A THREE-foot-long rattlesnake, slithering in S-shaped ripples across the road, brings the shuttle tram to a halt. Everybody in the open tram leans over in their seats, oohing and ahhing.
With destination unknown, the snake quickly disappears into the underbrush. Brown and red canyon walls loom on both sides. The craggy, brown splendor of the Santa Catalina Mountains (Coronado National Forest) is bursting now with a breathtaking and relatively cool Arizona spring.
Cactus blooms in yellows and reds, and palo verde trees burst with golden yellow flowers.
Here in popular Sabino Canyon, just a few miles north of Tucson, Ariz., more than a million people a year come to hike, jog, bird-watch, bicycle, picnic, or splash in Sabino Creek. The meandering stream originates near 9,196-foot Mount Lemmon and trickles over the four miles of canyon floor.
The canyon is one of the most heavily visited areas in the National Forest system. Cars were banned here a number of years ago.
Traffic jams along the two-lane road were ruining the tranquility, not to mention polluting the air and vegetation. A delicate creature like the cactus wren is no match for auto exhaust fumes.
Liquor got the ax just a month or so ago. ``Too many fights, accidents, and vandalism related to drinking,'' said a ranger at the visitor's center.
With so many people pouring into this riparian environment that includes rattlesnakes, Gila monsters, whitetail deer, an occasional bighorn sheep on a mountainside, and more than 200 species of birds, cars and liquor were too much of a threat. A fine of $100 can be levied against alcohol users, but a serious offense could mean up to $5,000 in penalties.
For $5, a visitor can ride the tram into the canyon, across bridges built in the 1930s by the Works Projects Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, and get off at any one of 10 stops.
Visitors can ride in and then hike out along Telephone Line Trail, which parallels a road on a ridge. Serious backpackers often ride the tram in and then hike deeper into the canyon for overnight camping.
Nearly all of Arizona is experiencing population growth, which means more hikers, rock climbers, and overnight campers seeking recreation in state parks, national forests, preserves, and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). A recent state poll indicated that 95 percent of Arizonans participate in some kind of outside recreation.
To protect areas such as Sabino Canyon or the BLM's extraordinary Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness from the rising tide of people, limitations have had to be established. South of the town of Globe, Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness is limited to 50 people a day, thanks to a 1984 act of Congress. The canyon is known for sheer canyon walls and stunning rock formations. Yet Aravaipa is distinct in its own right.
Hikers pay $1.50 for a permit in advance to enter Aravaipa, then walk three miles to reach the trail head.
Approaching the canyon, and inside, hikers must cross an ankle-deep stream many times. But this is the wilderness experience, the solitary encounter with the way the Earth was before crowds, asphalt, cars, and amenities.
With a rippling stream and the random beauty of ancient rock formations underfoot, the long walk through the canyon is inspiring.
``In wilderness is the only unsullied earth sample of the forces generally at work in the universe,'' wrote environmentalist Kenneth Bower.