It was my hope from the very beginning that I’d be able to share a bit of the glory and adventure of Sirena’s through hike on the AZT. After all, she’d become so much more than just a hiking buddy and fellow blogger over the last year – she was one of my closest friends. The fact that I am insanely envious barely plays into it at all (wink). So, when my schedule shifted about a bit and opened up an opportunity for me to not only join her for Passage 4, but to also get to guest-blog about our adventure, I grabbed at it. An overnight on the AZT…with my celebrity friend…just the two of us and the foothills of the Santa Rita mountains on one of the most beautiful weekends of the year? Oh yeah. I’m in!
I met up with our roving woman of wonder in the small southern Arizona town of Patagonia for the AZ Trail Trek event on Thursday night. With music by Jamnesia, Arizona Trail Ale from That Brewery in Pine and a beautiful evening provided by mother nature, it was a smash success. Fudge and treats from the Ovens of Patagonia (can you say Key Lime Meringue?) kept the festivities going until after darkness set in.
While I was camped out in the grasslands near my exit trailhead at Kentucky Camp, Sirena had secured accommodations from a pair of trail angels in their teardrop trailer just outside of Patagonia (thanks to Maggie, Patrick and their very friendly kitty). Sirena’s connection with the folks in Patagonia is amazing, and she had even more help coming, from Helen who agreed to shuttle yours truly from Kentucky Camp to our starting point on Temporal Canyon road. This warm support from the members of this active gateway community is a part of what will continue to make the Arizona Trail a great experience in years to come!
Passage 4 of the AZT follows the Temporal Canyon Road in Patagonia for the first 13 miles. For most through-hikers, road walks are similar to unwanted chores: often necessary, rarely enjoyed. Sirena had taken care of the first 7 miles of the road walk the day before to speed things up, so we had only about 6 miles to go before we truly got off into the wilds. Luckily, even road walking in this area can be scenic and rewarding. Winding through the oak forests and over the pools of Temporal Gulch wasn’t such a horrible chore at all – and the terrain offered enough distraction to keep us contented as we hoofed along.
Throughout our walk on the road, we were amazed at the amount of water that we were finding. The spring boxes were full, and there was often a slow trickle in the bottom of the canyon. Although it has been an unusually dry (and warm) winter and early spring in southern Arizona, it seems that a few well-timed storms have really helped out these riparian areas. It’s unlikely that the pools will remain long without more moisture coming from the sky and soon – but it was a real treat to know that we would not have to worry about running dry on this particular piece of trail.
Once we turned off onto the Walker Basin trail and got back to our preferred single-track hiking, the mountains rewarded us with even better vistas and diversity. Mt. Wrightson, the highest mountain in the Santa Rita range, is topped by Baldy Peak at 9,453 ft. This barren, granite summit presides over the entire range like a patriarch, and it’s steep wooded flanks have always called to those seeking solitude and adventure. Both Sirena and I have visited the summit on multiple occasions – but somehow it’s even more impressive to see the mountain this way – wandering about at it’s base staring up. Although the Arizona Trail does not climb to the top of this range as it does with the Rincons and the Santa Ritas further north, it does provide hikers with an intimate experience with Wrightson just the same.
16 miles into Passage 4 (9 for us today), we arrived at Bear Spring. Our initial plans were to camp near the spring, as Sirena had often wanted to but schedule often didn’t permit. The spring is a beautiful spot – cold, clear water from the tank and a sycamore-studded stream babbling just down the hill in Big Casa Blanca Canyon. There were some ideal tent sites near the creek, and plenty of trees for my hammock. We took our hiking shoes off and dunked our feet in the icy creek, filtered and drank our fill of the delicious water and considered our options. It was still early in the day, with hours until sunset, and our feet now felt refreshed and ready to go again. We decided that while the spring was an ideal spot, we’d take our chances on the trail ahead and keep moving just a little while longer.
Just past the spring was a wide, open campsite along the side of the creek where we found the Seeds of Stewardship group. We knew they’d be in the area, so we were glad to find them happily settled in for the evening in the perfect spot. The leaders and students were really enjoying the passage – particularly the ample water we were finding in the drainages – and they were excited to meet the celebrity through hiker in the flesh. We spent a little while swapping stories and recruiting for future events before snapping a picture and heading back out. It’s always great to see young people learning to love the outdoors!
Beginning at Bear Spring, the trail follows a historic drainage feature called a “flume”. This ditch was dug into the mountainside in the early 1900’s as a part of an effort to provide water to a gold mining operation in nearby Kentucky Gulch. Water from Bear Spring was diverted into the flume and ran in the ditch for 2 1/2 nearly level miles to the next improvement at Tunnel Spring. Because of this historic engineering effort, the trail feels almost dead-flat, and contours high above the steep floor of Big Casa Blanca canyon. At one point, Sirena began telling me, it’s supposed to duck through a hole in the rock – but she missed the spot back in 2008 by accidentally taking the bypass built for equestrian use. She was just finishing the story when we came around a corner and found the “hole-in-the-wall” – a small tunnel through the conglomerate rock that makes up the canyon walls. Her excitement made passing up the Bear Spring camp 100% worthwhile!
Between a rock and a hard place
As the sun got lower in the sky, we began to look for a spot to camp. Since the trail is carved into the mountainside, we started to scan the ridges and slopes that ran perpendicular to the trail for a spot. I spotted a faint foot-path heading off onto one such ridge, and we followed it out to one of the finest campsites we could have hoped for. A small fire ring, cleared spots for ground sleepers, trees for hammocks and drop-dead amazing views to the south, west and east. We arrived just in time to settle in before the evening light show started, then made ourselves a modest fire and ate Thai green curry chicken and rice by its glow. For girls like Sirena and I, it simply does not get any better.
The next morning we didn’t get an early start (which is SO typical of us!), but we were on the trail in plenty of time to cover the 10 miles remaining to our base at Kentucky Camp. We had more historic flume hiking ahead, followed by a series of small ups and downs along the historic water system, and ending with a short but wearing road walk from Kentucky Camp to my trailer just down the road. We were low on food (Sirena’s finally got a through hiker’s appetite), and eager to get back before her family arrived at camp. Never the less, we hardly hurried. The trail is just too much fun to rush!
Kentucky Camp was originally built to support the Greaterville mine – which was based on a placer gold vein that never played out. From the early 1900’s to 1960, it served as a ranch headquarters after which it was purchased by the US Forest Service. Today, visitors can explore the historic buildings and learn more about the history of the area or even rent a small “bed-and-no-breakfast” cabin. There was plenty to see, but the trailer full of food was calling us home so we didn’t linger.
Finally at the trailer, we were ultimately joined by Sirena’s dad, husband, brother and friend. We camped out luxury style, with spaghetti, salad and garlic bread followed up by smores and beer. In the end, though, Sirena and I still slept with our heads under the stars and our hearts full of the landscape we love.
The next morning, I packed up base camp and Sirena lead yet another group on a dayhike from Kentucky Camp to Oak Tree Canyon. Her brother and his girlfriend joined the group of 5 to make the journey across the grasslands. As I drove back to Tucson, I only wished that I was continuing on the adventure and heading for Utah on foot. Maybe another time…
…Thanks for the adventure Sirena!
Wendy Lotze 3/2014