VIP1 Kitt Peak and beyond

Kitt Peak lies at the north end of the Quinlan Mountains. From Kitt Peak, the Quinlan range extends southward 40 miles to the Pozo Verde Mountains, in northernmost Sonora, Mexico. Most of the Baboquivari Quinlan chain is made up of Jurassic granitic, volcanic, and sedimentary rocks, ranging in age from 190 to 145 million years. The Coyote Mountains, the small, rugged range to the east of Kitt Peak, are composed mostly of light-colored early Tertiary granite, 58 million years old. From this viewpoint, the scene is dominated by the north face of Kitt Peak, made of Jurassic granites. The Kitt Peak road climbs rapidly from the junction at 3220 feet elevation, to the mountaintop's Visitor Center at 6800 feet elevation, winding past sheer walls of gleaming granite and affording spectacular vistas of the Sonoran Desert.

Even though the telescopes on Kitt Peak dominate the landscape, astronomers are not the only ones who frequent the mountain. The high granite peak is home to numerous plant, animal, and insect species, too. In fact, the Sonoran Desert, in spite of its "youthful" age (no more than 10 000 years old), is the most diverse of any of the American deserts. Life in the Sonoran desert is dependent upon the frequency of rain, which averages around 10 inches per year at the lower elevations. However, the time at which the water is delivered also is important. The biseasonal pattern of rainfall - gentler, winter rains and more active, summer monsoons - provides not just one, but two opportunities for annual plants to grow and produce seed for the next cycle.

As you ascend the Kitt Peak access road (SR 386), the air temperature drops by 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1000 feet. In addition, the higher the elevation, the damper the climate, as the moist, ascending air cools and forms clouds that produce rain. This is the reason for changes in plant life. Kitt Peak itself receives about 18 inches of precipitation each year, both as rain and snow. It may be surprising to visitors who, comfortable in sandals and shorts while in the valley below, find themselves ill-prepared for sight-seeing in a snowstorm! Those who doubt that Kitt Peak experiences seasons other than summer need only note the wooden chests labeled "sand" near sloping sidewalks adjacent to buildings on the mountain. These seasonal contrasts produce interesting variations in life forms, and provide some interesting challenges for astronomers who find themselves isolated on snowy, icy mountain tops (especially when trying to make their way to the cafeteria at night).

Much wildlife inhabits Kitt Peak and the surrounding area, including javelina, mule deer, black bear, coyotes, bats, and numerous birds, reptiles, and insects; however, the coatimundi may be one of the most interesting of all Kitt Peak mammals. Looking somewhat like long-nosed raccoons without the raccoon's ringed tail, coatis are usually found near water, like to climb trees, and travel in groups. Not picky eaters, coatis dine on grubs, lizards, snakes, carrion, rodents, nuts, and fruits of native trees, as well as prickly pear cacti and yucca. They are probably the most visible mammals on the mountain. Even though enticed to touch them, it is not appropriate to harass wildlife, for their protection and yours!

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