The Arizona Trail

Passage 8 – Rincon Valley: Part I

Day 4 – 3/27/18

Gabe Zimmerman Trailhead to Colossal cave
6.5 Miles…Approximately

It’s been a while since I left off with this story of Passages 5-8. So, Chris and I had just finished Passage 7 and reached the Gabe Zimmerman trailhead to find that our water cache was gone. We stopped there at the trailhead for the night to eat dinner and to plan our next move with what water we had left. Since there is no camping allowed at the trailhead, we walked across the frontage road and set up camp in a small patch of dirt between the frontage road and a barbed wire fence after we scraped away the dead weeds and broken glass.

Our less than ideal camp spot.

This day was a half day for us. We only hiked a little less than 6.5 miles to Colossal Cave, and spent the remainder of the day relaxing and rehydrating.

We got up at 5:30 that morning, tore down camp in a hurry, then made breakfast under the picnic table canopy back across the street in the proper boundaries of the Gabe Zimmerman trailhead. We were eager to get out of that bad camp spot, but reluctant to wake because we didn’t get much sleep. I think I only slept a few hours that night. I would doze off for who knows how long before the Doppler effect of a truck came screaming by and faded away down the road, the headlights flashing yellow through the tent. I would doze off again only to be woke by the thunderous sound of a train going over the bridge just to the north of us.

Only Chris and I would have the audacity set up camp between a frontage road and train tracks.

It was especially unnerving when headlights would come up on our tents and stay there for a moment too long. Made us wonder if it was highway patrol to tell us to leave, or some post-apocalyptic road warriors to strap us to the hood of their cars and make us their travelling blood bags. But eventually they would drive away. I’m sure they thought it was weird to see two tents pitched across the street next to a barbed wire fence when there was a perfectly good trailhead with some flat spots and a picnic table. We should have just camped at the trailhead. It wouldn’t have hurt anything. But, Chris and I try to be respectful and follow the rules, no matter how nonsensical they are.

For breakfast, I had pop tarts, Justin’s Almond Butter, and coffee. We left the picnic area by 7AM and took the frontage road down over the bridge where it intersected with the trail. We shaved off about a half mile of trail by doing this, but we also missed some photo opportunities of the Cienega Creek, and for that matter, water. Turned out we weren’t in that dire of a situation for water afterall. But still, we had enough to get us to Colossal Cave.

Frontage road to the trail intersection

Once over the bridge, there is a signaled crosswalk across the frontage road. (This is the where the trail, if followed, comes back up out of the creek.) We crossed the road here and the trail brought us underneath the train tracks and into more desert landscape that looked a lot like the South Mountain area in Phoenix. Shortly after, another train passed over.

After about an hour of a good pace and one of our insightful conversations, we took a break and I removed my short sleeve shirt and the long sleeve shirt I had under it to let them dry out. The sun felt good on my skin. Even that early in the morning and as cool as it was, I had sweat quite a bit carrying that pack. After a while I put on just my short sleeve shirt, still damp with sweat, and we hiked on.

The landscape there is covered in so much vegetation. It’s not pretty, but there’s life. Every plant is fighting for sunlight, and they all have thorns. It’s a harsh desert, and not much to look at. And just like that, as we crested and rounded the saddle and could see down into La Quemada Ranch, the land turned pleasant to look upon. There were noticeably more Saguaros (getting closer to Saguaro National Park), it was greener with beautiful hills surrounding us. On the valley floor was the ranch with different facilities and horses running  and neighing in the corral. A site to behold when there’s not much else to look at in the desert. It was like an oasis.

La Posta Quemada Ranch

There was just a little bit of a climb in elevation getting to the saddle, about 250 feet, then the trail drops you down some switchbacks and rounds the ranch to the east before bringing you to the Colossal Cave Park boundaries. We followed one of the short side paths from the AZT that connected us directly to the El Bosquecito campground at the park, which was one of the most serene campsites I’d ever seen. It was a very large space interspersed with shady mesquite trees with plenty of tent sites, picnic tables, trash cans, nearby latrines, and best of all, potable water spigots. A paradise compared to where we slept the night before.

El Bosquecito Campground at Colossal Cave Park

It was about 11AM by the time we reached the campsite. We picked a spot in the back with a picnic table not far from a water spigot. We set down our stuff and I made an important visit to the latrine. Once finished,  I came back to the site and set up camp. We hung out there for a bit and I took pictures of a female Cardinal fluttering and hopping around one of the nearby trees.

The park ranger paid us a visit from the north end of the grounds by the small parking area where we entered. He approached us and asked which way we came in. We told him we came from the Arizona Trail. We asked if there was food at the visitor center. He said there was a cafe, but it was closed for the day because the person who runs it called out. That was disappointing since we wanted to eat something other than freeze dried meals. However, he told us there were snacks in the gift shop. I asked if we pay him for the campsite, and he told us not to worry about it. That AZT hikers are clean and respectful and not a burden. That was good to hear, and a testament of the hiking community. We thanked him and he left.

At about noon we hiked to the top of the hill to the visitor center and gift shop to confirm that, indeed, the cafe was closed. There is a large ramada with benches, restrooms, the cave entrance, the gift shop, and the closed food stand in the corner. First, we used the restrooms and washed up a bit, then we went into the gift shop and bought some frozen treats out of the Nestle freezer and some Gatorade. We also bought passes for the next cave tour.

Outside under the ramada as we sat on a bench and ate our ice cream, we stared at the food stand they call a cafe at Colossal Cave. There were sodas and beer visible under the glass counter. Bags of chips clipped on a spinning rack right inside the doorway. Taunting us. On the menu, there were choices like cheeseburgers and pizzas. We had been thinking about getting a good meal since we spoke to one of the employees over the phone about it the night before when we were defeated under the ramada at Gabe Zimmerman the night before.  It just made our victory beer and burger that much more rewarding at the end.

Our time came for the cave tour and we lined up and descended into the mouth of the cave through a gate of iron bars. It was a dry cave, and surprisingly warm. Our tour guide was from Tucson, yet somehow had a Texan’s accent. He would start to talk about something related to the cave that was rather interesting, then break off on tangents of thought with little relation to the topic at hand and then bring it back around for a joke that would fall flat most of the time. I think we were his test group for his amateur comedy routine. I eventually stopped paying attention to the tour and focused on trying to take clear pictures. Since I’m not that great of a photographer, most of the pictures turned out blurry in the low lighting.

Some cave bacon for you.

Colossal Cave is worth the short detour if you’re hiking the AZT. It was a good spot to stop and rehydrate and eat and relax. Although I didn’t really pay attention to our tour guide, I did learn a few things about the place, like the Hohokam used it as a shelter long before white settlers came into the area. That outlaws used it as a hideout after a bank robbery back in the Old West. That it was later meant to be used as a bomb shelter during WWII. Not to mention it’s just an awesome cave in an unassuming region of hot desert. It’s a cool place to check out, even if the cafe is closed.

So, a little backstory here. On our second day of these four passages, somewhere in Passage 6, we came across a guy on a mountain bike who was heading SoBo. He was part of the group of people with all the horse trailers back at the beginning of Passage 5 at Gardner Canyon Road. That group was doing a race and someone had disputed the distance, so this guy was riding that stretch of the trail on a bike to confirm the distance with a GPS tracker. So, after the cave tour we bought some more ice cream, soda, Gatorade, snacks, and buffalo jerky, then we started back to the campsite. On our way down the hill, a short distance of maybe half a mile, a guy in a red Dodge truck stopped and asked us if we wanted a ride to the campsite. He was the cyclist from the trail and he recognized us.

There was another passenger with him who was also hiking the AZT, Joe from Ohio, who was also going to that campsite to connect to the trail. It was just a short drive back to the campsite, but still, very appreciated. We thanked the driver and he wished us luck. He was a very nice guy. I don’t think we got his name, but Ohio Joe referred to him as a trail angel.

Back at our site we sat at the table talking. I took more photos of Cardinals and charged my solar bank in the sun. We could hear Ohio Joe talking to someone back towards the road where we were dropped off. He eventually made his way back to our table and we talked for a long time about the trail and gear as we ate our snacks from the gift shop. He took time off to hike as much of the trail as he could. Probably wasn’t going to complete it, but was hoping for halfway. After a while he went on his way and we wished him luck.

I took a nap for a bit and then wrote down notes in my journal before I got back up and sat with Chris at the table. It was nice at the campsite. Cool. Shady. Plenty of water. We went through our packs and threw away all of our garbage we had been carrying into one of the campsite dumpsters. We each used up the last of our fuel canisters for dinner, and with only a day’s worth of water a food left, and no trash, our packs were so much lighter.

During all of this lazing about, a young couple was setting up their camp at the other end of the campsite. At one point they came over to us and offered us a half a bag of ice if we needed it. We declined, since we weren’t carrying anything perishable. It was kind of an awkward interaction, which isn’t surprising seeing as how I’m socially inept. So, after dinner, I made another visit to the outhouse, and passing them on the way back to camp I made a point to try to converse with them since I felt bad about rejecting their previous generosity. I noticed they had a Stone Brewing sticker on their ice chest and struck up conversation with them about craft beer. They offered me a Kilt Lifter and it was awesome. I called Chris over and we sat there for a few hours chatting away. Their names were Matt and Sarah and they were from California, and they told us about their road trip to see Kartchner Caverns and Chiricahua National Parks as they shared peanut butter and banana sandwiches with us. Such great people.

It became dark and we eventually said goodnight. I slept well that night, and was looking forward to completing the last of these four passages.

The Arizona Trail

Passage 8 – Rincon Valley: Part II

Day 5 – 3/28/18

Colossal Cave to Camino Loma Alta Trailhead
9.7 Miles…Approximately

It was approximately 7.4 miles from Colossal Cave to the Quilter Trail junction where the AZT continues on through the Saguaro National Park or branches off to the Camino Loma Alta Trailhead, which was another 2.3 miles. So we hiked almost ten miles that day. A half mile of that was the beginning of Passage 9, since, technically, Hope Camp is the official end of Passage 8. But we needed to continue on to get to Camino Loma Alta.

We got up a little after 6:00 AM that morning. It was cold enough that I could see my breath as we made coffee and I ate my power bar for breakfast. We were moving slow. Taking our time. It was about 8:00 AM when we were finally finished packing up and ready to go. Said goodbye to Matt and Sarah one last time as we passed them on the way out.

The trail was beautiful on the way out of the canyon of the campgrounds. We made a short standing break at La Selvilla to remove long sleeve shirts and apply sunscreen. There was a bit of a climb out of the canyon area past the park boundaries, but then it was all downhill to Saguaro National Park from there. We made very good time and watched Rincon Peak slowly move past our right as we hiked along.

Not much happened through the rest of this passage. We crossed Pistol Hill Road, and another unmapped dirt road. Took a few more standing breaks. A man and a woman wearing cowboy hats and riding horses passed us on the trail. They’re doing it horse back. It was the first time I had seen equestrians since I’ve been on the trail. Not long after they passed us we crossed X9 Ranch Road.

A little after that, almost 11:00 AM, we came up on Ohio Joe, who was packing up his camp off the side of the trail. He slept surrounded by cactus. We commented that he got pretty far since he left our camp the night before. He’s one of those hikers who likes to hike late in the dark and sleep late in the morning. We told him about the equestrians, and he said he had been leap frogging them since the beginning. We left him to finish up his morning routine and carried forward.

Shortly after, we crossed a few more dirt roads and came up to Rincon Creek, which was a low stream and green with algae. One of the few, natural water sources I’ve seen on the trail. The creek actually had clear, running water that could be filtered without getting any of the algae in it. We were doing pretty well on hydration since we filled up our camelbaks at El Bosquecito, so instead of filtering water, Chris had the awesome idea of soaking our sore feet for a bit. We walked down stream about 30 yards and dropped our packs on a sandbar, took off our shoes and socks, and set our feet in the cold water. It was awesome.

While sitting there on this break and eating the last of some trail mix, Ohio Joe caught up to us and broke out his Katadyn to filter water from the creek right at the trail crossing. We sat there for a while, and after drying off our feet and gearing up again, we walked back to the trail and passed Ohio Joe for the last time. He wasn’t very talkative at this point. We just passed him while he stayed there gearing up again.

Not long after, we reached the Saguaro National Park boundary. It’s not like all of a sudden there were obviously more Saguaros around. We had been gradually hiking into a thicker forest of them. I did notice that they were larger, had more limbs, and were older. It was beautiful, and this was just the southern end of the park boundaries. (About a month after this I will have hiked Passages 9 and 10 and will have really seen the beauty of the Saguaro National Park. Those blogs are yet to come.)

Shortly after waltzing right into the Saguaro NP, we crossed over a gate with a bike ramp for all the cyclists who enjoy the trail. Then not long after that we made it to Hope Camp, which was made up of an old water silo, a windmill, benches underneath large, shady Mesquite trees, and open areas for horses and camping. This was the official end of Passage 8 and beginning of Passage 9. Completely inaccessible by vehicle. Thumbs up.

Although we were officially done with Passage 8, we still had a few more miles to get to Chris’ car. From Hope Camp, we still had to hike a half mile to Quilter Trail, and then another 2.3 to the Camino Loma Alta trailhead. We sat down underneath one of those big, shady Mesquites at Hope Camp for a short break, and we were, well, hopeful. It was almost 12:30 at this point and we were making better time than we thought we would.

We got up and made it to the Quilter Trail junction fairly quickly and were excited that we only had 2.3 miles to go. The downside was that we were tired, and hungry, and our feet hurt, and it was getting hotter as the day grew longer and we dropped in elevation. All we had to do was stay the course.

There were multiple jugs of water underneath a Mesquite at the Quilter junction. Most of them were labeled public, but we still had enough that we didn’t need to take any. Even if we did need some water, we only had about an hour left of hiking and we didn’t want to carry the weight. We did take one of the empties with us.

From there, it was a long trek to the car. You know how when you’re close to your end goal, and it just keeps getting further and further away like in a bad dream? This last 2.3 miles seemed like it would never end. The trail turned into a double track that obviously used to be a 4 wheel drive road and it was incredibly rough and rocky for long stretches. We came into contact with two ladies riding horses who were heading towards the park. They stopped and talked with us for a bit. They were all smiles and offered us a beer, which we declined since we were promptly going to get one once we were finished. They asked where we started and we told them Gardner Canyon Road, and they were impressed by this. We said our goodbyes and they went on their way and we walked the rest of the way to the car passing another windmill and tons of Saguaros.

It was almost 1:30 in the afternoon by the time we reached Chris’ car we left at Camino Loma Alta trailhead five days prior. When we left Colossasl Cave, my pack weighed 30 lbs. with two liters of water. By the time we reached the car my pack weighed 26.4 lbs. with a little less than half a liter of water left. It took us about four and a half hours since we left that morning.

We asked a guy in the parking area at Camino Loma Alta to take a picture of us. Then we threw our packs into the trunk and drove to the closest store we could find, which was Walgreens on Colossal Cave Rd and Mary Ann Cleveland Way. Inside Walgreens we bought deodorant, coconut water, and four gallons of drinking water. We went into the restroom there and washed our faces, hands, and arms the best we could in the bathroom sink. Then we drove to the start of it all at Gardner Canyon Road to get my Jeep.

However, before we drove to get the Jeep, we made a quick detour. Since we were ever so appreciative of the public water that Trail Angel, Scott, AKA “Train,” had left for public use and helped us get out of a bad situation after other hikers drank our water cache, we payed it forward and left the four gallons of water from Walgreens under the tree at the Sahuarita trailhead. If it wasn’t for the water Train had left underneath that tree at that trailhead, we may not have gone past Gabe Zimmerman. Our trip would have been ruined.

After we paid it forward, we then drove to get the Jeep. So intense to drive parallel to the land that took you five days to traverse in less than an hour. There was a Border Patrol checkpoint for the northbound traffic, and once we got to Gardner Canyon Road, there was a heavy Border Patrol presence, which was only 75 miles north of the border. We made it to the Jeep, I changed into clean clothes, put my stuff in the back from Chris’ car, then we drove out of there.

We passed more Border Patrol on the way to the 83, drove through the checkpoint heading north, then headed to Tucson to have a victory beer and burger at Barrio Brewing. It was amazing.

The Arizona Trail

Passage 7 – Las Cienegas

Day 3 – 3/26/18

Lakes Road to Gabe Zimmerman Trailhead
12.7 Miles

13.46 miles, according to Garmin. We did some extra walking about, apparently.

Las Cienegas is Spanish for the swamps, I think. Not sure why they called it that. The area is dry and arid like the rest of southern Arizona, except for Cienega Creek near Gabe Zimmerman.

Felt good about the day when we first got up. Had a good night of sleep and woke up about 6:30 AM. We took our time making breakfast and packing up. Left camp about 8:30 AM. It was only .4 mile to our second water cache at Lakes Road where we left two gallons of water with our initials and a “use after” date of 3/27/18. The plan was to refill our camelbaks and maybe a bottle or two. I was down to a little less than 1.5 liters, and Chris 2.5 liters. it didn’t take us long to get to Lakes Road and the carsonite sign where we left the cache. And just as I had expressed concerns since the beginning, we came to find that someone drank our water.

This is all that was left of our second water cache.

There was maybe a little less than a liter left in one of the gallon jugs. The one I had left was completely gone. At least whoever drank it followed that rule of trail etiquette and packed it out. Not going to lie, it really put me in a sour mood. I was disappointed other hikers would drink someone else’s water like that. The whole point of writing your initials and “use after” dates is so that other trail users know it’s a private cache. The rest of the trip I kept wondering who it could have been. The jogger we saw run by camp the night before? The solo girl hiking by camp the night before? The girl from Boston? The guy with the American flag shorts? The three cyclists? Maybe all of them? I’ll never know. All I know is that from now on I will hide my water caches.

Coincidentally, Lakes Road is also the approximate 100 mile point from the border. However, I had hit my 100 miles last summer when I jumped ahead and hiked passages 29 to 34. But, it is very cool to know and see when you reach a mile marker like that. I’m sure it would have been a more profound moment if we weren’t so concerned about hydration from that point.

Chris let me use what water was left of his cache and that brought me to about 2.5 liters, and then I clipped the empty jug to my pack. We continued on the trail and not far from that point is access to a livestock watering hole, Twin Tanks. We decided to filter water into two bottles as a last resort. We went off trail and walked down to the edge of the watering hole. It was muddy at points, and sandy at others. There were cow pies, cattle tracks, and some game tracks around the edges of the water, and billowing clouds of green algae floating just beneath the surface of the gray water.

Chris had the idea of digging a hole at the edge and letting it fill up with water so that the sand would help filter it, and then we could use his badass Katadyn filtration pump to take from there. You know, like in the Bible stories. I produced my Gerber folding shovel (which has really turned out to be a great tool on these adventures) and dug a hole in the sand at the edge of the watering hole. The hole quickly filled up with muddy, sandy, brown water. He put the suction end of the hose into the puddle and the clean hose end into one of the bottles and he began to pump. All of the sand floating in the puddle clogged up the filtration system and pump. We had to stop and he cleaned it out the best he could. Once it was clean-ish, we put the suction end directly into the watering hole, trying to avoid the clouds of algae. It was hard to pump and slow going because of the sand that clogged it up, but we were able to fill one of my 1 liter bottles, and one of his 1.5 liter bottles. And just to be safe, I threw in a few purification tablets into each.

Not how we wanted our morning to go.

All in all, the process only took about 30 minutes of our time. I was extremely grateful Chris was with me and had his Katadyn. I don’t know how I would have handled it. Probably would not have bothered with the Twin Tanks watering hole, and definitely would not have been as upbeat about the situation. Chris’ positivity is contagious.

Originally, we weren’t planning on going all the way to Gabe Zimmerman trailhead, but now we needed to get there in hopes of getting our next water cache, if it was still there. The trail dropped us down in elevation and winded us around hill crests and through washes. We were making good time and took a few breaks sipping on what little water we had.

We must have been close to the 83, just didn’t know how close we were. We came across a Mexican family out on the trail. They weren’t wearing backpacks or hiking gear or carrying water. Looked they were just out for a stroll. We passed them and walked further on until Chris decided it was time for a long break. It was about noon. He sat on his pack seat right in the middle of the trail and I sat on mine next to the trail, out of the way, like a courteous person. We took off our shoes and rested our feet on top of them so as not to put our socks in the dirt. The family were walking towards us and they stopped to chat. It was an elderly man and woman (I assume the grandparents), a woman, and her kids, two boys and a girl. They were very nice and friendly people, the grandparents visiting from California. We told them we were hiking the AZT, and of course, they brought up the PCT. They asked how far we had come. We told them, Gardner Canyon Road, but they were not familiar with the area. They wished us luck and went on there way and we continued our break for a bit longer.

After about 30 minutes, we geared up and moved on. We must have been really close to the road crossing, because it wasn’t long until we reached Sahuarita Road where there was a small parking area where the family must have walked in from. There was an AZT sign, a sign-in box with a booklet, and three gallons of water and four water bottles for public use on the ground in the shade under a big mesquite tree. This made us very, very happy.

Water from a trail angel.

We took one of the gallons and filled both of our camelbaks to the brim. Chris drank one of the little bottles and I drank what was left of the one gallon we used. It was awesome. Restored faith in humanity. There was a note left with the water that said, “lots of water at Gabe Zimmerman trailhead. Please leave water for ‘thru hikers’.” Dated 3/20/18. It was from Scott, AKA Train, and he left his number so that hikers could text him if they needed anything. Scott is a true Angel and the water he left really helped us out.

After refilling, we crossed Sahuarita Road and crossed paths with a cyclist. The trail brought us around in a half circle and we eventually came to the 83 where we crossed underneath through a tunnel. From there to Gabe Zimmerman the trail slightly drops in elevation and brought us through some of that classic, Arizona desert landscape of nothing but dry, dusty dirt and aggressive vegetation fighting for every last drop of moisture it could get, growing thorns out of every limb to fend off anything and everything. The sun was relentless and there was no shade. We slathered on more sunscreen.

A C-130 out of Davis Monthan flew overhead. I was extremely happy to have borrowed my dad’s 200mm zoom lens and was able to get a few great pictures. A little bit later, two A-10 Warthogs flew over in formation. I took some pictures of these as well. Both planes were awesome and impressive to see.

C-130 out of Davis Monthan AFB.

It wasn’t long until we reached the I-10. We sat and rested again for a moment before walking through the tunnel that stretches about the length of a football field underneath the wide highway. Maybe it wasn’t the length of a football field. I don’t really know football all that well. It was a really long tunnel. And dark. And loud, because of the traffic noise above. I’m sure if there was an unsavory character hiding in the shadows and decided to murder me, no one would hear.

Coming out the other side, someone had painted the mouth of the tunnel to look like the hungry, open fangs of a Rattlesnake. That was amusing.

Enter if you dare!

From there, it wasn’t long to Gabe Zimmerman. I’d like to say a hop, skip, and a jump away, but the closer you are to a goal, the longer it seems to get there. I took some photos from the crest of a ledge that followed along a dry riverbed that was below to our right. Along the opposite side of the riverbed were trees lining the edge and their roots were exposed. Up ahead was a green crescent of trees where Cienega Creek was flowing, and beyond that was a bridge over the creek.

Chris reached Gabe Zimmerman trailhead before me. When I caught up to him shortly after, he was sitting at the table underneath the canopy. I looked to where we left our water, right near the little Zimmerman monument gateway, and sure as shit, our last gallons of water were gone. As a matter of fact, just about all of the water was gone. There were plenty of bottles and gallons of water from other hikers when we left our cache a few days before. The only ones left were two partially filled gallons with some faded names on them. Funny how no one touched those.

I was pretty much pissed off at that point. We were doing ok on water for the time being. We kept the bottles we filled at the disgusting cattle hole. We could cook with those at least. We could have filtered water from the Cienega, or make it to Colossal Cave, but still, it’s the principal of it. We wrote our names and “use after” dates! Like you’re supposed to!

I had phone service, so I looked on the AZT app and read water reports. Earlier that day, a woman reported she took away a bunch of empties, ones with names and our “use after” dates of 3/28. She made a statement, like, take your empties with you, guys. Not only did people drink our water, but they made it look like we left our trash behind. I was more pissed that my awesome plan of thinking ahead and leaving the water caches fell through because selfish, dishonest people ruined them.

Of course, Chris’ positivity kicked in and we came up with a new plan for the next day after I pointed out that Colossal Cave had campgrounds, food, and water. So, for the night, we stayed at Gabe Zimmerman. We made dinner underneath the canopy and took advantage of the picnic table. It was windy as heck out there, so boiling water was a challenge, but we made it work. We laid our packs on their sides to create somewhat of a windbreak. The sun was quickly setting and we needed to set up camp. You can’t camp at Gabe Zimmerman trailhead, so we found a spot across the frontage road next to the barbed wire fence. We cleared the area of broken glass and rocks and pitched our tents. Let me tell you, there is nothing glamorous about sleeping next to the road. It was a long day, and not surprising, a restless night.

The Arizona Trail

Passage 6 – Las Colinas

Day 2 – 3/25/18

Oak Tree Canyon to Lakes Road
13.1 Miles

My Garmin logged this passage as 13.67 miles. Must have added some distance somewhere, somehow. That, or the ATA isn’t accurate. Either way, it’s a fairly decent distance for a day.

So, Las Colinas is Spanish for the hills. Very literal for this passage.

I got up at 6AM. Didn’t wake up at 6AM. Got up. I had been awake most of the night. Just laid there awake, mostly because of the wind and the cold and the fear that I would be dragged from my sleeping bag by marauders and beaten and tortured and robbed and eaten. You know, life on the trail.

Anyway, got up at 6AM and we took our time making coffee and breakfast. Then we broke down the camp and packed everything away. Before it was all packed up, we refilled our camelbaks with the gallon jugs we left in our tents (one each) as our first water cache. After using water for coffee and cooking and refilling, there was a little bit left in the jug, so I drank it and clipped the empty bottle to my pack with a carabiner, as did Chris. Pack it in. Pack it out.

We started that morning about 8:25 AM. The trail was easy going. Our packs were full and heavy with all of our gear and five liters of water for me, six for Chris, weighing in at about 40 lbs. But, it wasn’t that bad. We were full of energy and excited to get through to our next water cache. There was a lot of ups and downs through the hills, but each time we went down we dropped a little more in elevation. One step up, two steps down, sort of thing.

There were groups of people out shooting in the area. When I first heard the gunshots I could tell they were far away, just didn’t know what direction they were shooting. An hour went by and the sound of shots were getting closer. We crested the top of a hill and to the east of us were about three vehicles pulled off the 83 behind a hill (West of the 83. Our side) and a group of people target practicing. I couldn’t imagine they were shooting north or south along the 83 (if they were as safe as shooters as I am), so it was a very good possibility they were shooting in our direction. Chris and I listened for whizzing bullets, or the reports of contact, but we heard nothing. We concluded that we must have been out of range, which was most likely the case.

We continued on through a little valley thick with Oak and Juniper. Crossed FR 231, went through a gate, up a hill, and came across the only questionable AZT lack of signage the whole time. Came to a T in the trail and there was nothing showing which way to go. However, the AZT app is pretty awesome, and it took no time at all to figure out which way to go. That app is well worth having on your phone.

The trail led us along the crest of this hilltop to the west and then turned north up a hill. We found a good spot to sit and have a break in the shade. While sitting there, the group of three bikers we saw the day before were on their way back to Gabe Zimmerman. We asked if they made it to Kentucky Camp for water. They did not. They ended up camping off the trail at some point and found a draw with moisture and dug a hole to collect water. Pretty hardcore. We wished each other luck and bid each other adieu and they went on ahead of us.

From there we descended out of the grassy hills and into red dirt and more desert plant life. It reminded me a lot like the Canelo Hills. The trail took us through areas prominent with freshly green Ocotillos and cactus and thorn bushes and we even saw a few cattle grazing with their calves. We followed the crest of a hill a bit, then it took a hairpin turn down into a draw, where at another turn at the bottom was an old Texaco oil drum, rusted and half filled with rocks so it wouldn’t tip over. It had an AZT directional sticker on it. We took off our packs and pulled out our seat packs and took refuge from the sun underneath a scrappy mesquite tree the best we could. It was about noon at this point and Chris had been slowing down and was far behind me before we got to the drum, his left foot was giving him trouble. We afforded ourselves about 30 minutes of rest to eat and hydrate. We took our shoes off to let our feet breathe.

Once we laced up, put our stuff away, and got going, it wasn’t long until I hit a wall and slowed way down. My energy was completely sapped, even after I had an energy chew. So cheated. Then I started feeling pain in my left hip. While we took our break I had readjusted the length of the frame on my pack because it felt like it was sitting too low. Now it affected the way it rested on my hips. The pain that started as a slight annoyance gradually became worse and worked its way down my thigh and into my knee. I afforded myself more water and stopped more often. Chris was so far ahead of me he was out of sight at moments. I’d catch glimpses of him as he turned hills or as the trail turned back on the other side of draws. I finally caught up to him as he was sitting on a rock next to the trail, shading himself under an umbrella.

Leaving me in his dust

When I caught up to Chris I took off my pack and sat with him. He let me use his umbrella for shade for a bit. We sat and ate some snacks and drank water. He eventually had to go dig a cat hole and I lent him my Gerber folding shovel for the deed. While he was absent I readjusted the frame length on my pack to where it was before I played with it earlier and hoped that would alleviate the pain. The rock I was sitting on was sloped and jagged and uncomfortable, so I laid down in the trail on my back and closed my eyes and shaded my face with my hat until Chris returned.

I then took my turn to also dig a cat hole. Further down the trail where it made a sharp turn, there was an offshoot that led up a dry wash between two hills. I made my way back the wash through aggressive thorn bushes and cacti until it came to a U shaped ledge. There was a nice sandy, flat spot with plenty of coverage and I could lean up against the rock ledge, but it was also in the path of water flow. I didn’t want anything to wash up after a hard rain, so I climbed up the ledge a little bit and found a less comfortable spot behind a bush…
Look. I’m not writing this to provide the unsavory details. I’m sure you all know what a cat hole is, why it’s important, and what is involved. All I’m saying is, while doing my business, I heard the sound of twigs snapping and brush rustling above me over the ledge. I looked up and there was a shabby looking Coues Deer walking away from what he undoubtedly thought was an offensive scene.
Heck of a time not to have my camera.

Once I returned, Chris said a young thru-hiker wearing American flag shorts had passed by. We then geared up and got back at it. It was about 2:30 at this point, warm and sunny, and really, a beautiful day to be hiking. My hip was feeling a little better after the readjustment, but not %100. We came to a nice area of bare Mesquite trees and cacti. We stopped here after I got a sharp pain in my hip again and we took out our pack seats and took another break. While resting there, a young woman about mid twenties came along the trail who was solo, thru-hiking the AZT. She was from Boston and had done the AT and PCT and figured she would give Arizona a shot. Makes me wonder how people can afford to go on long backpacking trips around the country and not worry about a job or money. But, good for her. That’s impressive.

She hiked on and we got back on our feet and headed out. We didn’t hike very much longer, maybe another half mile or so before we decided to stop. We found a pretty nice clearing and flat spot for camp and didn’t want to pass it up. We were less than a mile away from our second water cache and had just enough on us to last until morning. It was about a quarter after 5PM and we set up camp. I cleaned up the best I could with body wipes. It was no shower, but it felt great. Two other people passed us as we were in camp, a runner and another solo girl. We ate dinner and chatted for a while before bedding down. I was looking forward to an easy day in the morning.

Second campsite
The Arizona Trail

Passage 5 – Santa Rita Mountains

Day 1 – 3/24/18

Gardner Canyon Road to Oak Tree Canyon
13.8 Miles

The ATA website has this passage logged as 13.8 miles. According to my Garmin we hiked 14.3 miles, probably because we explored the grounds of Kentucky Camp which added some distance. We probably hiked something closer to 17 miles all together because we hiked in and out at Oak Tree Canyon to set up camp and walked farther than we needed to at Lakes Road to leave the caches of water. Whatever we did, it was a long day. Out of the four passages we did that week, that first day was the longest. Which was why I had planned to hike the Santa Rita Mountains with daypacks. The only things I carried were water and snacks and my camera. The lightest weight I’ve carried on the AZT yet.

We drove the 5.5 miles down FR 92 to the beginning of Gardner Canyon TH, past Apache Spring Ranch. There were a lot of horse trailers parked in the large parking area, but no one around. We parked and geared up. I was a little nostalgic of seeing the area again, and glad to be continuing where I left off. Before we started, I propped my camera on the wheel well of one of the horse trailers in the parking lot and snapped a picture of us before we set out.

We started hiking at about 10:45AM. The wind was picking up, but not bad. Yet. Right off the bat, the trail climbs about 200 feet on some switchbacks to the top of a hill with remnants of the old water pipes that were used for mining in the area. The same system of flumes that you see at the end of Passage 4 coming off Mt. Wrightson. After passing these, you follow the trail along the rolling hilltops of long, tan grass, and bare oak trees. This was a fire area last April and this portion of the AZT was shut off. You can still see some of the fire damage along the way, mostly blackened tree trunks and melted cacti, but the grass grew back with a vengeance. It was about waist high at some points. The landscape looks like something out of Africa.

The trail winds up and down and along these hills, joining old Jeep tracks for long distances before returning back to a single track. We ran into an older couple who were resting underneath a tree when we walked up on them. The gentleman looked like he was having a rough day. We exchanged greetings and they mentioned how it was a beautiful day for hiking, which it was. I just wasn’t expecting to have been blown away from gale force winds. We passed them and followed the trail down into a draw with much more vegetation. It wasn’t long before we made it to Kentucky camp about 3.7 miles in the trail.

Kentucky Camp Hotel/Office

We hung out at Kentucky Camp for a while, looking around the area, taking pictures. We walked inside the main, large building there that was once the hotel for the miners. No one else was there. The only other people we saw were the older couple who passed us on the trail and continued forward past KC. Inside the main entrance of the cabin was a desk with a guest book and a donations can. There was a pair of shoes and a yellow rain jacket on the desk, most likely from the caretaker who was nowhere to be seen. There was a trailer on the property, so maybe he was taking a nap. Anyway, we walked around inside for a bit, looking at the old stuff miners used day-to-day. It was kind of spooky, the way the daylight came out of the rooms and illuminated the long, dark hallway and the wind rushed against the old building and whistled through the cracks. The old wood floor creaked under our weight.

Outside the building, around the back, were picnic tables, a garbage can, a grill, a shallow sink with a few dishes next to it, and an outhouse. We took a break and sat at one of the tables and ate some food. The wind picked up harder. Once we were done eating, we refilled our camelbaks in the little sink, and as soon as we were ready to go, it started to rain. We went back inside the dark, creepy old building and waited there in the foyer on a wood bench next to the desk with the guest book and donation can and caretaker’s rain jacket and shoes. When we got bored with that, we walked the wood deck underneath the long porch that stretched around three sides of the building. The rain finally died down to a sprinkle and we didn’t want to lose anymore time, so we just went for it. The only downside to bringing the daypacks with minimal weight was that our rain gear was with the rest of our stuff at camp. It didn’t rain much longer though. It stopped not long after we left the KC grounds.

We followed a road out of the KC grounds, through a gate, and onto a dirt road that led north to FR 163. We followed 163 northwest on a steady climb for a while. Occasionally, people would pass us in their trucks, and for having just rained, the dust they kicked up was enough to force us off the road and cover our faces. The road dipped, then climbed, and turned north until it intersected with FR 165. We followed that dirt road for a bit until the trail turned off and climbed to the high point of the trail at a little over 5800 feet. This was approximately the halfway point at about seven miles in. It was about 3:30 PM and at times the wind was almost unbearable.

Gale force winds making for a difficult hike.

This was the highest point we reached during these four passages. From here (approx. 5,800 ft.) to where we ended Passage 8 near Hope Camp (approx. 3,100 ft.) was approximately a 2,700 ft. decline in elevation. It was, more or less, all downhill from here. That’s not to say the experience of the hike declined in quality. I mean, it had its ups and downs. But compared to the first four passages, these segments of the AZT were far better maintained and well marked. We didn’t lose the trail once, which I did many times on my solo passages and a few times near Flagstaff. But, I digress.

The trail follows along the crests of grassy knolls and down through patches of oak trees. Mt. Wrightson slowly receded behind us, and Rincon Peak was a beacon far ahead. At some point we crossed paths with a group of three guys on mountain bikes who left from Gabe Zimmerman TH that morning heading SOBO. They asked if we knew of any reliable water sources behind us. We told them the only one we knew of was Kentucky Camp. They were tired and didn’t look too keen on riding that much further to the camp. We wished them luck. The wind calmed down after a while and we came to the top of a hill where we could see the windmill and water tank on the hilltop that was near FR 4072.  It wasn’t long until we descended down into into the path of Oak Tree Canyon and reached our camp underneath the oak tree. We finished at about 5:30PM.

First night of camping.

It was nice not having to worry about setting up camp after a long hike. We took off our gear, made dinner, and relaxed. That night was cold. The wind kicked up a few times throughout the night, but nothing to worry about. I hung my pack on a branch on the oak tree that night. Normally I put it in the tent with me. This was the first time while hiking the AZT so far that I had room inside the tent. But,for whatever reason, I didn’t sleep well that night, and we had a long day ahead of us in the morning.

The Arizona Trail

Passages 5-8: The Plan

Day 1 – 3/24/18

Dropping Water Caches and Setting Up Camp for Passages 5 – 8

No plan survives first contact with the enemy.  – The Martian

Another four passages under my belt. That seems to be my method of hiking the AZT: Four passages at a time. The difference from this trip and the two others I did is that I planned this one out far more carefully. Originally I was planning on hiking these four passages at the end of February, but ended up cancelling at the last minute due to lower back pains. However, the reconnaissance I did back in February set me up for success for my trip in March. I had plotted my course and used the GPS coordinates from the ATA website to find the trailheads where I would leave water.

In February, I drove down to the Vail/Sonoita area, planned out where we would leave our shuttle car at the end of Camino Loma Alta trailhead, where I would leave water caches at Gabe Zimmerman trailhead, Lakes Road, and Oak Tree Canyon. Then I also had the idea of setting up camp at Oak Tree Canyon as well, so that way, when starting from Passage 5, I would be carrying minimal weight through the toughest part of these four passages. (Passage 5 has more of an elevation gain and drop, whereas Passages 6 through 8 are a gradual decline in elevation.) So when our hike at the end of March rolled around, all we had to do was leave the car, drop our water, set up camp, and start from the beginning of Passage 5 with daypacks.

I know. I thought it was a brilliant idea, too.

I woke up at 2AM that Saturday morning on March 24th and left the house a little after 3AM. It is about a two hour drive from North Peoria to South Tucson and I was meeting Chris at the Waffle House (Awful House) on Irvington Road at 5AM, of which I was about 30 minutes late. Awful House is always an experience. I mean, other than the top notch food, you get to see some interesting people, like the wait staff, and anyone else in the area. I saw a lot lizard strutting her way back to the nearby truck stop after her john dropped her off on the side of the I-10 at the Awful House exit. Just reasons to get out in the wilderness.

After our 5 star meal, we drove up to the Camino Loma Alta trailhead and parked Chris’ car and then began my brilliant plan of dropping our water caches along the trail as we drove south in my Jeep to the beginning of this trek at Gardner Canyon Road. The first stop we made was the Gabe Zimmerman trailhead where we each left a gallon of water amongst the other gallons of water there from other hikers. I wrote my initials, “AZT,” and a “use after” date of 3/28/18. Chris did the same. This way, no one would drink our water since it was a private cache. If we didn’t get to it or need it, then it’s up for grabs after the “use after” date.

Trail etiquette, right? The ATA agrees because they used one of my cashes from February I wasn’t able to use as an example on their instagram page. See?

The correct way to mark a water cache.

The sun was up at this point. I needed to get gas, so we drove back to a Chevron on Camino Loma, then continued on to our next water cache drop. We then drove south on the 83 and turned off for Lakes Road, which is a little less than a mile past milepost 51. There was a cattle gate and Chris had to get out and swing the gate open and close it behind me after I drove through. We then drove up a pretty gnarly road to get as close as we could to the end of Passage 6/beginning of Passage 7 trailhead at Lakes Road, which is about 0.6 mile up the road and the trail is marked with a carsonite sign. We reached a point that even my Jeep didn’t have enough clearance to get over some rough spots on this road, so we pulled over and walked the gallons of water the rest of the way. Which wouldn’t have been far, except Chris and I somehow walked right past the carsonite AZT sign and hiked along this dirt road further than we needed to. Realizing what we had done, we turned back and saw that it was about 30 yards from where I had left the Jeep. Again, we each left a gallon with initials, “AZT,” and a “use after” date, this time of 3/27/18. Then we got back in the Jeep, drove back to the 83, and headed for the beginning of Passage 6.

WARNING: If you decide to go this route to get to the beginning of Passage 7, make sure you have a vehicle with plenty of ground clearance and 4 wheel drive. If not, you can park closer to the cattle gate and walk in.

To reach the beginning of Passage 6 you need to drive further south on the 83 about 0.8 mile past milepost 44 and park in a little turn off where there is a locked gate preventing you to drive in on the road (FR 4072). We parked the Jeep in front of this gate next to a big red truck with a horse trailer hitched to it, and then we geared up. I took my three liter water bladder from my pack, along with some trail mix, and put them in my Eagle Creek daypack and left the daypack in the Jeep.  Everything else we packed in to the trailhead. We walked through a narrow opening in the barbed wire fence on the side of the metal gate. Normally you’d have to climb over this gate after carefully walking over the cattle guard beneath it, but whoever had the big red truck with the horse trailer must have opened the narrow passage in the barbed wire fence to get his horse through.

On the other side of the gate, someone was sleeping in an MSR tent and their dog inside barked at us as we walked by. We then walked 0.8 mile up this old dirt road past a pond. You will come to a fork about half way. The Jeep tracks to the left lead to the windmill up the hill to the south. Stay to the right until the double tracks intersect with the AZT marked with a carsonite sign. This is the end of Passage 5 and the beginning of Passage 6 and is called Oak Tree Canyon. We set up camp right off the trail underneath a large oak tree that has seen healthier days. This is where we left all of our gear and our third water cache, nicely hidden in our tents.

We then walked the 0.8 mile back to the Jeep a little after 10AM and then drove south on the 83 to the beginning of Passage 5, bypassing a border patrol checkpoint because they only check people going northbound. It was a good ways to Gardner Canyon Road (FR 92) and then another 5.5 miles down that road to the trailhead, the same trailhead I left off last May when I did my solo hike of the first four passages. It was good to see the area again, and to be continuing my adventure.

With all the preparation I did for these next four Passages 5-8, a length of approximately 56 miles, I felt it was well worth the work and paid off tremendously, especially the super light hiking of the up and down trail of the Santa Rita Mountains. However, nothing ever goes according to plan, as we were to find out in the next couple of days.

 

The Arizona Trail

Passage 33/34 – What the FUTS!

Day 4 – 8/29/17

Schultz Creek Trailhead To Schultz Pass Tank

We had about 12 miles left of our hike at this point. We decided to split that 12 miles up into two 6 mile day-hikes with the cheap, $5 day packs we bought at Walmart. This way we could give our feet a break, recover a little, and not have to worry about rushing through the remainder while using the hotel as base camp. You know, enjoy ourselves a little more. It was all Agave’s idea, really. I originally wanted to hike Passages 31 and 32, around Flagstaff, which was why we ended up hiking part of Passage 34, because we left the Jeep at the end of Passage 32. The other reason I wanted to hike around Flagstaff was because a section of Passage 33 was closed off due to logging. So the Flagstaff bypass trail had a bypass trail, which was the Flagstaff Urban Trail System (FUTS).

So, the last two days, we hiked the last little bit of Passage 33 from Schultz Creek Trailhead to where it intersected with Passage 34 to the Jeep at Schultz Pass Tank. Then the last day, from Schultz Creek TH to the Karen Cooper trail of FUTS back to the hotel. It was all a success in the end and we had a lot of fun. And that’s all that matters!

We woke early that Tuesday morning at the hotel even though we tried to sleep in. We had the continental breakfast down in the lobby where they had a machine that made pancakes with the push of a button. It was pretty amazing. I made sure to eat plenty of carbs and protein. And coffee. Always coffee.

My Aunt Janet lives in the area, so she had reached out to me and we arranged a time for her to meet us so she could join us on this six mile day hike. The more the merrier. While waiting for her to meet us, I lanced and drained my blisters again with a sewing needle from a sewing kit Agave got from the front desk. Dirty business, but had to be done.

My Aunt picked us up at the hotel and drove us to the Schultz Creek TH. From there we hiked northbound to my Jeep at Schultz Pass Tank. It was a lot of fun hiking with my Aunt, and educational. She’s knowledgeable of the local vegetation, and we swapped hiking stories, tips, tricks, and ideas as we made the relatively easy stroll through the woods.

There was little to no incline through this portion of the trail. We were right around 8000 feet the whole time and the much lighter backpacks we carried made it that much easier. The hike took us about three hours to get back to my Jeep. We started about 10AM and were finished by 1PM, which was perfect timing to go grab some lunch in town. It was actually a perfect hike, because as soon as we were done, it started to rain. We got the best part of the day. I drove my Aunt back to her car at Schultz Creek TH and then Agave and I spent the rest of the day eating, drinking and being merry.

At first we attempted to go to a brewery I’ve heard good things about called Wanderlust. They were closed, so we went to Historic Brewing instead. The one on San Francisco Street with the upside down table hanging from the ceiling. It was kind of a preemptive victory burger and beer. I had the aioli burger and fries, and the Joy Rye’d pale ale. After lunch we made a stop at Target so I could get a charger for my fitbit. It had died and I was missing precious steps! Then we went back to the hotel to clean up, hung out for a bit, had dinner at the Denny’s right next door, then turned in for the night.

Upside down table!

Before I turned in, however, I had to attend to me feet again. That little toenail, on the toe next to the big toe, that was protruding up away from the toe? Well it was worse after that day of hiking. Looking at it a little more closely, it wasn’t a dead nail that was falling off. A blister had developed between the toenail and the nail bed and was pushing the toenail up. I took the sewing needle and stabbed it between the toenail and toe and liquid immediately leaked out. It was instant relief as the toenail “deflated,” if you will. I eventually had to tear it off completely because it was only hanging on by the edges of the skin. But have to say, that was a first for me.

 

Day 5 – 8/30/17

Schultz Creek Trailhead to AZT Butler Ave Intersection

That Wednesday morning we woke up fairly early and had our continental breakfast. Oatmeal and protein. And coffee, of course. We went back up to the room and packed our stuff and loaded it all into the Jeep and checked out of the hotel. My Aunt came by to pick us up and give us a ride to Schultz Creek TH, where we would then head southbound back to the hotel where I left the Jeep parked with all of our stuff. She wasn’t able to join us that day, but that’s ok because she didn’t miss anything special. It was more like a walk through a greenbelt.

From Schultz Creek TH we made our way to the FUTS, which apparently was the Karen Cooper Trail, who was a City Council Member from 2000 to 2008. It was all paved, or maintained gravel, from then on. The trail took us through some nice neighborhoods with beautiful views of Humphreys right from their backyards. We followed it around Frances Short Pond and then down to Wheeler Park, which was a lovely little park inhabited with all kinds of vagrants, drunks, crackheads, and other useful citizens.

We then headed into the old Heritage Square area after rounding the new atrocity of the Hilton hotel they built down there. We found a brewery called Dark Sky Brewing. If you’re ever up that way, go to this place. It is worth it. We ordered some food from the food truck out back and sat inside and talked to the bar tender, the brewer, and some cool folks visiting from Prescott who there to collaborate with the brewery. I had the Blood of My Enemies IPA (because how could you not imbibe the blood of your enemies?), Ring Ring, Hello? and Cirrus NEIPAs. All delicious.

Once we had our fill of food and beer, we proceeded down to Route 66 and headed East towards our hotel. But we had to make another stop first.

AGAVE!

We had to stop at Agave on principal because it was a running joke for the past few days. It actually wasn’t a bad place. Your typical Mexican restaurant. I mean, it was no Taco Bell, but it was OK. We ordered margaritas, because we needed some girl drinks. Mine had jalapenos floating in it and I had to trade with Agave (Chris, not the restaurant) for his mango flavored margarita, because apparently I needed something even more girly. We ordered something called ceviche, which was shrimp cooked with the acidics from lime juice. It was delicious.

So that was it. We finally tried out Agave, walked back to the hotel, climbed in the Jeep and I drove us back to Chris’ car at Gooseberry Springs Trailhead. We said goodbye and drove home. I took Stoneman Lake Road, which was a pretty nice drive through the woods, especially since it just rained and there was a mist hanging over the meadows. I stopped at a pull off that overlooked Stoneman Lake Village and took some photos. It’s a serene little village that contours the lake and is surrounded by forested hillsides. I changed into a clean shirt and put on my sandals then drove home.