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Posts Tagged ‘Alamo Canyon’

It’s the last month before the Bighorn Sheep restrictions go into effect in the Catalinas, so I wanted to do something in the area. From January 1st until April 30th, going more than 400 feet off the trail in the management area is prohibited because of lambing season. I had visited Alamo Canyon three years ago with my friend Bill and really enjoyed it- it was time to return.

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Bighorn Sheep Management Area

Alamo-Buster Loop (1)

Catalina State Park Boundary- Buster Mountain to the left, Alamo Canyon to the right

I parked at the Romero Ruins and took the trail for a short distance across the wash and then turned right at a cairn on an unnamed trail with surprisingly good tread. This trail took me to a little waterfall at the state park boundary. It had warmed up enough for me to wet my head in the creek before hiking on.

Waterfall in Alamo Canyon

Waterfall in Alamo Canyon- 2012

A trail continues past the park boundary that stays above the creek on canyon right. I took the trail until a large boulder jam in the creek, where I descended to take a break. There was a huge racket as a pack of javelinas moved to get downstream away from me. The giant striped granite boulders, golden ash trees and running water made for a perfect spot to settle in for a while.

Alamo-Buster Loop (2)

Saguaros and Leviathan and Wilderness Domes

Alamo-Buster Loop (3)

Giant granite boulders in Alamo Canyon

The gnats descended just as I was going to take a nap and I had to get a move on. I wasn’t in the mood to go farther up the creek, but I was intrigued by a cairned path I’d seen in 2012 that seemed to go up toward the Buster Mountain ridgeline. I’d also seen the top of the route on the ridgeline, today was the day to connect the dots.

The steep route out of the creek took me through an expanse of beautiful banded gneiss on the way to the ridge. It was fun following the well-cairned route. Much of it was on gravel, which made me happy to be hiking up rather than down it.

Alamo-Buster Loop (4)

Hiking up the cairned route to Buster Ridgeline

Alamo-Buster Loop (5)

Gneiss!

I reached the ridgeline saddle and took another extended break. Some of my water had spilled into my pack so I didn’t hit the peak, instead I spent my time taking pictures and even had a little dance party at the saddle.

Alamo-Buster Loop (6)

The route pops out at the saguaro on the ridgeline

I wanted to time my descent with the sunset and started down the steep route down the ridgeline. Tall grasses made route finding a little challenging, it was much more overgrown than in previous trips because of all the rain we’ve gotten this year. Made it off the ridge in the fading light and was excited to see the sunset paint pink and purple stripes above Pusch Ridge.

Alamo-Buster Loop (8)

Sunset over Pusch Ridge

The sunset was one of those rare ones that changes and develops different characters way after the sun goes down. The entire mountain took on a subtle pink hue and fiery waves of orange, pink and red streaked the sky. It felt like it went on for hours and I kept stopping to take picture after picture. Timed it perfectly to arrive at the parking lot just as the sunset had finally faded. What a great way to end such an enjoyable day on the mountain.

Alamo-Buster Loop (9)

Ever-changing light

Alamo-Buster Loop (10)

And then the sunset got ridiculously good!

Can it be that it’s already almost 2016? I guess it’s time to put together the end of the year recap. I’ve got some exciting news to share as well- Happy Holidays!

Micro Chicken in a festive mood

Micro Chicken in a festive mood

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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.

Picketpost Mountain

Picketpost Mountain

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.

Stripey Butte Saddle

Stripey Butte Saddle

Blue Dicks

Blue Dicks

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.

Sunset from my camp

Sunset from my camp

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.

Scott and Eszter

Scott and Eszter

Scott and Eszter on a bikepacking trip

Scott and Eszter on a bikepacking trip

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.

This is the "Trailhead"

This is the “Trailhead”

Fantastic Formations

Fantastic Formations

Looking into Martinez Canyon

Looking into Martinez Canyon

Gila River Canyons

Gila River Canyons

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.

Penstemon

Penstemon

Globe Mallow and Brittlebush

Globe Mallow and Brittlebush

Hiking through the poppy-covered hillsides near Dale's Butte

Hiking through the poppy-covered hillsides near Dale’s Butte

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.

Red Mountain Seep

Red Mountain Seep

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.

Gila River

Gila River

Sunset along the Gila River

Sunset along the Gila River

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.

Gila River Campsite

Gila River Campsite

Stone Tool

Stone Tool

Battling spiny plants

Battling spiny plants

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Battle Axe Rancher

Battle Axe Rancher

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.

Scorpionweed and Poppies

Scorpionweed and Poppies

Trestle Bridge

Trestle Bridge

Completion Marker

Completion Marker

Sunset looking down at the tiny town of Kelvin/Riverside

Sunset looking down at the tiny town of Kelvin/Riverside

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!

Jasmine the Mini-Donkey on the Arizona Trail in the Santa Ritas

Jasmine the Mini-Donkey on the Arizona Trail in the Santa Ritas

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Alamo Canyon Trail Work

Alamo Canyon Trail Work

It takes a lot of work to maintain 800 miles of trail from Mexico to Utah!

The Arizona Trail is split into 43 passages, which are then subdivided into about 100 segments. Each segment has a trail steward- a person or organization that adopts the segment of trail and is responsible for answering questions about trail conditions and holding periodic work events. I am proud to be the steward of #16c- 5.5 miles that wind along the Gila River. Last weekend I helped my backpacking bestie Wendy on a work event on her segment, which is 7.5 miles south of Picketpost Trailhead near Superior.

ATA Tool Trailer

ATA Tool Trailer

I was excited to be able to do some trail maintenance for a change- I am so busy these days promoting the AZT that I don’t get dirty as often as I used to!

Wendy, India and I drove up to Superior in the AZTmobile and loaded it up with tools and water for the weekend. Dropped Wendy off so she could meet with the hikers that were coming in at night. After getting Los Hermanos to go, we headed to FR 4, Telegraph Canyon Road. I had heard stories about how bad the road was and it lived up to its reputation. Had a run-in with a rock that made the back bumper unhappy . The worst part of the road is the Fissure of Death, where a big part of the road is gone and you have to go up on the hillside, the whole truck tilting toward the FOD.

Picketpost Mountain from FR 4

Picketpost Mountain from FR 4

We made it to the campsite and watched a spectacular sunset and situated ourselves in a spot to catch the backpackers that were coming in. One of the crew, Marcos, came in on a mountain bike. This passage is also part of the Grand Enchantment Trail that goes from Phoenix to Albuquerque, so you get a long distance hiking twofer.

Classic AZ sunset Friday night

Classic AZ sunset Friday night

The group settled in and got their camps set up on a flat area a short distance from the trail on a side road off FR4. Some of the group had LED lights and we had an LED campfire and chatted while waiting for Wendy and her two hikers to get there. We could see the saddle and watched for Wendy’s light- finally at 10 pm we saw it and I could relax knowing that all had made it to camp safely. The only downside to camp was the amount of broken glass. I slept in the AZTmobile.

The morning was dewy and after breakfast we split up into three groups to work the trail. We had so many people that my group was able to work the next segment north of Wendy’s. It was a perfect day for trail work and we took revenge on many catclaw and other thorny plants. The rains of the summer had washed out several portions and we repaired the tread.

Breakfast at camp

Breakfast at camp

Crew was larger than expected, so some  of us worked north to the first saddle on  #17b

Crew was larger than expected, so some of us worked north to the first saddle on #17b

Hikers coming up the trail

Hikers coming up the trail

The only hikers we saw all day were a couple that were going to be doing a work event on the trail next weekend. There were quite a few bikes- there was a race called the Picketpost Punisher going on that had a 50-mile and an 81-mile loop that crossed our work area. The last guy that finished the 81 miler didn’t finish until 1:30 in the morning! Read John’s blog to hear the story of his 20-hour ride!

FR 4 and our camp below

FR 4 and our camp below

Standing aside for mountain bikers

Standing aside for mountain bikers

Tarantula

Tarantula

Bikepackers

Bikepackers

A full day of trailwork got our appetite going and we returned to camp to find Wendy at the tail end of producing an incredible fajita feast! Wendy’s cooking never disappoints and we all gorged ourselves on the tasty meal.

Saturday night on the trail

Saturday night on the trail

Queen of the Campsite

Queen of the Campsite

Wendy's fajita spread was delicious!

Wendy’s fajita spread was delicious!

We sat around the fire, telling stories, making s’mores and passing Mango Tango around. Wendy graced us with some Irish ballads- it’s always such a treat to hear her beautiful voice. It was around 10:30 when two bikers from the race came into view and it was fun to cheer them on from our camp!

The next morning, the sky looked moody and ominous, but it was an empty threat and cleared up by the time we were ready to pack up and leave. We finished off the last of the trimming and tread work and the backpackers left to hike back to the trailhead.

Washout

Washout

Armoring the washout with rocks

Armoring the washout with rocks

Careful when flipping rocks!

Careful when flipping rocks!

Filling it in

Filling it in

Fixed!

Fixed!

Wendy, India, Stoic (Chris) and I packed up the tools and cached 27 gallons in the wash for public use. Chris was nice enough to do an ingenious fix in the field that included the use of zip ties to hold the droopy back corner up. It worked great for the drive out.

We made it back down the road to Superior without incident and stopped at Old Time Pizza for slices, salad and giant vats of the best iced tea in Kearny. Had a nice visit with Lorraine, who owns the place with her husband Gary- they are true friends of the AZT and avid hikers as well. It was a memorable work event made even better by the amount of work we were able to accomplish. Big kudos to Wendy for her impeccable planning skills!! She also writes a blog, Around the Corner with Wendy– check it out!

Nasty Telegraph Canyon Rd. on the way out

Nasty Telegraph Canyon Rd. on the way out

If you are interested in participating in a work event, check the ATA Calendar for upcoming dates. To find out more about being a part of the Trail Stewardship Program, visit http://www.aztrail.org/steward_information.html

In Wildlife Rehabilitation NW Tucson news, lots of the birds that came to the rehab as babies have been released back into the wild. It’s one of the most rewarding parts of rehab to see them grow up and become self-sufficient.

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Baby Harris Hawk

Baby Harris Hawk

Harris Hawk

Harris Hawk

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When you’re dealing with a trail as scenically varied and rich as the Arizona Trail, how can a single passage distinguish itself?  I mean, come on, you’ve got the GRAND CANYON on one end, Sky Islands on the other… what can a 40 mile piece of land in the middle of the desert – a land of low mountains and dry gullies – possibly offer that would leave a lasting impression?  Maybe you picture a dusty boot print, a scorching sun over a spiny cactus, a parched throat and a ankle full of cholla?

Think again my friend.   This is the Upper Sonoran at it’s best, and it’s some of the best trail in the country.  Period.

Heading along the base of Picketpost Mountain

I joined Sirena on the trail once again for a number of reasons, but the real truth is that I can’t get enough of the passages between Superior and Kelvin.  She and I were among the first people to through-hike these two passages (which were the last completed in the AZT system), and I’ve hiked on them a number of times since.  I even adopted a part of passage 17 as a trail steward.   Here, the saguaros are huge, the mountains are colorful and the trail conditions are pristine.  There’s even a guest-appearance  by the rarest of desert features: a flowing river complete with trees, grass and naps.  How could I resist?

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Heading out from Picketpost with the boys

Five of us set out from the Picket Post Trailhead outside of Superior and we hiked south.  This meant a bit of a flip-flop for our through-hiking guide, but it was a wise choice.  With unseasonably high temps and dry conditions, it’s best to keep things predictable and easy.  We hiked TO the river, rather than away from it, and it made all of the difference both mentally and physically.  Each person in the group was equipped with an umbrella – for there is no better invention for those days when the Sonoran sun won’t stop.  At many points on the trail, we were circled by hawks and vultures – all of whom were likely attracted to our bright, unusual footprint on the landscape.

Our hike coincided with the Arizona Trail 300/750 bike race, which left from the border the day before we left from Picket Post.  The leader of the race passed us while we slept under the stars the first night – he finished the 300 mile trail race in under 2 days!  Though we missed him, we did encounter a number of riders on the trail, and we were always excited to wish them luck.  It was hard to imagine when we were hot and tired from walking for 8 hours that these folks had been riding bicycles on the same trail – nearly non-stop for days!  We shook our heads at the hardy dedication as we sat in whatever shade we could find with our feet up munching on our ample supply of trail goodies.

Jay P, winner of the AZT 750

There were so many highlights of the trip, all of them from the smorgasbord of wonder that is our Sonoran Desert…

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Unexpected wildflower shows… With such a dry winter and spring, I certainly did not expect to be greeted by a green desert and a profusion of blooming plants!   Conditions must have been just right for some of the plants however.

Like Blackfoot Daisy (Melampodium leucanthum) - it was NUTS!

It was the right time for the Blackfoot Daisy

The hedgehog cacti were really the stars of the show this weekend, though!

Strawberry Hedgehog Cacti Were Being Spectacular

 

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Early Saguaro Blooms

Wildlife encounters… Along with our first snakes of the season, we were lucky enough to have a close encounter with one of the most unusual desert residents: the Gila Monster.  Considering that these creatures spend more than 90% of their lives underground, it was a real treat to find one just hanging out on a rock next to the trail – soaking up the rays and lookin’ for some dinner.  Of course, he wanted nothing to do with our party.

Then, we met this guy and he really stole the show!

The Gila Monster retreats

 

This dude was unhappy that we disturbed him...

This snake was quite unhappy with us

Crazy geological features… The region is full of stunning land features like buttes, cliffs and canyons.  One of my personal favorites occurs near the northern end of my passage – small as buttes go, but with striking colors.  I like to call it Stripey Butte.  Other features of note include the distant cliffs of the White Canyon Wilderness, the walls of Martniez Canyon and the rock monolith that AZT hikers are calling Dale’s Butte (in honor of Dale Shewalter, the Father of the AZT).

Our celebrity with Stripy Butte in the background

Sirena poses with Stripey Butte in the background

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Sirena and Ed approach Dale’s Butte

Lovin' the pass!

A low pass above Martinez Canyon

 

The pillar of rock...so lumpy ;)

The pillar of rock…so lumpy 😉

Incredible plant life…One small valley along passage 17 is home to a population of shrubs that are either unusually large or typically found at much higher elevations.  Oaks and Junipers are joined by enormous ephedra plants more than 12′ high and massive Sotol (desert spoon) that dwarf their counterparts from the next valley over.  We call this area the “Valley of the Mutant Shrubs”…it’s a magical, mystical place that seems more than just a little alien in the afternoon light.   Not to mention wandering through forests of some of the largest saguaros in Arizona.

In the land of giant saguaros

 

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Mutant Shrubs

Our own piece of the AZT… Sirena and I are both Passage Stewards on this piece of adventure.  My passage (17a) is remote, hilly and home to features like the Valley of the Mutant Shrubs and Stripey Butte.  Sirena is further south, with the sandy bottom of Walnut Canyon and the steep, rocky slopes of the Spine.  Being a steward is a magical opportunity – it lets you feel as if a piece of the AZT is truly yours: your home, your responsibility, your joy.  It’s more than just trimming a few bushes or moving around some rocks, it’s about knowing your bit of trail in and out, about bragging on it to whomever will listen and about helping out trail users who think you’re THE BOMB for helping out.  It’s something to be proud of.  (And, it’s something that’s still available if you’re interested in taking on the challenge.  Visit the ATA Website here for more information!)

Walnut Canyon Gate, start of Sirena's segment on the AZT

Walnut Canyon Gate, start of Sirena’s segment on the AZT

A verdant river corridor… It’s time for the farmers to water their crops, and the waters of the San Carlos Reservoir are released in abundance to meet the need.  This means that the Gila River through this area is flowing deep and fast.  It’s cool waters mean a welcome respite from the desert, and we spent a delightful hour resting in the shade of the willows on shore.

Took a nice long break by the river

Took a nice long break by the river

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Who says the desert’s dead?!

A historic trestle bridge…the Copper Basin Railway still uses the tracks that parallel the Gila River – and near the town of Kelvin, that river corridor narrows, forcing the tracks to the opposite bank.  The rails cross the river on a old steel trestle bridge that makes for an excellent wayfinding landmark as well as another shady spot to rest for a moment.

After a long, hot day, the trestle is a welcome site!

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Enjoying the Shade under the bridge

These two passages demonstrate what the whole Arizona Trail can be one day: amazing trail construction, wide-range of users, incredible destinations and fantastic community connections.   We were supported by trail angels, who left behind gallons of water to keep us going and who helped us to set up shuttles which made the entire hike possible.  In Arizona, it’s not just the trail that’s amAZing…it’s the folks behind it as well!

A special shout out and thanks to John, Ed and Steve who were amazing company throughout the hike.  It’s such a pleasure to share the area with people who are just as passionate about it as we are!

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Sirena carries water from our cache to camp the second night. This water kept us healthy!

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The “Completion Monument” – the AZT’s own Golden Spike!

If you haven’t already donated to Sirena’s campaign to raise money for trail construction, maintenance and promotion, please visit the Indiegogo campaign here  .  Then head out to the trail and experience it for yourself!

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Girls on the Trail Again!

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Sirena contemplating the desert splendor- photo by Wendy Lotze

I think the best way to start out the year is with a big hike. My husband, on the other hand, likes to start the year out with football. For years, we’ve spent New Year’s Eve together and then gone our separate ways on the first. More often than not, I just go for a dayhike, but this year I wanted to start things out with something a little more ambitious. 35 miles of Arizona Trail on Passage 16 and 17, much of which has been built since I finished hiking the trail in 2009. At the Arizona Trail completion ceremony, I’d salivated at the thought of all those miles of fresh AZT and now it was time to see the (almost) finished product. One caveat- Passage 16 will not officially be open until February 2012, but I’d gotten permission from the powers that be to hike through at the completion ceremony. Until it is officially open, ASARCO has large drilling equipment on the last two miles into Kelvin. The drilling road will be reclaimed down to singletrack before it opens.

Picketpost Mountain

My hiking partner Wendy and I met our shuttle at the tiny town of Kelvin along the Gila River off Highway 177. Rick and Jerry provided ample amusing banter on our way up to Picketpost Trailhead. We stopped in at the Copper Mountain Motel so that I could meet Troy, the manager who had helped set up our shuttle. Troy is the new manager and very enthusiastic about the hikers that come into town using the Arizona Trail and Grand Enchantment Trail. The AZT and GET run concurrently here so you get a long-distance hiking twofer. We finally made it over to Picketpost and got hiking at noon. The first thing we realized was that it was hot! Quite the weather for the first of the year- I immediately got out my umbrella. There were a lot of folks out for a hike under the giant monolith of Picketpost Mountain. We hiked for all of an hour before getting hungry and sitting down to eat lunch. The views north toward   the Flatiron, Ridgeline and Weavers Needle in the Superstitions were fantastic. Here’s a video:

Photo by Wendy Lotze- click to enlarge

The rest of the day had us swooping south on singletrack- this trail is very obviously built with mountain bikers in mind. We saw hikers, bikers and equestrians- all the users of the AZT represented. We only went six miles before reaching a saddle with a great view and decided to call it a day. We spent a while wandering around camp and watching the sunset on Picketpost and Ajax Peak. It was unseasonably warm but windy as we had one of my favorite trail meals- cheese fondue. Wendy turned in early and I stayed up for a while, watching the moonlight on the desert and getting some quality dance time in.

Swoop!

Ajax Peak to the right and a healthy stand of saguaros

It had been a day of reflection and reminiscing about the last time I was here in April of 2008. It seemed like another lifetime ago. It was only my fourth backpacking trip ever and one of my first pieces of the Arizona Trail. Back then I thought of the AZT as something to complete, to check off a list and probably move on. Now I see that it is the gift that keeps on giving- since finishing my hike I have revisited numerous pieces of the trail and probably will for the rest of my life. I never would have imagined that my love for the trail would turn into my job at the Arizona Trail Association working with the Gateway Communities.

The next morning we knew we had a lot of miles to do with not a lot of daylight to work with. The trail steward had told us that the whole passage was 35-36 miles, so in theory it meant two fifteen-mile days. More on that later. Our first matter of business was water. A friend had put a cache for us by the Gila River, about 15 miles away, but we were hoping to find water at Trough Springs, near the crossing of FR 4. Thankfully the trough was full and the spring was dripping.

Good morning Picketpost!

Sirena hits the AZT- photo by Wendy Lotze

Micro Chicken aka "Mike" visits Trough Springs on his first backpacking trip

The rest of the passage was all singletrack that had not been built when I hiked this part of the Arizona Trail in 2008. Wendy and I marveled all trip at how wide the tread and how gentle the grade of the trail was. After the spring, we entered this area under Ajax Peak that we called “The Valley of the Mutant Shrubs”. There were giant Crucifixion Thorn bushes, Sugar Sumac, and massive mesquites with the saguaros at 3500 feet. I was excited to see that there was the occasional juniper- there is no better smell.

Giant Ephedra, HUGE graythorn and massive sotols - all of this awaits you in the Valley of the Mutant Shrubs! -photo by Wendy Lotze

The trail gently switchbacked out of the valley up to a saddle where we got views of the snow-capped Pinals to the northeast, the Galiuros to the southeast, and the Spine and White Canyon Wilderness. Even the white tops of the Pinalenos were visible. There was an incredible amount of mountain lion, bobcat, and bighorn sheep scat on the trail all through these two passages.

Wendy at the saddle

After the saddle, we said a final farewell to Picketpost and switchbacked down past an attractive striped wall and up to another saddle with a gate that marked the end of Passage 17.

Striped Wall

Looking back across the valley at the striped wall and the trail coming down from it

I could see the newly-built trail snaking its way through the canyon heading south and could barely wait to see the newly-named Gila River Canyons passage. Here’s a video:

The new trail did not disappoint. I lost count of how many times I said “This trail is so nice! So fancy!” It was a wide bench through steep slopes with attractive rock formations and views of rugged Martinez Canyon.

Quite the rock formation

Wow.

Looking into Martinez Canyon

And then it got even better- we reached a saddle where we could see all the way south to the snow-covered Catalinas with the trail winding through the jagged peaks below. The best part of the Arizona Trail is seeing something like the Catalinas way in the distance and knowing you could walk there if you just had enough provisions and time. Or if you really wanted to, you could just keep hiking north to Utah or south to Mexico. It makes being on the AZT that much more special than an ordinary trail, that feeling of being part of a larger thread that connects you to the rest of the state.  I wished that we could drop our packs and sleep right there, it would be a spectacular camp. The trail stayed high, climbing westward beneath a  cliffband before turning south.

Excited about the fresh AZT- Photo by Wendy Lotze

Spectacular views south

Evening light

The trail swooped back and forth to descend the canyon at a most civilized grade and “Dale’s Butte” came into view. This is an unnamed butte that the ATA is trying to get renamed for Dale Shewalter, the founder of the Arizona Trail. The AZT spends quite a bit of time with this attractive formation and we could see the shadow the butte cast upon the mountains as the sun was setting. We were running out of light and in true AZT fashion, it looked like we had some bonus miles to contend with. (The 2 passages ended up being 39 miles, not 35) We happily night-hiked toward the Gila River, making camp where Rincon-Battleaxe Road crosses the AZT. Wendy was in charge of dinner and made a delicious Pizza Ramen.

Shadow of Dale's Butte

Dale's Butte

Table Top

I didn’t get a great shot of it in the light, so here’s one from bikepacker and fellow AZT enthusiast Scott Morris:

Photo by Scott Morris

The next morning, we ate breakfast warm in our sleeping bags and got an early start. We were still about two miles short of our water cache and the trail immediately came to the Gila River. Surprisingly, there was still “fall color” on the cottonwoods and walnut trees, even in January. The well-groomed path followed the river and surrounding flatlands and was a nice mellow walk. The wet December had sprouted green grasses and wildflower seedlings everywhere. We reached our cache, driven in on a very rough 4wd road by people working to finish the trail last month (thanks, guys!).

Minor AZT roadwalk to the Gila

Along the Gila

The Rincon

We could see The Rincon and the White Canyon Wilderness (where the previous route of the AZT went) to the north. I have to admit that I had been a bit skeptical about how I’d like the new passage because I enjoyed the 2008 route through the White Canyon so much.

There were mining drill holes and some old mining equipment near our cache and after a break to rehydrate we continued contouring along the Gila. I’d been told by the people that did the trail construction that they were looking for people using the trail to help take all the flagging out. Wendy and I amassed a collection of pin flags and many colors of flagging tape in varying levels of disintegration from the numerous trail alignments that had been marked over the years. There’s still plenty left, so if you’re using the trail, please take some flags out with you. The Spine came into view along the banks of the Gila River:

As we hiked toward Walnut Canyon, I wished we were going to be seeing the Artesian Well on this trip. It is one of the great losses of the new route. There was a bit of two-track along the Gila and then it was back onto fancy benched singletrack again. We finally reached The Spine and contoured along both arms through boulder fields high above the river.

The path of the old route was up Walnut Canyon

Trail along the base of The Spine

After The Spine, the trail winds away from the Gila to give views of a nice horseshoe bend on the river. This would be a spectacular place at the height of the fall colors. Finally, we reached the trestle bridge and took one last break along the river before the trail climbed up to the viewing platform where the completion ceremony took place.

Horseshoe Bend of the Gila

Trestle Bridge

Completion Marker- the DS stands for Dale Shewalter, the founder of the Arizona Trail

There was a beautiful sunset as we made the climb, and then we called our spouses to tell them not to worry about us because we still had a couple of miles to go in the dark (again) to get to our vehicle in Kelvin. Even though our feet were sore, our spirits were high as we walked the ASARCO road that will become the trail when it is reclaimed later this month. From Picketpost to Kelvin ended up being 39 miles, not 35. Embrace the Arizona Trail bonus miles. It felt good to do some high-mileage days and cover a bunch of spectacular Sonoran desert.

Sunset and we still have a couple miles to go

Wendy and I made a stop in Kearny at Old Time Pizza because I had to speak to Gary, the owner, about scheduling an Arizona Trail presentation there and he hooked us up with all sorts of tasty food. What a way to spend the first three days of the year! Wendy and I had a blast- it is a rare thing to find someone with a similar backpacking style and pace (and who shares my love for gourmet homemade trail snacks). She also has built trail and could appreciate why I was geeking out the whole time about the impressive construction techniques used on these passages. This trip has inspired me to hike the rest of the pieces of the Arizona Trail that have been built since 2009. Click below to see the full set of pictures from our trip.

Arizona Trail- Picketpost to Kelvin

In Wildlife Rehab Fundraiser news, I am starting to plan the second annual Birds, Blues, and Bellydance fundraiser, coming sometime this spring. Last year’s event was a lot of fun and raised $1000 for Wildlife Rehabilitation Northwest Tucson. I’ll be sure to post as soon as I have the date confirmed. Here’s an Eared Grebe in its winter plumage. Below are the much fancier colors it dons for the summer season.

Eared Grebe (winter)

Eared Grebe (summer)

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