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Wed, Jan. 22

Johnson: Spruce Mountain: Mystery, Conspiracy or Mistake?
Hiking Arizona

What’s in a name anyway?

In preparation for a workshop on Arizona’s conifers, I returned to the Groom Creek Trailhead to hike Spruce Mountain. I was quickly reminded of two things.

First, why I like hiking this nine mile loop trail with its elevation gain of 1,200 feet.

Second, the mystery of why there are no spruce trees on Spruce Mountain. I asked then Mayor Harvey Skoog about this and he thought it might be a conspiracy. Perhaps. It is often easier and sexier to believe in some wild conspiracy, a boogey-man so to speak, than to accept the simple truth that somebody messed up.

The White-fir trees on Spruce Mountain, superficially resemble Blue Spruce. But plants unlike animals, are many. With 4,000 plant species in Arizona, close attention to detail is essential to differentiate one species from another. Such is not the case with animals. For example, there are only around 150 species of mammals in Arizona. You can look at a bobcat and a ringtail cat from some distance and readily tell that one is a cat and the other is not. Making such distinctions with most plants requires getting close enough to the plant to touch it, smell it, perhaps even taste it.

The most reliable way to I.D. and classify any organism is to understand how it reproduces. In the case of conifers, this means their cones. Spruce cones hang down on the stem and fir cones stand upright on the branch. There are other differences but we don’t need to get technical, we just need to think/listen before we speak. That seems to be asking too much today, so take a hike on Spruce Mountain to gain some perspective, to catch your breath.

Someone probably looked at the White-fir trees on the second highest summit in Yavapai County and misidentified them. Then again, it’s possible that this misnamed mountain is due to some nefarious group of fanatical tree huggers bent on taking over the world. Or, “Spruce Mountain” just sounded better than “White Fir Mountain.”

In addition to solving this mystery on your next hike, there are quite a few other reasons to hike Groom Creek Trail 307 on Spruce Mountain. The views are fantastic in all directions. That must be the reason there is a fire lookout on the summit. There is plenty of shade but no surface water.

The trail is well-marked, hence it is easy to follow. The trailhead is conveniently located on Senator Highway (paved), just a few miles beyond (south of) Goldwater Lake. Convenient access to well-developed trails often means crowded conditions. While that is certainly possible, I have never found that to be the case here. Sure, I generally encounter a handful of other hikers or bikers on the trail but I have never felt like the trail was “crowded.”

Proximity to other recreational sites and residences carries with it a couple of negatives though: power lines and confusing side trails. So, as with anything, we take the good with the not so good. I can’t do much about these negative factors but, when it comes to the plants you will surely encounter on your next hike this autumn, I can offer a workshop: Beautiful Fall Hikes in Arizona at the Spring Valley Library on October 9th @3:30 P.M.

Mystery solved!

Next: The Colors of Fall on the Trail in Arizona

Ted Johnson is a columnist for The Daily Courier. Reach him by email at

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