Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Arizona Trail - Border to Molina Basin

Got back from a week on the Arizona Trail – started at the border and hiked straight through to Molina Basin in Passage 10, or about 160 miles. I also hiked the Tanque Verde Ridge trail in Saguaro National Park to connect the “uncompleted” section between Hope Camp and Mica Mountain – more on this below.

What an experience. I had never visited this area, and was simply amazed by the sky islands. I visited four: the Huachucas, the Santa Ritas, the Rincons, and the Santa Catalinas. Each has its own character and invites further exploration. The connecting sections were scenic and well-planned. The Arizona Trail Association has really done a great job – although the trail is still technically uncompleted, the parts I hiked have essentially been established. The Association has also produced good maps and other tools for navigating the trail; in particular, I found the GPS data essential. This is in striking contrast to the USFS signs at trailheads indicating a sketchy and indefinite trail with several gaps – the Association made great progress in a relatively short period.

Arizona is having a good winter. I found water flowing in nearly every drainage, all the way down to the sources designated “not reliable” (w0) by the association: However, I also crossed a great deal of snow:

Everything above 7,000 feet was snowed in solidly on north aspects. Mt. Lemmon received several feet (!) of snow in the storm of February 21-23.

My photos of the hike are here, at Flickr.

I had originally planned to take time in April to hike, but had to move the trip to February. I used trail journals from “Apple Pie” and (of course) “El Monstro” aka “Krudmeister” to supplement the Association’s products.

Here are my disorganized comments and observations:

-Borderlands. The trail begins on the border at a falling-down old range fence, heads north a few miles, and then heads generally west for about forty miles. This means the trail is in the immediate borderlands for at least a few days of hiking. Reminders of the border are everywhere – water bottles, bread wrappers, and abandoned clothing litter the trail; unmanned drones pass back and forth in the sky; a blimp/balloon floats over the Huachucas:

A surveillance truck at Montezuma Pass:

-GPS. This was my first trip using a GPS (thanks, family!). The Association has produced GPS data for most of the sections, and I found this indispensable (thanks, Association!). My general approach to hiking is to wander along not thinking about navigation until I get to an unmarked intersection, at which point I’m lost. The GPS waypoints helped me out of this again and again. I got off trail in Redrock Canyon, east of Patagonia, only because I failed to follow the GPS waypoints. I also used the waypoints to extricate myself from the snow situation described below.

-Grazing/exclosures. I understand we’re going to graze the USFS land, but there is some serious overgrazing going on out there. The worst areas were in Redrock Canyon (before Patagonia) and Agua Caliente canyon (before the Catalina Highway). These areas were pretty much just cactus, rock, and cow patties:

Here’s a cow:

The trail needs a few cow exclosures for camping.

-I really liked Tucson. I spent the day there Monday, and visited the various neighborhoods using the good bus system. Café Passe is fantastic (and here's a webcam of the original Caffe Passe in Germany), and I bought a new duffel at a good surplus store. It helped that it was raining and 55 degrees, rather than 105 and blazing sun.

-Enough already, it’s not a real trip without an EPIC. The rangers at Saguaro told me there was only a little snow on Mica Peak and that it might rain a bit. Four hours later, there were four inches of new snow, piling up fast. An hour or two after that, I was wallowing around in snow on the west/north ridges of the peak. With daylight fading, I had to head straight down to find a flat spot to camp. I made it down a few thousand feet before, cold and wet, I pushed the snow aside as best as I could and threw down my pack. The wind was blowing wildly. I took out my little Six Moon Designs “Lunar Solo” tarp-tent and thought there was no way it was going to stand up through the night. I hopped in, warmed up, and although I couldn’t sleep much with the tent flapping around, I was reasonably warm – and despite having no groundcloth, no water came through the floor. The next morning, the snow had stopped and I was able to find the trail within a few hours. I’m not a testimonial kind of guy, but I am sending Six Moon Designs a short letter about their wonderful tent.

The snow really never cleared up and after hiking to Molina Basin, I got a ride to Summerhaven to see what the trail looked like. It looked like this:

I could have resupplied at the little store up there and hiked the road down into Oracle, but I decided I had my fun and should come back when the weather is a little better.

-Gear. I used my basic setup from the Colorado Trail last year and everything worked fine. I was happy to have my old MSR white gas stove for the cold temps - although it's of course verboten to discuss carrying so much weight. Of course the tent was great. I wasn’t crazy about using Montrail Hardrock shoes – they broke down quickly.

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