December 29, 2010

From Saguaros to Snow: Climbing to the Summit of Mount Lemmon, AZ

Staying at Catalina State Park in Oro Valley, you sit among saguaros and palo verdes at 2,600 feet staring at a steep verticle escarpment of the Santa Catalina Mountains rising to over 9,000 feet above you. While it may be a comfortable 75 degrees in winter here, there are coniferous forests clad in an icy whiteness above.

Sunset on Saguaros at Catalina State Park

Being the Sky Island fanatic that I am, I just couldn't take looking at those forests any longer. We stayed 2 weeks here last year and I never went up to the summit. I decided that I just HAD to go up to the summit this time to see it for myself. So, on Christmas Day, I left Linda and Hilina behind and headed up for my own personal "White Christmas".

The desert grassland ecosystem begins at around 4,000 feet

To get there, I had to drive all the way around the mountain, into Tucson, and then hop onto the Catalina Highway that begins a 29-mile climb to the top of Mount Lemmon. It is a spectacular drive full of scenic pull-outs, lots of hiking trails, and several campgrounds. As you ascend, you migrate through a series of life zones. At around 4,000 feet you leave the saguaros of the Sonoran desert behind and enter the desert grasslands, dotted with scrub oak and small junipers.

The shadowy north-slopes have trees. Not so much on the sunny south-slopes.

As you rise up to around 6,000 feet the north/south aspect starts to make a real difference in the vegetation. On the north-facing slopes that get more shade, coniferous forests of pinyon pine, Alligator juniper and Arizona cypress forests dominate. On the sun-exposed south-facing slopes, the grasses and shrubs still predominate. At around 7,000 feet pine forests begin.

Upon arriving at the Mount Lemmon Ski Area at 8,100 feet, I saw the first snow on the ground. This is the southernmost Ski Area in the United States and only one near Monterrey, Mexico is further south in the entire continent. However, the viability of the ski area is very dependent on the weather conditions out here. For instance, there had been a drought and thus on December 23rd the first snowfall of the season occurred. But, since most of it fell as rain before it got cold enough to snow, only about 1-2" of snow stuck. Need more than that to start skiing.

You can see the fire scars on the Douglas firs near the summit

They had closed the road 1.5 miles from the summit. So, I parked at the gate and took off on foot for the final 1,000 vertical feet to the top. The snow was patchy and slick, depending on whether it was in a sunny spot or a shady spot. The temperatures were in the mid-40's up here, as opposed to the low-70's down below. But, the sun was warm on my face and the views spectacular.

A large Douglas fir amongst a forest of firs and pines.

Above 7,000 feet the forests were dominated by Ponderosa pine, Arizona pine, Southwestern white pine, and Chihuahua pine. But, in the 8,000-9,000 foot range the forest shifts to one dominated by Douglas fir, with lots of white fir, some aspen, as well as, several pine species. One species not present apparently are the Englemann spruce that are found on nearby Mount Graham. The southernmost stand of that species is on Chiricahua Peak. Some of the Douglas firs are absolutely enormous. In fact, probably the largest ones I have seen in Arizona. They are not as tall as in the Pacific Northwest, but many are quite thick.

A view of the Rincon Mountains (center)
with the Huachuca Mts. (far right) and Dragoon Mts. (left) in distance.

I had planned on doing a 6+ mile loop across the "Wilderness of the Rocks". But, having to do an extra 3 miles just to get to the trailhead and back made me alter those plans. Instead I did a 3-mile mile loop around the summit area and to Lemmon Rock, where an old fire lookout still stands.

A view down to the Wilderness of Rocks (the bowl) and Lemmon Canyon dropping into Tucson
with the Santa Rita Mountains beyond

From up on the rocks near the summit, the panoramic views of the Madrea Sky Islands are spectacular. I was able to see virtually every mountain range in Southern Arizona in all directions and even some of the Sky Islands of Northern Mexico.

The Wilderness of Rocks down below

In 2003, the Aspen Fire burned much of the Mount Lemmon area, including the vacation village of Summerhaven, located at 7500 feet. While it certainly did a number on the village and devastated parts of the mountain, the burning was actually pretty patchy. Some areas burned completely. But, just about everywhere you look you can see islands of live trees. In the dense forest stands, all of the trees have fire scars indicating ground fires burned through the area, but the forest survived intact. There are lots of seed trees available for the rebirth of this forest.

Summerhaven has been rebuilt from the ashes of the 2003 fire

On the image below, you can see the highest of the Madrean Sky Islands, Mount Graham, located at nearly 11,000 feet elevation in the Pinalero Range in the distance. It has a number of astonomical observatories on its summit of spruce-fir forests. It is home to the endemic Ice Age relict Mount Graham Red Squirrel. The shorter range in-between is the 7,500 foot Galiuro Range.

Notice the mix of burned and unburned forests from the 2003 fire.

Also on the image above, you can see the live trees who survived the fire. This is actually what forest fires should do. Except, due to a century of fire suppression, this fire probably burned hotter and killed more trees than it would have historically. But, it is clear that this fire was not a completely devastating event. There are enough intact stands to restore the forest in a reason amount of time.

Notice the Abert's Squirrel in the middle
As you can see on the image above, in the shadowy draws, the forest is dense and dark. Stands of aspen thrive here amongst white firs and Douglas firs. The snow here was the thickest and fluffiest, since it never sees the sun in the winter time.

Click on this panorama I made to see it in more detail

I put together a panorama of all of the Madrean Sky Islands in Arizona to the south from the 9,000 foot summit of Mount Lemmon. Unfortunately for some reason related to downloading it I guess, when you click on it, it doesn't go to full size like it should. It is only to about 40% of the size it should be. But, if you expand it you can at least get a sense for how many of these forested sky islands exist above the Sonoran Desert.

Remember this picture from last February of hiking in the Santa Rita's?

We have been to many of the sky islands including the 9,700 foot summit of Chiricahua Peak, Chiricahua National Monument, the Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita's and to Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoon Mts., Sycamore Canyon in the Tumacacori Highlands and hiking on Mount Graham. The Madrean Sky Islands extend south into Mexico until forming the continuous high plateau of the Sierra Madre Occidental, which averages around 9,000-10,000 feet in elevation. I'd love to go down there some day and check it out. Perhaps when the drug cartels calm down enough to make tourism safe again.

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