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Sky Islands

Baboquivari Mountains GigaPan

The billions of pixels in a GigaPan image let you see close details of a panorama. Zoom in on this image of the Baboquivari Mountains and move around to find Kitt Peak National Observatory, located to the right of the second peak from the center. Find more GigaPans on the Iconic Landscapes map.

The grasslands and scrub of the Huachuca Mountains give way to mixed oak and pine forest.

Visitors to Southern Arizona are often struck by vast mountain ranges rising suddenly out of the desert lowlands. Prickly pear and ocotillo rapidly give way to oak, pine forest, and a much cooler climate. Usually 6,000–8,000 feet in elevation, these majestic hills emerge from a sea of desert scrub and provide an oasis for an abundance of wildlife. Known as Sky Islands, these areas encompass most of Arizona’s biotic communities. Many of Arizona’s most beloved creatures are found here, including the mountain lion (cougar) and black bear, Arizona Black Rattlesnake, the Mexican Spotted Owl, and other raptors.

Sky Islands are among the most diverse ecosystems in the world. As the meeting point between desert and forest, they offer a blend of tropical and temperate climates that can sustain many creatures, and are often the location of streams and other riparian areas. The Sky Island Alliance notes that the region harbors a diversity exceeding anywhere else in the U.S., supporting well over half the bird species of North America, 29 bat species, over 3,000 species of plants, and 104 species of mammals.

Sky Island Alliance interactive map

The 70,000 square mile Sky Island region covers southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and northwestern Mexico. Many are protected as state and national parks, and are popular recreation areas and vacation getaways. Several of Arizona's major observatories are located atop Sky Island peaks. Arizona’s Sky Island ranges include the Baboquivari Mountains (GigaPan), Whetstone Mountains, Chiricahua Mountains, Huachuca Mountains (GigaPan), Pinaleño Mountains, Santa Catalina Mountains, and Santa Rita Mountains. The tallest of these areas are the Pinaleño Mountains, rising to 10,720 feet above the Gila River near the town of Safford. Though the highest point in the state is in the San Francisco Peaks, these mountains are not considered Sky Islands because they sit atop the Colorado Plateau and not the Basin and Range province.

The map on the right, courtesy of the Sky Island Alliance (SIA), shows the Sky Island ranges and wildlife corridors (click to expand). The stars on the map indicate SIA projects. SIA is a grassroots organization which works with volunteers, scientists, land owners, public officials, and government agencies to establish protected areas, restore healthy landscapes, and promote public appreciation of the rich natural heritage of native species and habitats in the Sky Island region.

Read more! A Natural History of the Santa Catalina Mountains is available at the Arizona Experience Store.