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Mt. Graham Car Camping Trip
Pinaleno Mountains
June 11-13, 2004
by Chuck Parsons
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Eight ambitious hikers gather around the Ash Creek Falls Trailhead.
From left to right, kneeling in front: Dennis Murphy and Emie Sorongon.
From left to right, standing: Glenn Kappel, Joyce Murphy, Rudy Arredondo, Lisa Ferdinand, Kathleen Green, and hike leader Chuck Parsons.

When the triple digits in the Phoenix area finally become too much to bear any longer, it’s then time to head for either the beach or the mountains to find some relief and cool off – if only for a few days. We chose the mountains and decide on that spectacular Sky Island in southeastern Arizona known as Mt. Graham.

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The sparkling waters of Ash Creek
make their way towards the falls.

On a cool and clear Saturday morning high up on Mt. Graham’s heavily forested slopes we gather around the trail sign for our hike to Ash Creek Falls and beyond. From 9,500 feet at the trailhead, we will descend 1,400 feet in 2.5 miles to reach spectacular Ash Creek Falls, highest waterfall on Mt. Graham. Could one find a more perfect place to camp and hike on a blazing hot June day on the desert floor far below us? We think not.

The trail to Ash Creek Falls parallels and traverses picturesque Ash Creek along the upper section of the route. Skunk cabbage, raspberry bushes, and other lush green vegetation line the banks of the creek, as it cascades and tumbles over rocks and boulders in a series of small waterfalls, making its way down the slopes of Mt. Graham towards the larger falls. From time to time in the deeper pools of crystal clear water, we spot small brook trout nervously darting about, trying to find food and shelter. Ash Creek is also home to the rare and beautiful Native Apache trout.

In the cool morning air along the trail to Ash Creek Falls, Spiny-Tailed Collared Lizards come out to sun themselves on the large granite rocks and boulders that line Ash Creek.

We spot quite a number of lizards on this hike and even glimpse an occasional snake slithering quickly away through the tall grass, as they sense our approaching footsteps.

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A Spiny-Tailed Collared Lizard warms up in the morning sun.

The Ash Creek Falls Trail is one of Mt. Graham’s most spectacular and scenic hikes, as it meanders through one of the most beautiful and diverse riparian habitats one can imagine.

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Six Trailblazers are ready to tackle the Arcadia Trail.

Chuck, Glenn, Lisa, Rudy, Kathleen, and Emie gather at the Arcadia Trailhead for another group picture. One of the most popular and scenic hiking trails on Mt. Graham, Arcadia Trail runs for 5.1 miles between Shannon Park Campground (our starting point) and Arcadia Campground. It is also one of the few trails in Arizona that is designated as a National Recreation Trail, falling into a very select group of premier hiking trails in the country. Starting at 9,100 feet, we traverse Shannon Park with its towering Ponderosa pines, Douglas and white fir, Engelmann spruce, and quaking aspen, and do a steady climb, gaining another 500 feet of elevation. Topping out at 9,600 at the Heliograph Peak Junction, the trail then begins a steady descent of 2,900 feet through a long series of switchbacks, along steep ridgelines, and through a lush green thicket of knee-high bracken ferns populating a large burn area, before finally reaching Arcadia Campground, sitting at 6,700 feet at trail’s end.

This stretch of the Arcadia Trail, roughly two miles from the Shannon Park Trailhead, passes through an extensive, lush green thicket of knee-high bracken ferns, one of the first plants to re-populate a burn area. The numerous charred and blackened stumps and hollowed out blackened trunks of standing or fallen forest giants serve as a stark reminder of the periodic forest fires that rage across these peaks during the dry summer months.

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Lush bracken fern populate a burned area of the forest.

The thick, acrid smell of charred timber hangs in the mountain air for months, even years, after these raging infernos have passed through and consumed a once thriving grove of Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. These ferns, along with other ground cover, will eventually be replaced by new pine and fir seedlings, as the forest slowly recovers and the cycle of life on Mt. Graham continues as it has for thousands of years.

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Riggs Flat Lake

Riggs Flat Lake, located near the top of Mt. Graham at 8,700 feet, is one of the most picturesque mountain lakes in Arizona and is a must-see destination for anyone visiting Mt. Graham for the first time. Surrounded by thick forests, offering premier trout fishing, hiking trails, and pristine clear and fresh mountain air, it is one of the best locations around to escape the scorching desert heat of southern Arizona summers.

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updated September 25, 2010