Empire High School High Deserts and Waterfalls

On March 27th, 2019, 8 students from Empire High School left for an adventure into the Santa Catalina Mountains. From Empire High School, students can see the full range of the Catalinas, but few have the opportunity to explore them. We intended to hike to Sycamore Reservoir and observe and learn about the flora and fauna that exists within the high desert biome. Winter snow and rains were heavy this year, creating a mountain swollen with moisture, bursting from the seams with springs, creeks, and waterfalls. This would offer new growth for what would become a lush spring, and an opportune time to see wildlife returning to the area.  

Our previous expeditions explored Sky Island’s natural history and ecology, riparian areas, and low thorn scrub landscapes. This middle biome in the Catalina Mountains provides an interesting view for students to observe plants and transitions not often seen in this way. The juniper and yucca stood out as beautifully green against the yellow fields of grass and red rocks of the mountains. As we hiked, we observed the plants that provide important foods and habitat for many animals around. For example, the carpenter bees who burrow into yucca stalks for reproduction and shelter fascinated the students. 

Through steep terrain and splendid views eventually, we dropped into the lush and green reservoir. Here a dam constructed by Japanese prisoners during WWII has since been left to fill with sediment, creating a stable ground for massive cottonwood and sycamore trees and incredible habitat for wildlife. We used this chance to compare riparian areas, observing how this habitat was similar and different to that of Cienega Creek. The winding trail took us through low lying plants over green grasses to a concrete platform that held us at the waterfall’s edge. “This way!” I said as I began to follow a trail that appeared to walk the edge. With nervousness, the students followed, and saw that a path squeezed between rocks and down a dusty path took us to the creek bottom. 

Here the water has pushed all sediment away, leaving bare granite rock to slicken under the constant flow. Green grasses and lush forested areas made this canyon area near-tropical. Pools of water that held thousands of tonnes of water made for easy playing as we jumped from rock to rock, swam, stuck our heads under waterfalls, and began to enjoy the sweet sweet feeling of a desert mountain pool. Together we discussed how the water from mountain peaks drains into the low valleys and the nutrient-rich sediment flows with it, fertilizing the dusty valleys below. Between learning and play, we all had a blast. It was a sight most students had never seen before, and truly spectacular. 

The hike back was long and wonderful. Moving back up above the waterfall into the upper dam area, the riparian forest, the grassy high desert trail, and eventually, the vehicle. This way of hiking is important for learning, because students are able to reengage physically and visually with the environments that we hiked through and learned all about. A day like today will provide many memories, and the lessons learned will act like tiles of beauty to those memories. It was a perfect day to hike and learn about high desert biomes and the effect water has on such a place.