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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Springtime hike in the Santa Catalina Mountains

Pusch Ridge Wilderness

Half blaze-ravaged moonscape, half creek side woodland, this famously crowded loop hike makes for an interesting first-hand look at the cycle of wildfire forest destruction and subsequent regeneration.
Willowy, white-barked aspens--the quintessential trees of mountain climes--depend on fire for their survival. This species needs lots of sunlight to grow and reproduce, and their natural lifecycle includes succumbing to the shade and crowding brought on by encroaching conifers. When wildfires clear the trees and open the forest floor to sunlight, aspens shoot up rapidly, and right now, they’re having a heyday on the slopes of Mt. Lemmon.
A hike on the Aspen-Marshall Gulch loop showcases this miracle of nature in progress. The tour begins on Aspen Trail #93, progressing uphill through a patchwork of burned areas, fir woodlands and clusters of aspens. Soon, the path enters a dell of slender white-trunk sprouts with vivid green leaves that rustle and sway in a graveyard of charred pine stumps. Beyond this point the route ducks in and out of scorched tracts and intact woodlands before emerging on a sooty, snag-cluttered saddle. Here, the dramatic effects of recent blazes draw visceral reactions. It’s a charred and barren scab of a place. The trail gets a bit sketchy in this area, so watch for cairns leading up to the junction with Marshall Gulch Trail #3. Here, the route leaves the ashen badlands passing through a labyrinth of stone before heading downhill and into another world replete with creek side maples, ferns and alders rounding out the dichotomous flavor of this hike.
View from Aspen Trail

LENGTH: 5.1-mile loop
ELEVATION: 7,410 – 8,400 feet
RATING: difficult
DISTANCE FROM PHOENIX: 158 miles one-way
Aspen sapplings
From I10 in Tucson, take the Grant Road exit 256 and go 8.7 miles east to Tanque Verde Road. Turn left and continue 3.4 miles to Catalina Highway go left and drive uphill 27 miles through Summerhaven to the end of the road at the Marshall Gulch picnic area. Roads are 100% paved.

FEE: $5 Catalina Highway daily fee per vehicle
FACILITIES: restrooms, picnic area,
INFO: Santa Catalina Ranger District, Coronado National Forest, (520) 749-8700

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