Chasing the Sunset
By Matt and Jennifer Marine
Note: This article was originally published in the Oro Valley Life Magazine (see link at the end of the page).
The lightning cut a jagged path across the dark sky and the hairs on my arm tingled in response. Not from the proximity of the bolt, but from its sheer power. I looked over at my friends and family standing next to me in the darkness, and I knew they were smiling. The storm’s raw beauty was better than expected.
We were perched on a rock outcropping looking over the valley below, the lights of Catalina twinkling in the distance like small jewels. The low rumble of thunder echoed across the mountains, reminding me that although beautiful from a distance, summer storms (or monsoons) in Arizona could be unpredictable and dangerous. We had come here to watch the storms, but would we be in for more than we’d bargained for?
Two hours earlier, we’d started our ascent into the Catalina Mountains at the Charouleau Gap trail head, along Lago Del Oro Parkway. Our 4WD convoy, consisting of four Jeeps and one Toyota 4Runner, rolled to a stop, kicking up a large cloud of dust. My family signed us in at the kiosk as I aired down my tires to about 15 psi. For those not experienced at traversing boulder-strewn roads in a Jeep, “airing down” gives more flex to the tires, allowing them to grip better and providing more comfort to those being bounced around inside.
As I finished checking my tires, I thought of the trail ahead. We had to cross several washes before we made the 2000 foot climb to Cherry Springs and the rock outcropping we hoped to reach. Storm clouds gathered in the distance. I couldn’t tell which way they were heading, but knew a large storm could cause a flash flood, turning the normally dry wash into a raging torrent and stranding us in the mountains. But storm watching was the reason we were here.
We decided the payoff was worth the risk and climbed in the Jeep. I shifted into 4-Low and headed down the trail as rocks and dirt crunched under my tires. After a mile and a half, we climbed out of Canada Del Oro Wash up the Samaniego Ridge. For an experienced driver with a high-clearance 4WD, this portion of the Charouleau Gap trail isn’t incredibly difficult. But it’s not for the faint of heart. Soon, the trail becomes steep and deeply rutted, testing vehicle and driver as you work to negotiate numerous obstacles. One such place is called “Kiss Rock”. Although the Forest Service “improved” this section a few years ago, it is well known by locals for being particularly amorous, as many Jeeps have been kissed (damaged) by the unforgiving rock face.
This section was the most challenging we would face on today’s run. As we began creeping up the rock face, I felt the Jeep become more and more vertical. All I could see out the front window was sky. Holding onto the steering wheel with an iron grip, I pushed the accelerator, trusting my Jeep’s off-road capability. The tires clung to the rock’s rough surface and just when I thought we’d start to slip, I felt the jeep pitch forward. The scenery out the front window changed from sky back to desert. We’d made it up Kiss Rock.
We found a level spot to park above Kiss Rock and watched the others make the climb. After ensuring all had safely navigated the obstacle, I took a quick look to the west. The sun was getting low in the sky. Red, oranges and yellows colored the sky. I grinned. We might be in for a wonderful bonus – a beautiful Arizona sunset. Sun, clouds and cacti: an ethereal combination. We took a few moments to capture the scene with our cameras. While this was a nice spot, I knew that the rock outcropping with its generous view of the city and surrounding mountains would be spectacular. If we were going to catch the sunset from there, we had to get going. And fast.
Racing the Sunset
I put the Jeep in gear and picked up the pace. Frowning, I glanced down at my watch. Our detainment at Kiss Rock had put us behind schedule. It was going to be close. Once we turned off the Charouleau Gap trail onto the lesser know Cherry Spring trail, I knew we had only about a mile to go. But a mile in 4WD can take a long time.
We raced (in 4WD terms, this is about 5-10 mph) down the trail, kicking up fistfuls of dust. We just might make it. But our race was suddenly put on hold.
“Look to your right,” came an excited voice over the radio, “there's a deer behind that tree!”
I slowed to a halt just as my daughter finished putting on her camera’s zoom lens.
“Pull forward a bit and stop,” she whispered, climbing over the dog and my other daughter in an attempt to get a snapshot of the deer.
I looked at the sun behind us. “Only have a few minutes before it’s gone,” I prodded.
Of course, she ignored me, her complete attention on the deer. Ten seconds later, she yelled, “Got it!” and we bounced off again. But we weren’t going to make it. We pulled off on the top of a hill, grabbed our cameras and began clicking away. After the sun disappeared, we drove to the rock outcropping in the gathering darkness.
Storms over Catalina
The sound of distant thunder rumbled as I watched a jagged piece of lightning slice through the rain laden clouds. The brilliant strokes flashed through the darkness every few seconds, each more breathtaking than the last. I sat on the ridge, awestruck at such a display of nature's fireworks.
I heard the snap of a camera's shutter closing. My daughter had barely moved from her spot on the rock the entire night. She had her camera perched on a tripod and was intently taking pictures. A group gathered around her and watched each playback of the image to see if she'd captured anything. Every time a strike glowed on the camera's screen they oohed and aahed.
While they were busy watching the monsoon play its lightshow in the valley below, my dog (known to many as Cat-dog) discovered a new friend. A poisonous one. A large Colorado River toad hopped out from under a rock, intent on catching one of the numerous June bugs drawn to the area by our lights.
Colorado River toads are one of the largest toads in North America and produce a toxic secretion from glands on their backs that can paralyze or kill dogs if they lick or attempt to eat it. The toad tried to hide beneath one of the Jeep’s tires, but we shooed it away, keeping Cat-dog at a safe distance.
The storm began to play out and I was silently thankful it hadn’t approached us. We wouldn’t have to worry about a flash flood tonight, but we weren’t safely home yet. We still needed to navigate the trail in the darkness.
With the last flashes of lightning becoming fading away, I drove my Jeep down the trail with only our headlights providing any sense of light or direction. Driving the trail at night gives one a completely different perspective. Rocks that seemed small in the daylight, rose tall and ugly in the shadows. Ruts became distorted. They appeared like deep crevasses, impossible to cross.
Progress was slow in the darkness and we kept a lookout for nocturnal creatures. Summer nights can provide an abundance of wildlife. Not tonight. No glowing gold eyes peered back at us from the gloom. All I saw was red taillights trace a path down from the mountains to the valley floor.
We gathered at the trail head we’d stopped at four hours previously and set about inflating our tires back to highway pressure. This takes about 30 minutes and we reminisced about the trail, sunset, wildlife and storm during our adventure. However, our excitement for the night wasn’t over yet. As I bent down to check the air in my front tire, I saw movement at my feet. A quick strobe from my flashlight revealed a large scorpion that I’d almost knelt on. We took his picture and let him scuttle off into the cactus beyond our lights.
After handshakes all around, we headed for home. This was our first attempt at trying to capture lightning on film and I was looking forward to downloading the pictures. But as I turned my Jeep onto pavement, I caught sight of another storm building in the distance. I took a deep breath and kept driving. Maybe tomorrow. It was monsoon season after all.
The Charouleau Gap trail is an 18 mile difficult 4WD road connecting the towns of Oracle and Catalina and is considered a right of passage by many local four-wheelers. It should only be attempted by experienced drivers with high-clearance 4WD vehicles. Although the Forest Service “improved” large sections of the trail near both towns, it still has many challenging obstacles that will get your blood pumping.
Charouleau Gap takes its name from a man named Anna Charouleau. He was born in France in 1823, then came to America and became a merchant in Tucson in the 1870s. Later, he managed a ranch near the saddle (now known as Charouleau Gap) until 1917 when he sold it to Frank Sutherland.
This area is extremely beautiful. After a few good summer rains, the rolling hills are covered in a thick carpet of green grass. Water, clean and cool, flows generously down the boulder strewn Canada Del Oro Wash. When full of water, the pond near the end of the Cherry Springs trail is like a desert oasis.
Oro Valley Life Magazine
Click here to view the entire Oro Valley Magazine (it's a large file ~ 10MB)
Photos from the trip
Most of these were taken by my daughter, Jennifer, a few by me and a few by Ron Smith.
Watching the sunset
Jeeps along the trail
Storms over Oro Valley and Catalina
Don't worry, he didn't get crushed. He decided to "hide" under the tire where we parked. We moved him along before we left.
Have you been on this adventure? What did you think? Comments and updates welcome by clicking here.
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