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Monday, April 29, 2024

Granite Mountain Hot Shots Juniper Hike


Granite Mountain Hot Shots juniper

On the Department of Forestry and Fire Management Magnificent Trees Program and the Arizona Magnificent Tree Registry, it’s listed simply as “Tree 4126.”  But the enormous Alligator Juniper has a history that transcends its drab catalog callout.

Riparian trees near Division Well on FR9162U

Located in

Prescott National Forest west of Granite Mountain Wilderness, the gnarled old tree is best known as the Granite Mountain Hot Shots Tree.

Mountain vista on Upper Pasture Trail

 It’s named in honor of the 20 wildland firefighters who saved it during the June 2013 Doce Fire that burned about 7,000 acres 10 miles northwest of downtown Prescott.  Tragically, 19 members of the team perished in the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013.
Gate on FR 9162U

The iconic Yavapai County Alligator Juniper (Juniperus deppeana) stands 52 feet high and has a circumference of 324 inches.  It’s crown spreads to an average of 70 feet. 

The Hot Shots Juniper is over 50 feet tall

There are over 200 Arizona trees on the Arizona Magnificent Tree Registry that includes myriad species sorted into three categories.  

Signs of the 2013 Doce Fire on White Rock Springs

Champion Trees are those that are the largest in the state or nation.  Heritage Trees hold cultural significance such as for a commemoration, and Witness Trees are those that have been growing in the same spot since before Arizona Statehood (1912).
Agaves on the Upper Pasture Trail

The Hot Shots Juniper is recognized as both a state and national Champion Tree.  While its exact age is impossible to pinpoint, the tree is easily over 1,000 years old--some sources estimate it may be more than 2,500 years old--which means it is also an undisputed Arizona Witness Tree.

Upper Pasture Trail junction

Hikers interested in botany, state history or making a pilgrimage to remember the Hot Shots can visit the tree by using roads and trails in Prescott National Forest.

Spring on White Rock Springs Trail

There are several ways to make the trek, but the shortest route begins at the Contreras Trailhead off Iron Springs Road. From the north corner of the parking area, the hike follows Forest Road 9162U for 0.8-mile. The rough, rocky two-track descends to the site of Division Well, crosses a leafy drainage and heads steeply uphill to a gate that marks the beginning of Upper Pasture Trail No.38. 

White Rock Springs Trail junction

Trail 38 is a repurposed horse road constructed in the 1800s. The wide, gently undulating track is largely unshaded, passing through chaparral punctuated with agaves, cacti and spots of pinyon pine and junipers.  Excellent views Big Chino Valley and the distant Santa Maria Mountains dominate the northern horizon, but it’s the hulking presence of Granite Mountain and Little Granite Mountain to the east that really commands attention.  Rising to 7,626 and 7,089 feet respectively, the massifs appear as enormous boulder piles with weather-worn stones spilling down their flanks. 
Boulders line White Rock Springs Trail

On the high ridges, chockstones balance in tenuous poses pierced by scrub oak and manzanita.  At the 1.8-mile point, the route heads north (left) at the White Rock Springs Trail No. 39 junction.  
Upper Pasture Trail is an old horse road

Now a dirt singletrack, the trail passes remnants of the 2013 Doce Fire. Eleven years on, charred snags and burnt brush are ceding space to new growth.  A lush spring area at the end of a rough-cut drainage sits at the base of a granite wall, surrounded by willows, cottonwoods, buffalo-bur and wildflowers.  A half-mile in on Trail 39, the route crosses a major sandy drainage.  A few yards past the waterway, chunks of white quartz placed in the sand point the way to an unsigned trail that leads to the Hot Shot Juniper.  

The short spur path ends at the tree and a memorial erected under its massive canopy.  

Memorial at the Hot Shots Juniper

Words,  photos, and statistics are inadequate tools for describing the twisted giant.  Hints of its unknowable origins and secrets of its resilience are best expressed in the resinous, ash-tinged mountain breezes that rattle its branches. 
AZ Black rattlesnake on Upper Pasture Trail

Hike starts at the Contreras Trailhead

LENGTH: 4.8 miles round trip (out-and-back hike)

RATING: moderate

ELEVATION: 5,294 – 5,548 feet


Contreras Trailhead:

From historic downtown Prescott, go north on Montezuma Street (which will turn into Whipple Street and then Iron Springs Road) and continue 10 miles to Contreras Road (County Road 122) on the right.  Follow CR122 for 0.7-mile to the trailhead on the right. Low clearance vehicles park here. Hike begins by walking FR9162U at the north end of the parking lot.  OPTION: High clearance (4x4 recommended) vehicles may be driven 0.8-mile on FR9162U to the Trail 38 trailhead.  Contreras Road is maintained dirt suitable for most vehicles up to the lower trailhead.


Prescott National Forest

Arizona’s Magnificent Trees

American Forests Champion Tree Registry

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