Hike It, Save It: Tumacacori Highlands, Arizona

Urban sprawl and local opposition lead the threats to this 84,000-acre tract of Coronado National Forest.

The Details Merely an hour from the rapidly growing Tucson metro area, the Tumacacori Highlands are one of Arizona’s sky islands–isolated mountains that rise high above the desert. Tumacacori’s micro-habitat is almost tropical, and supports Mexican vine snakes, coatimundis (related to raccoons), and even jaguars. According to Mike Quigley of Tumacacori Wild, visiting this remote country “will make you think you’re in the 19th century.” Expect crystal-clear night skies, desolate canyons, and intense solitude in the 84,000-acre slice of Coronado National Forest. For now. Tumacacori sits on the edge of southern Arizona’s ballooning population (nearby Pima and Santa Cruz counties are expected to double in size, to two million, by 2050). “We’re 15 to 20 years from full-scale development, but we can already see it coming,” says Quigley. Tumacacori Wild expects to see The Tumacacori Highlands Wilderness Act reintroduced in Congress later this year (the bill failed in 2007). The main opposition comes from, which opposes wilderness designation, claiming it would lead to increased illegal immigration.

The Hike “I woke up this morning on an island in the sky, surrounded by clouds. Wild swirling banks of vapor, flowing and passing to reveal brief glimpses of rocky crags, dripping trees, the golden grassy hillsides far below.” Southwest icon Edward Abbey penned that in 1968 from his Spartan perch on a ridge where he lived, wrote, and ruminated while working as a fire lookout. You can still hike up the Tumacacori’s only maintained trail to the “old frame shack,” at 6,249 feet, and wake up to the same view Cactus Ed enjoyed more than 40 years ago. The Atascosa Trail climbs 1,500 feet in three miles, winding out of barren desert and into piñon, juniper, and manzanita. Up top, catch views of the sky island you’ve climbed, and the three ranges in the distance, including the Catalinas, Baboquivaris, Sierrita, and Santa Rita Mountains. Stay in the amenity-free shack, no reservations required; or pitch a tent in a flat spot shielded from the wind by Emory oaks, just south of the lookout. Retrace your steps or, better yet, tackle a trailless portion of the Tumacacoris. Keep going about 1,000 feet along the ridge toward Atascosa Peak, then veer northeast, past an unnamed 6,072-foot peak and into the obvious drainage which becomes Ramanote Canyon. Head down it, going east about five miles, beneath a string of sycamores to a parking area on Camino Ramanote. Avoid hiking in summer and pack all the water you’ll need; there are no reliable sources.

The Champion Tumacacori Wild ( lobbies state and federal politicians and rallies local support for conservation.

The Way To Atascosa trailhead: From Tucson, drive south on I-19 for 55.8 miles to exit 12. Hang a right on Ruby Rd. and go 15.5 miles to a parking area on the right. Look for the large tree directly across the road; the trail starts here, to the left. To Toruno Tank: Take I-19 south to exit 17; turn right on West Frontage Rd. and go 1.1 miles; then turn left onto Camino Ramanote and continue 6.3 miles to the parking area.