Hiking the mountains outside of Tucson  

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10/25/2005 9:54 pm

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Hiking the mountains outside of Tucson

Hush Among the Saguaro: Hiking the mountains outside of Tucson, Arizona

By Betty Leavengood

Tucson's sunsets are one of our city's trademarks. The mountains are silhouetted on postcards are the Tucson Mountains, the smallest of ranges that surround Tucson. The high point, Wasson Peak at 4,687 feet, is barely a mountain by most standards.

The Tucson Mountains are different in character from the others. No ponderosa pines will shade your path while you are hiking. This is the land of mesquite and palo verde, of the saguaro, pear, cholla, and hedgehog cacti, of creosote bushes, ocotillo, and catclaw. The terrain is a jumble of boulders and craggy ridges.


The Sweetwater Trail is a a good introduction to the plants of the area. The Hugh Norris Trail to the summit of Wasson Peak is the most difficult trail, but the one that provides the best views of the Tucson area.

But even if you turn your back on the city, you can't get away from its rich human history.

From A.D. 900 to 1300, the Hohokam lived in the river bottoms in their pit houses and hunted in the Tucson Mountains. Petroglyphs King Canyon and Picture Rocks remain as evidence of the Hohokam's existence. The Hohokam were gone when the Jesuit priest, Father Kino, first came to the Tucson area in 1692. By then, the Pima were living at the base of the mountain we now call Sentinel Peak, or"A" Mountain.

The Tucson Mountains were significant in the early history of Tucson. When in 1772, King Carlos II of Spain, who possessed this land on paper, issued an order calling for the reorganization of the presidios (forts) in Mexico and the Southwest, the site selected was a point near the Santa Cruz River opposite the Pima village. Here, beginning in 1776, a new presidio was to be built. Progress was slow, and it was not until December 1783 that the task was completed. A lookout was maintained on top of Sentinel Peak, and the fort was warned when the Apaches swept down out of the Santa Catalinas or the Rincons. Several attacks were withstood, and the Royal Presidio of San Agustin del Tucson outgrew the walls of the fort by the mid-1800s. Sentinel Peak was no longer needed as a lookout.

The mountain did serve other purposes. Many early Tucson homes and the wall around the University of Arizona were built from black rock quarried from the side of Sentinel Peak. Today, a huge, white "A" representing the University of Arizona dominates the peak.

Copper was discovered in the 1870s at Silver Bell, and mining became important. Hikers in the Tucson Mountains today can see much evidence of early mining. The Sendero Esperanza Trail passes the old Gould Mine, once thought to be the bonanza of the territory. The Hugh Norris Trail passes several mines. The Starr Pass Trail follows the route of a shortcut through the mountains to the mines of Quijotoa.

As late as the 1920s and 1930s the land in the Tucson Mountains was open to homesteading. A stone house remains on the David Yetman Trail that was homesteaded in 1930 by a newspaper man from Illinois. Ranchers ran cattle in the mountains.

It seemed that the Tucson Mountains were open for grabs. Mining, cattle grazing, and homesteading were being carried on with little regard for the ecology of the mountains, until Pima County agricultural agent C. B. Brown took it upon himself to preserve the Tucson Mountain area. With the help of Senator Carl Hayden, Brown was able to persuade Congress to withdraw 60,000 acres from the Homesteading Act of 1873 to be used as Tucson Mountain Park.

World War I veterans complained that their rights were being violated because they could not homestead, and, as a result, all but 28,988 acres were turned back over to the United States Department of Interior to be used for homesteading. On April 11, 1929, the remaining acreage was designated as Tucson Mountain Park. The Pima County Parks Commission was established, and Brown was named chairman.

In 1933, part of the land designated for homesteading became part of Saguaro National Monument. In 1994, the designation was changed to Saguaro National Park.

The area was still not pristine and secure from development. Mining was still permitted on much of the land. In 1939 Columbia Pictures leased 300 acres of state land that was within the park for movie production and built Old Tucson. In one scene, 6 acres of desert were set on fire, completely destroying all vegetation, including several mature saguaros. Public uproar caused the Pima County Park Commission to purchase the lease from Columbia Pictures, ensuring control and that no fires would be set in the desert again.

In 1952, Arthur Pack, a member of the park commission, recommended a living museum be established in Tucson Mountain Park to educate the public about the Sonoran Desert, and the world famous Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum was formed. This excellent facility competes with the Grand Canyon as the most visited attraction in Arizona.

In 1961 President John Kennedy added 15,360 acres of federally owned land in Tucson Mountain Park to the Saguaro National Monument, to be administered by the National Park Service. This change of jurisdiction was made specifically to prevent mining claims in the area and to preserve the natural beauty. Because of this move, the Tucson Mountain Park was reduced to 13,628 acres, to which an additional 3,000 acres were added in 1974, as a result of a bond election.




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