SKY ISLANDS OF ARIZONA
Mountain Islands in Desert Seas
The Sky Islands are distinct mountain ranges that rise from the floor of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. The elevation of the Sonoran Desert is about 2400 feet above sea level, while these mountain ranges reach up to 10,000.
The Santa Catalina Mountains are practically surrounded by Tucson on the west and south, with Catalina and Oracle to the north. They offer residents a respite from summer heat on Mt Lemmon (9157'), with rental cabins available, and picnic areas throughout. The southernmost ski resort in the United States Ski Valley is located near Summerhaven at almost 9000 feet. Rose Canyon at 7000 feet offers camping and fishing. The Catalinas are a winter mecca for road biking and world class rock climbing. Moto-cyclists (with GoPro equipped helmets) have been known to scare motorists and scrape pegs in hairpin curves on the 35MPH mountain road on crowded weekends. Activities include Seven Cataracts for rappels, Windy Point and practically any pullout for climbing, and Sabino Canyon for a desert riparian experience. Nearby Tucson attractions include Catalina State Park with pictographs along equestrian and hiking trails. With a car shuttle, a strenuous hike up to Romero Pools will connect to Sabino Canyon bisecting the range. Biosphere 2 is located nearby. Don't miss the night exhibits or raptor feeding at the Sonoran Desert Museum. The Arizona Historical Society and Arizona State Museum are located on the beautiful University of Arizona campus. Local artist Ettore "Ted" Degrazia's Gallery in the Sun on a 10-acre National Historic District site is definitely worth a visit.
The high point of the Santa Rita Mountains 40 miles south of Tucson is Mt. Wrightson/Mt. Baldy at 9453 feet above sea level. It's a straight forward 4000 foot/4.9 mile ascent to the summit on the Old Baldy Trail, or 8 miles on the gentle, sunny super Trail. Trails from the sough (Patagonia -Temporal Canyon), eastern approaches (Sawmill, Gardner), and the north (Florida) make combining routes easy. Local attractions include Patagonia, and Lake Patagonia, Hopkins Observatory, Madera Canyon hiking and birding, Titan Missile Museum, the Churrigueresque (ornate Spanish baroque) Mission San Zavier del Bac, and the historic sites of Tubac and Tumacacori. There was once a B&B called the Burro Inn located in a retired cold war missile silo. On weekends, the local Tohono O'Odham Indians sell delicious frybread at mesquite palapas at San Xavier. The Tumacacori Highlands is a wonderful and contentious 84,000 acres of the Coronado National Forest west of I-19, feeling pressure from Tucson urban expansion.
The Quinlan Mountains 55 miles southwest of Tucson are home to Kitt Peak Observatory (6880 ft). Locally known as the Baboquivari's for the range high point at 7730', this peak rises majestically from the southern part of the range for unobstructed 360 degree views. The peak is sacred to the Tohono O'Odham, and Reservation permission must be obtained before climbing the standard western route. Take plenty of water and a standard 60m rope for the Ladder Pitch, and plan for a long day on this 16 mile roundtrip hike.
The Huachuca Mountains are 70 miles southeast of Tucson west of Arizona's third largest city Sierra Vista. Miller Peak at 9466' is the range highpoint. You can enjoy a scenic strenuous hike to the summit, or drive within an hour of the top of nearby Carr Peak and save your energy for more sightseeing. Local attractions include world class birding at Ramsey canyon. Fort Huachuca, on the eastern slope was the home of the Buffalo Soldiers and the staging ground for state-of-the-art operations against Apache guerrillas. The base provenance continues with current state-of-the-art drone training. Bisbee and Tombstone are barely 20 miles east across the riparian wonders of the San Pedro River.
The Pinalenos are home to Mount Graham (10,720') and the Mount Graham Red Squirrel which in Arizona is only found down to an elevation of 10,000 feet above sea level. A controversy has raged for years pitting endemic Apache Indians against the methods and actions of the UofA and the Vatican in locating a telescope here.
The Chiricahua Mountains located 120 miles southeast of Tucson were the home range of a fierce band of Apaches. Geronimo was a powerful shaman in the band. These Indians cost the US Army millions of dollars to subdue in order to settle the Arizona Territory. In 1886, they eventually surrendered in nearby Skeleton Canyon, off the eastern escarpment, named for previous massacres. Nearby South Fork Canyon is listed as the number one prime raptor habitat, and a short drive through the range takes one to Chiricahua National Monument, a popular destination with 16 miles of hiking trails. The range was decimated in the 2011 Horseshoe Two fire. Chiricahua Peak is the high point at 9796'.