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Otherworldly Arizona: a hiking story

Deserts
Liane Ehrich

In southern Arizona people talk about going "up to the mountains" all the time to get cool, or see 'fall' or chase spring well into June. Tucsonans know that the southern Arizona landscape rises from lower Sonoran plant communities to aspen forests in a span of half a dozen miles and 6000'. But for many people, this is not the norm.

A terrain that changes from one entire landscape to another in a matter of miles is completely foreign.

For a wonderful perspective from an outside source, what follows is an account from a Colorado hiker who found himself enthralled with something that is perhaps too easy to take for granted.

Deserts
Deserts Liane Ehrich

Deserts

The desert can be an inhospitable place – arid landscapes, unforgiving heat by day and bone-chilling cold at night, dangerous creatures that can bite and sting and plants that can double for use in a torture chamber. A trip to Tucson some years ago profoundly changed my mind about hiking in the desert.

I’m no stranger to the desert, having hiked parched trails from the likes of San Diego’s eastern hills to the rocky canyons of Texas’ Amarillo and Rio Grande areas. I’ve even done some day hiking in Phoenix’s metropolitan trails (Camelback to be exact). But my experience in Southern Arizona, was otherworldly and bizarre.

On a work trip to Tucson for an annual meeting (February), I decided to come-in a couple days early to solo-hike the mountains. I had been to Tucson a couple of times before on family vacations growing up, but I’ve never hiked the higher altitudes of any of the many mountain ranges that ring the valley.

Trail: Tanque Verde Trail, Rincon Mountain District

Location: Saguaro National Park East, Tucson, Arizona

Distance: 6.3 miles (13.9 roundtrip)

Trailhead: Javelina Picnic Area (parking lot)

Elevation Gain: 2,842 feet

Level: Moderate to strenuous (depending on time of year)

Mega-flora
Mega-flora Liane Ehrich

Mega-flora

I started the hike at a good pace, eager to get my trail legs moving, but was slowed by a bleeding nose. It would be a couple of hours before the dry air stopped its assault on my nasal passages. The blood that didn’t land on my shirt seemed to be instantly absorbed by the thirsty ground.

I only had enough water to make it to the top. If it were summer, I’d have to take twice the water. I knew there were springs on the top, so I felt confident I could refill my water there.

The views were amazing. The trail wound through desert scrub and then through a few miles of cacti and succulents, each saguaro different from the next. Some bore scars of animals or bad weather. They began to tower over me. At some point you can view the valley and Tucson sprawled out before you and a great view of the surrounding mountains.

After a couple of miles the scenery begins to change. This is where it got weird. I entered the land of what I like to call “mega-flora”. There I saw 20-foot tall ocotillo that looked like bundles of lightning coming out of the ground, frozen in time. Cholla cacti that were only a few feet tall at the beginning of the hike had bigger cousins that were almost 9 feet tall here. I felt like I could have been hiking on another planet.

Pine forest
Pine forest Liane Ehrich

Pine forest

I passed maybe 5 people on my way up the Rincon Ridge that day. Solitude! Exactly what I wanted. The sun was sagging lower in the sky. I was down to my last few drops of water. Not yet desperation but I began to second-guess myself. I recalled all those stories of people dying in the wilderness, alone. The kind of story you read about and say, “What an idiot”. Now I was that idiot. I didn’t leave a trip plan with anyone. “At least I checked in with the Park Station.” I blurted out loud. Talking to myself when hiking alone is a regular occurrence (See related post “When Left Alone With Your Thoughts”). Reassuring myself out loud seemed to give me some comfort.

Then, as I rounded a bend in the trail, I spied the second wonder of my trek (the first being the “mega-flora”). A pine forest! To the uninitiated, this is a bizarre sight. There in the middle of the desert, after hiking through arid landscapes of cacti with no water in sight, I saw a forest of sweet-smelling pine and a babbling stream that cut across my path, as if to say, “Here you go buddy, fill up your water here. It’s okay. You can relax now.”

The sun was quickly setting. I did a cursory hike around the top of the mountain and saw a young couple busy with dinner preparations. I was bone-tired. I didn’t stop to make their acquaintance. They never saw me and at the time, I didn’t feel like being seen. I skirted their camp and found a small sand and grass clearing perfect for my one-man tent.

Approaching the clearing I remembered a sign warning about bears and mountain lions. There was a bear box near the young campers, but I didn’t want to bother them. I only had some trail bars anyway. “What would a bear want with me?” I thought.

Way back
Way back Liane Ehrich

Way back

I didn’t sleep much that night. The temperature plunged below freezing. Unfortunately I didn’t pack the right rated sleeping bag. I lay shivering thinking about my next gear purchase (a new sleeping bag) and mumbling something about “never doing this again”. Then I heard it, the rustle just outside my tent. It was a bear for sure. I made a coughing sound and the bear decided I wasn’t worth the time. Relax.

The sudden pitter-patter of rain woke me with the first rays of muted sunshine. I managed at least a couple hours of sleep before breaking camp and heading back down the trail. As it were, it rained the whole way back. With rain gear, it was bearable and even a little bit relaxing with the rhythmic rainfall on my jacket.

Tanque Verde Peak
Tanque Verde Peak Liane Ehrich

Tanque Verde Peak

It wasn’t until much later, when I had the time to think about my trek, that I started piecing together the events. I pondered the mistakes I made. Hindsight is indeed 20/20. There I was alone, in my tent, with a blood-soaked shirt and a half-eaten trail bar in my front pocket. I would have surely been a tasty treat for a much bolder bear that night. The younger campers would have simply thought that a couple of animals were fighting, IF they heard my screams. I’d do it again in a heartbeat though.

Sherpa Bill is a frequent contributor and personality behind All Peak, a community for peak enthusiasts and brand for casual, peak-inspired t-shirts and collectibles for men, women and happy trail dogs. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.