A clear blue sky and a slight breeze made the day perfect day for hiking Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park. The challenges to developing this emotional memorial park were many, but as 18 Arizona Parks and Recreation Association (APRA) members discovered, the result is powerful. On November 9, 2017, the group hiked the rugged trails that follow in the footsteps of the 19 elite wildland fire fighters who answered their last alarm during the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013.
One of my team members from Arizona State Parks and Trails led the hike and shared his perspective on the land acquisition, design and construction process of this park. He developed relationships with the Hotshots’ family members, first responders, community and agency leaders, generous contributors, community members who were affected by the fire and Brendan McDonough, the surviving crew member, along the way. Through them, we got to know the fallen Hotshots.
Visitors get to know the Hotshots along the trails. The hike is a raw and immersive experience. Visitors hike the same rugged hillside that the Granite Mountain Hotshots did. They feel the same winds on their faces that stirred up the deadly flames. Finally, they see the place where the Hotshots desperately cleared brush and deployed their emergency shelters as the fire overcame them. Visitors breathe heavily from the exertion of the hike. It’s hot. It’s dry. The effort to see this sacred ground is part of the honor paid to the fallen Hotshots. It is an acknowledgement of their skill, dedication and sacrifice. No one leaves unmoved.
In order to see the fatality site, visitors must hike approximately 7 miles up to the ridge, down into the canyon and back again. The 2.85-mile Hotshots trail leads from the trailhead through the Weaver Mountains to an observation deck overlooking the fatality site. From there, the .75-mile Journey Trail leads down in to the box canyon where the Granite Mountain Hotshots made their last stand. With a 1,200-foot gain in elevation at 5-8 percent grade and over 200 rock steps, this is a challenging hike. It was meant to be. Imagine that the Hotshots trudged through rugged terrain carrying 50-80 pounds of equipment for up to 14 days at a time. No other site allows the public to experience what wildland firefighters experience as a regular part of their duties.
The two most significant challenges to develop the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park were creating a design that balanced competing needs and construction over rough terrain. Both challenges were overcome with innovation and open-mindedness. Two years after the tragedy, Arizona State Parks and Trails purchased the 320-acre parcel of land at public auction. Parks then had to acquire additional land to connect the parcel to a transportation artery.
Emphasis of the rugged terrain became a key component of the design and intended experience, but it also presented a development challenge. The most direct path to the top of the ridge, approximately 1 mile from the parking lot, was far too steeply graded. Instead, the design team created switchbacks to keep the trail within a 5-8 percent grade. As a result, the Hotshot Trail stretched to almost 3 miles in length, with another .75-mile down the fatality site. Due to length, grade and terrain, the trail is still difficult, but achievable.
Construction was an even bigger challenge. American Conservation Experience was contracted to construct the trails. Thirty workers logged more than 11,000 hours over five months on the trails. They moved more than 189 boulders and carved more than 200 stone steps using no heavy equipment. Most material and equipment was carried to the sites on their backs.
More than half of the costs to build this park were covered by donations. Fortunately, government agencies, non-profits and private vendors were anxious to assist. State Land, State Forestry, Arizona Department of Transportation, the communities of Yarnell and Prescott, several firefighting agencies, and families of the fallen Hotshots joined the effort. More than 15 business also contributed, including:
The 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots are: Eric Marsh - Jesse Steed - Clayton Whitted - Robert Caldwell - Travis Carter - Travis Turbyfill - Christopher MacKenzie - Andrew Ashcraft - Joe Thurston - Wade Parker - Anthony Rose - Garret Zuppiger - Scott Norris - Dustin DeFord - William Warneke - Kevin Woyjeck - John Percin Jr. - Grant McKee - Sean Misner