“Makes you feel kind of small, doesn’t it?” I asked my friend and frequent hiking companion as we topped a ridge with sweeping views of the Granite Mountain basin.
It wasn’t just the breadth of the view that caused us to catch our collective breaths, however. Spread before us along the Upper Pasture Loop Trail was stark evidence of the devastating Doce Fire that had swept through the area near Prescott, Arizona in June 2013.
The hike, which starts at Contreras Ranch Road west of Prescott, cuts directly through the area hardest hit in the fire that engulfed more than 6,500 acres of the 9,800-acre Granite Mountain Wilderness Area.
Along with showing off the stunning granite rock formations and the gigantic Granite Mountain looming in the distance, the hike also is a case study in human effects on nature. It was obvious from our walk – now more than two years later – that the human-caused Doce Fire had done irreparable damage.
Virtually as far as the eye could see were blackened tree trunks, scorched cacti, and hills barren of the area’s typical chaparral-type brush and shrubs.
That is not to say it wasn’t beautiful. We marveled over and over at the black-and-white splotched branches reaching high into the deep blue sky. And the pink-tinted rock formations – without the softening chaparral covering – now stand out in even sharper contrast.
But it certainly wasn’t beautiful in the way we remembered it. My impressions of a hike we had taken through the area about five years ago were of a lush route with water rushing alongside the trail from a recent winter storm.
I think we both were taken aback at the complete transformation on this hike. Any trace of tree cover is now gone, opening up the trail to direct sunlight and endless views.
Granite Mountain Hotshot alligator juniper
The hike is also memorable for another somber reminder. About two miles in, if you take a short jaunt off the main trail, you will come to a giant alligator juniper tree standing in the midst of a forest of charred trees.
Next to the juniper is a large freestanding plaque that explains the tree’s sad history. The inscription on the plaque explains that the juniper tree – designated a “champion,” as one of the oldest and largest of its kind – had been in danger when the Doce Fire raged in.
Members of the local Granite Mountain Hotshot crew of elite firefighters were tasked with protecting the tree. The young firefighters cleared brush, dug fire line and burned the fuels around the juniper before the main fire could destroy it, according to the plaque. “Upon their return after the fire had passed, this giant was standing amongst the scorched landscape,” the plaque reads.
Just days later, another fire ignited in the Yarnell, Arizona area, and the Granite Mountain Hotshots responded. Nineteen members of the crew would die fighting that blaze, which ultimately destroyed dozens of homes in the small town of Yarnell. The plaque notes that the alligator juniper survived “as a result of the crew’s efforts and willingness to do whatever it took to get the job done.” The plaque was built just before the one-year anniversary of the Yarnell tragedy to represent “their devotion to the job and the survival of their memory.”
For many area residents, a hike to the tree is a way to show respect to the Granite Mountain Hotshots. As we hiked there this past weekend, we passed a man who told us simply, “It’s still there, and it’s doing fine.” A number of remembrances have been left at the tree, including bandanas, heart-shaped formations fashioned from rocks, and a shining angel on a nearby hill. It definitely is a somber spot.
Upper Pasture Loop Trail
If you do the entire Upper Pasture Loop Trail, you will connect up with the Little Granite Mountain Trail, and Blair Pass – the junction that connects with the trail to the summit of Granite Mountain. We continued on the loop to the White Rock Spring Trail (Trail 39), and back to the trailhead on Contreras Ranch Road – for about 8.3 miles total.
Although forever changed, the route is worth hiking. It lets you walk in the line of fire and witness its effects first-hand.
(Conteras Ranch Road (Forest Road 102A) is located off Iron Springs Road, about 8.4 miles west of Prescott’s Four-Points intersection of Willow Creek, Whipple/Montezuma, Miller Valley, and Iron Springs).