Full Circle

On January 29, 2018, 11 from Empire High School in Vail, Arizona, traveled to the nearby Santa Rita Mountains. Previously, the students studied Sky Island ecology by exploring desert arroyos and rocky grasslands of The Little Rincon Mountains. On this trip, we fully immersed ourselves in Sky Island ecology by climbing high to Josephine’s Saddle. This particular trip presented the students with a few options of varying challenges. All would require the necessary and steep elevation gain to reach the Sky Island ecosystem, but they differed in the amount of mileage. We decided to play it by ear and see where the day took us.

It was an unusually warm day for the typical Sonoran winter season. However, this would be mitigated by our 5,000-foot elevation ascent into a pine forest-mixed woodland ecosystem later in the day. The adventure van headed south toward the Santa Rita Mountains, which dramatically rise out of the flat horizon. Although they seem far away, it only takes about an hour from Empire High School to arrive at this fantastic destination.

The eager students took off from the Old Baldy Trailhead and began the upward trek to Josephine Saddle. Although we maintained a steady pace, the students took strategic breaks to study the changing flora as we increased in elevation. This trail also provided opportunities to practice trail etiquette and other hiking skills. Because of the fantastic birding near Madera Canyon and the high popularity of the trail, the students learned how to be considerate of other visitors and respect a multi-use recreation environment. The steepness of the trail was initially hard to get used to, but students learned how to make that easier by maintaining a slow and steady pace versus walking fast and taking frequent breaks. Ultimately, we gained 1,774 feet in 2.5 miles! That’s steep!

After making it to Josephine Saddle (7,083 ft. elevation), the students stopped to enjoy lunch, relax, and take in the amazing views. It was one of the students’ birthday, and we shared cookies and expressed our gratitude for some high-sugar treats. As we snacked, we were joined by some dark-eyed juncos, which are cute little birds that anxiously hop around in search of some left-behind snacks. Our Leave No Trace practicing group, however, probably disappointed the juncos, as we failed to leave behind micro-trash or any forgotten food scraps.

Feeling refreshed and full of energy, the students had enough time and motivation to complete the longer of the hiking options. Instead of coming back the same way we came, we headed down the other side of the loop via the Super Trail. Along the way back, we stopped at “Sprung Spring”, a natural mountain spring that flows out the side of the mountain. Despite the lack of normal precipitation amounts this winter, there was still water flowing. The best part of the hike back was the epic view! Our backs had been turned to the north during the hike up, but on the way back we were rewarded with the sloping hillsides and grasslands leading down into the Sonoran Desert.

After a longer hike down of 3.6 miles, we finally made it back to the van. Tired but satisfied, we began the relatively quick trip back to Vail. It felt like we had entered another world up there among the pines. The cool breeze, the trickling water, and the conifers are all indicative of the special and isolated Sky Island ecosystem. We had come full circle. The start of our outdoor education began at the bottom in the arroyos and riparian zones and slowly increased up the mountain until we reached the top. We now completed that circle by descending in elevation through the juniper dominated ecosystem, to the high grasslands, and back into the Sonoran Desert where the Saguaros reign. We looked back one last time at the Santa Rita’s as we pulled into the school parking lot, amazed by how far we had gone.