Granite Mountain Hotshot Memorial Trail built by hand

By Anie Wayman-Trujillo

Sun Correspondent

The Granite Mountain Hotshot Memorial Trail (the Trail), part of the Granite Mountain Hotshot Memorial State Park (GMHMSP) winds up the remote mountainside outside of Yarnell, Ariz.

It’s intimidating. Cut directly into the side of the Weaver Mountains, this 7 mile (round trip) trail has over 200 steps incorporated into the dirt pathway where the switchbacks lead you to some very narrow passages. The trail is considered a difficult hike. The first portion is a true test for the casual hiker with a continuous steep incline that ascends 1,200 feet from the trail head. Dispersed along the trail are plaques set into boulders that tell a story of each of the “19” fallen wildland firefighters who lost their lives on that fateful day in June of 2013. The markers provide welcome breaks for hikers, and stand as a reminder of why this state park was built.

Within the 320 acre GMHMSP there are two trails, a 2.85 mile trail that leads to an observation deck, and a .75 mile trail that leads from the observation deck to the area where the 19 firefighters perished.

Considered a difficult trail to hike, to those who designed and built the trail, it was understood that even though an easier route might have been possible, the journey of hiking the Trail, through the rugged terrain and boulders, was an important part of the emotional and educational aspect of understanding the complexities that wildland fire fighters face every day “on the line”.

Just like fire lines that wildland firefighters have to forge on fires, the Trail needed to be naturalized and cleared. In order to accomplish that task, the Flagstaff, Ariz., based “American Conservation Experience” (ACE), a nonprofit that undertakes practical environmental restoration projects on a variety of public lands and provides a range of voluntary service programs, was asked to provide assessment work on how to proceed.

Using several control points to determine the placement of the trail, it was determined that “it would not be possible to allow for mechanical equipment to be used during construction and that all the work would need to be done by hand” states Mark Loseth, one of the project managers for the trail crew and National Trails Specialist for ACE. Helping assess the intricacies of building such a robust trail and determining how it would be able to withstand prolonged use and the elements is just one of the many different aspects of what ACE does. Understanding the difficulty and nature of building such a trail, when it came time to provide the man power to construct the trail, the ACE group and interns just seem liked a natural fit and they were assigned by the Arizona State Parks Department to do the job, with work beginning on the Trail in January 2016.

Chris Arendt, now an Arizona State Parks Ranger for GMHMSP was one of those interns from ACE who spent time building the trail. The site, just above a small turn out on the side of U.S. Highway 89 before the Park was built, did not have any easy access, Arendt explains “When we began construction of the trail we often had to repel to the rocky areas to work”.

Required to be trained in the use of special equipment such as grip hoists, jack hammers, rock bars and chain saws that needed to be used for the project, the actual daily work was often slow going. Sometimes moving boulders the size of Volkswagens, and having to hand construct all of the rock steps and retaining walls, the work the ACE crew did was hard and sometimes dangerous, however the experience was rewarding to everyone who put in the time and effort and “no one ever forgot why the trail was being built and that our mission was to honor those men” Arendt adds.

Sixty men and women worked over a 5 month period, 7 days a week on 4/3 day shifts to finish the project. Interns camped out 2 miles south of the trailhead.

Wanting the interns to better understand the nature of Wildland Firefighters and complexity of the situation with this fire, Arendt explains that Crew Leader Gaven Monson provided books that had been written about the tragedy for the interns to read. “At night, we would sit around a campfire and the interns would take turns reading a chapter out loud from either “Fire Line” by Fernada Santos “On the Burning Edge” by Kyle Dickman or “My Lost Brothers” (a very poignant book written by Brendan McDonough, (the only Granite Mountain Hotshot to survive as he was assigned to another area of the fire line to track the progress of the fire). Reading about these men and their stories proved to be a powerful experience for the interns who would carry the thoughts of the 19 throughout their daily tasks.

Once work was completed on the trail the feeling the ACE crew members attained from the experience was overwhelming. Most of the ACE interns working on the trail were in their 20’s. Learning about the individual Hot Shot Crew Member stories’ and realizing that their own lives were similar to the firefighters in so many ways… “and then one tragic day they were gone” as Arendt reflects, left the ACE crew members humbled. “We knew how much it would mean to our volunteers as a team to build it,” adds Loseth. “It was a life changing experience for our crew members, so much so, that we had at least two of those crew members go on to become wildland firefighters”.

The GMHMSP and Trail opened in November 2016, since that time over 80,000 people from all over the world have visited the site. Memorial Park Ranger Gared Welsh is always fascinated with the travelers who stop and the experiences they leave. “We had several Buddhist Monks stop one day,” Welsh recounts. “They started chanting prayers and continued praying the duration of the trail.” A resident of Yarnell when the fire erupted in 2013, Welsh states that working at the Park has been a healing experience for him, and has seen the powerful influence the experience has on so many others who built the trail and who spend time there now.

The GMHMSP site is open from dawn to dusk, 365 days a year. If you are visiting the Park site at trail head no special information is needed. If you are planning on hiking the Trail, the difficulty level should be considered before hiking. Visit the Park website for additional information on how to prepare for the hike at www.azstateparks.com/hotshots. Be aware of the high desert weather. Always take plenty of water.

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