A hike to remember: Honoring the Granite Mountain Hotshots at memorial state park
The 7-mile roundtrip hike is an opportunity to pay respects to the 19 firefighters killed during the Yarnell Hill Fire
The Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park in Arizona was dedicated as a place to honor and remember the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who were killed on June 30, 2013, during the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona.
A 7-mile roundtrip trail leads hikers from the trailhead to a memorial site where the firefighters died. Along the way, hikers can read a plaque about each hotshot, contemplate the challenge they faced when the wildfire suddenly changed directions and remember each man, as well as the friends and family he left behind.
Before you go: Hike details and logistics
I hiked the round-trip route in late March and can offer some general information and advice for making the trek:
- Location: The state park is about 3 miles southwest of Yarnell, on the southbound side of Arizona state highway 89. Visit the state park website for location information and a downloadable trail map.
- Trailhead parking and amenities. Trailhead parking is limited to a few diagonal spots. A shuttle is available to the trailhead on Friday, Saturday and Sunday from October to May. The trailhead is on the southbound lane of a steep descent, which limits the options for off-the-highway shoulder parking. I did notice that many people stop, read the interpretive sign at the trailhead, and drive away a few minutes later so a spot might open quickly. There is no drinking water or concessions at the trailhead. There was a portable toilet the day we visited.
- Length: There are two trails to reach the memorial site. The Hotshots Trail is a 2.85-mile hiking trail that ascends 1,200 feet to reach the observation deck and tribute wall. The Journey Trail is a three-quarter-mile hike from the observation deck to the fatality site, which is marked by 19 gabion baskets, one for each hotshot. The full hike is a little more than 7 miles and the return trip from the memorial starts with a steep ascent to the observation deck. (See the map below.)
- In your pack: Though the trail is excellently constructed and well-maintained, it is a challenging hike with no shade. As with any hike in the desert, make sure you have durable footwear, sunscreen, food and plenty of water. There are several places along the trail to sit and rest on a bench or rock, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find any spots out of the sun, especially for more than one person.
Before you go: How to honor the hotshots
The Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park website reads: “We invite you to hike the trail to better understand the experience of these men as well as to appreciate the beauty of the town of Yarnell and the surrounding areas.”
Here are few recommendations to help you fully appreciate the experience:
- Watch the Yarnell Hill Briefing Video: This 21-minute video presents the findings of the Serious Incident Investigation Briefing. The investigation describes the terrain, vegetation, fire history, fire behavior, incident response, and mitigation actions from the day the fire started through the entrapment and the conclusion of the incident. Standing at the observation deck and the memorial site, after watching the video, I was able to much better comprehend how the hotshots were overcome by the fire and understand the agony of surviving family and friends at just how close they were to a bailout point.
- Read analysis and reflection on the incident. I recommend learning more about the incident, as well as the investigation and lessons learned through several fire service publications that give helpful details for interested hikers. Start with this article, Granite Mountain Hotshots: The firefighting team that died battling the Yarnell Hill Fire, by Janelle Foskett, FireRescue1 editor-in-chief, for an overview of who the hotshots were, how this tragedy unfolded and how the community has honored the fallen. Bruce Hensler, FireRescue1 columnist and historian, looks back six years later as part of the ongoing discussion about the crew’s decision-making and potential lessons for today’s firefighters and incident commanders. In Learning from Yarnell Hill, Brad Mayhew offers training ideas and lessons “in the hopes of preventing another tragedy like the Yarnell Hill Fire.” I also recommend, “A Personal Tragedy,” by Amanda Marsh, widow of Eric Marsh, superintendent of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew. (Note: I haven’t watched “Only the Brave,” the 2017 feature film based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.)
- Bring a patch, pin or challenge coin. Next to the observation deck armada, an awning with a few benches, is a Tribute Wall for visitors to leave behind a patch, T-shirt, pin or challenge coin as a gift in remembrance of the fallen. Arizona State Parks and Trails collects and preserves the items left at the site in a permanent collection.
- Respect the fallen. Remind your hiking partners, especially children, that you are visiting a memorial for 19 fallen firefighters. The final descent to the memorial site, as well as the memorial site itself, should be a time for reverence, reflection and quiet contemplation.
If you have the time, fitness and opportunity to visit the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park, I highly recommend it. The trail is as tough and rugged as the men it honors.
Granite Mountain Hotshots: The firefighting team that died battling the Yarnell Hill Fire
Detailing how tragedy unfolded and how the community has honored the fallen firefighters