Time: 4 hours
About this Hike: I woke up early this morning to go for a hike. I didn't want too late of a start, as I knew temps would be rising. I was anxious about if I would be able to get a parking spot.... Sounds like a typical Saturday morning Camelback trek. Only today I drove a bit further...up to Yarnell to be exact.
I have wanted to do the Granite Mountain Hotshot Memorial State Park for a while now. Yarnell had a forecasted high in the low 90's, which sounded downright cool after the hot summer Phoenix has experienced.
The roads to get up to Yarnell from the Phoenix Valley are all in great condition, making this 90 mile drive a breeze. The only thing to watch for is the final link in the journey, Highway 89 (White Spar Highway). It is a winding mountain pass that quickly ascends some ~2000 feet or so. It splits with southbound lanes high above the northbound lanes. You head up northbound and there's a connector road to flip to the southbound side. This is critical because the park and trailhead are southbound. The junctions leading to the park are all very well signed.
I chose to stay northbound and first visit downtown Yarnell. Not that there's much to see there, but I wanted to make a quick stop at The Shrine of St. Joseph. Read up on this interesting religious site if you'd like to know more.
From Yarnell I simply headed back down 89 south (it runs together in town). Despite only 15 parking spaces, 2 of which are 10-minute-only parking, I found a slot for my vehicle. Being that this trailhead is off a busy, one-way highway, I could see people in the queue for parking becoming a real issue. Another reason I braved summer temps.
An AZ Park Ranger greeted me and warned me about going the entire 3.5 miles. He said if I was successful I could ring a bell at the trailhead. I informed him that I climb Camelback in Phoenix heat, so I suspected this wouldn't be a problem, but he warned me it's steeper than Camelback....My take: longer maybe, but not steeper.
The trail takes you ~3 miles to a lookout site. Along the way are placards with a photo and short memoir dedicated to each of the fallen 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots. A number of them were decorated with trinkets or the hotshot's favorite beer (PBR seemed to be a winner among this crew).
The lookout gives you a view down into the canyon Fatality Site. Another 3/4 of a mile down some switchbacks, and you can stand at the site yourself. A ring of cages filled with rocks (think trail cairns in Sedona) stand in a circle. These cages are actually called gabions I learned. In the middle of the circle are 19 crosses with the name of each fallen hotshot. Some people left notes on the gabions. Some left tins of the hotshot's favorite dip. Some mistook them as trash cans... Old Glory is also flying at the Fatality Site, and a solar-powered LED light ensures she's illuminated through the night.
On my way back up and over the mountain, I ran into a group of firefighters paying tribute to their fallen comrades. For how few vehicles were at the trailhead, I was surprised at the number of people I saw on the trails. It was fairly desolate, but I definitely wasn't alone.
This informative and moving hike gives you a great workout and some fantastic views of Yarnell and the Weaver Mountains. Thankfully the only wildlife I encountered were lots of little geckos running around. The vegetation is nothing but some high-desert scrub. In the 4 years since the hotshots perished here, the area shows only a little fire scaring. As you go up and over the mountain, the vegetation changes to grassland. I noted a few scrub oak near the Fatality Site. There's no big cactus or trees, and you really are in a transitional zone (~5000 feet) as the lower deserts are giving way to the pine forests in not-so-distant Prescott (~40 miles by car).
And speaking of Prescott...my original plans for this weekend called for me to be there hiking. My original itinerary called for stopping at Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial on the way home by taking the back way toward Wickenburg. I'll admit, this hike was a little tiring. I probably enjoyed it more by doing it as a day trip from Phoenix than I would have after a weekend of hiking in Prescott.
This is an out-and-back, and the downhill return didn't seem nearly as long or strenuous. Upon reaching the trailhead, I rang that bell... Overall, such a great and moving experience.
|Seating at the Fatality Site. The lookout is high above on the ridge.|
|The Fatality Site gabions|