Sunday, April 17, 2011

Arizona Trail - Sunflower to Pine (Passages 22-26)

After a day off in Payson, I spent three days (and a bit of a fourth) on the trail hiking the passages from Sunflower to Pine. I did these in "reverse" (north to south), both to let the snow melt and because it was much easier to get a ride from Payson to Pine. Photos are here. By my incredibly imprecise reckoning, I've hiked about 450 miles of the Arizona Trail, and have about 300 to go. Will I come back to hike them? Yes. When? I have no idea!

The Mazatzal Wilderness was incredible - it's really rugged, rarely visited, and much of the range was burned in a 2004 fire. It was exactly what I consider the best purpose of this type of long-distance backpacking - it's an area I knew nothing about, would probably never visit again, but incredible, difficult, and edifying. I found the distances of burned snags dreamlike, ethereal. Even more moving is that there are so many ranges/wildernesses dotting southern/central Arizona to explore.

As I hiked between my last few camps on the trail, it hit me what a special trip this was. I only had two weeks off due to a fluke - my work start date had been pushed back. When's the next time I'll have two weeks to backpack? Years? It made me appreciate even the brushy/gully chaparral hiking of the Saddle Mountain passage. As the sun set, I hustled down to Highway 87 and the "campground" marked on my map - alas, the campground is now a wrecking yard, and I camped in a rough pasture too close to the highway.

In the morning, I hiked back up towards where I lost the trail in the snow on Bull Mountain. I don't think I made it all the way up there - I'll have to catch those 3-4 miles on a day hike someday (?).

And then Catherine and Will-J arrived to pick me up, and the real fun began:

We camped outside of Globe, near Pioneer Pass, and then at the Oak Flat Campground near Superior. And THEN, we stayed at a fantastic hotel in Phoenix with pools galore - Will-J had a blast splashing around for hours. Unfortunately, he wore himself out and fell asleep too early to enjoy the pools at night - he was like someone at a buffet who fills up too quickly and misses the crab legs. It was a bit weird for me to see so many people trying to get sunburns at the pool after generally trying to avoid sun-exposure for two weeks - I covered up practically completely, both against the sun and all the prickly plants out there.

It's wonderful to see him out in the desert - the terrain and life captivates him, as it does Catherine and me.

Another highlight was the Casa Grande National Monument:

I'll write more about this place when I have time - in short, I have been informally researching the early days of public lands management for a class I may be teaching. Casa Grande was withdrawn from the public lands in 1892, which makes it the first historical site so recognized - predating the Antiquities Act of 1906 and other laws facilitating such withdrawals. It makes sense - an obviously unique structure/set of structures amid a farming area with people scratching on the walls/taking pottery/etc. I'm curious to what extent recognition of Casa Grande led to the development of the current federal regulatory regime of similar sites.

A few more things about the trip:

-Cows. North of Catalina Highway, I was pleasantly surprised to see generally less cow impact - in the Colina Hills and Reddington Pass passages, in particular, basically anything that wasn't a rock or a cactus was a cow-pie. It took the cow-impact level from 99% down to maybe 65%.

-Where is everyone? March and April are prime time for hiking the Arizona Trail, yet I still have yet to see a backpacker on the trail. When we passed back through Superior (I wanted to get some images of the buildings like this:)

we met an actual AZT thru-hiker (Paul). His assessment was similar to mine - it's really rugged trail - rocky, and hard on the feet. And it changes constantly - you might get a few miles of buttery smooth trail, then a nasty OHV track, and then maybe no trail at all through a wash, then maybe a road-walk, etc. But aside from the OHV-ers, there aren't many folks out there this time of year - from the Mazatzals I could see the lights of Phoenix, but I seemed to have the range to myself.

-Arizona Trail Association. They are doing a lot of work with very little. My sense is they aren't getting help from the feds, and volunteers are just getting out to brush the trail as they can. On my last morning, I watched some cowboys drive cattle right up the passage 21 trail - kicking rocks, breaking down the trail, etc. Then there'll be a big fire eventually and more snags to clear - it's a huge task to maintain such a long trail.

-Gear. Besides my notes on the Kindle, I don't have much to add. I'm still using the same basic stuff as I got a few years ago to section-hike the Colorado Trail.

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