Arizona’s newest park honors Granite Mountain Hotshots

The trail meanders up Yarnell Hill, where 19 men lost their lives fighting a wildfire in 2013

Hikers ascend the newly dedicated Hotshots Trail in the new Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park, which features a plaque for each of the 19 men who perished fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013.

CINDY BARKS/Special to the Miner

Hikers ascend the newly dedicated Hotshots Trail in the new Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park, which features a plaque for each of the 19 men who perished fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013.

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PRESCOTT – The views are sweeping, and the climb is steep. Still, it is the faces that dominate the new trail that winds its way above the community of Yarnell.

The images appear at regular intervals along the 2.85-mile Hotshots Trail – first a smiling Eric Marsh, then Jesse Steed, Clayton Whitted, and Robert Caldwell.

Every 600 feet or so, as the trail climbs up Yarnell Hill, another plaque appears. Just before the trail’s observation deck about 2.85 miles in, the last plaque appears, bearing the name and photo of Sean Misner.

The plaques, embedded in the rock formations along the way, are part of a new Arizona State Park that commemorates the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who died fighting the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire. The park opened to the public Wednesday.

Glenn Schlottman, public information officer and chief of marketing for Arizona State Parks, explained that the 19 plaques were arranged along the new Hotshots Trail in order of seniority, beginning with Marsh, the crew’s leader.

Along with photos of each of the Hotshots, the plaques also include a description of the men – their lives, interests and families.

The poignant plaques, coupled with the rugged setting and broad views of Yarnell, make for a powerful experience. “It’s a dramatic trail in all ways,” Schlottman said recently, as he made his way up the hill.

State Parks and a Yarnell Hill Memorial Site Board have been developing the new park since 2015, and work was wrapping up this past week in preparation for a dedication ceremony and opening to the public. The private dedication ceremony took place Tuesday.

Sue Black, executive director of Arizona State Parks, said development of the park has been a moving experience for all involved.

“I’ve built a lot of state parks and urban parks over the years,” Black said. “This has been the most emotional project I’ve been involved with.”

Noting that it has been 17 years since Arizona has developed a new state park (most recently, Kartchner Caverns in 1999), Black said, “We had to get it (the Hotshots park) right. We wanted it to be a fitting tribute to the ultimate sacrifice.”

All along, family members and the members of the site board pushed for a simple and sacred memorial that would honor and remember the fallen Hotshots.

The result: A park that centers on the men and their final journey. Along with the 2.85-mile Hotshots Trail, the park also includes a 0.75-mile trail from the observation deck to the fatality site. That trail has been named Journey Trail to depict the Hotshots’ final journey, Black said.

State Parks officials caution that the trails are relatively steep and rugged. From the parking lot, the Hotshots Trail begins rising immediately and is interspersed with a series of rock steps. It climbs about 1,200 feet over its 2.85-mile length, and includes a number of switchbacks. The trail begins at 4,318 feet elevation, and climbs to 5,460 feet at the observation deck.

From there, the Journey Trail drops down another 400 feet to the fatality site. A circle of 19 gabion baskets filled with native rocks marks that somber spot.

Interpretive signs along the way describe the Yarnell Hill Fire and the Hotshots’ role that day.

In all, the trail is a seven-mile round trip. A fact sheet from Arizona State Parks urges trail users to dress appropriately, bring adequate food and water, and plan for a minimum of five hours round trip. “There is no access to drinking water along the trail,” the fact sheet adds. “Attempting the full hike after 1 p.m. may result in hiking out after sunset.”

The park and trail system can be accessed from a trailhead off Highway 89, located two miles south of Yarnell. A 15-space parking area has been constructed along the southbound portion of the highway.

To handle the expected public interest, State Parks also will be providing shuttle service to the trailhead from the community of Yarnell. Black said park rangers would be on hand at the park to help guide people to parking places and the shuttle. Entry to the park is free, although donations will be accepted at the park.