The Mountain

Tumamoc Hill from its sister peak, A-Mountain. Photograph by Paul Mirocha
Tumamoc Hill from its sister peak, A-Mountain. Photo by Paul Mirocha


What is Tumamoc Hill?

It’s a highly protected wild-lands Sonoran Desert mountain, National Historic Landmark, ecological research preserve, U.S. Archaeological District, and community icon?all of two miles from downtown and surrounded by growing urban Tucson.

But there is no single description of Tumamoc Hill that is complete. There are many layers to the place, with different meanings depending on who you are.

A geologist will tell you that Tumamoc is an inselberg of volcanic rock remaining from eruptions between 20 ? 30 million years ago. And it originally was formed near what is now the Santa Catalina Mountains.

A paleontologist will tell you that the current Sonoran Desert environment came about 8?15 million years ago during a drying trend, when the unique desert plants here evolved from tropical ancestors moving north from Mexico.

The Tohono O?odham call it Cemamag? Doag, ?Horned Lizard Mountain.? The Hill is considered a sacred ancestral site for O’odham, Yaqui, and Hopi Indians.

It has been called many names. Lawrence Clark Powell, famed librarian and writer who lived in Tucson, called Tumamoc ?Tucson?s Acropolis.? It’s been called by various names, including “A Mecca for botanists, and “The Jerusalem of desert rats.”

The first thing a modern ecologist will say to you is ?don?t stray off the road.?  Beginning with the establishment of the Desert Botanical Laboratory in 1903 by the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Tumamoc is the oldest continually monitored ecological research preserve in the world, with data from over 100 years of study. This is the world?s first restoration ecology project. The nature here is to look at, to study, to appreciate, but not to exploit?not even to use.

To an archeologist, Tumamoc is a mystery that would challenge even Sherlock Holmes. Ruins of cultures living on Tumamoc go back 3,500 years, and at various times in prehistory, the Tumamoc hilltop was probably an important landmark, cultural focal point, and ceremonial ground.

To the thousands of people who walk the road daily (only authorized vehicles are allowed) Tumamoc is the best workout in town, a treadmill with a spectacular view. It’s a source of healing and health. It?s a place where one can stroll among grazing deer five minutes from downtown. Dig a little deeper and many walkers will confide that Tumamoc is a very personal emotional or spiritual sanctuary.

Urban culture and ecological research can co-exist on Tumamoc Hill. It is a sanctuary for humans as well as other Sonoran Desert life forms, but the boundaries are clear: no one steps off the road without special permission. Scientists have protected the Hill for the last century. Now it’s up to the community to take part in stewardship of the Hill as a special place and a cultural value fro the next 100 years.

Then we’ll check in again and see how it’s going.


The Desert Lab main building halway up Tumamoc Hill
The Desert Lab main building on Tumamoc


Tumamoc road to the summit