When I hiked the Grand Enchantment Trail through the Santa Teresa Wilderness in April, the Pinalenos still shone brightly with snow in the upper elevations- not very inviting for a confirmed desert rat like me. My hiking partner Judy and I looked at all the snow and decided July would be more enjoyable.
Logistics (if you don’t want to hear about car shuttles and such, skip down to the hike)
The only issue was that this segment starts at 5200′, climbs to 10,000′, then goes back down to 3800′. Both ends of the trail would be blazing hot in July, and the climb from the lower elevations in the beginning of the passage to 10,000′ went through a large burn area that would likewise be exposed and hot. Steve Marlatt, a teacher from Bonita, had offered help with shuttles in the area, so I proposed that we put a car at both ends of the segment, get dropped off at the top of the mountain by Steve, hike westbound for two days on one side, drive back up, and eastbound two days on the other. Still with me? Here’s a pic of Steve, on one of my favorite parts of the whole Arizona Trail, the final passage into Utah:
It was a lot of driving, but given the above-100 degree temps, I’m glad we did it the way we did. Besides, Judy and her friend Connie had never been on the Swift Trail Road that winds 35 miles from 2900′ to 9300′ up from the Gila Valley to the high country before. And our convoluted shuttle meant that we could stop in Safford for burritos in the beginning, middle, and end of the trip. Judy and Connie hadn’t gotten to do much backpacking recently, so we settled on a very leisurely 4 days of hiking to complete what was supposed to be a 25-mile segment. I say “supposed to be” because while the official mileage on the guidebook says 24.9, I have now hiked over 150 Grand Enchantment Trail miles and I know that in reality, it will end up being farther due to routefinding, possible alternate routes, with a little exploring thrown in. My total mileage for the route we took ended up being 32.9 miles on my GPS.
So, Steve was kind enough to not only drive us up the mountain, but he also offered to cache water near the West Peak Lookout for us. We were supposed to do the shuttle and hike our first 8 miles in the afternoon on Monday, July 19th, so I wouldn’t have to take more days off of work (I work weekends). However, Steve called me and asked if I was available to do the shuttle on Sunday instead because he and his girlfriend Laura were planning on heading up that way for a dayhike. He’d drive us up to the top and we could spend the night up there and have all day to hike only 8 miles to our water cache. What seemed like a minor nuisance at the time, having to cancel my appointments for Sunday, ended up completely working to our advantage later when the “only” 8-mile hike took us 9 hours to complete. More on that later.
I am a massage therapist and my work is slow right now because more than half of Tucson flees the heat in the summertime. So I was so excited to be able to have five whole days to play in the mountains. After a series of mind-bending logistics involving what gear/food/celebratory beverages were supposed to be in what vehicle, and driving for hours along a variety of incredibly scenic roads to set up our cars, (and a stop in Safford where Steve introduced us to his favorite Mexican joint in Safford, Los Jilbertos, for burritos) Judy, Connie and I finally reached the 2-site Clark Peak Campground at 8850′.
Day 1- We woke up on Monday, July 19th to cool, clear, beautiful hiking weather and Judy was pissed-off to find that she had needlessly brought her entire, heavy set of keys with- this after she had laboriously counted every ounce in an effort to lighten her load!
We had a short roadwalk, which ended at the Clark Peak Trailhead. I hadn’t hiked with Connie before, she’s one of Judy’s Hiken Girls and has hiked 700 miles of the Arizona Trail. We passed a campsite off the road and I remarked that it looked like a good view. Connie asked Judy, “Can I go look?” I thought it was a little strange, of course you can go look! I jokingly asked Judy, “What kind of slave driver are you that she feels the need to ask?” Judy replied, “Well, I’ve got to keep my girls moving when we’re on the trail otherwise they complain if we get into camp too late.” A very interesting dynamic- I realized that Judy does all the planning and navigation and is basically the HBIC of the Hiken Girls. The rest of the group likes it that way, and they have all sorts of wonderful adventures together. The sign at the trailhead said 6.7 miles to West Peak, where our cache was and where we would camp for the night. No problem, we had all day. Little did we realize that we would need it.
The first part of the Clark Peak Trail traverses a ridge at about 8500 ft. with great views out to the Gila and Sulphur Springs valleys. It was slightly overgrown, but nothing too bad. We reached a fern-covered open meadow and waded through the chest-high ferns, navigating by means of very visible large cairns. The hillsides were covered in blooming wild geraniums and ripe raspberries and we stopped to have a tasty snack. We could see our objective, West Peak, across Taylor Pass.
The trail descended the hillside toward Taylor Pass, and we passed a cairn. We saw some blackberry bushes and stopped to eat a few and when we tried to find the continuation of the trail, it was nowhere in sight. We backtracked to the last cairn, and circled around, looking for the trail. The maddening part was that the GPS track and basemap both said we were in the right place and that there should be switchbacks for the descent toward Taylor Pass. The hillside was steep, loose, rocky and covered with thorny New Mexico Locust trees that had proliferated after this area had burned in the Nuttall Fire of 2004. We searched and searched and finally made the decision to do a steep bushwhack to a saddle just before the pass in hopes of picking up trail tread again. This area had been covered with a ton of snow and gotten a lot of rain this year, it is possible that part of the switchbacks were washed out. We were jubilant upon meeting the trail again close to the saddle, and we took a much-needed break. It was now the middle of the day and we’d only traveled 4 miles. Plus, all the bushwhacking up and down the hill looking for the trail burned lots of energy and water. We were so happy that we hadn’t started this hike after doing the shuttle in the morning, as we had planned. We would have been caught out in the dark and run out of water.
After Taylor Pass at 7100 ft, we had a 1400 ft climb back up the other side of the pass up to 8500 ft. near West Peak.
It was a slow slog up the hill, with the elevation affecting everyone’s speed. I was getting low on water and when we took a break for snacks, my feet started cramping, an early sign of dehydration. I ate some electrolyte gel and we continued up the hill. All the while, thunderstorms were moving in over the high country in our direction. Finally, we reached the trailhead sign for the other end of the Clark Peak Trail where it met FR 286 and our navigational issues were over for the time being.
Movie from Clark Peak Trailhead at FR 286:
The monsoon storm brewing over Pinalenos held until we were able to reach our camp and set up before any rain started falling. We retrieved the gallons of water so kindly cached by Steve and his girlfriend Laura yesterday, and settled in to have a much-deserved drink to celebrate getting through a slightly harrowing day on the trail.
While we were getting our dinner ready, clouds started moving in so quickly that at first we thought they were smoke clouds from a fire. We grabbed our umbrellas and went to look at the storm sweeping in. Monsoon clouds make for fantastic sunsets and we were treated to an incredible one from our campsite:
We fell asleep listening to the rumble of thunder and the pitter-patter of light rain.
Day 2- In the morning, I woke up at first light and hiked up to the West Peak Lookout tower at 8670′ to watch the sunrise. I was not disappointed. The morning rays lit up the 360 degree views from West Peak. I could identify many of the landmarks to the north, west, and south, but the views to the east are still a mystery waiting to be solved by hiking further toward Albuquerque on the Grand Enchantment Trail.
After enjoying the sunrise, we packed up and headed down FR 286 toward my Jeep. Originally, we had planned on taking the Johns Canyon Trail down to the western terminus of Segment #10, but our extended hike yesterday had made us short on water and we decided to take FR 286 instead. Judy and I planned to perhaps come back and hike the Johns Cyn Tr. when we hike Segment #9 when the weather cools down. We just weren’t up for a trail described in the guidebook as “ill-defined and overgrown”, especially heading down into lower elevations, where it would be hot and exposed.
The hike down on FR 286 was shady and cool in the higher elevations, and we spotted a bear print in the roadway. The Pinalenos are thick with bears, and we were hoping to see one (from a safe distance, of course). Farther down the road, we brought out the umbrellas to shade us as we made our way downhill. We had views of Segments 8 and 9 of the GET. The rocky and wonderful Santa Teresas and Pinnacle Ridge, the foothills of the Pinalenos, and the cross-country route in Seg. 9 were all visible.
We reached my Jeep, and pulled some celebratory beers out of the cooler and ate lunch among the shade of tall oaks before driving back up the Swift Trail. With a mandatory stop in Safford at Los Jilbertos for burritos, of course. While we were driving through Safford, we saw a large sign proudly proclaiming that Safford is “Home of Arizona’s Salsa Trail”
According to the website, “Arizona’s Salsa Trail® is all about terrific Mexican food and down-home friendliness. Sprinkled through the small Southern Arizona communities of Safford, Pima, Thatcher, Solomon, Clifton, Duncan, Willcox, and York are a dozen Mexican restaurants, a family owned tortilla factory and a lady who grows chilies who have all joined together to make up the Salsa Trail®.” Three of the restaurants and the tortilla factory in Safford are mere blocks north of the path the GET takes in Segment 11. Unfortunately, Los Jilbertos is not included in the “official” list.
We drove up the mountain and set up a car camp near Peter’s Flat. We’d driven up in the dark two days before, so Judy and Connie finally got to see the wonder that is the Swift Trail. The Grand Enchantment Trail uses the Swift Trail, here an improved dirt road, as the connector trail between Clark Peak Tr. and Peter’s Flat. I wanted to hike the miles between our first camp and Peter’s Flat, so Judy dropped me off and I hiked back, enjoying the views from the Swift Trail Road. I quite liked our camp across from Peter’s Flat, there were some rock outcroppings that were perfect for watching yet another wonderful sunset.
Day 3- In the morning, Judy and I were going to hike the cross-country route on the GET through Peter’s Flat up to the Chesley Flat Trail to Webb Peak at 10,030′ and downhill to meet Connie at the Webb Peak/Ash Creek Trailhead at the campground. Only my 3L Platypus bladder decided to empty itself into my pack right before we started hiking. By the time we got everything out and repacked, dark clouds rolled in overhead and Judy and I questioned the idea of heading out on a questionable route that might take a lot longer than we expected. We begrudgingly decided that roadwalking with Connie would be the safe, smart thing to do. I had hiked up to Webb Pk. last August, so I wasn’t too sad that we weren’t hitting the highpoint of the GET in Arizona on this trip.
From Peter’s Flat, we walked the unpaved road to the Ash Creek Trailhead, and started our descent on the Ash Creek Trail which loses 4700′ of elevation in just 7 miles. The upper part of the Ash Creek Trail doesn’t look like anyone’s idea of Arizona. This year, the mountain was covered with snow well into May and the Pinalenos regularly get pounded with summer monsoons. The result being that there are lush forests of Blue Spruce, Aspen, and other high-elevation trees. In addition, the trail parallels Ash Creek, which creates a riparian environment rich with fungi and wildflowers.
We made it down to a split in the trail and it started to rain. The trail was signed to head uphill and bypass a dangerous area known as Slick Rock. The trail used to go through Slick Rock, which had railings installed to prevent people from injuring themselves, but the Forest Service ultimately decided to reroute the trail to avoid future search and rescue scenarios. We saw our only hiker of the day, a guy who was out for a dayhike down to Ash Creek Falls. He was nice enough to take our picture before heading down the trail in the pouring rain.
Movie of rain on the Ash Creek Tr.
We decided to take a break to see if the storm would pass, but instead it got more and more intense, with thunder and lightning way too close for comfort. Then it started hailing. Yet another use for an umbrella- a hail deflector! After the hail stopped, we started hiking again, wondering why we hadn’t seen the dayhiker yet. We took the official trail, and when it linked back up with the old Slick Rock route, we ran into him again. He had harrowing tales of a steep, nasty, off-trail bushwhack in the rain and hail and we were happy to see that he made it through ok. We took the Slick Rock route back uphill a quarter of a mile and visited the site who’s name had piqued our interest. I was really glad that we did, because it was a sight to see- water cascading down the steep, sloping slab of rock toward the upper part of Ash Creek Falls. We had to be really careful where we placed our feet for fear of slipping and taking an unintended slickrock waterslide.
Movie of Slick Rock:
After we returned to the main trail, we got great views down toward the Gila Valley and lower Ash Creek Canyon. It was raining pretty hard by the time we got to the Ash Creek Falls overlook. I had been long excited about the prospect of seeing a 200-foot waterfall on this hike, but unfortunately the trail does not give a great view of the whole of the falls, just the top. Silly trail designers! To get a better look, you have to scramble on the steep hillside, and we weren’t about to do that when it was raining so hard. What a letdown.
The trail descended steeply on the north side of the canyon and we finally reached the streambed, rushing with monsoon rains. It had, however, stopped raining on us for the time being. There were some of the largest Ponderosa Pines I’ve ever seen on the trail that criss-crosses Ash Creek.
When we reached Oak Flat, our destination for the evening, I finally got to see why people always talk about camping here on this trail- there really aren’t many great spots beforehand due to the steep nature of the trail. It was early, only 4:30 when we got into camp, so there was plenty of time for relaxing and exploring around. The creek is nearby and there were lots of fragrant blooming bergamot, wild geraniums, and, green ferns lining the trail. I was surprised that there was a stand of aspen next to the campsite- 6300 ft is pretty low for aspen. Again, we were treated to yet another wonderful sunset to end our day, this one lighting up the Pinnacles.
Day 4- The next morning, we were eating breakfast and I saw a small head pop up behind Judy. It was a pocket gopher, totally unaffected by us camping nearby. We continued descending on the Ash Creek Trail, and when we reached the creekbed, there was a waterfall described by the guidebook as “a spirited cascade that delights the senses.” I told Judy and Connie that I’d catch up and spent some quality alone time with the falls.
Video of the “spirited cascade”:
The Ash Creek Trail below Oak Flat criss-crosses the creek and has waterfall after waterfall on it. The water was chilly, but refreshing and I took a dip in some of the pools.
I reached the last crossing of Ash Creek and wet myself down before the trail spit me out into the exposed, hot desert. It was a shock after the cool, rainy, riparian environment we’d gotten used to. The sky had turned dark and the monsoon rains were building behind me. The views out to the Gila Valley opened up to the west. I passed the only backpackers we’d seen in 4 days, heading up the trail into the thunderstorm ahead. Soon afterward, I reached the nondescript end of the trail at Berry Patch Rd, and it began to rain. Just a little more hiking down the road led me to where we’d left Judy’s Jeep four days ago and a celebratory end-of-the-trip picture. After one last stop at Jilbertos, I was on my way back to blazing hot Tucson, another segment of the Grand Enchantment Trail under my belt. Nine segments down, thirty to go.
So, since you’ve made it through this lengthy trip report, here’s a picture from the Wildlife Rehab Fundraiser- a nighthawk. You’ve probably seen them flying around streetlights, but most people have not seen them up close. They are one of my favorite birds that we have at the Miller’s Wildlife Rehab.