Week 3: What Lives on Islands in the Sky

IMPORTANT: Some information from this week’s adventure has been censored due to environmental concerns. The name of the animals and the localities where they were found have been intentionally removed, as have some images I would share under normal conditions. This has been done to minimize this post’s visibility in search engines, as well as hide crucial information in order to protect this regions critical habitat and species from danger and disruption, should this blog post be read by someone not a part of the intended audience. Please do not share this post publicly. I censored as little as possible to keep this post relevant to my project, and some things shown in this post may be obvious as to what they are. The point is minimize search engine visibility less than it is to hinder readers. Thanks!

Less important: Due to the nature of the trip and the time constraints I had, the photos documenting this post were taken with my cell phone. The important photos were taken with my DSLR. Having said that, please give all of the images a chance to load. There are a lot, and my phone still takes high resolution photos.

***Please allow ample time for this post to load, the photos are very large***

sonoita2.5 final final

As I already have several photographs of this range, I decided that it would be best to try and find more cool reptiles and amphibians to pair with them. That was one of the purposes for this next trip, aside from Jules and I itching to get out into the wilderness and find something cool.

By far my most serious photography trip of the year, and perhaps of my life, I had prepared for this moment and many more to come with some extra gear. However, the seriousness of it was not in the amount of photos taken, the quality, or the type. It was getting to where I needed to be for the best shot of what we needed to find. Seeing as I have a reputation for being late, I made sure I would sleep over at Jules’ house before making the trip. After packing my new hiking pack (full of more stuff than I needed, but I didn’t know that until my calves started burning) and making a lunch of cheese, bread, and meat, I went to bed at (a stupid) 1:30 am. We left at 5:00 am sharp.

Once off the highway, we made our way along a dirt road through golden rolling hills and beautiful views of the mountains. I can’t say the Suburban is the most comfortable car I’ve been in, but I’ve probably seen the most cool sights from it. Once we got to the trail head, we dressed for the cold 40’s (I was really excited to use my new jacket and pants), and left the car behind. A man was sleeping out in the open by his Subaru, and the sun hadn’t fully risen yet. It was odd, exciting and beautiful.

It begins!

With the sun just starting to touch the peaks of the mountain, we began our 5 mile trek to the top. I didn’t think it would be too bad of a hike, but we ascended the slopes at a very fast pace. Jules is used to harder things, like backpacking, so he was fine, but it was difficult for me and I had to push the boundaries of how far and how hard I could hike. It didn’t help that I brought too much gear, at least 30 pounds worth. But it started off great, and I loved seeing the mountains change color as the sun rose.

The sunrise quickly set the mountains ablaze

There’s nothing like peering through the greenery to see the surrounding scenery jump out as a blazing orange. It stayed like this for awhile, with fiery splashes seeping through the canopy as we made our way up the canyon, eventually fading as the sun got higher.

The canyon was dense and green


Looking down was just as astonishing, as we passed pools of pearly light blue all throughout the canyon. Jules jested that we would go swimming in one, and by the end of the hike we probably could have, and secretly wanted to. But for now we just passed pool after pool, soaking in the rainbow of colors around us. No one else was here but us.

A light blue pool that we had to cross

After an hour or so, we finally made it to the steep part. The trail switched back along the mountain side, and was poorly maintained from here on out. On top of the steeper incline, we frequently had to climb over (or under) fallen trees, and we lost the trail a few times, quickly finding it again. We trudged on, taking quick breaks, getting up again and pushing up to the top. My favorite (and the longest) break was on a fallen log that overlooked the whole canyon, through some dead trees.

My view from the log

After the hardest hiking of my life, we reached what was apparently the top of the saddle. But not really, as I soon found out, after Jules took off to some snow covered slopes. I followed, trying not to slip on the wet snow, frustrated with the barely visible trail to the top. I fell a few times, and looking back I feel pathetic, but my body was not used to this kind of activity. Once to the very top though, I didn’t care what my body was used to. Only that I could get used to seeing this:

The view from the top of the ridge
Imagine sitting around this campfire

After reaching the top of the ridge, Jules told me to set my pack down and called me over to a boulder he was sitting on. The invitation to rest was well received, though a tree I was navigating under did fall on me on the way over. Below is a panorama I took with my phone (featuring Jules) of our view from the rock. Just in front of us was a steep drop, but you don’t look down much when you have a view like this!

A panoramic view from a lookout spot on the edge of the ridge


Despite an intense and exhaustive hike up to the top of the ridge, our hiking wasn’t over. To get to where we needed to go, we needed to go off-trail.

We packed our stuff, headed down, and made a leap of faith off into some area off the trail, disappearing into the steep, heavily wooded hillside. We couldn’t see far enough through the thorny bushes, brush, trees, and boulders to know where we were headed to. We only had a direction and the determination to literally walk through (I’d love to say walls that sounds so cool, but unfortunately I have to say something else) whatever obstructed us. It sucked. But despite scratching my arm up everywhere, I had a lot of fun.

After bushwhacking for some time, we finally reached our destination: a small area of talus slopes.

Talus is essentially loose rock that collects on top of each other over time, forming a slope. As more rock erodes from the mountain or place it came from, the newly deposited rock slides, along with existing rocks, down the slope, maintaining the angle of the pile. Over time talus slopes grow larger as more layers of rock are deposited, and despite looking like only a few rocks piled on top of a hill, the layers go down very deep. This creates an ideal habitat for montane reptiles, as they can hide from both prey and the cold in the talus, but also emerge to sun themselves and warm up.

A panorama of one of the talus slopes we explored, looking up

The talus slopes we were on were quite steep, with an angle of about 45 degrees.

A side view of the first slope from our “base camp” area. The camera was level!

The lichen that covered most of the rocks was beautiful!

Lichen covers some particularly large rocks

They stretched most of the mountainside, making them as much of a pain as they were a joy to see. It was also fun watching the wildlife from these open slopes, as I was able to spot a hawk carrying a snake in its talons! Unfortunately no photos… 😦

A zoomed in photo from the lower middle of a talus slope, looking down. Jules is in the middle to help show scale.

Navigating these slopes was very difficult for me. I essentially had to travel via controlled falling, sliding and stopping as gingerly as my big body could manage. Jules could keep his balance better and was lighter on his feet, so the steep angle bothered him less.

We did this for four excruciating hours, with very quick breaks. We covered three similarly sized slopes, three times each, bushwhacking through the forest in between each slope. Climb slide, climb slide, climb slide.

This slope was particularly long, and I remember dreading the climb until I got to the top. It wasn’t as bad as it looked.

Nonetheless I persevered and did my best to listen for a faint buzzing noise.

A rattle.

Not only are these rough, steep, remote slopes high in the mountains, but they are also home to the highest elevation rattlesnake in Arizona, a true sky island resident. This was the reason for our journey. Unfortunately, I cannot give the name to minimize the search-ability of this blog post.

Although it is publicly searchable knowledge that this snake is active on exceptionally warm winter days, ranges, localities, and feasibility of finding snakes in those ranges and localities is sensitive information.

Not all “herpers” are ethical, and many will severely damage the habitat these snakes live in by intentionally throwing rocks and unsettling vast swaths of talus in order to disturb the snakes out of the hiding. Even herpers with the habitat in mind can still disrupt a location if too many people visit it. If we were to find one of these snakes, and made it very visible and public that we found them, it could prompt the wrong people to visit these sites and others earlier in the active season, putting too much stress on the habitat before the main herping season begins. There’s no way to be sure, but it is better to be safe than sorry, and protecting sites is important.

So I can’t write a censored post about a grueling effort to find a nameless snake and then let everyone down by revealing that I never found one, right? Right.

On the way back to our camp, ready to head home, we had just the upper bit of the first talus slope to walk through before we were at our stuff. We were tired, deflated, and upset that we were about to fail yet another trip. Then I hear Jules’ exclamatory yells I have grown so accustomed to over the years, and just a short ways down the slope, there it was. And it was huge! Overjoyed, we rushed to snap some photos of it. As Jules found this one, I let him use his favorite lens of mine, the 100mm macro, while I stuck to my telephoto zoom.

Finally! It isn’t a phone photo and it isn’t a bunch of rocks!

These snakes are generally very small, especially for rattlesnakes. Ours was old and massive, stretching out to about a couple of feet long! The rattle was equally as huge, and it was loud compared to the cute little buzz average ones make.

This less artistic photo shows the distinctive yellow tinge some individuals from this range possess. Most are a cooler grey. What a beaut!
Not the best photo, but it shows the talus in the background
I was fortunate enough to get some brilliant lighting! The light changed often as the foliage played with the shadows

This guy was easily one of the coolest snakes I’ve seen, and I will never forget the effort we put in to find it, not to mention the beautiful area!

I’m glad you’ve made it this far, but like this hike, this blog post isn’t over yet. There’s still the beautiful pools on the way down!

Gotta love that blue!
The water was the perfect soundtrack for our brisk hike back down the canyon

Jules and I never held true to our ambitions, we didn’t swim in the pools. But we did have a lot of fun dipping our heads in for a refreshing finish to a rewarding day!

Jules cools off in the biggest of the blue pools

The most important lesson I learned that day was to never give up. That’s probably the most cliche thing I could write right now, and I’ve written some pretty cliche things, but it’s true. I wasn’t in the best shape, I didn’t get enough sleep, and we weren’t here at the best time. But it didn’t matter, we met our goal, I got the photos I needed for my project, and more importantly, I learned what it meant for hard work and trust to pay off. I couldn’t have done it without my good friend Jules, and I couldn’t have done it without getting outside my comfort zone. Here’s to many more adventures!


Join me for my next adventure, the road trip to Oregon! I will be driving through northern Arizona, Utah, and Idaho on my way to the Pacific Northwest. As of this (admittedly late) blog post, I already have some exciting photos to share. Stay tuned!


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