the springs and creeks had dried up. Despite the arid conditions, we observed colorful wildflowers such as blooming cacti and radiant coral bean plants in full blossom.
We ascended through junipers and pinyon pine trees, typical of mid elevation altitudes in southern Arizona. As we climbed higher, massive Manzanita shrubs flourished, some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.
As we climbed, my mind drifted once again to my dad. Towards the end of his life when he was fading in and out, he gathered his family around him and with tears in his eyes; he admitted that although my dad was difficult to deal with at times, he never meant it. To a man who hardly expressed emotion, this was profound. It was his way of completing and saying he loved us.
We reached the summit of Rincon Peak. Atop this isolated peak in southeastern Arizona, I gazed upon a landscape which struck awe, resonated beauty, and took in one of the most biologically diverse corners of the world. The landscape encompassed subtropical oaks, soaring pine-clad cliffs, and undulating hills of grassland and forest.
One hundred miles north of here, the massive Colorado Plateau and Rocky Mountains jut into central Arizona with their snow-clad peaks, thick forests and deep canyons. The Mogollon Rim lies at the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. In the opposite direction, 150 miles to the south, the Sierra Madre Occidental of Mexico, another great mountain system in North America, gives way just before reaching the Arizona New Mexico border. The ecosystem there is different from the sky islands, different from the Rockies, and adapted to warmer temperatures with strong connections to the tropical latitudes of the Western Hemisphere. The mountain ranges of the Sky Island Region exhibit the north south overlap of these two major mountain systems which span the temperate and subtropical latitudes.
From atop Rincon Peak, I released my dad’s ashes into the wind. His remains have melded with the elements of the ages, the rain, the earth, the wind, the water. Perhaps after good monsoon storms, his ashes flowed through rushing waters down the mountain and eventually merged with the San Pedro or Santa Cruz, the Gila, the Colorado and into the sea. Storms will again rain on the land and the cycle will repeat once more.
On Monday, the last of the 5 amazing Tucson hiking spots will be revealed. Visit www.SouthwestDiscoveries.com for more information.
Founder and Lead Guide for Southwest Discoveries
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