When I finished my last passage to Highway 87, I was ahead of schedule, so I got to go back to Tucson for three days before my Scottsdale Gateway Community event at Juan Jaime’s Tacos and Tequila. It was really wonderful to be at home with my husband, dog and cat for some bonus time. I was also conveniently off the trail when we had a much-needed storm roll in on the 26th.
The event at Juan Jaime’s was so much fun! The owner, John, has hiked the Arizona Trail twice- once northbound, once southbound. Even more impressive is that he did it all in one year and all as dayhikes. The man is not only a hiking machine, he’s quite modest and extremely generous as well. Big thanks to him for hosting such a fantastic event!!
I was up late that night, and had a big hike the next day. My friend Chris Forsyth was along for the 17- mile dayhike from Mount Peeley Trailhead back to Highway 87. I chose to go southbound on this passage because I knew I was going to be tired from the event and it is much easier in that direction.
Chris and I only hiked for about a half-hour before we ran into thru-hikers UltraPedestrian Ras and Kathy. I was super-happy to meet them, I’d heard they were in the area and moving fast and light. Great to talk to fellow travelers, but too soon we had to keep moving and parted ways.
Soon after, we met another thru-hiker Nate and his dog Bandit. I hadn’t seen him since the Gila River and we caught up on trail talk. Chris was very patient, even when a short time after leaving Nate, we ran into Michael E- yet another thru-hiker that I had to chat with. This is one of the fun parts of traveling southbound every so often- I get to chat with folks that I might have missed had I been traveling in the same direction the whole time.
The trail went through the Sunflower Fire of 2012- tortured, toasted, black-and-white limbs of trees a constant sight. It’s an area that will need crews to come in and repair the damage- a great reason to support the campaign to raise $20,000 for the Arizona Trail Association! The trail was covered with light pink Palmer’s Penstemon and quite a few other wildflowers. The geology in this area is really interesting with flaky shale layers and what looked like mudstone.
The trail dropped into McFarland Canyon, a beautiful spot with great camping. We took a break and as I was sitting there, I recalled what a friend had said to me last night- that he had recently gotten a bad case of Poison Ivy in McFarland. To my horror, I looked down and was basically sitting in a patch of it! I jumped up, hoping I hadn’t accidentally brushed my bare feet against any- I was going to be leading people on a 5-day backpacking trip ithe next day. Thankfully, there was no exposure and I reminded myself to be more careful.
We climbed out of McFarland and onto the Saddle Mountain Trail, contouring around Saddle and Little Saddle Mountain.
Then we were on the Little Saddle Mountain Trail, one of my favorites back when I section-hiked the trail in 2009. I was interested to see how it fared after the fire. A little tougher to find, maybe, but still spectacularly gorgeous, especially with water running in the creek. We took a break and I dipped my feet in the creek for a bit.
There was a fancy AZT mileage sign and along the way I passed the 400-mile mark. So exciting to be almost halfway done!
The trail left the confines of the canyon and opened up to wide views. Trail 344 is on a two-track and mostly flat, which was nice for our final miles.
We could see and hear Highway 87 long before we crossed underneath it. We crossed Sycamore Creek and found our way back to the Bushnell Tanks parking area with ease. A long, scenic day with perfect weather, can’t ask for much more than that!
The next day I met four backpackers who’d signed up to hike with me on my journey northward from Mount Peeley to the East Verde River. There were well-graded switchbacks up the slopes of Mount Peeley and the trail steward Joe pointed out landmarks in the range. Joe knows these mountains better than anyone I know and it’s always fascinating to learn from him.
This entire range was burned in the Willow Fire of 2004 and when I’d tried to hike this passage in 2009, it was in terrible condition. Washed out trail on steep slopes, constant climbs over downed trees, and fighting through brush made me feel unsafe hiking it solo. I had hiked to the Barnhardt Trail junction and exited out of the wilderness and hiked out to Highway 87 and reconnected with the trail at the East Verde River. Totally different experience this time. Joe and others have put in countless hours to maintain this piece- sawing downed trees, removing brush and fixing the tread- and it was wonderful to hike on.
We contoured around and then climbed to reach a high point with incredible views south to the Four Peaks and then got views of the striated face of Mazatzal Peak. This place is a geological delight! We could see the path we’d be taking the next couple of days and then I got my first glimpse of the San Francisco Peaks in the distance, capped with snow. I could hardly contain myself- I could see Flagstaff! A momentous occasion indeed.
A little farther on the trail and we were at our campsite for the night at Bear Saddle. Little did we know what we were in for…
We said goodnight and went to our respective beds. I’m not sure exactly of the time, but in the middle of the night the wind started howling through the trees like nothing I’ve experienced before. Must have been 50+ miles an hour and LOUD! Every time I opened my eyes I could see the tall pines swaying back and forth in the wind.
No one got a great night’s sleep, and it was chilly in the morning as we left camp. The trail contoured and descended the flanks of Mazatzal Peak, then met the Barnhardt intersection. All fresh trail from here to the East Verde for me!
There was a lot more water than we had expected in the drainages, even ones not on the water chart, thanks to the rain last Saturday.
We took a break and a nap under a juniper before continuing on toward our camp at Horse Camp Seep. This is a fantastic camp near gorgeous pools of water and a place I’d like to come back to explore more thoroughly. Slickrock and water- one of my favorite combinations!