The Last Word - July 2020
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Tucson Mountain Park

By Emily Tipping


Around a decade ago, while in Tucson, Ariz., for a conference in late July, I happily discovered a trailhead right across the street from my hotel. I didn't know much about where I was at that time—only that a hike as the sun was coming up sounded quite appealing to someone who had been away from mountain and desert trails for nearly two decades.

Of course, once the sun was above the horizon, it started to get hot, fast. And then the trail sort of disappeared on me. Maybe I made a wrong turn, or got distracted looking at a cactus up close. And since I thought I was just going to take a quick jaunt, I didn't have a water bottle with me. Rookie mistakes. I got worried and tried to retrace my steps.

Established in 1929, Tucson Mountain Park covers around 20,000 acres and is one of the largest natural resource areas owned by a local government in the United States, being under the jurisdiction of the Pima County Parks Commission.

There are 62 miles of trails for hiking, equestrians and mountain bikers, and the Gates Pass overlook includes some interpretive displays and historic structures. The park features three picnic areas with ramadas, tables and grills, a campground and the Desert Discovery Center with a classroom and nature trails hosting educational classes and events.

Looking at the map now, and trying to piece together where I was, I'm fairly certain I was hiking the Hidden Canyon Trail. I never figured out where I made the wrong turn, but after a while I ran into another hiker who also thought he was lost, and together we retraced our steps until we found a landmark we recognized (two saguaros, one leaning in a peculiar way).

At that point, he turned one way, and I went the other, headed back to my hotel room and water. My fingers were getting swollen and the sun was well up.

With the end of the trail in sight (hallelujah!), I heard an odd sound from somewhere below and I stopped suddenly with one foot in the air. A rattlesnake was coiled just where I was about to step. I quickly backed up a few steps and watched it for a minute, before making a slight detour around it and walking the last little bit of trail.

That was my first time back on a properly wild trail (compared to the relatively tame and groomed trails near home) in years.

A friend of mine recently sent me some photos of the Bighorn Fire, which has so far burned more than 50,000 acres in Ventana Canyon, and it brought back the memory of that hot morning hike all those years ago.

I'm grateful that there was a trail for me to find. Grateful that I was aware enough to not accidentally step on a rattlesnake. And grateful that the park is still there, just waiting for another visit. RM