Meeting the Mountains

Including a step-by-step tour to Mt. Lemmon, a new book might be the only guide to the Catalinas you'll ever need

Team an invigorated invertebrate zoologist with an avid arthropodist, a pair of inquisitive minds whose studies border on legendary, with a quest to know even more—and you come up with this definitive work.

Writing the book's foreword, author and avowed desert rat Bill Broyles notes the Santa Catalina Mountains become good friends to anyone residing in Southern Arizona. "I continue to live under the spell of the Catalinas, their great beauty and deep mysteries, and an opportunity to learn about the ecology and natural history of the Southwest."

This spiral-bound compendium is the guidebook we've always wanted to introduce readers to the history of 65 isolated mountain ranges that "rise across the landscape like green islands in a desert sea," according to the authors.

The Catalinas are one of 32 sky island ranges found north of the U.S.-Mexico border and the one closest to our backyard, via Mount Lemmon Highway. In making the trek, you'll travel through the warp and weft of more than a billion years of geological history along the way. To wit: "A drive up the mountain is analogous to driving from Mexico to Canada, passing through multiple biomes stacked one atop the other as you ascend.

"Venture up the mountain, spend time there, look closely at what you see and immerse yourself in something quite special—beyond the everyday world—that reaffirms your sense of place and wonder."

Page after page of words of wisdom are reinforced by colorful illustrations that help the curious learn more about sky islands—a world unto themselves. Where readers go within the pages and what they get out of the content depends on what they're looking for because there is, literally, something for everyone.

Some of the factoid snippets are eye-opening. Most folks who relish time in the outdoors via Sabino Canyon know this Southwestern oasis has water year-round flowing down from a 9,000-foot peak, much of it a tea-like color caused by tannin leaching from pine needles, oak leaves and other detritus.

Fish, from the threatened native Gila chub to introduced exotics like mosquitofish, inhabit those waters. But were you aware that one of the most surprising discoveries in the canyon has been "jellyfish," the medusa stage of an introduced invasive hydroid?

If your interest is geology, the authors will take you through a chronology of how geological forces created what we see today, introducing the Madrean sky islands before presenting a biotic history of those islands. From there, the focus is on the Catalinas themselves—the varieties of trees to look for, the disparate flora and fauna from valley to mountaintop, and the arthropods, reptiles, amphibians and mammals that might be encountered as well as the many birds to be added to birders' life lists.

This book reads like a one-semester class, beginning with introductory "lectures" on myriad subjects followed by a compulsory midterm exam halfway through the publication. But this is not a test you need to cram for—it's one to be taken slowly and appreciated thoroughly. It's learning for fun.

Chapter 6 is titled "A Drive up the Mt. Lemmon Highway—10 Recommended Stops." If readers don't feel they've gotten their money's worth to this point, they will from here on.

Stop No. 1 is at 3,200 feet, the trailhead for Soldier Trail, a classic example of a saguaro-paloverde forest. At 3,500 feet is Stop No. 2, the Babad Do'ag vista point, a desert grassland spot that offers a good look at Tucson and the four mountain ranges that surround the Old Pueblo.

Stop No. 3, at the Molino Canyon overlook, brings you to the first large canyon encountered on the climb. By the time you arrive at Stop No. 4, you've reached 4,750 feet and the Molino Basin campground and picnic area, where grassland meets oak.

Because the authors worked tirelessly to bring readers a top-to-bottom treatise, you'll have to buy a copy to discover the wonders waiting at the remaining stops. Armed with a sense of adventure and curiosity, Brusca and Moore invite readers to "pack a picnic lunch, grab your compass and water bottle, tie on your hiking shoes—and leave your cares in the valley below."