Living the High Life
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.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication