Sentinel Peak Will Have an ADA Trail by Spring

December 3, 2012

By Teya Vitu

The last week of November saw the work start to turn Sentinal Peak Park into a park, a place with more than a loop road, overlook, a big letter A, and a couple parking lots.

Howard Dutt stands where a new handicapped accessible overlook will be built on Sentinel Peak to overlook the Santa Cruz Valley.

In truth, Sentinel Peak (“A” Mountain) itself took on a few park characteristics two years ago already as formal trails were built to the summit and around both sides to link parking lot with overlook.

But Howard Dutt acknowledges that most Sentinel Peak visitors have yet to step foot on the trails. They are more drive-bys or park by the overlook sorts or hikers on trails lower down.

“Up until now, it’s still a pretty wide open, wild place,” said Dutt, landscape architect at the Tucson Parks & Recreation Department. “We are getting more people up here doing what they’re supposed to be doing and fewer people not doing what they’re not supposed to be doing.”

The next step is getting people in wheelchairs up to Sentinel Peak – and beyond the parking lot.

The work starting now will build an Americans with Disabilities Act accessible trail from the parking lot about 230 feet along the south flank of A Mountain to a new overlook with shade structure that will also get built.

The project will also erect an ADA accessible trailhead plaza right at the parking lot. This will offer interpretive signage and seating with a sign that shows the whole park and trail system. ADA parking spaces will be added.

“Absolutely nothing in this park is handicapped accessible. This really opens the park to people in wheelchairs and the elderly,” Dutt said. “One of the things we really want to do is get people out of their cars and experience the mountain.”

Recently, Dutt presented the project to the senior citizens living at the new Sentinel Plaza Apartments nearby on West Congress Street.

“Most of them had never been up here,” Dutt said. “They are already talking about having regular excursions up here.”

The ADA work should be done by the end of February and open to the public soon thereafter.

A Sentinel Peak trailhead plaza will be built in the foreground and the trail to the right will be paved to allow for wheelchair access.

The ADA trail will improve a portion of the South Sentinel Trail built two years ago to link the parking lot and the overlook under the “A.” The city has only enough money to build about one-third of the distance or about 230 feet.

The trail will be 6 feet wide and made of a stabilized decomposed granite surface.

“It leaves enough air space between the small rocks so that water goes right through. That takes care of drainage,” Dutt said.

The ADA trail will end at a new Santa Cruz Valley Overlook plaza that will be built below the designated spot where the large cross is erected each Easter. This will include a shade structure and interpretive signage of the view to the south.

The overlook will be built with a new material called scoria, a concrete made of volcanic cinders.

“The walls and columns for the shade structure will be built out of steel that will be left to rust naturally,” Dutt said. “We’re trying to keep everything to this volcanic sort of color.”

Tucson-based Wheat Scharf Associates, which also designed the Interstate 10 art, designed the Sentinel Peak Park improvements. M. Anderson Construction is building the trail and amenities.

As recently as three years ago, Sentinel Peak had no formal trails, just a braid of wildcat trails. Parks and Rec recruited the Southwest Conservation Corps and community volunteers in 2010 to build two dedicated trails.

“There was no organized trail. People just scrambled up here,” Dutt said.

The crews cleared a good trail along .14 mile of the south side of the mountain, patching together bits of wildcat trails.

The .2-mile trail you can now walk on the north side of A Mountain was built in 2010. The thought was the trail was a new path, but during construction they came upon evidence of prior paths.

“This was part of the original road, but you couldn’t tell it was anything,” Dutt said. “We found a stacked stone retaining wall. We didn’t even know this trail existed.”

This old retaining wall was found as a new trail was cleared on Sentinel Peak.

This trail forks with one spur continuing to the overlook under the “A” and another heading up .12 mile to the top of Sentinel Peak (parking lot to summit is .22 mile). Once again, they found traces of an existing trail.

“We found this trail that had been built at some point in history that we’re not quite sure of,” Dutt said.

Still, there is no signage for these trails, known as the Southern Sentinel Trail, Northern Sentinel Trail and Sentinel Summit Trail. Signs will be installed during these winter improvement.

The $240,000 project is funded with $112,000 from the sale of land adjacent to Juhan Park, $72,000 from a 2000 city bond and $56,000 in Highway User Revenue Funds, the HURF funds designated to build a Sentinel Peak Park monument entry sign at Congress and Cuesta Avenue.

At the lower reaches of Sentinel Peak Park, about 100 people showed up at the lower parking lot on Nov. 21 for the renaming of the Sentinel Ridge Trail to the Gilbert Escandón Jiménez. Parks & Rec expected a much more intimate turnout.

“Gilbert, you’ve got a lot of friends,” Parks & Rec Director Fred Grey said.

Jiménez at 86 isn’t as spry as he’s been in the 50 years he has been a member of the Southern Arizona Hiking Club – and long-time hiker at Sentinel Peak Park.

“He still does regular maintenance and walking on the trail and letting us know what the needs are on the trail,” City Councilmember Regina Romero said.

Jiménez is two years older than Sentinel Peak Park, which was created in 1928 after the city received title to the property from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

City Councilmember Regina Romero embraces Gilbert Escalon Jimenez, for whom a trail was named at Sentinel Peak Park.

“It’s an honor for me to have this trail named after me,” said Jiménez, wearing his hiking club cap. “My friends and my hiking buddies, men and women, I thank you for what you’ve done for me and my family.”

Jiménez devoted most of his podium time to World War II memories, which to him were much more harrowing than the hiking adventures he has led his friend on over the decades.

“I’ve hiked a lot with Gilbert,” said hiking club member Joe Spitler. “ I remember two hikes well. The reason I remember them was I was scared to death. We didn’t hike up Thimble Chimney. We scrambled up Thimble Chimney. Gilbert would say: ‘put your hand here, put your foot here, now put your hand here.’ That’s the way I got to the top.”

Sam McClung, president of the Southern Arizona Hiking Club, shared some death defying ventures with Jiménez as well.

“He took me to the top of Baboquivari. It involved ropes. I had never been on ropes,” McClung recounted. “He brought some ease to get up some pretty steep pitches.

Jiménez brushes off these tales.

“Hiking is good for you. Hiking is good for your mind and soul and body,” Jiménez said.