Ten women, one mini-donkey and one therapy dog came from across Arizona—Tucson, Tempe, Sedona and Flagstaff—to join Sirena on a multi-day, 32-mile backpack as she traversed most of Passage 30 (Mormon Lake) and a portion of Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), leading her ever closer to Flagstaff on her Arizona Trail Trek thru-hike. We came singly, or in pairs; some to support Sirena and promote the trail, some because of a prior professional connection and ongoing passion for the trail, some under the guise of a Mother’s Day retreat, and others to test their gear and skills in preparation for thru-hikes of their own, on the AZT and PCT (Pacific Crest Trail). All of us came to hike hard, camp under the stars, and create a shared experience on a beautiful high elevation, ponderosa, pinon and juniper lined stretch of Arizona’s National Scenic Trail.
We gathered at the end point (Sandy’s Canyon trailhead) and were shuttled to the start point at Mormon Lake Lodge by volunteers including Jim and Carol McFadden and Sirena’s dad. Larry Snead, former Executive Director of the Arizona Trail Association, was there to send us off with good wishes. After brief introductions we were on the trail, eager to get to know one another while logging some miles and trying to keep warm—a front was blowing through and had lowered the expected idyllic high 70s/low 40s to a much crisper high 50s/low 20s, accompanied by a relentless wind.
We hiked the short spur from Mormon Lake Lodge that connected us with the AZT. From here we passed our first grove of aspen, snacked at Navajo Spring, and followed an historic railroad bed built for the logging industry in the early twentieth century. Interpretive signs dotted the trail and added to the experience. Water was flowing from Wallace Spring as we passed by Double Springs Campground and rejoined the old railroad bed through a canopy of ponderosa pines.
We knew the first day’s hiking was nearing its end when Leigh Anne & Jasmine and Bonnie & Dr. Otis greeted us on the trail for the hike into our first camp near Lake Mary Road. What a welcome treat to be joined by these AZT legends! We awoke the next morning to Jasmine’s braying and fresh coffee “in bed.” How did we get so lucky?!
On day 2, the trail continued to follow the historic railroad grade. As we headed north, the tree canopy began to thin and we made the short climb up onto the lava flow that mantles Anderson Mesa. We passed a very chilly black-necked gartersnake and found a wind-blown, handwritten “trail ‘hello!’” note that was possibly intended for cowboy Terry, before stopping for lunch near the Horse Lake trailhead, where we left our four-legged friends and their handlers for the trek across the basalt (but not until after they’d filled us up with water that we hadn’t had to carry, cookies, and kettle corn!).
Into the wind and along the road we continued, past Horse Lake, until we could no longer take the biting wind. We found a somewhat protected spot tucked amongst the junipers where we soaked up the last rays of the sun, watched the full moon rise, and sheltered for the night.
The next day we were treated to repeated stellar, sweeping views of the San Francisco Peaks looming ever closer in front of us as we continued our trek through the pinon and juniper woodland of Anderson Mesa, past Vail Lake. We were also afforded lovely views of Upper Lake Mary and Mormon Mountain before turning north towards Prime Lake, and on to our lunch spot near Lowell Observatory, where we were reunited with Jasmine and Otis and the gang, who once again refilled us with water, cookies and companionship.
One cow elk was spotted, and Sirena had several close encounters with horned lizards as we hiked past dry Marshall Lake. Continuing north, we began slowly descending through Kaibab Limestone and Coconino Sandstone, and through very recently burned areas, the result of April’s Fisher Fire.
Finally, we descended a few switchbacks into Walnut Canyon where we were awed by cross-bedded sandstone cliffs basked in an orange sunset glow. We spent a long while inhaling the panorama, avoiding what we knew was coming for all but Sirena—the end of our backpacking escape. A short hike up and out of Walnut Canyon, past early blooming irises, brought us to our waiting cars and inevitable goodbye-for-nows.
All of us were grateful for the support afforded us on this trek by co-hikers and volunteers, and envious of Sirena as she continued northwards without us. Just a reminder- the campaign to raise $20,000 for the Arizona National Scenic Trail will stay open until the end of June- already over $18,000 has been raised! Donate now, and consider becoming a member of the Arizona Trail Association.