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Lonely Tower

Monday, October 23rd, 2023: Chiricahuas, Hikes, Silver, Southeast Arizona.

I started this Sunday with a conflict between need and desire. I needed to go easier on my problem foot, but I desired to see some fall color, which would most likely occur at higher elevation – entailing lot of climbing. None of my options were good, so my departure was delayed 90 minutes while I tried to make up my mind. Fortunately, the hike I settled on was in Arizona, where I would get an hour back crossing the state line. And although it involves a strenuous climb, it’s shorter than my usual Sunday hikes. I told myself I could take it slow to protect my foot.

The sky was clear, and the high was forecast to be in the mid-80s at the bottom. It was in the 70s when I set out, but it already felt like the 80s in the sun, and the first mile is exposed, as you climb above the northeast valley. The only tracks I saw were from the small herd of equines that grazes the lower slope, which surprised me, since this is the most popular trail in the area and fall is peak hiking season.

This trail, which I’ve hiked four times before, ascends the northeast and north slopes of a massif that stands alone surrounded by valleys, which are themselves surrounded by higher ridges. The top is essentially a lookout post for the entire northeast part of the mountain range, and in the past, a fire lookout was built and used up there. It’s a pretty hike with a lot of exposed rock and dramatic transitions between habitats.

Finally, as I left the foothills to traverse the northeast slope of the mountain, I got a little intermittent breeze and my mood improved.

After climbing over 1,200 vertical feet, you turn a corner away from the northeast valley and into a big ravine that runs down between the twin peaks of the mountain. From here you view the northwest skyline of the range. And here I found my fall color, tucked into a corner of the steep ravine. You can also see your destination from here, high above to the southwest.

Long traverses and many switchbacks take you up into the cleft of the ravine, where you pass through a small stand of firs. The outer slopes are lined with oaks and pinyon pine, but these firs survive in the narrow ravine that channels cool air to lower elevations.

Past the ravine you traverse higher up the north slope until you enter the small fir forest that clings to the steep north slope of the peak, which tops out just over 8,000 feet. There, the trail passes behind towers of stone and begins a series of ten switchbacks that take you to the crest. I always find this stretch challenging, regardless of my conditioning.

The summit ridge is like a knife edge, making for a dramatic climax to all those switchbacks. The big basin south of this mountain is suddenly laid out for you. And at the west end of the ridge are the vertiginous stairs that lead to the abandoned foundation of the lookout.

The weather was perfect up there. I really hated to leave, and procrastinated as much as I could. Interestingly, the summit register showed a lot of visitors, even during the hottest days of our summer heat wave, up until ten days ago. Despite being perfect weather, this was the first time I’d made this climb without running into other people.

On the descent, just as I left the fir forest something small and dark flitted out of the low grass and annuals on the slope next to the trail – I first thought it was a butterfly. But it dove into a clump of bunchgrass, and kept hopping about, clinging for less than a second to the dead stalk of an annual then hopping to the ground. And so forth. I was some kind of tiny bird, barely bigger than a hummingbird, keeping within less than a foot of the ground, moving so often I couldn’t focus the camera on it. I stood there trying to snap pictures as it hopped to and fro only four or five feet away, completely ignoring me.

After descending the other three series of switchbacks and traversing out of the steep ravine, I found myself back in the northeast valley, with the sun casting long shadows. Here, I’m always dazzled by the colors of dying agaves.

At the base of the foothills, nearing the trailhead, I came upon the horses and mules. My foot was sore, but not as bad as on other hikes since I started changing my gait. I sure wish my podiatrist hadn’t retired!

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