I had been watching wildflower reports and my schedule for the right time to get away for three days on the Arizona Trail from Picketpost Trailhead near Superior to Kelvin. This 40-mile backpacking trip is one of my favorite pieces of the Arizona Trail in the spring because its dramatic rock formations and views look even better coated in poppies!
I met up with some friends from Superior who were kind enough to shuttle me to Picketpost. It was a gorgeous day after a couple days of rain. The visibility was fantastic and the air crisp and fresh. I got on the trail around 10:30 and saw many groups of equestrians out for a ride as well as a couple of hikers. My pack was loaded down with water and a pair of loppers so that I could do some trail work down by the Gila River. I am the Trail Steward of Passage 16c and I’d heard there was some brushy areas, so I came prepared to do battle with spiny plants.
The trail maintenance was a day and a half away, for now all I had to do was hike. I have done these two passages once a year for the last four years and still find it as exciting as the first time. There was water in places I hadn’t seen before, left over from the recent rains. The trail climbs up to what I like to call Stripey Butte Saddle, with great views toward the Pinal Mountains. I ran into a thru-hiker who was on the move, probably trying to make Superior before sundown. I love the views from this spot, but it was still early and I hiked on.
I filled up water at a cattle tank that was surprisingly clear and tasty. I had seven liters of water and one liter of coconut water as I hiked up to the saddle right before the gate that marks the “trailhead” between Passages 16 and 17. I use the term loosely, hardly anyone actually drives to this spot, the road in is beyond gnarly. I found a great spot for camp with views of Stripey Butte, the Pinals and the trail winding through the next canyon. An almost-full moon rose and illuminated my campsite so well that I didn’t need a light to write in my journal. It was a chilly, somewhat windy night but I had only gotten 5 hours of sleep the night before and woke up well-rested.
In the morning, I was taking my sweet time getting out of camp when Scott Morris and Eszter Horanyi rode up on their mountain bikes. Do yourself a favor and visit their blogs, they are always on some sort of fantastic adventure. They were using the AZT as part of a bikepacking weekend and were looking forward to going into Superior for Mexican food. We had a nice chat about wildflowers and such and they were on their way.
Finally got hiking around 10 am, reached the “trailhead” and soon afterward found a pothole of water in a rocky spot on the trail. Being the desert hiker that I am, I stopped and filtered a liter to drink on the spot and refilled what I’d used the night before. It was 10 miles to the river and I wanted to be able to take my time- and time is water in the desert. The trail contours high above a rugged canyon, passing some spectacular rock formations and craggy peaks. Views opened up into colorful Martinez Canyon and then I reached the high saddle and took a break. I love this saddle, but it makes a bad campsite in the spring, it doesn’t get sun till really late and is a bit of a wind tunnel. Spectacular views though.
The trail wound around some cliffs and then began the long drop toward the Gila River. I could see all the way to the Catalinas, 60 miles away as the crow flies. The wildflowers increased in variety and density as I descended, sometimes carpeting the whole hillside. I was giddy with delight! The trail goes by a notable spire with the unofficial name of Dale’s Butte, after the pioneer of the Arizona Trail, Dale Shewalter. It’s quite the landmark.
This part of the trail always feels like it is so much longer than 10 miles to get to the river. The trail is great, just circuitous routing to keep a good grade. Near the river, I made a visit to Red Mountain Seep to refill my water. It’s only 0.3 miles up the wash from where the trail hits the river access and there is a blue collection bucket sunk into the ground if you follow the big cairns up the hill. It was a welcome sight, as it had taken most of my water to get there since I had taken so long with pictures and poppy-peeping.
I couldn’t resist a trip down to the Gila River to soak my feet and take a break. The river was so low that I could see a gravel bar that would make walking right across a piece of cake. Not the case all the time. After my refreshing break, I finally got my loppers and my gloves out and geared up to do some trail maintenance as I hiked. My criteria was, if it’s spiny and it’s going to hit someone in the face, it’s got to go. The cutting part went easy enough, it was grubbing the spiny chunks of tree away from the trail that was tough to do without getting all scraped up. I hiked and trimmed until the sun went down and then hiked with my headlamp for a bit until I found a home for the night. Much warmer this night since I had dropped 2000 feet in elevation.
The next morning, the Arizona spring wind kicked in and it howled all day long. It kept the temperature down, which was good. I continued my assault against spiny face-slappers as I hiked along, missing the days when I used to get out regularly to do trail work. I took a much-needed break at the river and rinsed some of the dust off. Which was immediately replaced by more dust. Unfortunately, my loppers were getting dull and it was getting infuriating, the blade gnawing at even small-diameter branches of catclaw. Even so, I got most of the big stuff along the river trimmed. The trail in my passage rolls up and down through drainages on The Spine- it is a marvel of engineering that created such a nice trail in such a rugged place. I saw my only person since seeing Scott and Eszter, the rancher from Battle Axe Ranch, out looking for his cows.
I passed the A-Diamond Ranch and the trestle bridge and climbed up to the completion monument that was placed when we connected the Arizona Trail across the state in December 2011. The DS carved into the cement stand for Dale Shewalter, pioneer of the Arizona Trail.
The light was fading and I ended up getting back to my car in the dark. It was a great end to a fantastic trip- wildflowers, solitude, trail work, jaw-dropping scenery- I am lucky to have such spectacular places to play in.
Arizona Trail Day and the Colossal Campout is less than 2 weeks away, on March 28th- come out for a full day and night of fun on the Arizona Trail! Register for the hike, mountain bike ride, or horseback ride (BYO Horse) and reserve your camping and meals at http://www.aztrail.org/trail_day/ccmp.html. The Warrior Hike “Walk off the War” veterans will be hiking into Tucson for Arizona Trail Day. We are very excited to have two veterans thru-hiking the trail for Warrior Hike this year.
Jasmine the Mini-Donkey and raptors from Wildlife Rehabilitation Northwest Tucson will be at Arizona Trail Day- hope to see you there!