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Green Mountain Trail
Santa Catalina Mountains
November 1, 2003
by Chuck Parsons
Chuck, Joe, Darleen, and Doris at the trailhead.

It was a cool and overcast 65 degrees in Phoenix, as Joe Michalides, Darleen Lindquist, Doris Madueno, and I met at Einstein’s Bagels off of 48th Street & Ray Road at 7:00 AM on this Saturday morning to discuss our hike for the day. The record breaking, blistering summer of 2003 was now finally over, and we could at long last enjoy normal November days in the 70s. It would be even cooler in the higher elevations of the Santa Catalina Mountains on the northeast side of the city of Tucson, and we are all looking forward to a refreshing and cool hike in the mountains to purge our memories of the Summer of 2003.

As we make our way up the winding and picturesque Santa Cantalina Highway, it is not too long before we start to see stark evidence of this past summer’s devastating Aspen Fire, which destroyed 75,000 acres of giant saguaros, chaparral, and forest timber on the slopes of the Santa Catalinas. For mile after mile, as far as we can see from the roadside, we are witness to thousands of acres of hillsides and valleys stripped clean of virtually all vegetation, as the raging hot inferno that roared through here just a few short months ago wiped out almost every living thing in its path. It is a very sad sight to see, but nature is already slowly beginning its recovery and healing process, and we see scattered patches of green grasses starting to fill in some of the bare areas. However, it will take many, many years before the Catalinas look like they did before the fires of the past two years.

This is the second year of construction work on the Catalina Highway, with much of the old roadbed being totally removed and replaced with new pavement. We are soon down to the dirt and notice an absence of the usual milepost marker signs that have apparently been temporarily removed with all the roadwork going on. We are looking for the General Hitchcock Picnic Area & Campground between Mileposts 12 and 13, which will be the start of our hike today, but cannot seem to locate it. Traffic comes to a complete stop for construction, and I ask the occupants of the truck ahead of us about the General Hitchcock area and am informed that it, as well as the trail access, is now closed because of fire damage from the Aspen Fire. Construction crews have even removed all the signs.

Our original intention was to hike 3.7 miles uphill (1,300 feet of elevation gain) from the General Hitchcock Campground to the San Pedro Vista and return along the same route. After we finally start moving again, we look for the San Pedro Vista but instead soon find ourselves at a brand new parking area with a large green sign informing us this is the new trailhead for the Green Mountain Trail. The time is now 10:15 AM, as we all pile out of Darleen’s SUV and immediately start shivering in the 55-degree temperatures at this 7,000-foot elevation high on the eastern slopes of the Catalinas. We study the trailhead sign and decide on a 5.2-mile loop hike that takes in part of the original Green Mountain Trail, then a segment of the Crosscut Trail, before returning via the Brush Corral Trail.

A charred Ponderosa.
Stark evidence of the devastating 2003 Aspen Fire.

There is no question that we are in a recent burn area of the forest when we spot a prominent trail sign not too far from the trailhead, warning us about the dangers of falling trees and limbs and possible downed trees across the trail. We begin hiking uphill almost immediately, before leveling off and starting to see scattered burn areas throughout the forest. The fire seemed to be selective in this area, leaving a number of trees intact, while torching others. As we penetrate deeper into the forest, we see more damage and are forced to navigate around or over large burned trees lying across the trail and blocking our path.

Darleen and Doris stand near the remains
of another burned out Ponderosa.

Some are huge Ponderosa pines several feet in diameter – former forest giants now reduced to charred and blackened trunks or hollowed out, but still standing stumps.

We try to keep a sharp lookout for other burned or damaged trees that look as if they may fall over at any moment or for large branches and limbs that appear ready to snap and drop on the trail (or us) at the slightest hint of a breeze.

It is a somber and somewhat eerie feeling, as we navigate this strange and surreal landscape of now totally burned out forest for the next few miles. As far as we can see along the slopes below us and the hills and peaks above us, there is almost total devastation in the path of the raging inferno that roared through here just a few short months ago, burning its way through thousands of acres of once green and healthy forests of pine, juniper, oak, Douglas fir, and chaparral.

As hikers, we are accustomed to hiking in lush, green forests and expect it to always be that way, but nature sometimes has a different plan for us and the natural world does not always fit our idea of how it should look. With our prolonged drought and resulting extensive pine bark beetle damage to Arizona’s pine forests and the fires that are sure to follow, we are going to have to become somewhat accustomed to the scenes we are witnessing today.

The forest will re-grow and renew itself, but from our prospective and time line, it is an extremely slow process, but one that has already begun here.

We see large tracks of lush green Bracken ferns carpeting the forest floor, in stark contrast to the thousands of blackened tree trunks still standing.

For this late in the season, there are also a surprising number of colorful fall flowers along the edge of our trail, additional proof that life does go on and the forest is already in the process of healing and renewing.

Life goes on, as the forest slowly recovers.

The trail becomes difficult to follow at times, and we almost miss one of the junctions, but manage to stay on track. As we start uphill in a small side canyon, we notice a length of wire running for hundreds of yards alongside the trail and assume it must have been used by the fire crews as a means of ensuring they stayed near the trail during times of poor visibility in thick smoke. It is now just past noon, as we stop for lunch and a rest break at a rocky outcropping with a view of the valley below us.

A seemingly appropriate fire recovery plant. Wild chili peppers?

The prevailing westerly winds have been pushing smoke from the spreading San Diego fires into Arizona for the past few days, and it now fills the valley below us and looks almost like fog hanging in the trees.

A strange looking layer of thick gray smoke is also building up in the skies and remains almost motionless, in contrast to the white cumulus clouds that scuttle past it.

We ponder all of this, as we eat our lunches and trail snacks, and soon decide to make our way back to the trailhead, via the Brush Corral Trail, the last leg of our loop. We arrive back at the parking lot at 2:45 in the afternoon, pack away our gear and get something cold to drink, before heading back down the Mt. Lemmon Highway to Tucson and home.

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Arizona Trailblazers Hiking Club, Phoenix, Arizona
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updated September 13, 2016