Expanding rapidly northward from its human-caused point of origin near the international border with Mexico, the Monument Fire would eventually consume more than 30,000 acres and destroy more than 60 structures. Started on June 12, nearly a month would pass before full containment would be achieved.
Sweeping across the eastern slopes of the Huachuca Mountains in Coronado National Forest south of Sierra Vista, the fire soon had three pristine canyons in its sights, ones world renowned for beauty as well as their varied and extensive hummingbird populations.
Miller Canyon was soon engulfed, suffering near total devastation. Three months later, encouraging signs of recovery are evident, a lush green carpeting the scorched land. Thousands of tons of seeds have been airdropped across the area, seasonal rains aiding in germination and recovery.
Evident of potential flooding, most of the homes lying at the mouth of Miller Canyon are heavily sandbagged, and will remain so until the risk of flooding subsides. Hiking is allowed but is not very inviting with the forest destroyed.
A mile and a half north, Carr Canyon would be next on the fire’s hit list, heavily damaging this gorgeous site. Hiking here is also allowed but restrictions apply, limiting the territory that can be explored.
Ramsey Canyon, another mile and a half north, would be spared the fury of the Monument Fire. Damage is evident where bulldozers bladed a firebreak across the mountain slopes, one that proved unnecessary. Off Ramsey Canyon lies small yet beautiful Brown Canyon, named in honor of John Thomas Brown. He was believed to be the first white inhabitant in this region, who developed a ranch around 1800. Today this would be the hike of choice.
Fields are a deep emerald with flowered vines twisting up and along wire fences. A pair of the smallest deer I’ve ever seen wander through a field, pausing to munch tasty new growth.
With elevation at 5,067 feet, temperature at 90 degrees and nothing but flawless, blue skies above, it’s a great day to be hiking.
From the trailhead, it’s advised to take the paved road west toward the National Conservancy’s Ramsey Canyon Preserve for about a half-mile. Following a right on Brown Canyon Road, hikers pass a few private residences prior to ascending to the northwest, across slopes of oak, juniper and manzanita trees and tall grasses.
The path now is a four-wheel drive road. Reminded of a sign at the trailhead, “Be bear aware,” beware that numerous piles of bear scat have been deposited on the road. Lots of coyote and deer droppings are also seen.
Glancing east through openings in the forest, homes in Sierra Vista can be seen. A blimp used for border surveillance is anchored to its pad. Despite the proximity to this community of close to 50,000 residents, the experience is that of a much more remote outing. A conversation is shared at the trailhead with the only other hiker seen this day, who just completed his Brown Canyon adventure.
At just over two miles the road ends. Use of this rugged road would be a fun outing on a mountain bike. A trail leading toward Miller Peak climbs westward. To the east, Brown Canyon Trail will soon be underfoot. First it’s time for a pause, rehydrating and munching snacks, all the while being entertained as gorgeous Swallowtail and Monarch butterflies fly between puddles of water in the drainage.
A large, concrete watering trough holds a supply of drinking water for horses and wildlife. An elevation of 5,550 feet will be the high point for this day.
Tailings from Pomona Mine, an abandoned tungsten mine, can be seen near the top of Scheelite Ridge, slightly east of the summit of Miller Peak. One of the many uses of the steel gray metal is lightbulb filaments. Demand for this dense, abrasive, resistant material has recently been established in the creation of wedding rings.
Known for its hardness and high melting point, tungsten has also been used extensively in space exploration.
As Brown Canyon Trail begins an eastward descent toward the trailhead, Pomona Mine Trail departs to the north. This mile-and-a-half, steep and strenuous climb takes hikers to the 7,500 foot elevation level, where to this day, mining equipment still lies discarded. The mine shaft was quite well-developed, with a rail system leading into the mountain, easing the removal of ore prior to processing out the tungsten.
A pleasant and gentle decline along Brown Canyon Trail is now enjoyed, a condition that will last nearly the rest of the adventure. Open grassy fields cover the land, beautiful wildflowers blooming across vast meadows. A dry riverbed meanders through the land, colorful stones lining the creek bed.
Evidently heavy rains fall often throughout this drainage, a deep channel having been carved. More butterflies dance across the green meadows.
This trail is open to hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders. The winding dirt path looks to be an enjoyable experience on a bike.
Pausing at a crumbling structure, the remains of an ore-processing building with rusting metal remnants among the decaying lumber, two things seize my attention. First, a few yards down the trail, a pretty white tail doe moseys across, seemingly oblivious to my presence.
Second, the silence. Startling is my initial reaction. Seldom is such an utter silence experienced. It’s a challenge to again walk the trail and disturb this absolute quiet.
Beyond this point, the valley begins to widen. Pinon, juniper, oak, yucca and century plants cover the slopes. Tall grasses, greened by recent rainfall, wave in the ever so gentle breeze. Large sycamore trees grow in their typical, creekside location.
As the canyon opens widely, a side trail leads to Brown Canyon Ranch. This historic site has a rich history of cattle ranching and mining. Settled originally by John Thomas Brown around 1800, the ranch has changed hands numerous times, the last private ownership ending in 1998 when the land was transferred to the US Forest Service.
Brown Canyon Trail ascends a low hill to the south, once again affording views across Sierra Vista. The border surveillance blimp remains tethered close to its base, no more than a mile away. Across the San Pedro River Valley, the Dragoon Mountains and Cochise Stronghold occupy the horizon.
Cresting a small hill the trail drops down, connecting with a wide dirt road that accesses Brown Canyon Ranch to the north and the trailhead to the south. A couple of Border Patrol vehicles are parked atop a rise, agents vigilant in their efforts to control illegal activity.
Growing in the grassy fields are numerous traditional desert plants. An unexpected one is the Devil’s Claw. Seldom have I seen so many of these plants in such a small area, and never to the size these plants have grown. The arching seed pods hang in clusters around a thick stem, soon to dry and crack open into their unique shape.
A massive thunderhead cloud is building atop the Huachuca Mountains, directly over the watershed of Brown Canyon. Thunder echoes across hills and canyons. Time to be off the trail and out of the canyon.
Lovely Brown Canyon is only 85 miles from Tucson. South of Sierra Vista, turn right on Ramsey Canyon Road. Trailhead parking is less than two miles west. No permits or fees are required.
More information is available through the Sierra Vista Ranger District at 520-378-0311, or stop into their office at 5990 S. Highway 92, less than a mile south of Ramsey Canyon Road. Extensive information on other hikes in the Huachuca Mountains is available.