Day 4 – 3/27/18
Gabe Zimmerman Trailhead to Colossal cave
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.