Larger-than-life hidden treasures and some of the world’s greatest destinations for biodiversity
Sky Islands — which, to be clear, are mountains — dot Southern Arizona’s landscape, erupting up up up from valley floors toward the Sonoran Desert sky. But what makes this type of mountain so special for the region, its environment and explorers? Read on.
What Are Sky Islands?
Sky Islands are a classification of mountain — an unofficial nickname given to 55 mountain ranges across Southern Arizona, Southern New Mexico and Northern Mexico that rise so high, so quickly, that multiple habitats can be found from base to peak. As you climb up Sky Islands, you may go from arid, saguaro-studded desert to a brisk, pine-filled forest in as little as an hour’s drive (in the case of Mount Lemmon, in Tucson). This makes these habitats especially attractive for wildlife, birds and memorable hiking and biking. Sky Islands are also ecologically separated from other mountain ranges by distance and lowlands of a different environment.
The terminology is better known locally than anywhere else, even though the parameters for what qualifies as a Sky Island can be applied to mountain ranges around the world. Knowing the term and its definition is less important than knowing how best to have an adventure on them.
Ways to Experience the Sky Islands (more details below!)
Listen to the audio tour available on the Mt. Lemmon Science Tour app, produced by the University of Arizona College of Science, as you climb up Mount Lemmon in Tucson.
Hike a portion of the Arizona Trail, an 800-mile trek that goes from Arizona’s border with Mexico — up, through and over several Sky Islands — to the state’s border with Utah.
Go birding in Ramsey Canyon, in Sierra Vista, a site popular for seeing the elusive elegant trogon.
Get involved with the Sky Island Alliance, which hosts events aimed at protecting the diversity of Southern Arizona’s Sky Islands.
Sky Island Activities Near Tucson
The Santa Catalina and Rincon Mountain ranges make up Tucson’s Sky Islands, hugging the city’s northern and eastern edges. Perhaps one of the best ways to explore a Sky Island — and one that requires the least amount of physical exertion — is by listening to the Mt. Lemmon Science Tour app, which times fun facts and interesting tidbits with the one-hour drive from the mountain’s base to its peak. The flora and fauna surrounding the drive become a lot more interesting, and you’ll learn some history about the area, too.
Saguaro National Park East, below the Rincons, makes up the dramatically different environment separation that Sky Islands require. More than saguaros can be found here as you bike, hike or drive through the enormous national park.
Sky Island Activities in Cochise County
The southeastern Arizona Sky Islands, partly made up of the Mule, Chiricahua and Huachuca mountains, are crisscrossed with trails that beckon hikers and mountain bikers. Vertical monoliths challenge rock climbers. And cool, damp canyon, like Ramsey Canyon, create some of the world's greatest biodiversity. Here, vintners grow grapes for award-winning wine alongside spicy chiltepin peppers and sweet pistachios. Jaguar, white-nosed coati and javelina wander under forest canopies, while elegant trogons and hummingbirds zip across blue skies. In the fall, butterflies abound.
Montezuma Pass in the Huachucas, just south of Sierra Vista, marks the start of the Arizona Trail (AZT), an 800-mile hiking path that stretches from the Arizona/Mexico border to Utah. Dozens of other trails join the AZT for challenging hikes or woodsy walks, and jaw-dropping views of Arizona, New Mexico and Sonora, Mexico. Mountain bikers take to the trails for single track rides; maps are available at Sierra Vista bike shops.
Head east to Cochise Stronghold near Willcox. The Stronghold is strewn with massive boulders amid a maze-like terrain. Mountain bikers, hikers, and rock climbers head to these rugged canyons and craggy hoodoos for classic climbs and outstanding trails. Go a little further east to Chiricahua National Monument where towering rhyolite pinnacles and balancing spires stand alongside the 17 miles of trails. (If you have time, make a side trip down Turkey Track Trail for a gander at Johnny Ringo's grave, the Old West outlaw and gunfighter made famous by Hollywood writers.)
After hiking around Chiricahua National Monument, head east for 25 miles, via a dirt road, toward the Yosemite of Arizona: Cave Creek Canyon. Accessed through the town of Portal, the canyon is described as a birder's paradise for five months of the year. And, the rest of the time, it's just paradise. Spend some time communing with nature. When you're ready to rest and eat, head to the Portal Cafe, Country Store & Lodge, or if you prefer to camp, the Stewart Campground or Sunny Flat Campground are the closest to the canyon.
Birding and Wildlife
In Douglas, San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge — which shares its conservation efforts with compañeros across the border — provides a year-round habitat for an amazing diversity of wildlife, both flora and fauna, and offers world-class bird and wildlife watching.
The Refuge is part of a migration superhighway through Cochise County, following the northward-flowing San Pedro River. With near-tropical climates in the Sky Islands, Cochise County welcomes an incredible variety of birds that make season-long stops in the Huachucas and along the riparian area. The Nature Conservancy’s Ramsey Canyon Preserve, just minutes from downtown Sierra Vista, is one of the country's top birding spots.
Historic Sites and Small Towns
In centuries past, the Sky Islands provided hidey-holes for outlaws and Apaches, vantage points for the U.S. Army and cool retreats for city folk seeking to beat the heat of the valley floor. Geronimo, General Pershing, Johnny Ringo and the Earp brothers roamed the area, leaving indelible legends in the wind. In later years, the Sky Islands starred in feature films alongside Hollywood legends like John Wayne, Paul Newman, Charlton Heston, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott and Nicolas Cage.
Wayne is known to have frequented the communities among the Sky Islands, including Patagonia and Bisbee, a reimagined former mining town. Both towns’ charming main thoroughfares, while small, are dotted with local restaurants and bars for a nibble and libation and (likely) some decent local lore.
In addition to mining, southeastern Arizona is also known for ranching. Many of the mines are gone, but the ranches remain, run by the descendants of the original families. The John Slaughter Ranch (about a 20-mile drive on the Geronimo Trail outside Douglas), no longer a working ranch, gives visitors a glimpse into the life John Slaughter, a former Texas Ranger and Cochise County sheriff. He bought the property in 1884 and spent the remainder of his life developing it into a thriving southwestern cattle ranch, despite the harassment from Geronimo and his band as they crossed into Mexico.
The lower loop of the Sky Islands cuddles Douglas, a border and former copper-mining town with a rich history. Home to the first international airport in the U.S., this community is anchored by the stately Gadsden Hotel, built in 1907 for visiting mining company executives, and fronted with a massive stained glass window — the only southwestern scene Tiffany ever created. Legend says that the infamous Mexican bandit Pancho Villa rode his horse up the sweeping marble staircase in the early 1900s. Two decades later, a speakeasy opened in the basement and nine decades later the same speakeasy will open again. And yes, it's said to be haunted.