Mountain bikers prepare to ride out from the new Oak Tree Canyon trailhead that connects to the Arizona Trail north of Sonoita. Photo by Robert Gay

In the midday warmth on Dec. 16, the Oak Tree Canyon Trailhead of the Arizona Scenic Trail (AZT) was opened with short talks, coffee, and an O’odham-inspired lunch. 

The new access point for trails in the eastern Santa Rita Mountains is on SR 83 north of Singing Valley Road, near Milepost 43. The mile-long trail is what AZT labels a “connector trail,” like Patagonia’s Train Track Trail, one of many spurs off the main 800-mile Mexico-to-Utah route. It saunters for just under a mile through grazing land and up an inconspicuous two-track, meeting the Arizona Trail where Passage 5 ends and Passage 6 begins. Once at the main trail, heading south leads to Gardner Canyon, and heading north, to the trailhead where Sahuarita Road meets SR 83.

At the gate leading to the trail, a three-panel sign features a large and very informative map, with a side panel giving detailed trail ethics for hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians. The other side panel describes, in Spanish and English, the cultural and natural background of the region. It begins with an acknowledgment of the traditional lands of the O’odham and Chiricahua Apache peoples. 

After describing his personal connections to the trail and this location, AZT Executive Director Matt Nelson summarized the more than ten-year administrative push and stakeholder coordination it took to create the new trailhead. He gave thanks to several contributors, especially to the Coronado National Forest, for partnering on the project.

Next, Nelson introduced James Martinez, of the Babocomari District O’odham group and a lifetime land steward. Martinez spoke of his people’s history and connection to the land, mentioning that in Navaho, O’odham folks are referred to as “the foot-trail people,” and that the word O’odham in his language simply means “people.” He hopes for a future with less division and more unity among people. “We all enjoy the land equally,” he said, “and are nourished by it.” 

Nacho Flores, from the west side of the O’odham reservation, explained the ongoing traditional use of the Santa Rita and other nearby mountains for harvesting fiber plants for the O’odham practice of basketmaking, which he’d learned from his mother. 

The National Forest Service was well represented. Jim Copeland of the Nogales District – in which the trailhead lies – spoke of the Forest Service’s responsibility and pleasure at being able to expand access for more users. Also in attendance was Bill Vickery, of Elgin, whose group helps carry tools deep into the trails for both maintenance and new construction. He had come with two horses and found the top rail of the parking lot’s steel fence to be a fine hitching rail. 

Following the talks, a fresh-cooked lunch was offered to all, prepared by AZT staff member Donovan Caputo. The menu included tepary beans, sauteed squash, red chiles, chicken in a seasoned sauce, cholla buds, squash empanadas, and homemade tortillas. Fittingly, the serving table for this eat-local feast had a cloth that was a topographic map. 

Old connections among the gathering of 70 or so were revived, and new ones made. As if to inaugurate the trail, a colorful group of mountain bikers posed for a photo-op in front of the entry sign and headed out. Most were Forest Service staffers taking Friday afternoon off by using what the Service calls “wellness hours.” One of the staffers said, “If this isn’t wellness, I don’t know what is.”