Sycamores and Waterfalls

Nothing helps a person feel the fall vibes quite like a sycamore tree. Its red star shaped leaves carpet creek banks and offer an orange tinted light to the surrounding world. It was a perfect day for a hike, and Empire High School took full advantage of this. On November 14th, 6 students traveled into the Little Rincon Mountains in search of water and remote adventure. Our goals were to compare our observations of this landscape to the lower elevated Sonoran Desert, observe how water effects desert areas, and most of all to enjoy a perfect November day.

The Rincon Mountains are tall and loom steeply over the valley below. Beginning nearly half way up the mountain, mixed coniferous trees live densely. This is an apparent reminder how vastly different landscapes can be, even within a mile as the crow flies. The students began hiking the creek that bisects the two ranges. Here water was flowing heavy and fast after early strong rains drenched the area. Desert dwellers in the 21st century don’t often encounter such personable creeks, so the students were absolutely delighted. On the bakes we tracked all kinds of wildlife like deer, javelina, fox, and crows. The vegetation was thick, and often we were shaded from a strong sun by canopies of sycamore and oak trees. There is not a sound kinder to the ears than that of water rolling over smooth boulders and falling into shallow pools. To this, we did what all desert people do to celebrate, we stop to listen then quickly remove our shoes to submerge our feet. Slowly we pushed our toes through the water, continuing our adventure with the texture of the earth under our feet.

Soon we came to a fork in our path. The main creek continued north, but our destination lay east. Another creek flows from this area, but it is much smaller, much more over grown and wild. This space required our bodies to mimic the water by moving over, under, and around obstacles fluidly. This was no match for the students, and even I was surprised by their speed. Finally, we broke from the thick of the vegetation to enter into the body of the mountain. Here the granite skeleton of the mountain was exposed by the rushing water that cut it open. A small canyon lay before us, with dazzling little waterfalls that filled rock basins like swimming pools. Cliff walls stood tall beside us, holding hanging succulents like it were an art gallery. Now we needn’t duck and dodge, but instead stick to the slick polished rock like a canyon tree frog. A special moment then found us. A single Saguaro stood growing from the cliff side. We were at a height and position where we could easily observe the high desert valley, the riparian creek, the mixed coniferous forests atop the adjacent mountain, and now this special low desert Saguaro. We spent some time discussing qualities of each biome, the shared our thoughts about the exclusive qualities of their flora and fauna, and why there are even differences in the first place. The students were very receptive to this, and had so many wonderful insights.

Once we concluded our conversation, restless feet took us away. Up the canyon and eventually to somewhere really special. In an almost hard to believe way, the canyon suddenly cuts left and after 500 yards or so suddenly cuts right, as if intentionally designed to surprise us with what hides behind the last turn. A 75ft tall free-fall waterfall crashes into a wide beautiful pool. This area was walled on three sides by massive cliffs, offering us a container to sit intimately with the rare encounter. This is where we stopped to eat our lunches. Wildflowers bloomed around us, making the area a natural haven. The students were joyously relaxed and draped around like lazy sleepy mountain lions. Once our bellies were full, we discussed the erosive force of water and its ability to create a variety of habitats like steep cliff walls for spacious succulents, pools of water for insects and amphibians, and deep sands for trees and shrubs.

Our way back took us above the waterfall to a tower of hoodoo style rocks from which we scanned the whole area around us. We continued hiking until we found an old cattle trail, and followed its path along the contour of the mountain. This eventually led us to the first creek, which we then began following back to the van. Before we reached it, we spend a moment paused in silence. Together we listened to the sound of delicately hung sycamore leaves crashing into each other and the sound of rushing water. We felt the soft sands underneath us and smelled all the richness that old mountain creeks have. The students often say this is their favorite part of each hike, because they feel so calm, relaxed, and connected. It surely is the perfect way to end an adventure.