Arizona's Only True Alpine Area
The San Francisco Peaks are an extinct strato volcano in northern Arizona. The two highest points in the state are located on the mountain; Humphrey's Peak (12,633') and Agassiz Peak (12,356'). Within the state of Arizona, no other alpine areas exist. The closest one will get is the White Mountains of eastern Arizona and Mount Baldy. However, Mount Baldy has a much lower summit (11,420'). That is less than the San Francisco Peaks lowest summit, Doyle Peak (11,460'). Baldy is much more gentle in appearance than the relatively steeply sided San Francisco Peaks, and it lacks any true alpine environment as no part of the mountain is really above treeline.
Agassiz Peak from the Humphrey Summit Trail
Only the western and highest part of the San Francisco Peaks is Alpine. Fremont Peak (11,969') barely breaks it, but has small seedlings growing at it's summit and the remaining peaks all have trees on them. The treeless area does extents to lower altitude than some of the other peaks, and in these places alpine plants are found. However, large, small, and wind blown trees are found growing in protected places above some of these lower alpine or treeless areas. It is in the alpine areas of the San Francisco Peaks that some of Arizona's rarest plants grow, and one of these plants is found nowhere else in the world.
The Peaks Alpine Environment
When a person visits the San Francisco Peaks at a time the mountain does not have snow on it, the first thing they will probably notice is the near absence of vegetation. The Peaks are a dry and windy place. Probably the only time of the year the wind isn't fierce is during the summer monsoon season. Calm periods can exist at any time of year, but wind seems to be more common. Spring is the worst time of year for wind, and March to June is the worst time of year to be on the Peaks.
Limited vegetation on rocky slopes
Because of all the wind, the Peaks dry out quickly. In winter, snow gets blown of the mountain very quickly. Dry, powdery snows don't last more than a day or two. What doesn't blow away melts rapidly under our warm sunny days. Above treeline, this dry environment combines with unweathered and rocky conditions to make an environment that doesn't support much plant life. Indeed, some slopes seem to have no vegetation on them at all.
As a result of the rare qualities of the mountain, it is afforded some protection. This might seem odd given the appearance of it and the feeling that there is nothing there worth protecting. However, alpine plants do exist on the Peaks. Some are common and some appear common but are endemic to the mountain and considered rare. Human trampling of the vegetation adjacent to the trail is a problem in some places and it is best to avoid stepping on any of the alpine plants.
San Francisco Peaks Groundsel
San Francisco Peaks Groundsel (Senecio franciscanus
) is considered endemic to the mountain and is listed a "threatened" species. The threat seems to be mostly from it being rare and the potential for hikers to destroy it. There is actually a lot of it on the mountain and it does quite well up there, often growing right by trails. As long as people don't step on it, it survives well.
San Francisco Peaks Groundsel
While climbing Grand Teton in August of 2010, I came across a very similar looking plant. It turns out that there are many species of Senecio
, and the one I spotted in the Tetons is similar in appearance, but not the same species as is found on the San Francisco Peaks. Still, telling the difference is hard. In the two pictures, one is from Arizona and one from Wyoming. The Wyoming plant grows near a granite rock. We have no granite on the San Francisco Peaks.
Wyoming Senecio from the Teton Range On Fremont Peak
Officially, protecting the alpine area and the San Francisco Peaks Groundsel is the reason Agassiz Peak hiking and any off trail hiking is prohibited on the San Francisco Peaks. Because of this, it is a good idea to recognize the plant and make efforts not to trample it. If you stick to the trails, you won't have any trouble avoiding it.
Alpine Avens (Geum rossii
) is the other common yellow flowering plant of the San Francisco Peaks. This is a very common alpine plant in the west. I have heard people comment that this is the rare protected plant of the mountain, and these have been Flagstaff dwellers, but it is not. The plant is valuable on the mountain, and in recent years I have noticed hikers trampling the patches of Avens that grow along the trail. Some of these have been killed and this is causing erosion around the trail. It is best to stay on trail and to step on large rocks if letting someone pass. The more you step on the plants the harder it is for them to survive.
Alpine Avens More Avens