Mitch Stevens’ path to becoming a Tucson hiking guide has been long, narrow, crooked and winding, like many of the trails he’s hiked. The following is how he got started on this incredible journey…
The young lady started hiking up Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail under a hammering summer sun. Because she was visiting the canyon from England she was not used to the desert heat. A few days prior, I cajoled her into hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I was 24, she was 23 and we met three summers prior at a coed sleep-away camp in upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains. But the Southwest was an entirely different ballgame. Despite not knowing what was in store, she went along with the plans and off to the canyon we traipsed.
We were two miles above Indian Gardens, the halfway point of the return hike, when a monsoon storm rolled in and the sky opened. A torrential downpour ensued and we experienced thunder, lightning and rocks crashing all around us. We took refuge under an overhang and attempted to wait out the storm. The temperature dropped about 40 degrees in less than 15 minutes and the wind blew hard. We went from roasting in mid-day heat to shivering in the chill of the storm, wearing only light short-sleeve shirts. The two of us finally made it up to the rim of the canyon after a brutal ascent.
When this ill-fated trip was over, I drove her to New York City where she boarded a return flight back to England. Subsequently, I never heard from her again! This experience taught me a valuable lesson, never push people beyond their capabilities.
I grew up in New York City, surrounded by asphalt, concrete, and towering buildings. But one summer, my parents sent my brother and I away to a summer camp in the woods of Pennsylvania specializing in backpacking and hiking. That stuck with me so I majored in geology at City College of New York and longed to get back into the outdoors. I got my chance while working on my degree, taking a field trip to the Bighorn Basin, Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.
I was almost obsessed with the West and its wild lands after that. My next trip was to the Southwest and that sealed the deal. My wife and I decided to move west. We examined San Diego, Tucson, and Albuquerque as possible home bases, settling on Tucson in 1984. The warm climate was really appealing. I was tired of the snow, ice, and gray skies along the eastern seaboard. And there was something about the desert here that fascinated me.
I began hiking and exploring Arizona and the Southwest. Eventually, that led me to rejoin Sierra Club, and in 2006, I began leading hikes for the Rincon Group of the Sierra Club. I met many friendly people who were environmentally minded. When the Rincon Group Outings Chair position opened in late 2008, I stepped up and took on the task. I now lead about twelve hikes a year while ensuring that the club has an ample stable of outings leaders who meet the necessary qualifications and, with my help, put together appealing hikes for people of all interests and skill levels.
I organize several long backpacking trips each year. In recent years, I’ve led excursions to spectacular places such as Kanab Creek, the longest tributary to the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. Our group followed it from the Indian Hollow trailhead to the Colorado, a hike of 55 miles.
Another version of that very popular trip was a nine-day outing that started at Monument Point at the North Rim, descended to Thunder River and Deer Creek, then traversed the Colorado River to Kanab Creek and back to the Rim at Sowats Point. I have also led trips to the Sierra Nevada of California, the San Juan Mountains of Colorado and the canyon country of Southern Utah.
Some of my favorite places in the Southwest include the trails of Southern Arizona, the Grand Canyon and the canyon country of Utah. We recently completed a trip to the inner recesses of Canyonlands National Park. The park is an archeological treasure trove, rich in granaries, ruins and rock art of the ancient Fremont culture. Other places we’ve canvassed include Utah’s Cedar Mesa, Capitol Reef National Park and Arizona’s Keet Seel.
Three years ago, we founded Southwest Discoveries – an adventure tour company specializing in fantastically beautiful and secluded places in the Southwest. Taking people to the unique and special places that we have discovered makes them more willing and more focused on working, often with the Sierra Club, to protect these areas and to ensure that our nation has solid policies to keep them special. That’s the driving motive that led us to start Southwest Discoveries.
Being a Tucson hiking guide, I’ve had the privilege of experiencing some of the most amazing hikes in the southwest. In 3 Incredible Hikes in Tucson, we showcase the Blacketts Ridge, Agua Caliente Hill and Wildhorse Canyon trails, all spectacular hikes. Tucson’s trails can be hiked year-round, from the winter warmth of the low desert to the cool pines atop Mount Lemmon in the summer. Three distinct sky island ranges surround the city: the Santa Catalina, Rincon and Santa Rita mountains. Sky islands are isolated peaks that rise from the desert floor to lofty elevations where plants and animals, left over from the last ice age, can only survive on the mountaintops.
Thunderstorms ring the Tucson Valley most days from early July through mid-September. The SW Monsoon, second largest on the planet, creates a web of biodiversity that makes the Sonoran Desert the most bio-diverse desert in the world. Moreover, the monsoon not only affects the weather and flora and fauna of southern Arizona but also the Grand Canyon, southern Utah, southwestern Colorado and the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.
In our highly acclaimed video titled Land of the Southwest Monsoon, we present the wildlife connectivity between sky-island mountain ranges, rising from six thousand feet to ten thousand-feet-high in elevation, to the Grand Canyon and lands to the north. The video highlights the variety of terrain, scenery and opportunities for recreation the southwest has to offer. Turn up your speakers and enjoy Land of the Southwest Monsoon!
For additional awesome hikes in Tucson, read Hiking in Tucson – 5 Awesome Adventures. From lush Sonoran Desert — the most fascinating of arid lands on the planet — to picturesque mountain ranges, it’s easy to see what attracts hikers to southern Arizona. This is what makes being a Tucson hiking guide so special.
About the Author
Mitch Stevens has been leading hiking and backpacking outings throughout the Southwest for over ten years. As a Sierra Club hiking leader, writer and photographer, he has promoted the enjoyment and conservation of our remaining wild lands. Born and raised in New York City, Mitch came to discover the great outdoors and fell in love with Arizona’s special places. Through his countless trips across the state and region, Mitch made it his mission to encourage fellow hikers and enthusiasts to protect the beauty of the desert. Now, he continues to embrace his fascination with the desert beauty by creating and leading multi-generational tours throughout the Southwest. His experience coupled with his passion for the great outdoors make him a unique tour guide and outings leader.