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Sky Island Parkway (Catalina Highway)
by Leo W. Banks

 

Think of the Sky Island Scenic Parkway as a kind of time machine. No, really. Let yourself go a minute and imagine a landscape that compresses an extraordinary range of topography into one 27-mile stretch of road. The road, known as the Mount Lemmon Parkway, does just that. It takes visitors through five life zones, from Sonoran Desert lowlands all the way up to a mixed-conifer forest, the geographic equivalent of traveling from Mexico to Canada.

How long would it take to drive that distance, seeing and touching everything there is to see and touch? Three weeks, a month? Driving from the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains, on Tucson’s north edge, to the peak at Mount Lemmon takes as little as an hour.

“That’s why I like this drive so much,” says Heidi Schewel, public information officer for the Coronado National Forest. “It’s very unusual to be able to do that, and it occurs in what we call the 'sky islands' of southern Arizona.” The forest atop the Catalinas is a remnant of the Pleistocene era, which ended 10,000 years ago. Since then, the climate has warmed in lower elevations, causing the forest to recede. The range's Pleistocene vestiges remain only at the tops, hence the name sky islands -- mountain vegetation surrounded by a sea of desert.

Visitors begin on the desert floor, passing bright, rocky hillsides populated with paloverde and mesquites trees, as well as cholla, prickly pear and tall saguaro cacti. From there, the road twists up to 4,000 feet and into semidesert grasslands, chaparral and oak woodlands stocked with manzanita and alligator juniper trees. Still climbing, the shadows lengthen with the height of the trees, and the temperature falls. Air that had been sinus-itching dry at lower elevations now sags with moisture. It also sweetens from its passage through scented ponderosa pines, which begin at about 8,000 feet, and higher up through Douglas-fir, quaking aspen and mountain ash trees.

The elevation at the peak, less than 2 miles above Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, reaches over 9,000 feet. Wide, paved, bordered by guardrails and topped by clear blue sky, the road provides a genuine treat for those seeking a day away. It passes numerous campgrounds, hiking trails and recreation areas, and the views are inspiring, or knee-shakingly terrifying, depending on your perspective. At some points, such as Seven Cataracts, 9.2 miles from the bottom, and named for seven pools of water located deep in the nearby canyon, and Windy Point, 14.1 miles along, visitors see magnificent rock spires, boulder stacks and sheer cliff facings that open in places, providing long vistas back down to the simmering desert floor.

The mountain’s human characters match its natural grandeur. One of the better stories centers around a Japanese-American who fought the efforts of the U.S. government to round up and imprison Japanese citizens and resident aliens during World War II. In 1942, at age 24, Gordon Hirabayashi, a senior at the University of Washington, refused an order to report for relocation, instead turning himself in to the FBI.

He legally challenged the constitutionality of internment, but was convicted. He asked to serve his sentence at an outdoor prison work camp. When the government balked at paying his way to the Catalina Federal Honor Camp, established in the Santa Catalina Mountains in 1939, the irrepressible Hirabayashi hitchhiked to Tucson, stopping en route to visit his family, interned in Idaho. At his arrival, according to interpretive text at the site of the old camp, about 7 miles up the highway, he had to convince federal marshals that he was really supposed to be imprisoned. As he waited for law enforcement to verify his claim, Hirabayashi went to a movie. He returned and served his sentence. The government apologized to him in 1987, and in 1999 dedicated the site in his name, calling it the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Area.

There are still remains of the camp, though the building have been demolished and hauled away. It housed mostly tax and immigration violators, and those with moral objections to serving in the military during WWII. After 1958, the facility served as a youth rehabilitation camp until it closed in 1973. Prison laborers built the Mount Lemmon Highway, beginning in 1933, at the suggestion of Frank Hitchcock, former postmaster general and editor of the Tucson Citizen, hence another alternative name, the Hitchcock Highway. Some also call it the Catalina Highway. Prior to its construction, the only route to the summit led from the town of Oracle up the north face of the Catalinas. A southern route would cut the length of the trip from about three hours to one.

The prisoners did the job, initially using only picks, shovels and wheelbarrows. “Before I went to the honor camp, I thought prisoners only broke rocks in cartoons,” said one former prisoner. Workers eventually got jackhammers and bulldozers, but it still took 17 years to complete the twisting road. The mountain’s namesake – Maine-born botanist Sara Plummer Lemmon – knew all about the difficulties of getting to the top from the south before the road went in. After numerous efforts, she and husband John, also a botanist, hired guide E.O. Stratton to lead them up the north side, using horses and mules. In 1881, they reached what is now the village of Summerhaven, according to author Suzanne Hensel’s recently published book, Look at the Mountains, a history of the Catalinas. Stratton christened the peak in Sara’s honor, one of the few American mountains named for a woman. Then he cleared the bark from a large pine tree so everyone could carve their names. Hensel said the tree blew down in the early 1960s.

The Lemmons wanted to spend their honeymoon cataloging new plants they assumed flourished in the mountain’s unique environment. They located numerous previously unknown varieties in the Catalinas and around southern Arizona, according to Hensel. They also saw their plant searches as an opportunity to reinvigorate. John, from Lima, Michigan, a Yankee soldier during the Civil War, had been incarcerated in the hellish Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia, during the 1860s. And Sara, in 1869, had fought a terrible bout with pneumonia.

Both recovered by hunting plants in the West. Looking back, it seems fitting that these early pioneers to the Catalinas understood the health-giving value of walking in the wilds, especially mountain environments. Mount Lemmon still serves as a place of renewal for the summer-weary and those seeking respite from the go-go desert city it hovers above. As such, it holds a special place in the hearts of frequent visitors. When a giant fire roared across the Santa Catalinas in June 2003, sending 30,000-foot plumes of smoke into the sky, it tugged at Tucson’s emotions, leaving everyone wondering what would be left of their Eden. After the fire had been extinguished, one of the biggest "good" shocks many felt upon returning to the mountain was seeing the amount of greenery still remaining.

Everyone thought it would be completely gone. But green remains the mountain’s predominant color. Make no mistake, though, the 85,000-acre blaze took its toll. With three exceptions, it destroyed every business in Summerhaven, the village sitting at 7,840 feet elevation, just below the mountain's peak, and destroyed numerous cabins in the surrounding forest. Visitors today can see newly rebuilt cabins and those still in the rebuilding process. But they’ll also see the collapsed frames of downed cabins and twisted piles of metal and wood beside still-standing stone chimneys. The fire’s cruel purpose remains clear in some areas of the natural landscape as well. Past Molino Basin, for instance, 5.7 miles up from the mountain’s base, flames torched entire hillsides, leaving a light gray ash over large expanses of ground. At the top of the mountain, just beyond the Mount Lemmon fire station near the Oracle Control Road, the fire jumped the pavement and left both sides of the highway a moonscape of black toothpicks that had been tall ponderosa pines.

The same sight confronts visitors at nearby Sykes Knob picnic area, a particularly hard-hit spot. “For a lot of people this will be emotional to see,” says Schewel. “They have great memories of the mountain and long histories here.” But what Mother Nature destroys, she also rebuilds. Hope follows desolation. Rain will wash away much of the ash -- although some might still be visible beyond Molino Basin and other areas that burned especially hot -- and visitors should look for new seedlings sprouting on bare hills. The latter began occurring within two weeks of the fire, with native grasses, ferns and oaks regerminating and producing new foliage between the coal-colored toothpicks. That process of regeneration will be evident for years to come, and for many, a thrill to see. In that sense, the blaze becomes a teacher, its lesson one of ecology and regrowth in natural environments.

Another potential lesson has to do with human response to fire. Do we see the areas of landscape destruction and curse that what we remembered is gone? Or do we accept the demands of fire, an unavoidable if sometimes painful process, and relish a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see how an ecosystem naturally heals itself? In Bear Canyon, for instance, 11 miles from the bottom, the fire didn’t leap into the trees, burning mostly on the ground. The ash it left behind, comprised of carbon and other minerals, will fertilize the growth of new plants.

This vegetation will be more lush than it would have been without the ash. At some vistas, such as Seven Cataracts, the vegetation that once overgrew the canyon slopes has burned off, exposing more of the mountain’s geology. At several recreation sites that burned, the Forest Service plans to replant oak and manzanita trees, many of which were already stressed and dying from drought. Visitors should know that some hiking trails, picnic grounds and campgrounds will be closed for rehabilitation for the foreseeable future. Others will remain open, so call ahead. All vista points will stay open, and in the village of Summerhaven, the Mount Lemmon Cafe, which survived the blaze, was selling pies and burgers within a few weeks of the fire’s end, and other merchants promise a return to normalcy as swiftly as possible.

As for the natural landscape, long-term climate changes – mostly drought -- guarantee that the type of forest that covered the mountain before the fire won’t recur again for hundreds of years. But don’t despair. That applies only to the burned areas, and as stated, broad expanses of wonderful green remain. And other colors will soon flower on torched ground. Look for the sprouting of baby white aspens, an especially fast-growing tree, as well as wildflowers. And near the peak, let the magical reds, yellows and oranges of the aspen and maple trees remind you of the mountain’s enduring beauty.

 

 

 


Friendly-Village of the Catalinas
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