Master Naturalists in the Field: Wild Burro Trail Hike

Pima County Chapter Master Naturalists
Skills-Based Advanced Training
Wild Burro Trail Hike
Saturday, March 19, 2022

On a mild and sunny morning, a small group of Pima County Chapter Master Naturalists met for an Advanced Training hike. We explored the Wild Burro Trail in the Tortolita Mountains, which began near the Ritz Carlton at Dove Mountain in Marana. Paul Stillman (C3) was our terrific guide, with Franklin Lane (C1) serving as an excellent tailgater. The rest of the group included Deb Petrich (C1), Jean Boris (C2), Joan Calcagno (C2) and me, Kim Girard (C6). After an informative intro from Paul and some shared hiking tips, we headed out. The Wild Burro Trail began flat and sandy, and included several crossings of a dry wash. We soon encountered the first of several petroglyphs on a large bolder lining the wash. These petroglyphs are Hohokam, and dated to approximately 1100-1450. We were privileged to view these historical records of early inhabitants of the area.
Throughout the hike, Paul shared his considerable knowledge of the area – human history as well as plant/animal life, and his own adventures. We all shared hiking stories, wildlife encounters and identification of the many wildflowers we encountered along the way. We stopped for lunch and snacks in the large wash, where there was ample shade and flat boulders on which to rest.

One view of a number of petroglyph sites

We were treated to wonderful views throughout the hike, surrounded by Saguaros and many other cactus species. The wash was lined with blooming Chuparosa in every direction, and we all remarked at how many there were and the amazing color they added to the landscape.

A boulder-strewn hillside with pops of color, mostly brittlebush

There was a steep and rocky section of the trail, but Paul kept a moderate pace and we made frequent stops to enjoy the surroundings catch our breath. When we reached the Alamo Springs area, we saw the remains of an old rancher cabin and a hand-dug well. There was an excellent interpretive sign that showed photos and information about some of the early, non-indigenous inhabitants of the area.

Remains of an early rancher cabin
Exterior of the hand-dug well
Interior of the well – sure glad I didn’t drop my phone!


Along a low and shaded area of the trail, we stopped short to see a large Gila Monster moving along through the brush. Wow! This was my first view of a Gila in the wild, and it was just one of so many highlights on this hike.

The day warmed as we headed back toward the trailhead. Paul promised one more surprise – and we were not disappointed! Most of us are familiar with crested (or cristate) Saguaros, and perhaps a Barrel Cactus with an unusual top. But none of us had ever seen a Crested Cholla! There is still debate on what causes these unusual features (virus? genetics), but regardless of the cause, they are always a wonderful sight.

When we reached the last junction in the wash, a few hikers headed toward their cars, and the rest of us accompanied Paul for more petroglyph views. He led us on a short path behind the hotel, to a paved area below a hillside covered in boulders. A number of petroglyphs were easily viewed from there.

The group learned 3 facts on the hike (and lots of other cool stuff too!).
* Curve billed thrashers and cactus wrens like to nest in cholla cactus, but the trashers break off the spines to create a “sticker-free” environment for their young.
* Staghorn cholla has fruit without spines (remember the “s” in staghorn also starts the word “smooth).
* Buckhorn cholla has spines, thus causing a horse to “buck” if you put it under the saddle (from Paul Stillman).

The following is a list of wildflowers the group was able to ID. Thanks Paul for this list.
Brittlebush
Chuparosa
Creosote bush
Fairy duster
Desert chicory
Arizona jewel flower (twist flower)
Chia
Bigelow ragged rock flower
Mexican gold poppy
Blue dicks – wild hyacinth
Desert honeysuckle
Slender evening primrose (California suncup)
Desert anemone
Bajada lupine
Gooding’s verbena
Desert wishbone bush
Trixis (American threefold)
Parry false prairie clover
Rattlesnake weed
Desert marigold
Desert rock pea
London rocket
Globe mallow – including a gorgeous lavender variety

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