At various times during the last few years my Toyota SUV struggled through multiple tight turns as we spiraled up Weaver Mountain to reach Yarnell, Arizona. It is a quiet, small, unincorporated community located in Northern Arizona.
Yarnell was home to several retirees. A place where people escaped the summer heat, smog, dust, and congestion of nearby Phoenix. At least it used to be.
All that changed in 2013 when a massive wildfire claimed the lives of nineteen Granite Mountain Hotshots. These men were a tight-knit team of experts trained to fight out-of-control wildfires. A lightning strike on June 28 ignited the Yarnell Hill fire. The event made national news and thrust the quiet community into history. Although the community was already a well-known spot to visit the Shrine of St. Joseph, the tragic death of an entire Hotshot crew overshadowed everything.
The former welcome sign disappeared. to be replaced by a new advertisement. The words were the same. However, there was a massive push to honor the fallen with a memorial. “A Memorial State Park was created to honor the hotshots. A 2.85-mile path leads from a parking area on Highway 89 up to an observation deck. A trail follows the last steps of the Hotshots down to the fatality site where they made their last stand. Encircling the fatality site, 19 gabions, one for each Hotshot, are united by chains. A second memorial has been placed at the intersection of State Route 89 and Hays Ranch Road in Peeples, Valley.” (http://wildfiretoday.com)
In 2017 the movie, “Only The Brave” was released.
Although I haven’t seen the movie, my research inspired a goal to hike the trail. I am now training for that difficult trek.
Before the fire, the Shrine of St. Joseph was Yarnell’s major attraction. Felix Lucero, a Native American from Trinidad, Colorado was commissioned by a group of Catholics from Phoenix to create the Stations of the Cross monument. “This hillside shrine has a chapel, the Way of the Cross, replicas of the Garden of Gethsemane and the Last Supper. Felix Lucero sculpted all of the work out of reinforced concrete.
The life-sized pieces are set among an oak tree-shaded area amid the boulders. Visitors can take a trail through the stations of the cross to see the statues or mediate in its beautiful park-like setting.” (https://delange.org/Yarnell/Shrine)
What about us? Whispered Yarnell area history.
I was so involved with the events of the fire and the shrine, other reasons to visit Yarnell were forgotten. For two hundred years, people crawled on Weaver mountain in their search for gold as well as escape the desert heat. In some way, they left their mark.
The town was named for Harrison Yarnell, a prospector who filed his claim in 1873. Gold continues being found throughout the area. The eight-mile switch-back road to the top also has a history. About half-way down the mountain road, there is a white elephant painted on the rocks.
This attraction is “Scooby The Elephant” or “Elephant Bend.” The sharp bends in the road are numerous, and one is so sharp it “bends like an elephant’s trunk.”
Further down is “Rocky The Frog.”
Why is that there? Most people see ‘Rocky’ but don’t know its history. Over 90 years ago ’Rocky’ was painted by Sara Perkins. Sara, while exploring with her sons, discovered a rock formation that looked like a frog. She painted the rocks bright green with black spots and a white underbelly. Later, in 1928 Highway 89 was built nearby. Since then tourists stop to photograph his unusual rock formation. It’s a fact that a man and his faithful dog are buried next to ‘Rocky.’ William Miller, who died January 19, 1940, requested to be buried next to ‘Rocky.’
Until the fire, Yarnell held two major events. Sometime in the fourth week of March the “Buzzard’s Bash” welcomed back the seasonal flock of Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) that migrated to Yarnell every year from Mexico. Yarnell Daze has an annual event fundraiser for the Weaver Mountains Chamber of Commerce. Both Yarnell and Peeples Valley communities financially benefit. Past events featured a large parade, colorful classic car display, live entertainment, food, arts and craft vendors hawked their wares.
Yarnell has something for everyone, from festive events, hiking or quiet reflection in a peaceful atmosphere up Weaver mountain.