The San Francisco Peaks rise above the northern Arizona Landscape
and seem to touch the sky. They were designated the "Kachina Peaks
Wilderness" in 1984 for their geological, cultural, and biological
significance. Actually one large mountain with its "top blown off", this
stratovolcano was created between 2 million and 400,000 years ago
when successive volcanic eruptions layered lava, ash and cinders.
The summit once towered 16,000 feet (5,333m) above sea level before
a great eruption, glaciation, and erosion sculpted the prominent peaks
including Mt. Humphreys, Arizona's highest point at 12,633 feet (4,211m).
These peaks are spiritually significant to many Native Americans.
The Hopi revere the San Francisco Peaks because they are home to the
Kachina spirits. The Navajo embrace the peaks as one of the four sacred
mountains or religious shrines. Certain plants and animals important to
both Hopi and Navajo cultures live on the mountain. The Native
Americans believe they are custodians of the land responsible for
passing it along unimpaired to future generations.
From the lower elevations ponderosa pine habitat of the Abert's
Squireel to the Alpine habitat of the scarce San Francisco Peaks groundsel
plant, the San Francisco Peaks are home to a diverse population of plants
and wildlife. This drastic change in elevation drew C. Hart Merriam to
northern Arizona in the late 1800's to perform a biological survey and
explain relationships between elevation and biological communities. Although
most of his theories were later disputed, his life zone concept continues to be
an important tool. Merriam's life zones from lowest to highest elevation
include Desert, Pinyon Pine, Canadian, Hudsonian, Timberline, and Alpine.
Modern designations of these zones vary somewhat.
The Alpine Tundra on the San Francisco Peaks is the second most
southerly located tundra in the United States. This fragile ecosystem above
timberline is a very harsh environment with cold temperatures and high
winds. Few animals live here and only plants with special adaptations can
survive. Senecio Fransicanus, a yellow groundsel in the sunflower family that
grows on the tundra, is found nowhere else in the world! Hiking within
the tundra zone is restricted to designated trails only.