Every year about this time, instead of clacking away at my keyboard, I waste a few minutes wondering where my fingerless gloves are and wishing I had toe warmers stuffed in my shoes. A monstrous window frames snow-capped peaks and a frozen waterfall glistening under Arizona’s afternoon sun. That bright blue sky is a promise of warmer days. A thaw is coming, and when it does, I’ll forget to look for the gloves (again).
Spring in Sierra Vista makes an entrance a little later than it does in the central part of the state, where Phoenicians are melting by Easter. Luckily, chocolate rabbits are safe in Sierra Vista. The cool temperatures creep away by late February and the earth starts to warm in March. In April, wildflowers pop up in the foothills and fields. By early May, we are soaking up shirt-sleeve weather, and by Memorial Day, we’re ready to explore those snow-free peaks in hiking shorts and moisture-wicking tees (which is why Sierra Vista holds its annual 3-peak Sky Islands Summit Challenge every Memorial Day weekend).
Southeast Arizona is surprisingly mountainous. The Huachuca Mountains form the southern cup of the Madrean Sky Islands and rise sharply between Sierra Vista, Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. Here, temperate and tropical blend together, desert gives way to grasslands, and oak and sycamore yield to pine and fir forests. More than 7,000 species of plants and animals—including over half the birds in North America—can be found here. The highest southernmost peak in the United States, Miller Peak at 9,465 feet, is comfortably nestled in the Huachucas.
The Huachuca Mountains host Ramsey Canyon Preserve, a Nature Conservancy property that covers about 260 acres of forest and grassland, bisected by a clear stream that feeds water-loving plants lining the banks. Here, you can hike along the stream for a tropical getaway or head toward the sunny slopes and semi-desert grasslands dotted with cacti, yucca, and agave. Ramsey Canyon Preserve abuts the Coronado National Forest and leads to the Hamburg Trail, one of the access points for Miller Peak. (You can also get there using the gentler Crest Trail from Coronado National Memorial.)
I am not an Arizona native. I’m from Eastern Oregon, where winter means lots of snow and near-zero temperatures. I did a short stint in Montana, where cold wore out its welcome, a stretch under Boise’s oppressively gloomy skies, and eight years in populous Southern California. I uprooted and transplanted myself in Sierra Vista about a decade ago—and haven’t looked back.
Sierra Vista’s four seasons are regular milestones that spark a delicious anticipation for the next in an almost childlike “can’t wait!” thrill that bubbles up on the cusp of the transition. After Memorial Day, June blusters in, bringing perfect mornings, windy afternoons, and long temperate evenings—a precursor to southeast Arizona’s rainy July and the start of monsoon.
June is the hottest month (a handful of days might exceed 100 degrees) but most days hover in the mid-90s. It is a dry heat, so by the time monsoon rolls around, seeing thunderheads build in the afternoon stirs anticipation for a whopper of an evening storm with booming thunder and nickel-sized raindrops falling en masse. Sometimes we get the whopper, sometimes Mother Nature just teases. But the combination of moisture, clouds, and a little dust makes for extraordinary kaleidoscope sunsets. Gold, scarlet, purple, and indigo light up the sky as the sun makes its trek behind the Huachuca Mountains. Across the valley, the Dragoons glow pink and orange, and the grasslands in between melt from champagne to ochre.
After the clouds move off, the night sky is a diamond field on velvet, with the Milky Way splashing across it in a dense swath of stars. Bring your telescope, or a blanket to stretch out on to just gaze. With planning, make a night visit to the Patterson Observatory for their monthly Star Party and peer through the 20-inch lens or take a gander at the sky through one of the visiting astronomers’ telescopes as they share their passion and knowledge of the celestial.
High in elevation, earth and sky come together in Sierra Vista like nowhere else. The community is tucked between Fort Huachuca, the Coronado National Forest, and BLM lands, leaving plenty of elbow room. After rolling around the West for nearly half a century, I’m rooted, like the ancient cottonwoods that mark the meandering San Pedro River.
Check out Sierra Vista for yourself at VisitSierraVista.com, where you can learn more about the May 27 Summit Challenge, download a digital Adventure Guide, or request info by snail mail.