Monday, April 25, 2016

Sky Islands Traverse

Sky Islands Traverse:


The Madrean Archipelago is a vast and vital ecosystem around southeast Arizona, southwest New Mexico, and northern Mexico. The Chihuahua and Sonora Deserts sprawl this remote region like an ocean of sand, of rock, of grasslands, of pokey and spiny desert fauna. Within this ocean lie mountain ranges that span thousands of feet skyward from the desert floor to the mountain tops. These ranges draw in rain and snow clouds which provide crucial water to the surrounding ecosystem. This region is where the temperate and tropical zones meet providing ample water in the form of monsoons. Abundant diversity in wildlife and fauna adapt and thrive within a few thousand steep feet above. However, the virtual sea of the desert can pose a major obstacle to a landlocked organism from one mountain range to another. From atop one of these ranges one can visualize the mountain ranges resembling an archipelago, or the Sky Islands. I set out this Spring to connect 10 of the Sky Islands in one of the most important ecosystems in North America, all within southeast Arizona.

The Route:

Credit to pioneering such a challenging route and conceptualizing the Sky Island Traverse (SkIT) goes to Brett Tucker, who is widely known for the Grand Enchantment Trail, a 750m route from Albuquerque to Phoenix. His website gives an in depth summary of the SkIT. Here's a link for a more thorough background.

The 520m corkscrew route starts at the Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains, then follows the San Pedro River Corridor lined with giant cottonwoods, birds galore, and running water all within a desert valley. The Huachucas near and from the valley floor you climb up to some 9,000ft to the crest only to plummet some 4,000ft below to the Canelo Hills. The SkIT coincides with the Arizona Trail at this point and heads for the Santa Rita Mountains. Then a pretty desert jaunt filled with saguaro and ocotillo to the broad Rincons, steeply up and down and across another high valley and into the Santa Catalinas. The SkIT diverts from the AZT at Summerhaven, at this point. From here the route gets more remote, more rugged, and less defined. The Galiuros and the Santa Teresa highlight the ruggedness and the spirit of this isolated and chiseled country, including a scramble up into Redfield Canyon. After your overgrown thrashing you ascend very high into the alpine country of the Pinalenos, which may have lingering snow. After an undulating traverse of the eastern flanks of the Pinalenos the SkIT takes a more cross country approach through more desert mountain ranges. The Dos Cabezas Range promote grit and toughness. The cattle I saw in this range are the most athletic cattle I have seen anywhere, jumping up boulder strewn ravines and canyon walls. After the Dos Cabezas spits you out the Chiricahua await. Rough and tumble, fire ravaged and remote, you walk under the splendor of Cochise's Head in the north, then hit the high country at Rustlers Park. The route sticks to the crest where one can see all 10 Sky Island mountain ranges you have just traversed, some 500m. A true splendor indeed. Down birdsong Cave Creek and up to the Silver Peak Lookout near Portal, AZ for the finish.


I hike for a connection---with the environment, with a themed route, with the culture of an area, and most importantly nature. After hiking the Arizona and Grand Enchantment Trails as part of the Vagabond Loop in 2013, I felt the presence of a larger landscape, an immense ecosystem, something bigger that I needed to explore in Sky Island country. The AZT and GET explore some part of the Sky Islands, but I needed more, something to tie it all together, the deserts and the mountains. I found the Sky Island Traverse on Tucker's website. From there I simply waited for the right time to attempt this route.

There's something else too. A theme, a route I can delve into history, that I can connect with the past. The SkIT seemed to fit the bill. It did. The route is a very historical and educable featuring Native American culture, the Cochise and the Apache Wars, the Old West, mining, and, most interestingly enough, biological diversity in wildlife and fauna. The SkIT fulfilled my thirst of knowledge within a long distance hike.

Route Difficulty:

The SkIT is a legit long distance hike. In some respects, for the 520m hiked seemed tougher than the whole 750m hiked on the GET. There may be various reasons for that but the sheer ruggedness, elevation profile, and a high bushwhacking propensity all compacted in a shorter mileage seem to etch a firm reason. In particular, the last 6 mountain ranges---the Santa Catalina, Santa Teresa, Galiuros, the Pinalenos, Dos Cabezas, and the Chiracahua, all strung together in the last 250m or so pose a huge and rewarding challenge. Excellent navigation skills are a must and a need to be a little bit of a glutton for punishment is a must. After the well-groomed AZT, the SkIT's route follows very overgrown paths full of catclaw, mesquite, and other prickly plants, and bushwhacks up remote canyons, ridges and saddles without a trail in burned country, let alone overgrown.


Tucker's website has a great set for the route, as well as a Data Book, which I highly recommend using.


The SkIT took me a hard 20 days, with 2 consecutive zero days due to an illness midway through the hike. Expect to take up to a month to complete this very challenging route. Averaging 25mpd in this environment is equivalent to mid-30s on the PCT. Please do not take this rugged route lightly. 

I recommend a mid to late March tramp. Early April is sufficient if you are an efficient and in-shape hiker. Any earlier than the timeframe mentioned you can expect snow above 9,000ft, especially the Pinalenos, while on the other hand, if you start later than mentioned you can expect the sweltering heat of the desert stretches.


While there are options, few exist, and amenities in each stop are rare save for Patagonia. The first 250m has better cell coverage and is closer to civilization. The last 250m are 'out there.' Here's what I did:

•Patagonia, mile 0-119. Groceries, restaurants, and a place to stay.

•Summerhaven, mile 119-246. Post Office and a restaurant. Small general store too.

•Klondyke, mile 246-322. Very specific package delivery instructions. No services. See Tucker's website for explicit details!

•Bowie, mile 322-436. Post Office, a mini mart, 2 gas stations. That's it. 9m hike or hitch. I did both.

•Portal, mile 436-520. Lodge and cafe. Not much else. Good food though!


Brett Tucker is known to me as the 'Water Whisperer.' He seems to create routes with readily sources of flowing or other forms of accessible water. I treated my water while filling up in the San Pedro River and a few other earthen cow tanks in the desert south of I10 on the AZT. Almost every other source I drank untreated. I was surprised at the actual amount of flowing water on the SkIT. Twice I carried 3 gallons, the most I carried at any given time. That being said, I am a relative dromedary and even though water sources are plentiful along the SkIT, taking proper precaution and planning ahead may serve a hiker well in still a 'desert' region.

Also, water resources are vital to the Sky Island Ecosystem. Please take care of the sources and try not to pollute the sensitive watering holes. You're not the only one out in this area who needs this precious resource.


•Lonesomeness. Spending time alone in such a vast and isolated country was exactly what I needed. Open skies, my thoughts, reflection, rough and challenging country--that's it.

•Social encounters. I hardly saw anyone out there. But I enjoyed chatting up a few AZT hikers. On my first day on trail I met a family in the Dragoons, pretty far out there in the country under some huge rock formations. I had wished I had only met them in the evening. Then, I could've camped with them. Fast forward two weeks later and I randomly meet Joe in the Santa Catalinas on the crest. He was working at the observatory on Mt. Bigelow. Such a random coincidence!

One last social experience I loved, which was totally comical. Upon arriving in Portal I sat down to meal, the first sit-down meal in 12 days. I inquired about a place to stay in town but the lodge was all booked up. Further down the road the town of Rodeo, NM had vacancy. Most of the information was from a gal named Karen. She was super helpful and seemed to be interested in what I had just done. Anyways, a hitch later and I was in Rodeo at a motel finally washing my clothes after 3 weeks. After getting all cleaned up I strolled to a cafe only to find all places to eat were closed on Sundays. Dejectedly I walked back to the motel. Waiting 15 hours in a motel room and a town with nothing to eat in the middle of nowhere would pose a greater endurance challenge for a long distance hiker than the Sky Island Traverse! Eventually, I explained the situation to the motel clerk and I hoped to buy some farm fresh eggs. He came out with leftovers from a BBQ and some eggs. I microwaved the 3 eggs, mixed them up with a red rice and beans mixture, threw in some BBQ sauce, and grubbed down. The next morning I stumbled into the cafe, now open, for breakfast. After eating I went to pay and 'Bill from the church' took care of my meal. I guess news had traveled fast in a small town of a weary and hungry hiker. Anyways, I now had to hitch 175m to Tucson. Walking down a lonely and isolated highway I finally thumbed a ride. Karen, the gal from Portal from the night before, was cruising on by and headed to Tucson. She spoke of the area as an historian and knew of the Sky Island area so in depth I gained a bigger understanding of what I had just accomplished and why I felt so tied to this area. These random and fortunate events I feel so grateful for. Never would I have expected such occurrences.

•Wildlife. The diversity on the SkIT is CRAZY! Supposedly more species of mammals, birds, reptiles, ants, and bees are found in this region than anywhere in the country. Birds come from the south so hearing a tropical squawk is not uncommon. The birds tantalized me while hiking. From the bright red Arizona cardinal to the funny squeal of the black hawk to the goofiness of the quail all kept me entertained. Coati, coyote, whitetail deer, tons of javelina--you name it, I saw it. But my best wildlife encounter was right after a coati growled, chomped its teeth at me, and refused to leave the trail. After going around this interesting critter, I stumbled upon a large black bear, some 100ft away from me, sitting on its hind end with its head and forefeet inside of a cow carcass. He was scraping off the last of the rancid meat. He fell back and looked up at me and lumbered away slowly until he took to a jog up a very steep hillside. I watched him for a few minutes until I had plenty of room to bolt on through. It was exhilarating! This was in Wood Canyon in the northern Chiricahua.

•Fauna. Wild sycamores appeal to me. I feel an urge to pet the beautiful white and smooth bark. The Sky Islands have canyons lined with these awesome trees. Next to the ponderosa, these trees are my favorite. Among other trees like the madrone, I have got to mention the spiny stuff---catclaw, ocotillo, various types of cactus, mesquite---all make me tougher, all empower me to have a stronger will to survive. Sounds weird, but I find inspiration in the oddest of places. Like overgrown paths.

•The Challenge, the Mountains. The Galiuros, the Santa Teresa, the Pinalenos, the Dos Cabezas, and the Chiracahua, all strung and traversed one after another really pushed my endurance and skill level. However, the beauty and rawness of those areas kept me so focused at the task at hand, in the moment, and so connected with the landscape around me. In particular, the Chiracahua really inspired me, really drilled a sense of spirituality in me that seemed mysterious yet palpable. The wildness, the spirit of Cochise, I'm not sure yet, but I can tell you I will be back in that area. As soon as I entered the Chiracahua I felt the draw of the that magical area.


  1. Great writeup & beautiful photos. Congrats, DM!

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you Swanson. Now I'm on the Pacfic Crest Trail hoofing it.

  3. That sounds like such a rad hike! Top level stuff for sure

  4. It's awesome that someone other than Blisterfree has finally done this route. I'd eyed it for years, at least hoping to do the eastern (non-GET)stretch sometime. Disco tipped me off that you'd done it, and I'm glad to have read this GLOWING write up. Cheers.

  5. Woop! Just read the whole thing after two shows! I guess I'm doing my research after the fact. A spring break trip with families and kids to NM whet my appetite. Cheers DM!

  6. Thanks D-low and Eric! Get out there! :)