An Odd And Overlooked Little Patch Of Arizona Beckons.
By Kevin Franklin
SOME MOUNTAINS MAINTAIN a low profile and keep their secrets hidden.
Case in point: the northern slopes of the Cerro Colorado Mountains. If you've ever driven to Arivaca from Interstate 19, you've seen the Cerro Colorados, but few people really notice them. Compared to the giants surrounding them; 9,453-foot Mount Wrightson, the massively sprawling Sierrita Mountains or the stunning 7,730-foot crag of Baboquivari Peak, the Cerro Colorado Mountains are often overlooked. They top out at 5,319 feet, and nothing much in the way of maintained roads or trails run close to them.
And yet, as I drive down a gravel road four miles to the north, I feel an aching desire to get into those forgotten mountains. The grassy eastern slope rises evenly up to a flat ridge, but the western half of the mountain is a jagged morass of red rock spires and sheer cliffs. Through the center of these jumbled stone towers runs a deep canyon, or maybe labyrinth of canyons. From this distant viewpoint it's hard to tell what secret overhangs, caves or crevices wait in those hills.
Climbing on top of my dented and muddy rig, I scope a route through my trusty monocular. I like hiking with a monocular rather than binoculars. It takes up less than half the space, weighs less than half and, at least for trail scoping, works just as well. And, to be entirely honest, I feel like a character out of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel when peering through the device with one eye shut and a cold wind blowing in my hair.
A cold wind it is, too. Snow covers the top of Cerro Colorado. I can't wait to stand on the frigid crest of that 500-foot cliff and look down onto a stream flowing through a wild canyon.
With a late-in-the-day start, I'm left with only the afternoon to explore. My limited time would best be spent climbing the accessible eastern slope and following the level ridge line over to the mountain's wilder western counterpart. From there I'll get a bird's-eye-view of the terrain below for future trips.
Between the base of the mountain and my position lies about three miles of what I believe is gently sloping grassland. The terrain between here and the mountain is difficult to read because of a nearby rise, but I should be able to race across the intervening distance to the mountain in little more than an hour.
After crossing Batamote Wash, I climb the first rise. I turn around and carefully commit the position of the truck and the surrounding terrain to memory. Whenever you begin bushwhacking cross-country, frequently turning around, taking a compass heading and seeing what your return route looks like is at least as important as keeping track of where you're going. Otherwise, when you turn around to head back, everything looks unfamiliar.
While appearing rounded and grassy at a distance, the country here consists mainly of fist-sized rocks camouflaged with thin grass and heavily seasoned with cholla and prickly pear. It's Kansas meets the Sonoran Desert on the surface of Mars.
At the top of the first rise, another much larger rise comes into view. Between the two lurks a steep and rocky wash. No problem, I mutter to Shelby the Wonder Dog. We can hammer through this. Sure enough, we do. But at the top of this larger rise we get a better view of the terrain between our starting point and ultimate destination.
Below our feet begins another downward slope into another, deeper drainage, and beyond that waits another rise. This new hill is not as tall as the one we're standing on, but beyond it I can see another hill and beyond that, yet another.
"I have a bad feeling about this," I say to my mute companion, who stops wagging her tail and gazes at the upcoming terrain with apprehension.
After two-and-half hours we succeed in crossing the dreaded foothills and even make our way partially up the eastern slope. If we leave now we have a good chance of making it back before darkness falls. To continue climbing and reach the ridge line would take the greater part of an hour. Threatening clouds are looming, promising another storm. While I have warm gear and rain gear and two flashlights, a night out here would be highly uncomfortable, if not outright hazardous.
I fold my cards and head back, sad that I failed to reach my destination, but a tad pleased that those mountains remain shrouded in mystery--a mystery I take as a personal challenge. We'll be back, Cerro Colorado.
GETTING THEREThere's bound to be a better way in, and I'll find it in the coming weeks. Nevertheless, Batamote Road begins just past milepost 18 heading west on Arivaca Road. Bear left at the fork 2.2 miles in. I began my southerly hike five miles after the pavement ends.
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