ORIGINS | JOURNEY'S THEME | LAYOUT OF THE ROUTE | APPROACH & PHILOSOPHY
PHOTO JOURNAL | MAPPING RESOURCES | DATA BOOK

New planning resources now available:

Sky Islands Traverse DATA BOOK
Mileages, water sources, town information,
and notes about the route, all in one place

Waypoint & Track Files for TOPO!
Print your own maps, hike your own hike!
Downloadable gpx files for mapping programs and GPS

Sky Islands Traverse photo journal: click here
shortcut links: Part 1: Dragoon Mtns & San Pedro Valley | Part 2: Huachuca Mtns & Canelo Hills | Part 3: Santa Rita Mtns & Las Cienegas | Part 4: Rincons & Santa Catalina Mtns | Part 5: Redfield Canyon & Galiuro Mountains


The term "sky islands" refers to bold, forest-clad mountain ranges isolated from one another by expansive valleys of grassland or desert. In the arid basin and range country of southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico, these mountains receive sufficient rainfall and snow to support a wide diversity of flora and fauna whose habitat is elevation-dependent. Unable to migrate between "islands" due to the intervening desert "seas," many of these species have evolved in comparitive isolation, as on Darwin's Galapagos.

Besides being ecologically rare and unique—the southernmost spruce-fir forest in the U.S. is found here, while many bird species more common to Central America occur no farther north—the Sky Island ranges are also stunningly scenic and alluring, in many ways defining the very character of this region. While some ranges are well known, such as the popular Santa Catalinas outside Tucson, others like the Santa Teresa Mountains remain obscure and infrequently explored by the region's burgeoning human numbers, in no small part due to their physical ruggedness and difficult access.

In the spring of 2010, the author set out on foot to explore as many of these unique Sky Islands as possible in one continuous journey, what might be called a "Sky Islands Traverse." Traveling for the most part unsupported, without the use of a vehicle, I journeyed a route of my own making along ten of the region's standout ranges and across the adjoining valleys, with an eye toward finding a rewarding adventure, a workable travel corridor, and a "repeatable experience"—that is, a hike worth hiking again, and a trip worth sharing with the long-distance hiking community. Although the way was certainly rich with challenges, and though I did not quite manage to complete a thru-hike of the route (snowpack and wintry weather forced me to skip ten miles around Mount Graham which I'd hiked previously), I found great potential in the route's layout and in the experience itself, and am eager for further exploration. Details of this Sky Islands Traverse, mile for mile arguably among the most scenic and biologically diverse long walks in the United States, are presented below as well as via the links alongside the banner just above.  .: Brett Tucker, March 2011


Origins of a Sky Islands Traverse

The idea for an extended journey across the Sky Islands region of the Southwest was born of the author's own explorations on foot across this bright corner of the country. On many of these mountain ranges one finds trailheads granting passage into the high country, but no unifying trail network to link each of the various ranges to the next and therefore no acknowledgement, from a recreational standpoint, of their inherent interconnectedness. The Arizona Trail, and of late the Grand Enchantment Trail, do connect several of the Sky Island ranges, yet both touch on this idea only in passing, leaving much of the region unexplored, and its true potential for self-powered recreation unrealized. The Sky Islands Traverse grew out of a desire to highlight the big picture which conservationists have long seen but which most of us have never experienced viscerally, firsthand. It is a route intended for the incurable explorers among us, for those perhaps who've dabbled in these hills over the years and yearned for something more—for a way of experiencing the untamed beauty of the region in a more engrossing way, without the mind-affecting limitations that come with long road trips out from the city and a vehicle forever beckoning back at the trailhead.

The Sky Islands Traverse (SKIT) is intended to provide a continuous, unbroken journey on foot, one that highlights a majority of the region's standout ranges in a cohesive and compelling manner, given the isolated nature of these mountains and vast expanses of lowland desert terrain in between. Certainly a route with such objectives, here in this region, is apt to be roundabout in nature, as it sails from island to island on its own unique voyage; and the layout described herein is but my own conception of a self-sufficient venture across this sea. If nothing more, let it be a start, a gesture toward future possibilities. On a personal level, the Sky Islands Traverse is the realization of a dream; my maiden journey was a rewarding adventure of the highest order, and one that I hope to experience again soon.


Journey's Theme

As a general rule, the 70,000-square-mile Sky Island region of Arizona, New Mexico, and northern Old Mexico is said to contain perhaps two dozen of these island-like ranges—a veritable archipelago. By design, the SKIT remains entirely north of the Mexican border, on the ranges administered by the US Forest Service, in the process ruling out perhaps half of these. Also out of the running: New Mexico. Despite playing host to considerable mountain and desert grandeur in its southwestern region, nonetheless this state's Sky Islands remain less well defined, and tend to be less prominent than those across the state line in Arizona, with access also presenting considerable challenges to extended exploration.

In Arizona, then, the route's objective is to highlight as many of the Sky Islands as possible, without charting course too far out to sea. Certainly the low country in this region runs the gamut, from lush, saguaro-studded bajadas to sere basins of greasewood and salt playas; natural travel corridors such as the San Pedro River often give way to areas less conducive to human-powered recreation, due either to land ownership concerns, the inhospitality of the landscape itself, or both. Challenge is unavoidable, certainly, and must be embraced, but let it be the best kind of challenge, commensurate with the reward of a windswept outlook, a secret canyon, or cactus forest.


Layout of the Route

The journey begins in the legendary Dragoon Mountains, whose rugged granite spires once served as the holdout of Chief Cochise and the Chiricahua Apache. Rather than paying homage to a compass heading as on most long hikes, the Sky Islands Traverse forms something of a spiral, which in this case runs clockwise (counterclockwise in autumn, to reach the lower regions later in the season when it's cooler). The route is indeed circuitous—unavoidable given the concept at hand—though any sense of aimless wandering may well be exceeded by the joy of exploring the trip's engaging itinerary in full.

The accompanying map highlights some of the major attractions along the route, which include:

SKIT 3D Map - click for full-size
  • 10 of the Sky Island ranges* (Dragoons, Huachucas, Santa Ritas, Rincons, Santa Catalinas, Galiuros, Santa Teresas, Pinalenos, Dos Cabezas, and Chiricahuas)*
  • 10 officially designated Wilderness areas, six of which are administered by the US Forest Service, three by the Bureau of Land Management, and one by the National Park Service.
  • The east district of Saguaro National Park (which includes the Saguaro Wilderness)
  • Fort Bowie National Historic Site (administered by the National Park Service)
  • Chiricahua National Monument (accessible via a short trip off the main route)

    * The map (see below) implies approximately 100,000 feet of elevation gain in 520 miles of walking, for an average gradient of 3.6%. (The GET, by comparison, has ~110,000' in 730 miles, a 2.8% average gradient; the venerable Appalachian Trail: 4.5%.)

San Pedro Riparian NCA

The San Pedro River remains one of the Southwest's last undammed, free-flowing streams, and is especially unique given its perennial course through the low country of the Chihuahuan-Sonoran desert eco-region. This important riparian corridor is also home to more than 250 species of native and migratory birds. An extended portion of the river between the Mexican border and community of St. David, Arizona is protected as the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. This corridor provides a natural travel route between the surrounding ranges and in no small way makes a link between the Dragoons and Huachuca Mountains possible.

Linking it all together

Land Ownership map, with elevation profile - click for full-size

The 520 mile long Sky Islands Traverse (SKIT) also receives help in no small part from the Arizona Trail (AZT) and Grand Enchantment Trail (GET), the two established long-distance routes that thread this region. Other on-the-ground resources—various trails and roads—permit connections between the two big routes and beyond. Occasional stretches of cross-country travel also facilitate passage, and a few of these, as mapped and explored to date, are fairly "out there" by long-distance hiking standards, even when compared with the CDT and GET. These are outliers in the course of the adventure, which is more moderate overall, but are real challenges all the same, approachable with the right attitude and hiking skill set (and avoidable only at the cost of greater inconvenience, or so it seems as of this writing).

Once in the Huachuca Mountains, the SKIT joins the Arizona Trail, next crossing the Santa Rita Mountains, with a brief diversion here in order to spend more time along the high crest of this rugged range. The route then remains faithful to the Arizona Trail until the Wilderness of Rock region of the Santa Catalinas, where the SKIT strikes out eastward in order to explore challenging and spectacular Redfield Canyon as well as the Galiuro Mountains, here trending northward toward a rendezvous with the Grand Enchantment Trail at the lonely outpost of Klondyke. The SKIT coincides with the GET over the Santa Teresa Mountains and across the Pinalenos (aka the Grahams), then heads off on its own once more as the pioneering journey continues south across what might be termed the Pinaleno-Chiricahua Divide. Here begins perhaps the most adventurous portion of the journey, as the SKIT traverses a region little-explored and notably lacking in established trails, though certainly wild, remote, and scenic. The Dos Cabezas Mountains Wilderness might be considered the heart of this untamed country. Farther along the SKIT reaches Fort Bowie National Historic Site, where it follows the historic Butterfield Stage Route for a time. A bonafide trail network, somewhat vestigial initially, does return as the route reaches the Chiricahua Mountains proper, then blossoms into a landscape of recreational bounty as it passes the famed rock formations of Chiricahua National Monument and on into this range's high country wilderness. The Sky Islands Traverse ends at a windswept fire lookout atop Silver Peak, towering above the birder's paradise of Cave Creek Canyon, sometimes called the Yosemite of the Southwest, just outside the surpassingly scenic village of Portal, as seen here.


Approach & Philosophy

My own journey along the Sky Islands Traverse, in March and April of 2010, unfolded in traditional long-distance hiking style. My intent was to walk a continuous, unbroken route between the SKIT's termini, and to resupply along the way via postal maildrops and/or stores. Resupply opportunities—around 8 all told—are fairly abundant in near-to-trail towns, especially in the first half of the trip; indeed I was able to forgo some of these in favor of extending my time in the backcountry. Although distances between water sources along the route may occasionally prove inconvenient, I was always able to find water more than once a day given the prior winter's average-to-above-average precipitation, and did not need to rely on pre-arranged caches.

While the lead-up to this trip in many ways resembled the time I spent planning my first walk of what I later came to call the Grand Enchantment Trail, it was also distinct from that, as was the nature of the journey itself. I intentionally tried to avoid putting too fine a point on this project prior to actually walking the walk, having learned that reality "on the ground" is so often impossible to predict, and best approached with a nimble attitude rather than a fixed itinerary and mindset. Rather than trying to nail down every last detail before setting off, I tried instead to direct my focus on simply getting out there and exploring this remarkable Sky Island region, to learn what the land has to teach, and to behold what remnants of vitality it continues to possess in this time of ever-expanding human influence on the natural landscape. Granted, plenty of effort went into making a "best guess" route layout beforehand, and I was fortunate to find that my plan worked reasonably well. Many portions of the mapped route met or exceeded expectations, while others were passable if less than ideal (or perhaps the better for it, from the standpoint of having a healthy adventure!). A few of my ideas proved to be misguided, although nothing along the way presented a genuine impasse, and only weather-related concerns narrowly prevented me from completing the full thru-hike. Ultimately my intent was to embrace all parts of the experience, and the process, as necessary components of any worthwhile and rewarding adventure. With the right attitude, and the good fortune to avoid injury and illness, it seems that success in some form is always guaranteed on these pioneering journeys and is ours alone to define and ultimately to savor. The Sky Islands Traverse is in many ways just a blueprint, a trail map for personal discovery, and there are many ways to reach that destination.


Additional Resources

Photo Journal

A collection of 800+ images from the Spring 2010 exploratory hike, organized by section. Place names, features, and trails listed in the section descriptions are ordered chronologically as encountered during the trip, and are intended to offer a general sense of the chosen route. Detailed captions beneath each photo tell the story of the hike as it unfolded day by day. Click here to go to the photo journal.


Interactive Google Map

In addition to the Sky Islands Traverse overview maps on this page, the interactive Google Map below offers further perspective on the route. Google Maps lets you view multiple map types, including detailed topo maps, terrain and street maps, as well as satellite images; there's also an embedded Google Earth layer for three-dimensional viewing. The route line shown here represents a composite of what I walked and what I would walk were I to do the hike again. Probably 90% or more of the route line represents my walk, and the rest are portions of my intended walk that I missed due to snowpack concerns or are my proposed "better options" to what I walked due to difficulties encountered or ideas for improvement. (In a few cases better options have yet to be identified!) Suffice it to say this would be the most advanced template to start with if planning such a hike for yourself.

Mouse-over map to interact. For topo map, select MyTopo from dropdown menu at right.
Click here to view map in a separate, resizable window (with Data Book waypoint locations).
Special thanks to Postholer.com for facilitating the Google Map



Google Earth KML

View the route directly in the Google Earth standalone app using the file below. All you'll need is
Google Earth
on your desktop. Then just click on the following link to launch the file. (Or right click > Save As.) Overlayed on Google Earth's seamless, high-detail satellite imagery, it offers an astonishingly realistic and informative look at the terrain through which the route passes.


          
sky-islands-traverse.kml (v1.0)


GPX Tracks & Waypoints

The same data presented in the Google Earth file above is also available in GPS eXchange Format (GPX). Three separate files are available for download: a GPX track for displaying a trace of the route in mapping programs like TOPO! (Arizona state series) and TopoFusion, a somewhat less data-rich track formatted specifically for uploading to a GPS unit, and a waypoint file with points of interest and mileages that can be used both in mapping programs and GPS devices. Click on the following links to download the files (right click > Save As.)

Disclaimer: Use of these files is solely at the user's own risk. This data is intended for informational purposes only and does not represent an endorsement of a specific route. Hike your own hike.
map data track  (v1.0) Detailed trace of the route described by 13,000+ data points. Loads as a collection of 8 tracks, divided by suggested resupply sections. (In TOPO!, import the tracks as "freehand routes" rather than waypoints.)
GPS track (v1.0) GPS-friendly track file of the entire route with 10,000 data points. (Loads in a GPS unit as 20 tracks of 500 waypoints each.)
waypoint file (v1.0) Nearly 470 waypoints describing specific points of interest along the route. Waypoint names are actual milepoints (example name: "MP10.5") and are keyed to data book entries (see Data Book section below). *

sample map using TOPO! - click for full-size

Notes on the Map Data Track and Waypoint File:
These two files can be imported together into TOPO! (Arizona state series) to create a detailed mapping resource. In Preferences > GPS > Waypoint Display, select 'Show Both Name and Coordinate' to see waypoint names (which are milepoints along the route) and their corresponding GPS waypoints. This information will be superimposed on the SKIT route line (trail trace) and base map data, and you could then print something akin to field-worthy topo maps. Click the thumbnail at right for an idea of what to expect.

* Regarding the waypoint file, some GPS units won't accept a decimal point in a waypoint name (e.g. "MP10.5"). In this case, the decimal point can be changed manually to the well-accepted "-" (en dash) symbol using find & replace in a text editor. You can also get around this problem when importing the waypoint file in TOPO! by first selecting one of the newer GPS receivers in Preferences > GPS > Receiver Type. Note, too, that all of the waypoints in this file, just like the GPS track file data, have been derived from mapping software and will most likely be a little off vs. reality in the field. Mileages (ie, the waypoint names) are the same as those listed in the Data Book (see below) and are based on an adjusted total trail length of 520 miles. This figure is around 5% longer than the total trail length indicated by the map data track (trail trace) and should help to correct for computational errors and provide more realistic mileages between points.


Sky Islands Traverse Data Book

Everyone loves a good spreadsheet. This one attempts to combine as much useful data as possible in one place, and includes nearly 500 data points highlighting which trails and tracks the route employs, along with mileages, elevations, important junctions, water source and resupply locations, and other points of interest along the way. Most locations listed in the Data Book are paired with waypoints in the GPX waypoint file (see above) and the two can be cross-referenced by milepoint. (This should become obvious once you load the waypoint file in TOPO! See the above map for an example. The idea is to be able to print and carry the maps alongside the Data Book and to use the two resources together for planning and navigation in the field.)

All locations in the Data Book are also paired with waypoint locations displayed on the Google Map, for handy visualization. Locate a feature of interest in the Description column on the chart, then click on its link to see that data point (including GPS waypoint in decimal degrees) highlighted on the map.

Download the Data Book as a PDF file via the link below (right click > Save As). Or click here to view it online at the postholer.com website. The PDF version of the Data Book will eventually be expanded to include more info to help with navigating the route, links to websites with trail descriptions, and more. Watch for version 1.1, available later in 2011.

Data Book (PDF) (v1.0)

Special thanks to Postholer.com for facilitating the Data Book format.


Talk Back

If you happen to find the above resources useful, or if you have suggestions for improvement, please let us know! We're not actively encouraging others to hike the exact route layout as described, and are less interested in fielding specific questions about planning and hiking it. On a route as undeveloped as this, your hike should be your decision and responsibility, and this information should only serve as a catalyst for having a rewarding and ultimately unique journey across this remarkable Sky Island region. Happy adventuring!



For more information about the greater Sky Island eco-region, and about the threats it faces from human encroachment and climate change, please visit the homepage of the Sky Island Alliance. In particular, the Alliance's "state of the Coronado" reports provide a wealth of information on the Sky Island ranges overseen by the Coronado National Forest, including all of those encountered on a journey along the SKIT.




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