Living the High Life

Arizona Crest Trail
Arizona Crest Trail Practicalities
The route: This 15-mile hike starts at Montezuma Pass in the Coronado National Memorial and heads north. After reaching Pat Scott Canyon, continue 0.8 mile to a sign marked Gate 2. Here you have a choice of descending along either Scheelite Canyon or Sawmill Canyon to Garden Canyon Road (the distances are about the same) on the Fort Huachuca Military Reservation. Check current road conditions on the military reservation (520-533-7111); Garden Canyon Road is sometimes closed to vehicles because of rock slides.

Weather: In winter, modest amounts of snow can accumulate at the higher elevations, but during the day you can often hike in shorts and a T-shirt. Spring and fall are the most popular times of year for backpacking. In summer, long climbs and hot temperatures can be a distinctly uncomfortable combination.

For information: Sierra Vista Ranger District, Coronado National Forest, 5990 S. Highway 92, Hereford, AZ 85615, (520)378-0311. Coronado National Forest Map: Nogales and Sierra Vista Ranger's District ($4). Also recommended are Leonard Taylor's Hiker's Guide to the Huachuca Mountains ($7.50) and Hiker's Map of the Huachuca Mountains ($2). Call the ranger district for information on how to order. Overnight parking permits are required for the Coronado National Memorial (4101 E. Montezuma Canyon Road, Hereford, AZ 85615, (520)366-5515).

Getting there: The nearest big city is Tucson, from which it's about a two-hour drive to Montezuma Pass via I-10, Route 92, and the Coronado Memorial Road.

The peaks of southern Arizona look like what you'd get if you told a small child to make mountains in a sandbox: abrupt piles here and there separated by a flat sea of sand.

Rising from the Mexican-American border about halfway between the frontier towns of Douglas and Nogales, the Huachuca (Wa-chuke-ah) Mountains are a rugged range that tower almost a mile above the surrounding desert floor. Somewhere nearby, Coronado first entered what is today the United States. Today, you can look down on the same endless acres of brown desert and imagine the enormity — the audacity — of his challenge: to cross it, claim it, and conquer it.

Crest Trail 103 (some of which is now part of the border-to-border Arizona Trail) is your pathway to the sky. You can drive up to Montezuma Pass (elevation 5,359 feet) on a paved road, but after that get ready to climb, because the trail heads nearly 4,000 feet uphill, to the shoulder of 9,466-foot Mount Miller. (If you're not too tired by the time you earn the ridge, take the side trail to the craggy desert summit).

As every backpacker knows, gaining elevation means losing temperature. In sun-baked southern Arizona, that means respite from the heat. As you climb, you'll notice that the vegetation, too, appreciates the more comfortable environment of the higher slopes. Desert scrub thickens and pine forests appear, offering delicious pools of shade.

Typical southwestern sky-islands, the Huachucas poke into the clouds, drawing moisture and coolness, but are separated from other nearby ranges by an ocean of desert. As a result, you'll see the usual desert denizens like cholla and lizards, but if you're both lucky and observant, you might also see more elusive residents like mountain lions and bears, which are typically found much farther north, as well as the comical coatimundi, which are usually found only in Mexico. If you're a bird-watcher, you'll want to make a side trip to nearby Ramsey Canyon, a riparian corridor that annually attracts more than 200 species of migratory birds and several thousand bird-watchers. Wilderness designation (the southern Huachucas form the 20,190-acre Miller Peak Wilderness) protects both the fragile high Sonoran ecosystem and the hiking experience.

This is desert country, so plan water carefully. It's worth inquiring locally at the ranger station about current conditions at the seasonal springs and streams. And yes, there are rattlesnakes.


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