City High School in the Sky Islands

On April 9th, 2019, 10 students from City High School left their school to have an adventure into the Santa Catalina Mountains. We intended to hike on Sunset Trail and find the remarkable pools of water that are said to be found tucked away into the folds of the mountain. Besides the pools of water, our goals included understanding Sky Sialnds, how riparian areas affect the ecology of Sky Islands, observing the mixed coniferous biome the trail sits within, and comparing all of this trip to our previous expedition. 

Our first expedition took us through a wild thorn scrub biome which was a classic representation of low Sonoran Desert ecology. This path took us to a riparian gallery forest which showed students what water can do to a desert landscape. In this high biome, ponderosa pine trees dominate. The trail brought us across a bridge that held us above a beautiful creek. This creek would become the avenue which we would follow to find our wonderful pools. Up steep hills and across granite outcrops we ventured down by the creekside and really began to see similarities to the riparian area of the desert valley floor. The students were quick to spot them, as plants with familiar leaves and structures grew and wrapped all over the place. “What similarities do you see here compared to where we were?” I asked.  “The leaves have similar shapes!” “ They’re all growing next to the water!” “They have different shades of green!” These were wonderful observations, and we discussed how water allows plants that wouldn’t normally grow within this biome to thrive. 

“How did these pine trees get here anyway?” The students were puzzled by this at first because most assume they’re here because they’re supposed to be an always have been! “Birds dropped the seeds!” This is a correct answer, but not the complete truth of course. “To understand this we need to understand Sky Islands” Together we discussed how these important mountain corridors came to be, and how they’ve responded to global warming over the last 10,000 years. I expressed to the students how important these landscapes are to the wildlife and humans, for migration and permanent residence. The students were captivated by the beauty of the hike. This looks to be a completely different world than the one we all live in below. The water this mountain holds alone is enough to make it as treasure. We spent time by the creekside looking into the pools of water and observing the aquatic insects and debris that has collected at the bottom and briefly talked about the micro-ecosystems that exist in these environments. 

Finally, after a wonderful hike, we reached the magical pools. Three to four of them collected in a bare granite amphitheater before dropping off a tall waterfall. This was our destination. With careful maneuvering, we scrambled down to find a massive pool of water. The kids were beyond excited, and it took little time before they started jumping and splashing in. Even after the discussion and observations of aquatic insects, there was little hesitance. For kids of the desert, there is little else as satisfying than desert pools of water. With the trees and birds, we found these pools and used them to our fullest. Following the creek, we learned about the Sky islands, about their ecology and biomes, and had an incredible amount of fun along the way. This was a wonderful day of learning and exploring, once the kids would never forget.