Myron Hartz stops at a snow-packed spot on the Crest Trail to observe the burn pattern on the pines. Photo by Cheryl Hartz
Visiting relatives in Tucson over Easter weekend, we decided to check out the Chiricahua Mountains in Southeast Arizona to see what damage the Horseshoe 2 Fire caused nearly two years ago in the summer of 2011. The fourth largest wildfire in Arizona history scorched nearly 223,000 acres and cost $50 million to contain, burning from May 8-June 25.
In the Chiricahuas, primary vegetation consists of piñon, juniper, ponderosa pine, a variety of grasses, mixed conifer and oak brush. Low moisture content and a hard "100 year freeze" that killed vegetation in 2010 contributed to the severity of the fire. About 42 percent of the involved acreage fell into the high and moderate burn severity categories while low and unchanged comprised the remaining 58 percent. All of those categories were represented in the areas we saw. It's strange how wildfire can jump around and completely destroy parts of a section while leaving other patches of vegetation untouched.
To get to the trailhead, we drove nearly 2.75 hours from Tucson. The turnoff from Highway 181 gets you to either the Chiricahua National Monument or into the Coronado National Forest, where we went. The ride to the Crest Trail parking area on unpaved Forest Road 42D accounted for the 0.75 hours, but it was fine for a vehicle without 4-wheel drive. For day use only, the parking area has an outhouse and several picnic tables with bear-proof boxes. Earlier along the road we saw a Beware of Bears sign, but my brother-in-law said that with decreased use of trails and fewer hikers to bring in food, the bears aren't much of a problem any longer. Like Yogi, the bears hang around only if picnic baskets are available for easy raiding.
Signs tell hikers to stay out of the closed Rustler Park campground, because of the danger of falling trees, flash floods, and such. Similar warnings are posted at the trailhead, even though only charred posts remain of the Forest Service sign. But the trail is open and the views are worth the hike.
Where the fire destroyed trees along the Crest Trail, weeds have started to take over, and encroach almost chest high from either side of the narrow path. Long pants recommended to avoid minor scratches.
We hiked left toward Fly Peak (3 miles away) and Chiricahua Peak (another 2.5 miles up to 9,759 feet), but got maybe 1.5 miles or so before encountering snow on the north aspect that obscured the narrow trail on a steep incline. Rather than risk sliding down the mountain, I opted to turn back, and the men in the party did the same soon after they discovered the obstacles becoming increasingly deeper and steeper.
We headed the opposite direction to Barfoot Lookout, 3 miles roundtrip, at around 9,000-foot altitude. There used to be a Forest Service fire lookout tower at the top, with only a cement foundation remaining - covered in broken glass from some idiot's bottles. A solar panel is on site; I don't know if it's operational. But an incredible vista stretched before us for hundreds of miles, again with forested pockets and burned areas easily visible.
The wind on the other side of the mountain was incredibly powerful, but calm along the trail on this cloudy day. We were comfortable sitting down to a trailside lunch of - what else? hard-boiled dyed eggs - jerky, nuts, fruit and chocolate. A hike isn't a real hike without chocolate, from any heads up hiker's view.
On the way back to Tucson, we stopped at the official ghost town of Dos Cabezas and marveled at a fiery sunset in hues of hot pink, orange, and crimson with a column of red extending from the colorful clouds to the ground. I never had seen anything like it before.
We halted in Willcox for supper, and enjoyed a substantial meal at The Dining Car, a railroad car converted into a restaurant. Trains still pass through the town about every half hour, so their shrill whistles and clacking wheels provided additional ambiance.
Actual directions to the Crest Trail on the Forest Service web site: "From Tucson, take I-10 east 81 miles. Turn right (south) on AZ 186 and continue for 23 miles. Turn left (east) on AZ 181 toward Chiricahua National Monument and drive 4 miles, then turn right (south) on FR 42. Continue up Pinery Canyon 12 miles to FR 42D. Drive about 2.5 miles to the Rustler Park Campground. Forest Roads 42 and 42D are gravel roads suitable for passenger vehicles. Open from April through November, they are not plowed and are usually closed following early or late season snowstorms. These roads are rough and dusty and may be muddy and slick after a rain."
For more information call the Douglas Ranger District at 520-364-6800, Monday-Friday from 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Posted: Friday, April 5, 2013
Article comment by:
Thanks for the update on the Chiricahuas, Ms. Hartz. I've been wanting to backpack there, even before the fire. Now, after reading the article, I hear the call of Fly and Chiricahua Peaks inviting me to explore their forests and sleep on their pine needle-covered bosoms. Now I hear them calling again...I think they said, "Ouch."