B y K e v i n F r a n k l i n
A MOONLIGHT HIKE in the desert is cool, pleasant and offers up things hidden by day, like the nearby call of a coyote or the rustle of a kangaroo rat bounding away. But under cover of darkness city hooligans also emerge, spewing into the bordering countryside.
The good and bad of nighttime tear at Mark Brosseau, Tucson Mountain Park manager.
Brosseau sees activities like moonlight hikes in the park as legitimate, but in the morning he also sees the destruction wreaked on the park by vandals and cactus thieves. For that reason the park closes at 10 p.m., and, unless you have a special-use permit, chasing moonshadows around the park is illegal.
Driving into Gilbert Ray Campground a little after 10 p.m., the Out There gang is unaware of this particular rule. With a full moon high in the sky and a nice loop trail in mind, Tucson Mountain Park seems a perfect place to be.
In her first-rate book, Tucson Hiking Guide, Betty Leavengood writes about a 5.3 mile loop trail starting off at the Gilbert Ray Campground, just across from where Old Tucson Studios used to be.
Rolling into the campground just off McCain Loop Drive, we follow the signs through dozens of parked RVs lined up in their designated slips like slumbering elephants.
In her book, Leavengood makes it sound as though you can park near the trail without taking up site A31. This is not really true, unless you park on the narrow road itself.
Technically, in order to use that space, you need to stop at the ranger station, fill out a self-registration form, pull out $6 and pretend to be camping there.
Technicalities can be a nuisance.
I leave hoping my truck becomes invisible to the powers that be. I figure I don't plan to stay, so shouldn't have to pay. In the past, this strategy has had greater success with park rangers than meter maids.
Organized groups can get special-use permits from Pima County Parks and Recreation by writing to Brosseau (at Pima County Parks and Recreation, 1204 W. Silverlake Road, Tucson, AZ 85713), explaining what they want to do and when. The permits are free. The other option is to pay the $6 and get a campsite. This is not a problem in the summer, when Gilbert Ray Campground barely reaches 10 percent of its capacity. In the winter, with hordes of snowbirds at hand, plan to arrive by 11 a.m.
At the outset, this seems like a mighty bureaucratic hassle just to use a public park. Unfortunately, says Brosseau, as Tucson grows and the number of scofflaws destroying property and plant life also grows, law enforcement has become nearly impossible for Pima County's tiny Parks and Recreation staff. The only way to keep outright anarchy from ruling the park at night is to have the Sheriff's Department cite all vehicles it encounters not in a campsite.
Unaware of the greater forces afoot, we find the small sign indicating the beginning of our route. Most folks use this trail to walk over to Old Tucson Studios. After dropping into a big wash and hiking for a couple hundred yards, you come to a dirt road. The masses go left. Turn right and follow the telephone poles and a beat-up road into the desert.
The hike is a level desert trek. Thick groves of palo verde and mesquite trees accented by towering saguaros and frequent washes make this hike an exploration of desert life, more than anything else.
And the best time to look for desert life is at night.
Unfortunately, the odds of encountering that life drop sharply if you bring the dog and accompanying clanking tags.
But even so, coyote materialized not far off the trail. We also came across a curved-bill thrasher sleeping in a tree and a cactus wren nest--with eggs--in a cholla. The wrens nest from mid-March to September.
But what this trail is really about is plant life. Right now the palo verde trees are blooming, and while they're not particularly fragrant, their yellow flowers are visible even in the moonlight.
We find several palo verdes serving as nurse trees for nearly a dozen saguaros each. When they start life as seedlings, saguaros are vulnerable to trampling or overexposure to the sun and heat. The saguaros that do survive are most often found beneath the protective boughs of a nurse tree. Eventually, if the saguaros survive, their shallow roots may intercept the tree's rainwater and kill it.
This loop makes a good moonlight hike because it uses old roads for the most part and is fairly easy to follow. The loop is a square formed by two parallel service roads joined by the Old Tucson Studio trail and another unnamed trail. The first road fades from road to trail back to road, but if you keep an eye on the telephone poles the road always returns to, you will find your way.
Watch out when you cross a large wash. The road crosses the wash quickly and continues on. Don't follow the wash for a long way thinking it will rejoin the road. It doesn't.
After two miles on this road, look for a stable and prefabricated house. Those structures mark the park boundary, and as soon as they come into view start looking for the trail juncture off to the right. It's marked by a line of stones crossing the old road.
This trail goes for a half mile and connects with the other, better-maintained road. Take a right and follow this back toward Gilbert Ray Campground. After about two and a half miles, the road takes a sharp turn to the left, or north. Look for a smaller road heading off to the right with a little saguaro growing in the middle of it. This smaller road will take you back into the campground. Head toward the ranger station and follow the signs back to where you parked your vehicle.
You might not even have a ticket.
Getting There:Take Gates Pass Road to Kinney Road and turn right, continuing to the sign for McCain Loop Drive. Take that road and look for the sign marking Gilbert Ray Campground to your left. Fill out the campsite registration card and follow the signs to the vicinity of campsite A31.
Mapage: The Brown Mountain 7 1/2 minute topographical map shows the lay of the land and the roads, but not the connecting trails. The Tucson Regional Mountain Park recreation map shows the trails and mileage, but not the contours.
Paws to rest: Moonlight hikes are well-suited for panting partners, but the occasional thorn removal comes with the territory.
Photo by Kevin Franklin
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