Southern Arizona Trails

In the Mountains of the Southwest

Arizona's southeastern ranges consist of the Santa Catalina, Rincon, Santa Rita, and Chiricahua Mountains. Each of these is an"island" range, rising out of a surrounding sea of desert and grassland to heights in excess of 8,000 9,000 feet. With their broad latitudinal sweep, some parts of these mountains provide enjoyable hiking during every month of the year. Lower elevations are warm (hot in summer), dry, studded with cacti, and, in spring and fall, awash with colorful wildflowers. In the middle regions you will find pretty forests of silverleaf oak, pinyon pine, and alligator juniper, while the heights are crowned with ponderosa pine, Mexican white pine, Douglas fir, quaking aspen, and, in the Chiricahua Mountains, Engelmann spruce.

Trips in the Santa Catalina and Chiricahua mountains lie within the Pusch Ridge Wilderness, the Chiricahua Wilderness, and Chiricahua National Monument, respectively, while those in the Santa Rita Mountains explore the Mount Wrightson Wilderness. The Rincon Mountains backcountry lies within Saguaro National Park and has been set aside as wilderness by the National Park Service. Hikers will be glad to learn that cattle grazing is no longer permitted in any of these areas.

The present rugged relief of this section of the state is the result of massive thrusting and faulting that has been going on since at least the beginning of the Cenozoic era some 70 million years ago. Structurally, that relief is even greater than it appears to be, since eons of erosion have filled the valleys between the mountains with thousands of feet of alluvial deposits; today, some of the ranges are so deeply awash in this alluvium that they barely manage to poke up out of their own debris.

The areas covered here are essentially devoid of valuable mineral deposits. There is no particular geological reason for this, however — it merely reflects the sad fact that only those few areas that were mineral-free have survived as official wilderness. An exception to this is the Santa Rita Mountains, where there are quite a few active mines. (The Mount Wrightson Wilderness, however, contains only a few, presently inactive workings.)


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