If you’ve ever hiked the Arizona Trail by Marsh Station Road and Cienega Creek you’ve probably seen it – The Gabe Zimmerman trailhead.
It’s an impressive landmark along the 800-mile Arizona Trail. The trailhead is complete with a life sized picture of a smiling, happy hiker. But how much do you really know about the man in that picture and the namesake of the trail?
Getting to Know Gabe Zimmerman
Gabe had a contagious love for the outdoors. He found a tremendous amount of happiness spending time exploring trails by foot and by bike.
Perhaps no one knew how much passion Gabe had for the trails better than his mom, Emily Nottingham.
“Like many Tucsonans, Gabe realized he was lucky to live in Southern Arizona, and took full advantage of the many opportunities to play outdoors. He played soccer at every park in the vicinity. He particularly liked hiking Picacho Peak, Wasson Peak, and the Grand Canyon , exploring Peppersauce Cave, camping in the Catalinas, running up Catalina Highway, riding his mountain bike on Redington Pass, playing disc golf at the Santa Cruz River Park — and hiking many pieces of the Arizona Trail,” Emily said.
The Arizona Trail held a special part of Gabe’s heart. He was a hiking companion for his mom, helping her find access points to the Arizona Trail for good day hikes before the trail was complete. Some days, Emily said that Gabe and her spent more time searching for the access points than hiking the trail itself!
Emily recalled when the mother-son team “…had a lot of fun designing a photographic treasure hunt on the trail for ‘Treasure Our Trail Day’ one year.” The tile image displayed at the trailhead today was taken on their photographic treasure hunt.
Gabe took his love of the Arizona Trail, the great outdoors, and serving others a step further. He joined the Arizona Trail Association as a member and volunteer. This is where he met several people, who would later have an impact on the creation of his trailhead – Steve Anderson, Arizona Trail Association Board Member and Pima County Natural Resources, Parks & Recreation, and Dave Hicks, former Executive Director of the Arizona Trail Association.
When he wasn’t exploring the great outdoors, Gabe worked as an aide to Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Among other reasons for loving his job, Gabe was proud of the small role the office played in securing the designation of the National Scenic Trail by Congress. He was especially proud of Congresswoman Giffords for her work securing funding for completion of the trail through Saguaro National Park. This part of the trail is now known as the Quilter Trail.
On the morning of January 8, 2011, Gabe went to work with the Congresswoman. He was on hand to help Gabby mingle with the community at an open constituent meeting in a Safeway parking lot.
While Gabe was happily at work helping and talking to people in the community, a crazed gunman arrived ready to cause harm. As he fired on the crowd, six people were fatally injured – Gabe was one of them.
In that moment, our community lost some extraordinary people.
Honoring Gabe’s Memory
Shortly after the shooting, Steve Anderson and Dave Hicks had the same thought simultaneously – to dedicate the Davidson Canyon trailhead to Gabe Zimmerman.
As Steve recalled,
Dave “…called me, and he said he told me he was thinking about having the Davidson Canyon Trailhead dedicated for Gabe, and I told him “…I was just going to call you and tell you I had the same thought!!!” Hah! So we talked about it and it was just a perfect project for Gabe.”
The two men were already planning on making some improvements to the trailhead. They joined forces with Gabe’s mom, Emily and a group of other people to start brainstorming how they could memorialize him.
From the get go, there were many people who played a major role in turning Steve, Dave, and Emily’s vision into a reality.
Pima County Supervisor Richard Elias smoothed the way to let the project begin. Once they had the go-ahead, plans started coming to life.
Doug Whitneybell of Whitneybell and Associates in Phoenix designed the trailhead.
A team worked hard to expand the trailhead by the unpaved equestrian area. Steve worked tirelessly to rake and shovel areas to perfection.
A ramada, step-over gates, and the interpretive signs you see there today were also added for the dedication. Pam Golden, Gabe’s stepmother, provided the scenic photography for these signs.
The final piece was Gabe’s Gate. Lee Blackwell did the gate itself. Steve Farley and Tile Canvas Inc. put together the stunning tile work tribute with the life-sized image of Gabe that his mom took while on the trail together.
Tofel Construction oversaw the project from start to finish. In a tragic coincidence, the Tofel family also lost a son/nephew during the same period. Emily was especially appreciative of their contribution during what was an equally hard time for them.
There were many more people involved in the project – each one dedicating time and resources to honor Gabe’s memory.
The Trailhead Today
The Gabe Zimmerman trailhead remains one of the most popular trailheads by people from near and far, in and around Vail.
“Gabe would be pleased that he contributed to the enhancement of the trailhead, and even more pleased that it is well used by the public. I can imagine him getting his friends together, having a picnic at the picnic table, going down to the creek and waiting for the trains to pass by. I always see someone else out there when I stop by, including equestrians, mountain bikers, and families as well as hikers,” Emily commented
Next time you pass through, stop and appreciate the beauty of this area. Gabe loved hiking – especially along the Arizona Trail and in the canyons of the Cienega Creek. Use his memory to enjoy and respect the surrounding environment. Gabe would’ve loved that.
Ready to get out and share in Gabe’s love of the Arizona Trail? Take part in the 10k or half marathon happening on the Arizona Trail on December 6, 2014. The race starts at Sahuarita Road and ends at the Gabe Zimmerman Trailhead where you can admire the hard work that went into honoring Gabe’s life. Sign up for the race here.