The Health of National Parks

Sonoran Desert Vegetation

Chapter 8

The National Park System is a special concept that spread out worldwide, an inception that originated on our own sacred lands. They preserve that sacred feeling of a unique and treasured land in a special way. A lot of things were still being figured out even when Edward Abbey complained about them. Admittedly though, some of them do have a few too many roads in them for my tastes. And so I always welcome the opportunity to get into the middle of one, where only feet can travel. Far from the city dwellers that pull up in an SUV to a popular overlook and take selfies to brag about their outdoor escapades. Far from congestion and crowds. Far from the busloads of Asian travelers trying to decipher a map in a language they never bothered to learn.

Out there, it’s just the kindest people you’ll ever meet, eager to share a greeting and possibly a fun story. Out there, it’s nature as it’s intended to be experienced. No easy access back to your hotel. No easy access back to your car. Spotty cell phone signals to remind you that you’re not above the landscape, you’re at the mercy of it. These are the environments that bring people (back) to life.

People fear the consequences of what could happen with so few (or none at all) of the modern conveniences available, and ironically, nothing will make you feel more human than spending a few nights in it. This is what I crave. This was what I got a taste of in the Miller Peak Wilderness in day one and two of being on the trail. And today I was headed into the first National Park of two along the Arizona Trail, the other national park being some "grand" canyon up in northern Arizona.

I sometimes think of designated wilderness areas almost as national parks. Lands that are so beautiful and so extraordinary that they should be national parks. The Miller Peak Wilderness is certainly no exception. Back home, three wilderness areas spring to mind that would put other nearby national parks to shame: the Bridger Wilderness, comprising the majority of the western Wind River Mountains; the Gros Ventre Wilderness, encircling mountain peaks that dazzle against anything in the Rocky Mountains; and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, preserving an alpine tundra wilderness that’s one of the most unique and rugged mountain environments anywhere in North America. Yes, any of these relatively unknown regions with national park status could easily shame and overshadow other nearby national parks, the nearby national parks being Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, the latter being my personal favorite.

Forest of Saguaro Cactus

And yet that’s what make wilderness areas so magical; people aren’t actively seeking them out like national parks. They get overlooked by the casual tourists that just want to see natural beauty from the roadsides, and therein lies the magic of wilderness areas. Roads are not allowed. Born from a government department that fought tooth and nail with John Muir over what preservation should be, they responded to the national park idea with wilderness areas, and brought conservation a step further.

You won’t find any roads in wilderness areas. In fact you won’t find any vehicles of any kind. Wilderness areas are open only to foot traffic. (This includes horse feet.) They’re only open to adventure seekers. They’re only open to people who could care less about the day’s current events, to those who don’t care about the football scores, to those who have discovered the best kinds of breaks from modern stress, to those who just want to get away from it all, the right way.

So why not turn these wilderness areas to national parks? Bureaucratic red tape aside, it would ruin them. Refuges would be lost. One thing locals love about their nearby wilderness areas is that it’s primarily locals visiting. As national parks, crowds would find a way in. Backcountry guides would begin leading inexperienced tourists in with their modern conveniences. This would kill off our wild areas once and for all. The Department of Agriculture got it right with wilderness areas, perhaps even better than the Department of Interior did with national parks.

And yet, I still love my national parks. Our national parks. I still seek them out. I’m a national park junkie. And at the end of the day ahead of me, I would be camping in Saguaro National Park.

Saguaro National Park was of course named for the amazing saguaros that I’ve already gone to great detail to document, so I won’t bother you with any more descriptions of the mighty green towers. But the park is home to so much more than desert plants. It encloses most of the sky island of the Rincon Mountains. The trail itself tops out around 8,500 feet above sea level, leaving me with about a 5,500 foot climb. Fortunately this would be spaced out over two days.

Hiking Trail in Oak Forest

My campground that night was the Grass Shack Campground, where there were more trees than grass, and the only shack was an outhouse. It’s roughly halfway to two-thirds of the way up Mica Mountain, an exposed trail thanks to its south face on the mountain where days can bake the lunatics that would subject themselves to a day of hiking about six miles across the arid and open Rincon Valley before making the brutal climb, just as I was.

It wasn’t a bad day weather-wise though. It was tolerably cool and wildflowers were exploding around the bases of each and every prickly plant that threatened my joy on the trail. Though I had a full pack of food and plenty of water, I was making pretty decent time. My body seemed to be adjusting nicely to trail life.

The climb up offered some outstanding views to the south, Mount Wrightson of the Santa Rita Mountains waving in the haze and pollution, wafting over from Tucson to my west. It was like a friend I hadn’t seen in a few days saying "hello" again.

It felt good to be back in a national park. There’s a warm and welcoming energy from the nature that knows it’s in good hands and not threatened from short-term gain. It’s hospitable, caring, and nurturing, as is the case with nature when it’s maintained in the way it should be. And of course by maintained I mean left the hell alone.

It was quiet on the mountain. I was once again away from civilization and all alone in an unforgiving wilderness and enjoying every minute of it. The views only got better, Rincon Peak always visible to my east. I was hiking up Mica Mountain, where the AZT gets close to the peak, but avoids it by about a mile. These are the two most prominent peaks of the Rincon Mountains and high up surrounding the peaks is an ecosystem that defies the conditions at its base. As with the other sky islands breaking up the monotony of a flat desert spread out across southern Arizona, a forest of ponderosa pine trees blankets the top of the mountains. Snow caps the mountains in winter. Black bears roam the land, hidden to nearly every human that hikes the trails (myself included, I’m disappointed to report). A day of hiking will transport you from southern Arizona to the mountains of Colorado.

I reached my camp at the end of the day, with a comfortable amount of time before sunset. I slept well that night. The oak trees that began hinting at a forest a couple of thousand feet below were now much larger and were providing shade at the campsite. A creek running along the campground provided all the water I needed. I slept well, and woke up better, eager to reach the welcoming canopy of the ponderosa pines.

The trail became steep and rocky. The oak trees and other brush encroached onto the trail in places. The steepness persisted. I turned a corner, and in an instant all evidence of the desert was gone. In a quick turn of the trail, the ponderosa pines opened up above me, greeting me inward.

Trail in Pine Tree Forest

The air was cool. The hiking easier. A dip in a carpet of pine needles insinuated the trail. A small waterfall poured over a rocky cliff farther in. Manning Camp, my alternative camping spot a few miles up from Grass Shack, sat high in the forest where a cold front was receding, making for perfect weather. A guestbook showed not everybody was as lucky as I was in terms of comfort and timing with weather. I decided that Manning Camp made for a great location for a new habit I was getting into the routine of enjoying: second breakfast. The hobbits had it right.

As I sat there eating, enjoying the quiet and solitude that only a forest distant from civilization can provide, I heard the faint rush of water. There was at least a small waterfall nearby. I finished up some food to scope it out. This also sounded good because I was out of water and a spigot I was hoping would be at the camp was nowhere to be found. Note to self: It’s probably not best to assume water will be so convenient along the trail.

I walked behind a small hill and found exactly what I was looking for. In a rocky exposure, water poured over a rocky cliff about 20 feet high and into a pool coated with yellows, oranges, blues, and greens. And not the gross kind! The vibrant colors reflected and refracted in the sunlight an inviting natural rainbow of pure water. If it had been warmer, I might’ve jumped in.

I got my water, taking my sweet ass time of course, and then went back up to my mini picnic spot with the sole purpose of sprawling myself out on top of a picnic table and just relaxing with my eyes closed. It was too nice of a day not to.

Though I was ecstatic in my peace, I felt an odd sensation. A bit of me began to hope that someone would come hiking along so I could talk with someone, a very foreign feeling indeed and likely the motivational culprit for my short rest. I brushed it off with a sufficient amount of resting, and then got my things together and headed back toward the trail. As I met back up with my highway for the next month and a half, I looked back up the trail, searching for movement, searching for another friendly hiker. Nothing. Stillness. Quiet. I was alone, and I was starting to feel it. What I wouldn’t give for anyone to talk to. I waited, staring up the trail. Maybe someone was catching up with me? … Apparently not.

"But I like being alone in places like this!" I told myself. "Onward!"

Eager and happy I headed down the trail, which was actually still going up. The air got cooler and before I knew it, snow was tucked away in shady patches. Soon snow was all over the forest floor. With no evidence of saguaros or anything like it anywhere to be seen, I was falling in love with Saguaro National Park.

I passed the junction for the summit of Mica Mountain, and the trail began its descent down the north side of the mountain. It didn’t take long to get below the snow, and just beyond that was an overlook unlike anything the trail had allowed prior.

Large Desert View

Mountains dozens of miles away marked the horizon, and beyond them were mountains even farther than that. I walked out to the edge of the natural plateau of an overlook, transfixed on the horizon which was so far away it was difficult to distinguish. In a full 180 degree panoramic view, a valley dropped thousands of feet below and surrounded the mountain I was on. To the east, sky islands popped up out of the ground, shrinking in the distance, dwarfing and distorting their actual dimensions. In front of me in the north, a distant rugged mountain range bordered the other side of the deep valley below, the mountains far in the distance. Farther and larger mountains peeked out above those. To the northwest, lest my eyes were deceiving me, the inspiring, rugged, and exciting Superstition Mountains, shooting out of the desert floor east of the ever-sprawling eyesore of Phoenix.

Twice in the last 24 hours, I was now able to vividly see my progress. It felt good. I felt like I was actually accomplishing my goal of hiking the AZT. My life on the trail just felt like everything was falling into place. At least for now.