From Arid Grasslands to Snow Packed Peaks

Today was our first full day at the Santa Rita Experimental Range. We geared up for our hike up the Florida Trail (pronounced “flow-ree-dah”) and headed out around 9:00am. Periodically, we took breaks to identify and learn numerous species of plant, ranging from Agave to Douglass Fir. For much of this initial stretch of the hike, the sun was beaming down on us, and we were shedding layers accordingly. Being warm is a very good problem to have in January. About a mile and a half into it we stopped at a scenic overlook where we took a snack break (someone ate a Prickly Pear fruit) and admired the view, noting how the layers of vegetation were changing during our ascent.

As we continued up the trail, we ran into a hiker in his 50s who had passed us some time earlier, and had already been to the peak. He made us aware of the foot of snow that we would reach higher up on the trail, and said that we would likely summit in about 40 minutes. He was wearing tennis shoes and said his feet were slightly numb. Safe to say we were glad we had hiking boots on. Soon after, we stopped near several sunny logs amidst the snow to make our sandwiches for lunch. We were all quite hungry and munched in near complete silence other than the occasional “who’s got the ham?” or “where’d the mustard go?”

After finishing lunch, we continued and eventually hit the deep snow that the man had mentioned. We were lucky he had blazed the trail; otherwise we might not have known where the path lay. We’re fairly certain that we can speak for everyone in saying this part of the journey was the most taxing and treacherous, the snow slipping underfoot, as the cold wind increased in speed. Some of us decided to attempt the last leg of the trail while others made the wise decision to head back down and shed their snow-drenched garb. We were extremely elated when we made it to the top (about two hours after the man had said we would), both for the satisfaction of having made it there and because we were so tired of trudging upwards through such deep snow. We took pictures of each other and the view and took some time to drink it all in before heading back down.

We arrived back at the Experimental Station at about 5:00pm, 8 hours and 8.5 miles after we’d set out (this was likely the longest hike most of us had embarked upon). We had a wonderful supper of tabbouleh and falafel and discussed the unusual increase in tree death rates across the western US. It turns out that large trees are dying at about twice the rate they used to, likely due to global warming and possibly water stress. It startles us to think that the magnificent Ponderosa and Apache pines that we saw today may vanish in the next 40 years, as the slopes they occupy increase in temperature. Land management programs may start to spread seed for trees with increased heat-tolerance, such as Alligator Junipers, above their current range, so that as temperatures increase, trees that are able to succeed in the new conditions will take root, gradually shifting the current tree layers upwards. We also talked about the importance of introducing people to nature by surrounding them with it, so they have reason to care for it.

The view from Florida Saddle
On top of Florida Saddle