Sky islands are isolated mountain ranges surrounded by drastically lower environments. The mountains are essentially islands in the sky surrounded by desert seas and are home to incredible biodiversity. Each sky island is ecologically distinct from nearby ranges and provides a unique habitat for plants and animals, some of which are found nowhere else in the world.
The term sky island was first used to describe southeastern Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains in the early 1940s, but then became popularized with Weldon Heald’s 1967 book, Sky Island. Visitors are drawn to sky islands for their unique biodiversity and the fact that it is possible to visit dramatically different desert and alpine environments in the same area on the same day.
Madrean Sky Islands
Encompassing several mountain ranges in southern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and northwestern Mexico, the Madrean Sky Islands are some of the most rugged, remote, and biologically diverse lands in the southwest. Here, mountains of pine-oak woodlands are surrounded by the lowland valleys of the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts. There are over 40 distinct Madrean sky islands to explore.
Just a two-hour drive from Tucson, the Chiricahua Mountains are the largest of Arizona’s Sky Islands. The Chiricahua Mountains are surrounded by thousands of rock rhyolite rock pinnacles, which were created during a major volcanic eruption 27 million years ago. The mountain was dedicated as a national monument to protect these phenomenal geological wonders.
Chiricahua Peak, the highest peak at 9,750 feet above sea level, towers nearly 6,000 feet over the surrounding valley and provides habitat for hundreds of unique bird species as well as jaguars, mountain lions, armadillo, black bears, and more. Popular activities in the range include hiking, wildlife viewing, horseback riding, and Chiricahua National Monument camping.
Fifty miles southwest of Tucson, the Baboquivari Range is one of the most sacred places for the Tohono O’odham people, the indigenous people of the Sonoran Desert. Baboquivari Peak is believed to be the home of their creator and their spiritual traditions are highly tied to the region’s stark desert landscape.
Today, the Baboquivari Mountains are a protected wilderness area and a recreational area for hikers and rock climbers. Baboquivari Peak is one of the few peaks in Arizona that requires technical rock climbing to reach the summit. A campground on the west side of Baboquivari Peak is operated by the Tohono O’odham Nation.
Pinaleño Mountains (Arizona)
The Pinaleño Mountains are the highest of Arizona’s Sky Islands. This remote range is located near Stafford, Arizona and is recognized as having the highest biodiversity of any mountain range in North America. The Mount Graham International Observatory sits atop the highest mountain in the Pinaleños and houses one of the world’s largest and most powerful telescopes. Public tours are available mid-May through October.
Driving the Swift Trail is one of the top things to do in the Pinaleño Mountains. This 70.4-mile round trip driving route climbs over 7,400 feet from the cactus-studded Sonoran Desert into the heart of the Pinaleños. The route provides access to trailheads and there are plenty of Mt. Graham camping spots along the way.
Other U.S. Sky Islands
Although the term sky island was originally coined to describe the isolated mountain ranges in the Madrean Archipelago, several mountain ranges in the Great Basin and other regions of the U.S. are also completely surrounded by lower elevation lands.
Spring Mountains (Nevada)
Located in southern Nevada just outside of Las Vegas, the Spring Mountains rise abruptly from the Mojave Desert and are thought to be the most biologically diverse of Nevada’s mountain ranges. These high elevation mountains provide a nice reprieve from the summertime heat in Las Vegas, and you’ll find plenty of camping options from the developed campgrounds in Red Rock Canyon to the free, dispersed spots at the Lovell Canyon Campground.
The Spring Mountains are home to the Spring Mountain National Recreation Area and the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, a world famous rock climbing destination known for its huge variety of sandstone climbing crags perfect for climbers of all abilities. Hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding are other popular activities in the Spring Mountains.
White Mountains (California)
California’s White Mountains are located on the Nevada border directly facing the Sierra-Nevada and are the highest range in the Great Basin. Standing at 14,252 feet above sea level, White Mountain Peak is the highest in the range and the fourteenth most prominent peak in the contiguous U.S. The White Mountains are home to Methuselah, a bristlecone pine recognized as the oldest living tree in the world. When it was sampled in 1957, it was estimated to be 4,789 years old. To protect the tree, its location is not publicly disclosed, but you can see other ancient pines in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. The Grandview Campground offers the closest camping to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.
Canyonlands National Park (Utah)
Although not technically a sky island, Canyonlands National Park’s Island in the Sky district deserves a mention on this list. The Island in the Sky sits atop a massive mesa surrounded by thousand foot drop-ops in nearly every direction. The island is connected to the rest of the Colorado Plateau by a thin sliver of land named “the Neck,” and offers dozens of incredible viewpoints of the Colorado and Green rivers down below. Spend a night camping in the Island in the Sky in Utah to enjoy the park’s other famous feature, one of the darkest skies left in the contiguous U.S.
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