The Grim Beauty of the Granite Mountain Hotshot Memorial

Bongo at the trailhead.

A few weeks ago, taking the back way down from Prescott, I stopped at the Granite Mountain Hotshot Memorial off of AZ89. The State Memorial Park is located on the second serpentine wind down the mountain that separates Yarnell from Congress. It is most easily approached going south. AZ89 is split here, and you would have to U-turn past the site going north to come back and reach it.

There you will find parking for about a dozen cars and “restrooms”, meaning plastic outhouses.

Or you could take a map

The main trail is just shy of three miles one way winding up and around the desert ridges. You can expect all the low desert hazards and all the low desert heat. The grade is gentle but constant as the packed dirt path switches back and forth across the ridge, perhaps more times than is really needed. On occasion, stone stairs will help you up or down.

Along the way are shiny, stainless steel plaques commemorating each firefighter who died in this catastrophe, as well as plastic plaques explaining the history of desert fires in general, and the Yarnell Hill Fire in particular. There are also benches.

If you took a free map from the container at the trailhead, you can easily follow your progress up the 2.85 main trail by plaque. I’m not going to recount the well-known tale here. The park website repeats all the verbiage on the plaques.

If you need to know more right now, this article is a good over-view without being gushy local news or terse and technical fire-speak.  You could also read the actual report it references. Meanwhile, we are hiking.

View from the trail

Were it not for its grim purpose, the Hotshot Trail, as it is designated, would actually be a pleasant climb through a fine collection of rocks and cacti. Climbing up the ridge reveals consecutively grander vistas of the valley below. On my trip lizards scampered away from my feet as hawks circled overhead. But then I came to a glaring plaque (the afternoon sun makes them signal mirrors) and joy yielded to grim purpose.

The Yarnell Hill Fire ended for a generation the debate as to whether Prescott (where the GM Hotshots were based) and surrounding communities should publicly fund wilderness firefighting. There had been loud talk of leaving all of it to the feds. After the fire, state and municipal money carved this fine, if sad trail up the ridgeline.

The Hotshot Trail ends at an Observation Deck overlooking the site where the 19 men actually burned to death. A large plastic plaque explains how that happened. There is a bench and shade and a tribute wall decorated with a multitude of firefighter patches along with other mementos.

The much steeper Journey Trail continues from this point, tracing the route the Hotshots took down the ridge to their doom. It drops about 500 feet in one mile to reach the actual memorial. I was out of water at that point, so I turned around at the observation deck.

A week later, hand to God, I stumbled upon the movie based upon this group and their sad end, Only the Brave. It is actually well done.

If you visit this site, go in the morning and don’t go in summer. The desert wants to kill you even when its not on fire – don’t make it easy.

Sometimes it kills even the best of us.

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