Sometimes we don’t fully appreciate what we have in our own backyard — until we see strangers coming from all over to enjoy it. In the fall and winter more and more visitors from Tucson and Phoenix are coming for day trips, or staying overnight in Globe to make ventures into different parts of the Pinals and the Tonto National Forest over several days. The attractions include seeing bright red and yellow leaves in October, a little snow after December, magnificent views in all directions, and roads and trails with almost no one else around.
Bird watchers and natural history buffs are among the most obvious of these visitors, and they are usually looking for animals to photograph or just admire. Some birders know that this is the farthest north you can find the Yellow-eyed Junco and the Chihuahuan Raven. Perhaps the highest concentration of wintering Fox Sparrows in the state are on the slopes above Globe. Other birds like the Olive Warbler, Crissal Thrasher, Red Crossbill and Spotted Owl are easier to find here in the winter than almost anywhere else. To find 50 to 60 species of birds in a single winter day is not hard.
It is not only bird species that are numerous here but so are mammals. Coati, Abert’s Squirrel, Javelina, Bobcat, White-tailed and Mule Deer and occasionally a Mountain Lion are all possible. Even if you don’t see them, their tracks in the mud or snow are almost as exciting.
These high species numbers are best explained by differences in temperature and moisture on the mountain. The lowest elevations are at 4000 feet near Globe and reach more than 7800 feet at the peak. The higher you go the cooler and wetter the conditions. That means madrones, junipers, pines, oaks, aspens, spruce and firs that could never find cool enough temperatures or enough water at the lower elevations do just fine as you go higher. These plants and the animals dependent on them have different ways at each altitude to deal with the changing temperature and moisture. For instance Acorn Woodpeckers are so specialized on acorns for food they cannot live anywhere without oaks.
As you drive up Russell Road and FS road 651 on the north slope or Ice House Canyon Road and FS road 112 on the east slope, you start out in gullies with mesquites, sycamores and habitats that are hot in the summer and cool in the winter. Then a little higher the habitat breaks out into low bushes with tough small leaves called chaparral. A little higher near Sulfide del Rey picnic area, Madera Peak Road and Pioneer Pass you find junipers and then Ponderosa pines mixed in with oaks. Above 7000 feet near Signal Peak the aspens, maples, white pines, Douglas firs and other conifers that do well in cool summers and frigid winters are common. Because each band of different vegetation is the home to a different set of animals that are adapted to eating the food, escaping enemies, and finding shelter in their particular habitat type, you can see several different communities of animal species in a short drive or hike.
The forest service roads in the higher elevations can be closed all winter (December to March) because of snow, but they are also great for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. If you are looking for a wonderful outdoor experience and don’t want to share it with a lot of other people, the Pinals in the fall and winter are waiting for you.
Dave Pearson has been on the faculty of the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University for 30 years. He teaches biology for non-majors as well as field courses for advanced students. He has led many birding trips to the Pinal Mountains over the last 15 years. His research is on rain forest conservation, and he has study sites in thirteen countries around the world. He has published 12 books, mostly for birders and ecotourists.