The Santa Teresa Wilderness is only 50 miles northeast of Tucson, as the crow flies, yet it can take 4 hours to drive there with many miles of dirt road.
No trip in this area would be complete without an explanation of what the conditions were like getting to and from the Aravaipa East trailhead. I left my house in NW Tucson at 7:30 am. I drive a 1996 Ford Thunderbird with rear wheel drive, basically the worst type of car for off-asphalt pursuits. If my car can make it, any sedan-type car can. (but it’s best to call and get recent road conditions) After driving along wildflower-strewn Highway 191 north:
I met my hiking partner for this segment, Judy Eidson, at the turnoff for Aravaipa Road off of Highway 70, north of Safford at 10:30 am. Judy finished the Arizona Trail in 2008 and I knew she would be a good partner to help with navigation in this tough, rarely maintained 35-mile segment. Since we lost a half-day on each end of the trip from driving, we planned to take 5 days to complete this passage. I figured we would have a leisurely trip with plenty of time for exploring and relaxing in camp. Ha! We drove 18 miles along Aravaipa-Klondyke Road and dropped her Jeep off at our segment’s end, just north of the intersection with a road labeled for the lazy JM ranch. We then continued on in my T-Bird, hoping to be able to make it through the crossings of Aravaipa Creek to the Aravaipa Canyon East Trailhead. We stopped to stash our backpacks and cache some water where the GET leaves Aravaipa Road, so that we wouldn’t have to carry all the weight for the roadwalk up to this point. There were 5 crossings of Aravaipa Creek, thankfully all low enough to make it through in my car. 40 miles of dirt-road driving later, we finally reached the East TH at 1 pm.
Now, we had to cross Aravaipa Creek 5 times, but we’d forgotten our water shoes back where we’d stashed our packs, so we took our shoes off for each crossing so that we wouldn’t be stuck with wet boots.
The roadwalking along Aravaipa Rd. went quickly, and was made much more enjoyable because of all of the wildflowers. There were tons of Cream Cups, lupine, chicory, and bladderwort on the hillsides. We passed a junkyard with interesting sculptures made out of car and motorcycle parts.
We turned off onto FR94, and picked up our backpacks and filled our water from our cache for the following evening and the next day. The maps said that there was only a short walk in the wash before climbing onto a ridge that would take us to Reef Tank. We decided to make camp in the wash before climbing out, so that we would save the climb for the early morning hours. We had dinner, and went to bed fairly early. Judy was already asleep, and I was writing in my journal. I hadn’t turned on my GPS, leaving the navigation up to Judy. When I got my GPS out to put a waypoint for our first camp, to my surprise (and I’m a little embarrased to admit), we weren’t on the GET at all! We were on FR94, thankfully only about a half-mile away from where we needed to be, but shocking nonetheless. I had been told by Brett Tucker that this was one of the most navigationally challenging parts of the whole Grand Enchantment Trail. Which is why I had brought Judy along in the first place, to have another set of eyes to search for the trail. And here we were making a complete newbie blunder like not paying attention to the guidebook and making a mistake on a roadwalk. I had to laugh at ourselves.
Day two, as soon as I heard that Judy was up, I informed her of our mistake, and we both couldn’t believe it. I figured it was a wake-up call for us to pay close attention to our guidebook. We went back and managed to get on the correct road, 50 feet east of FR 94, and began our climb up into the Santa Teresas. The foothills were covered in wildflowers- some of the lupine and poppies were so thick it made the hillsides change colors, and there were many Winding Mariposa Lilies:
We reached the National Forest Boundary, and blew right past our turnoff onto singletrack. When we realized it, about a quarter of a mile later, we turned back around. I’m glad we initially missed the turnoff, because as we came back down the road, there was a beautiful Gila Monster:
Gila Monster sightings are pretty rare, because they spend 95% of their time underground. And that’s where this guy went after I’d shot a couple of pictures.
We went back to the Forest Boundary and turned off the road onto the Reef Basin Trail, just north of a very faded wooden sign. We contoured into Laurel Canyon, and were pleased to see water running in the creek. The trail was in pretty good shape, and in confusing parts there was usually a piece of orange flagging tape (even if it was just a small nub) to show us the way. Brett Tucker, the person who pioneered the Grand Enchantment Trail, re-flags the trail while thru-hiking it most years. This flagging was probably from a year ago, and we were thankful for whatever shreds were left. There were fields of white, blooming Cliff Fendlerbush lining the trail in Laurel Canyon, and soon after, we made one last climb to reach Reef Tank. We took a nice, long break for lunch and birdwatching.
I saw the weirdest thing- a bat flying in the middle of the day, swooping down to eat insects off the top of the water. Judy said that it was probably rabid. The next leg of our trip went from Reef Tank to Holdout Canyon. There is only a small cairn to mark where the Holdout Trail takes off from the north side of the tank. Holdout Canyon is one of the places I had been dying to see- one of the reasons I got interested in the GET in the first place. The trail took us in and out of five drainages with some of the largest Manzanita and Alligator Junipers I have ever seen. Finally, we turned a corner and there it was:
What a beautiful place! It was everything that I had hoped it would be, as well as much more vast than I had expected. We hiked toward Holdout Creek, and I found a perfect spot for camp, right before the trail dips to meet Holdout Creek. We had a great view of all the fantastic rock formations as well as Cottonwood Mountain, which we would be hiking on Day 4. I explored the rocks near our campsite, and found a perfect perch to watch the colors and shadows change as the sun set.
Click here for days 3-5 of this amazing trip in the Santa Teresa Wilderness.
And now for news from the Wildlife Rehabilitation Fundraiser: This week, I responded to a call from a woman who had an owl on the ground in her yard. It was my first solo rescue, and it went very well! It was a juvenile Great Horned Owl, and it had been on the ground for several hours. I captured it and brought it back to the Rehab for observation.