Sunday, July 10, 2016

Hiking C. C. Cragin Reservoir from Rock Creek Campground

I joined a large group of Arizona Trailblazers for a hike along the Mogollon Rim on Saturday.  Shortly after 9:00 a.m., twenty-four of us started down Rock Creek's campground trail to a junction with the Arizona Trail.  Staying left, the AZ trail continues onward in much the same fashion as the campground trail, with a very gradual descent along the top of the rim.  Before too long the trail takes a sharp left, dropping into the thick pine forest covering the canyon walls.  This is the beginning of a much steeper descent all the way to the bottom of the canyon and the frequently dry East Clear Creek.

Opposite rim is seen in the distance; East Clear Creek is between

The hike down to the creek bed was no problem whatsoever. Switchbacks and shade aid in the 600-foot descent to the bottom.  Here, the Arizona Trail crosses the creek (which was dry) and heads back up the other side.  For this hike, we turned off the trail and followed the creek bed until we reached the point where reservoir water was backing up into the dry creek.  Because this was as far as we could go without getting wet, we stopped here for lunch and waited on some of the slower members to catch up.

Stepping out of the forest and onto the creek bed

Along the dry East Clear Creek

Barely visible, a group of kayakers following the water to its end

We saw a group of kayakers round the bend.  They asked how much further it was to the water's edge.  We said, "You're there!"  After twenty minutes or so of R&R, several of us were ready to head back.  We retraced our steps along the creek bed to where it intersects the Arizona Trail.  There is an official marker in place where the Arizona Trail begins its climb out of East Clear Creek, but it is much easier to look for the "unofficial" marker: a rock pyramid constructed a few feet in front of the trail post.

Rock pyramid signals the way back to the rim

The ascent is a pretty decent work out, but it's not brutal, provided you're in fairly decent shape.  Again, switchbacks and shade make this 600-foot climb far more tolerable than climbs similar in elevation gain which may not offer these features.  This particular hike turned out to be 8 miles long, but length will fluctuate, depending on the amount of water in the reservoir.  At the time of this hike, the reservoir was about 50% full.  Another option for this hike, which would allow you to precisely predetermine the length of your hike, would be to continue along the Arizona Trail across East Clear Creek, up the other side of the rim and back down to the second finger of the reservoir (and even beyond, depending on your conditioning).

After the hike we drove to the dam.  Even at half-full, this is a really pretty view and a scene quite uncommon in Arizona.  This was a nice finishing touch to a fine day of hiking with the Arizona Trailblazers.

Blue Ridge Dam (now called C. C. Cragin Dam)

  




Monday, July 4, 2016

Mount Elden

I was a guest of the Arizona Trailblazers Hiking Club for this 15.9-mile tour of Mount Elden and the surrounding area.  Advertised as a 13.4-mile trip, the listed mileage, pulled from some random Internet map, was, surprise, surprise, inaccurate.  Not that this mattered much.  My daughter's cross country coach in Tennessee would say if you can run three miles, you can run five; and if you can run five miles, you can run eight (I tested his theory once, by the way, and found it to be mostly true, though I am in no hurry to put this claim to the test again).  In the same vein, if we're capable of hiking 13.4 miles, then clearly we can manage 15.9.  Still, from a psychological standpoint, it was probably best that we were blissfully unaware of this mileage gap as we started down the Sunset Trail full of vigor at 9:02 a.m.


Pretty views from the Sunset Trail

The Sunset Trail offers a mostly shaded and gradual climb of somewhere in the neighborhood of 1300 feet.  I was told this was the easiest way to the summit, and, after descending the Elden Lookout Trail on the other side of the peak, I was glad we took the route we did.  Pausing only once along Sunset, we kept a decent pace and reached the summit around 11:20 a.m.  The gate at the foot of the staircase leading up to the watch tower viewing deck was open, meaning visitors were welcome, so our climb continued a little further, now easily surpassing 9,300 feet in elevation.  Because the wind was really howling at this high altitude, it was nice having the opportunity to step into the warmth of the watchman's office. This small room in the sky turned out to be a popular place over the next 25 minutes or so, as our group of six was accompanied by several other curious hikers who came and went during this same timeframe.



At the top of Mount Elden

After the group bid farewell to the fire watchman, we began a sharp descent via the popular Elden Lookout Trail.  This may be a well-constructed trail, but there is no getting around its steep grade. With a drop of something like 1800 feet in 1.6 miles along frequently rocky terrain, I was feeling the pain in my left knee, but through it all I remained very much thankful to be going downhill and not up.


Spectacular scenery is found all along the Elden Lookout Trail

We stopped for lunch in a shady portion of the trail shortly after turning north on Fatman's Loop.  This is where I discovered how much I really like PayDay candy bars.  We chowed down quickly and were back on our feet at 1:15 p.m.  I wouldn't have minded resting another five minutes, but because I'm not sure we were even halfway through by this point, it was the right decision to keep moving.

Fatman's Loop runs through this opening in the boulders

Fatman's Loop delivered us to the Christmas Tree Trail, which carried us to a junction with the Little Elden Trail.  At some point along the Christmas Tree Trail, I noticed the sky darkening.  Later, I heard some faint rumbles of thunder which was followed by a few sprinkles and, briefly, a very light shower.  When I caught up with the point man of our group, he was putting on his rain jacket.  There was no precipitation at the moment, but the sky wasn't getting brighter either.  I followed his lead and slipped on my jacket.  Once we resumed hiking, I remember hoping I wouldn't get too hot in my jacket and start sweating profusely.  Well, I certainly didn't overheat because just a couple of minutes later, Mother Nature let loose a lightning bolt that had to have struck within a mile of us. This triggered the skies to promptly release buckets after buckets of rain and hail upon us.  There would be more lightning - some strikes just as close as that first one - along with enough rain and hail to momentarily turn the trail into a river.

Moments before the thunderstorm unleashed its fury upon us

I was praying for the storm to pass, as we hurriedly travelled parallel to the flooded trail.  Thankfully, with perhaps slightly more than 2.5 miles to go, the storm let up.  The two of us in front stopped at a trail junction 2.4 miles from the trailhead to wait on the other four members of the group. About ten minutes later, two members found their way to the junction.  Soaking wet and now getting cold, as soon as our two remaining members came into view several minutes later, we all jumped back on the trail for the final push.

Muddy and sometimes flooded trails in the wake of the storm

I dried off some during the final portion of the hike, though I was wishing I had brought a change of clothes with me.  I did take some solace in the fact that I had a dry pair of shoes waiting in the car, as my boots were of course completely waterlogged.  We were off the trail shortly after 5 p.m.  That, my friends, is what I consider a full day of hiking.  Tired and hungry, we cleaned up as best we could in the trailhead parking lot near Schultz Tank before heading into Flagstaff for a sandwich and beer at The Museum Club on Route 66.  This was a nice, warm and dry finish to what was a long, tough, but, most importantly, fun and well-organized outing with the Arizona Trailblazers.

If would like to see more pictures from this hike, please click or copy and paste the link below into your browser:


      
  


     

        


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Old Caves Crater

With the Phoenix summer in full swing and an open Saturday on the calendar, we headed north on I-17 to the high country of Flagstaff.  The forecast called for a high temperature of 85 degrees, nearly 25 degrees cooler than what was expected down in Phoenix.  This being our first trip ever to Flagstaff, we had the kids in tow so that they, too, could experience Flagtown.  And though I was tempted by those tall San Francisco peaks, I knew we had to play it safe and hike the comparatively mild Old Caves Crater.

Old Caves Crater rises in the distance

From the south trailhead off of Silver Saddle Road, it's 1.2 miles and a 430-foot climb to the summit.  Switchbacks made for a pretty easy stroll up the side of the crater.  This gentle grade did indeed assist with minimizing the exertion factor, but so did all of the pausing along the trail.  After six months in the desert, I couldn't stop taking pictures of trees. I would hike a little and stop for a picture.  Hike a little, take another picture.  And the higher we went, the prettier the scenery became, as more and more trees came into full view.

San Francisco Peaks

The summit trail splits at the top of the crater.  To the right are the small caves (ancestral puebloan cavates, according to the pamphlets available at the trailhead) for which the crater is named.  To the left is the summit, where we took a few minutes to watch the butterflies dance and flutter about.  Like the pine trees completely surrounding us, butterflies were something I wouldn't have given a second glance a year ago.  But now, coming out of the desert, everything old is new again.

Heading down the NW side of the crater

We made our way down from the summit and connected with the Crater Loop Trail on the north side of the cone.  We followed the loop trail, which circles the base of the crater, around on the east side and back south to the Old Caves Crater Trail.  From there, it is a short walk to the trailhead.  Total mileage for our hike, according to the pamphlet, was 3.6 miles.

This is a great family hike.  The trails are fairly wide and largely absent of any pesky rocks or roots.  Quiet, too - at least on this day.  We were here on a beautiful Saturday in June and saw only four other people on the trail, all in the same group.  When you do come, please be aware there are no facilities and no water at the trailhead.  Just bring yourself a bottled water or two and you will be all set to enjoy a peaceful - almost relaxing - hike in the northern Arizona woods.


Apache Plume on the summit of Old Caves Crater

     

   
         

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Camelback Mountain - Echo Canyon Summit Trail

In Tennessee, the Fiery Gizzard is the trail against which all others are measured.  It was years before I made the drive to Tracy City to experience first-hand the legendary trail featuring waterfalls, boulder hopping, a steep gorge-to-rim climb, and even rumors of black bears.  In Phoenix, the crown jewel is Camelback.  Whether it's a still shot or a live feed from the local traffic helicopter, I see its image on television daily.  It's peak, centrally located, stretches 2,704 feet into the air and, much like the Hollywood sign, is never out of sight for long.  The undisputed champion of all things hiking - at least as far as the local convention and visitors bureau is concerned - is surrounded by million-dollar homes and swamped by hoardes of visitors (hundreds of thousands annually) who are drawn to Camelback for its ruggedness, convenience, and iconic status.

Hiking this mountain had been a priority for me, although I figured it was highly unlikely it could live up to all the hype.  John Stanley with the Arizona Republic calls Camelback the Mount Everest of the Valley.  Maybe it was because we had just watched Everest two nights prior, but suddenly I had the urge to get up close and personal with the reigning king of the Seven Summits of Phoenix.  And so there I was early one recent morning, full of gusto and raring to go, standing at the foot of Camelback's Echo Canyon Summit Trail.  It hadn't taken several years as it had in Tennessee for me to finally make time for the Fiery Gizzard Trail, but it did take almost six months to get here.

View from the Echo Canyon Trailhead
 
The city's parks and recreation website says a fit hiker can reach the peak in 45 minutes and descend in the same amount of time.  I found that to be right on the money.  Echo Canyon is a short trail, merely 1.325 miles long, but it also climbs about 1,200 feet during that brief span and requires that hikers traverse slippery stone and long sections of boulders tilting toward the sky.

Be prepared to scramble in places

Scrambling is good idea, if not outright necessary, in some instances.  Other areas offer handrails to help safely navigate over beds of slick rock found on particularly steep grades.  Landscape timbers anchored into the ground serve as stairs to assist the hiker up and down the mountain along what would otherwise be another treacherous stretch.

Wooden steps make it easy for hikers

Reaching the top was somewhat anti-climatic.  Maybe it's because I've seen similar views of the city from other area peaks or maybe it was the large group of hikers assembled there who appeared in no hurry to move.  Either way, even though it was a new summit, it felt as if I was watching a movie I'd seen before.  I took of couple of requisite pictures and, after about five or six minutes of rest, headed back down the mountain.


Two views from Camelback's peak

I found the trail to be pretty easy to follow.  It seemed adequately marked and if any question as to trail location had arose, there was always a fellow hiker either up ahead or behind who could provide guidance.  Compared with other area trails, I would consider the signage along the Echo Canyon Trail most acceptable.

Sign shows the way

Hiking Camelback makes for a terrific workout.  Some folks go up and down the mountain every day.  Some run the trail (where running is possible).  And the mountain is for all ages.  There were small children as well as retirees on the trail.  I encountered a 68 year-old and a 71 year-old, both of whom were moving up and down the trail with relative ease.  All, it seems, are drawn to Camelback.  Come see it for yourself.  It's the Camelback Experience, and you won't soon forget it.

Tip: Echo Canyon Trail is shaded in the early mornings
  


    


       

Monday, June 13, 2016

Piestewa Peak and Two Bit Peak

Unbelievably, we experienced a high temperature of 77 degrees in Phoenix on the first Saturday in May.  Because these temperatures simply do not extend further into the spring here in the Valley of the Sun, I decided to make what might be this season's last hurrah a big one.  After giving it some thought, I turned my attention back to the Phoenix Mountains Preserve and zeroed in on Piestewa Peak.

I approached Piestewa from the 40th Street Trailhead.  I parked my car and inadvertently stepped onto the wrong trail.  Instead of trekking down trail #8, I was merrily strolling along what appeared to be an old jeep road.  The road narrowed to an ordinary foot trail and proceeded straight up a mountain.  Seeing no alternate routes, I kept going, figuring this must be the way to Piestewa.  The trail became steep and steeper still.  As I continued scaling the mountain, I remember thinking this couldn't be the correct path.  Either the map was incorrect or I made a wrong turn at Albuquerque.  When I made it to what I would later learn was Two Bit Peak, I was rewarded with magnificent views in all directions.

Piestewa Peak, as seen from Two Bit Peak

As strenuous as the ascension was to Two Bit Peak, I hadn't been on the trail long and still wanted to summit Piestewa.  I scanned the landscape below and spotted the trail I needed to take in order to reach my destination.  After retracing my steps down the mountain and onto the old jeep road, I kept my eyes peeled and spied a trail connecting with trail #8, which I missed earlier during my approach from the other direction.

Trail #8 hands off to #304, which leads to the 302 and, ultimately, the 300 Piestewa summit trail. From where I was now, Piestewa Peak was 4 trail miles away.  Considering I'd already climbed the 887 feet to Two Bit Peak and back down, there was no doubt this was going to be a laborious hike.

Lonesome Looking Stretch Between Two Bit and Piestewa

It felt like a long haul getting to Piestewa, and I was glad I'd brought more water than I thought necessary, which is never a bad idea when doing any kind of hiking and an especially good idea when hiking in the desert.  The summit trail up Piestewa was busy but not crowded.  The ascension was rigorous and the views spectacular.



Sitting atop Piestewa's Summit

I was exhausted by the time I reached the peak, and I still had one heckuva hike back to the car.  My left knee started causing me some pain on the way down and by the time I reached the 304, I was feeling it in both legs from my hips down.  As lengthy a hike it had seemed getting to Piestewa, the return seemed even longer.  I was also running low on water.

Small hills felt more like mountains on the return trip

Level stretches of trail were a sight for sore eyes (and legs)

I do not believe I was ever so relieved to reach my car as I was on this day.  Out of water and flat-out exhausted, I had hiked 11.5 miles, including two summit peaks representing approximately 2,100 in elevation change.  While I do plan on returning to Two Bit and Piestewa again, I have no plans to summit both on the same day.

This hike would indeed be a last hurrah of sorts, as I abstained from hiking for a period of five weeks as the outdoor mercury climbed.  But on June 13, taking advantage of a day off work and a relatively cool morning, I was back in the saddle, this time navigating the famed trails of Camelback Mountain.  Stay tuned - full trail report to follow soon.

Camelback Mountain, as observed from Two Bit Peak
  



   
     

Sunday, June 12, 2016

North Mountain

Back in April, before the 100-degree weather set up residence for the summer, I visited North Mountain in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve.  Just as I'd done one week earlier for my Shaw Butte hike, I parked at the North Mountain Visitor Center and headed west on Trail 100.  At 0.7 miles the 101 joins with the 100, which leads to Trail 44 and North Mountain.  So this would be my route.  Though a fairly short 4.2 round trip hike, it still proved to be a fairly good workout.

View from North Mountain

Ascending North Mountain from the north was easy enough.  The south side would be a more strenuous hike.  You realize this right away on the descent, which is rather steep and rocky.  I followed Trail 44 down the mountain to its southern terminus inside North Mountain Park.  Here I rested at a pavilion for a few minutes while snacking on a box of raisins and a granola bar.

Southern Terminus of Trail 44

My second climb to the North Mountain peak did, in fact, require significantly more effort than the first.  Not coincidentally, the hiking population on this side of the mountain was nearly non-existent.  Because of this, I made good time.  I was breathing heavy by time I reached the summit, but it was, as they say, all downhill from here.


The South Side of North Mountain

The hike down the north slope to Trail 101 was swift and easy.  I was moving fast when I saw a couple of kids were stopped and looking over to the right.  They had spotted a rattlesnake just off the side of the trail.  It was stretched out with its head facing away from us and motionless. That is, until we got a little too close for its comfort.  It slithered away just a tad before neatly coiling itself and squaring up in a defensive posture to meet us head-on.  Our curiosity was satisfied.  Nice snake.  Bye snake.


Later, Big Guy

After that encounter, the remainder of the hike felt as if I was just playing out the string, much as a 20-game below .500, cellar-dwelling baseball team must feel like come September.  But I added North Mountain to my ever-growing list of places to visit again.  Once the summer heat subsides, or about the same time those players on that last-place team scatter in 40 different directions, I'll be ready to trek back up North Mountain. 



    

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Shaw Butte

The weekend finally rolled around, and I headed over to hike Shaw Butte in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve. There are several points of access for trail #306; I chose the North Mountain Visitor Center on N. 7th Street, just south of Thunderbird Road. From the visitor center, trail #100 (the Charles M. Christiansen Memorial) is the east-west route leading to Shaw Butte. I pointed my feet westward on the dusty trail, and before long found myself standing at the foot of the butte.

Traveling clockwise on the 306 loop from the visitor center, the climb up the side of the butte is steep. I kept my head down as I rose toward the sky, trying not to think about the distance remaining to the top. With my heart redlining and threatening to jump out of my chest, I achieved high ground, taking in the sprawling city stretched out in every direction beneath me while simultaneously taking in massive quantities of air. A breathtaking experience, for sure.

Looking across the way toward North Mountain

Rounding the bend, the trail leads to what remains of the old Cloud 9 restaurant, which burned to the ground in 1964. I had read about this abandoned site but didn't realize I would encounter it on this day. I was glad to have learned about the restaurant in advance; otherwise, I would have likely stayed true to the 306 without veering off to investigate the ruins.

Site of the erstwhile Cloud 9 restaurant

The city expands below the remnants of Cloud 9

Looking back at the former restaurant site


Leaving the concrete and stone remains of Cloud 9 behind, there was only one more section of trail to ascend before it began the slow wind back down the other side. The north side of the butte offers up a clear view of nearby Lookout Mountain and of the McDowell Mountains further off in the distance. I passed quite a few people were ascending Shaw Butte from the north. They were smart. Clearly, they had chose the easier of the two paths to the top, as this section of trail follows an old roadbed once used to shuttle diners to and from Cloud 9.

Lookout Mtn on the left; McDowell Mtns in the distance

Coming down, I came across a gentleman who had spotted a snake coiled up inside a rock opening adjacent to the trail. I never would have noticed this western diamondback rattlesnake hidden in the side of the mountain had it not been for this fellow hiker, who said his eyes constantly scan the landscape in search of snakes. I had read how the owner of Cloud 9 would take a stick to rattlers that slithered too close to his restaurant and fling them back down the side of the mountain, much to the delight and/or horror of his patrons. Fortunately, because this rattler was so content, I didn't need to look for a stick or, more accurately, take off sprinting in the opposite direction.

Western diamondback rattlesnake tucked in the rocks

For the remainder of the hike my eyes, too, were constantly scanning the landscape for snakes. I didn't see any, but I did catch a glimpse of a rabbit rubbing its head in the dirt much in the same way a dog will. I closed out the 306 loop and retraced my steps along the 100 trail back to the visitor center. Surprised at how quickly I completed the hike, I referenced my map at home and discovered this hike was only a shade over five miles in length. But what the Shaw Butte Trail lacks in endurance-related qualities, it makes up for on the aerobic side of the house. Whether for exercise or enjoyment, or both, Shaw Butte is certainly worth exploring.