Arizona Trail Approach Day 5: Paría Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness (Vermilion Cliffs National Monument)

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Big Springs
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

Dawn finds me encamped at Big Springs. I get another slow start than I’d like, this time due to weather. Expecting potential rain and knowing about remnants of Tropical Storm Lorena in area, and in relatively safe spot with gear prepped for rain, I opt to wait. Flash floods are the top weather-related killer in the country, and people die every year in the Southwest due to them, where the terrain is particularly friendly to such events. The ground can’t absorb the intense rainfall that comes with monsoons and tropical storm remnants here, so the vast majority runs off. In narrow canyons, inches of water become feet, which quickly become less like a wall of water and more like a churning mudslide carrying boulders and trees. Flash floods in the Southwest can’t be outrun; the best way to deal with them is to avoid them to begin with and to always be aware of an exit route. They can strike even when the weather is good at your location if drainages upstream are experiencing precipitation.

In this case, though, none comes.

Sacred datura blooming
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

So with a sunny blue sky I pack up and head out to cut off some miles to Wire Pass or White House (where a contact has been pressuring me to go). So far, seems like a sound choice.

The Parìa follows a narrow winding course westward through narrow canyons.

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Big Springs
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

Around 1 PM, clouds start moving in and humidity builds, but still no sign of rain. The trail passes gorgeous red rocks and geological features like some of the most obvious fault lines that I’ve ever seen.

I make it about 5 miles up canyon and camp near the confluence of Buckskin Gulch and Paria at a high water site just in case anything comes down. Across the river I meet Raj and Philip and we talk under the stars for several hours. Raj loans me a power bank, as my batteries are starting to run low in the shady canyons with highly limited solar charging. No rain or water comes tonight either, and we head to bed.

The light today wasn’t great for photos in the afternoon, so I kind of had to make the best of it.

In places, the artistic flow of the River has carved out some incredible forms in the Kayenta Formation around it.
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Springs are not uncommon…if you know where to look and what to look for.
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
The gently (for now) flowing Paria carves out graceful arches in the Kayenta wall above it.
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Arizona Trail, Day 36 – Passage 29 (Happy Jack)

The low last night was projected to be 12º, the coldest night yet on the trail, and I would say that may well have been accurate. Fortunately I came prepared for such conditions. Today I will be one of the first to walk the full new Happy Jack passage routing south of Shuff Tank.

Arizona Trail, Day 35 – Passage 29 (Happy Jack)

It is brutally cold this morning, making it hard to even move much before 11. I believe it was around 20 at 9:00. Packing is a slow process in these temperatures. But, I pick up a few things that might make future packings faster in these temperatures, like doing most of it inside the tent at first and having a solid plan in advance to minimize time spent debating with oneself in the cold. Once packed, I head east along the forest road until coming to a trail crossing. There is a problem; the trail crosses on both sides. Clearly I missed a turnoff in the twilight yesterday evening. In both my purist nature and out of curiosity to see just where I made a wrong turn, I take the trail to the right, and it winds through the ponderosas back to Shuff Tank. It is clearly new, so this must be part of the new reroute, which has gone around the road stretch that I walked to get to the junction earlier. Instead of following the road on the north side of the tank, the trail now follows a singletrack around the west and south sides of the tank, then crosses the road on the east.

Arizona Trail, Day 34 – Passage 30 (Mormon Lake), Day 3

It’s brutally cold this morning, notably because of the strong wind that whips across the clearing to the west. Not setting up the tent last night was a mistake. I ultimately fill up for the last time at Navajo Spring and run into a few dayhikers who have completed over 300 miles of the trail themselves. Two of them are the Grouper and the Oracle. I continue south, aiming for Gooseberry Springs TH and Passage 29, Happy Jack.

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Arizona Trail, Day 40 – Passage 28 (Blue Ridge)

Managed to push through the entire Blue Ridge Passage today, one of my best days on the trail. I left the Blue Ridge Ranger Station this morning and headed south for the Rim. Saw a herd of elk near the Blue Ridge Campground and Elk Tank while climbing Blue Ridge itself. The trail also passed through an active prescribed burn, though it was low intensity so probably not considered a public hazard at this point. I’m familiar with them anyway, having worked as a PIO (public informations officer) on one over the summer at Grand Canyon. The trail crossed Blue Ridge and dipped across the steep valley of East Clear Creek, dry at the crossing.

Arizona Trail, Day 33 – Mormon Lake Zero

It’s cold and raw after the rain the night before. I walk about 3 miles up the road to Double Springs and then use the AZT to get back to my prior campsite to grab the sleeping pad, then retrace my steps again. Did it hail up here?

Arizona Trail, Day 32 – Double Springs to Mormon Lake (Passage 30, Mormon Lake)

Heading south the trail passes an overlook of the ridges and of Mormon Lake itself, Arizona’s largest natural lake. It’s low (it often dries up under drought conditions to become Mormon Meadow) but the spring was wet enough that it hasn’t disappeared. It’s so windy that I’m almost blown off the overlook and my glasses ARE blown off (thankfully I catch them before they fall).

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Arizona Trail, Day 31 – Anderson Mesa to Double Springs (Passages 30, Mormon Lake)

There is a lot of cool railroad history west of Lake Mary Road, the trail follows an old logging railroad grade for much of the route and in places the ties are still visible. Very cool. The forest turns into a dense mixed conifer and I have a chance encounter with a mountain biker named Chris who recently moved here from Idaho. We talk about the trail ahead and some I’m looking at doing in Idaho.

Coronavirus and National Parks: All COVID-19 Impacts and Park Reopenings

Another period of big updates across the National Park System.

Here we will look at the status of all 500+ national parks and affiliates, see which have changed status or will soon, and look at the details of what is or is not currently available at each park.

Disclaimer: please observe all CDC recommendations for the safety of staff and visitors alike. They are there to help and serve you, please do them the courtesy of helping keep them safe.

Arizona Trail, Day 30 – Anderson Mesa (Passages 31 and 30, Walnut Canyon and Mormon Lake)

The trail reaches Lowell Observatory’s Navy Precision Optical Interferometer (NPOI). The NPOI measures precise relative positions of stars in the sky for the Naval Observatory to use as reference when determining geographic positions of locations on both Earth and in space, as well as for use in timekeeping. Over four football fields long, it uses a six-mirror array directing multiple light beams from a star to a single point, enhancing image detail and separating stars that are so close that even the largest conventional telescopes cannot separate them visually. Near the NPOI is an excellent view of Upper Lake Mary in the valley of Walnut Creek below, after which the trail continues across Anderson Mesa.

After reaching Horse Lake, I make camp for the night. The sky is black as coal and the night is filled with coyotes howling.

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Arizona Trail Thruhike, Day 26: Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Part 2 (Arizona/Utah Day 33)

The ponderosas are dense throughout, and their reddish bark glows in the light that filters through the green needles. The gambel oaks continue to impress along the route as well, adding splashes of yellow, red, and orange to the green ponderosa woodlands. The trail crosses two spur trails leading to overlooks with more magnificent views of the canyon.

Arizona Trail, Day 26: Passage 31 – Walnut Canyon (Arizona/Utah Day 33)

The trail crosses FR 303, Old Walnut Canyon Road, and heads west toward Flagstaff. Rolling in and out of drainages, It traces the rim of Walnut Canyon in places, and veers away into the woods in others. Heading west, the forest transitions back to the ponderosas, rolling up and down through drainages. The ponderosas are dense throughout, and their reddish bark glows in the light that filters through the green needles. The gambel oaks continue to impress along the route as well, adding splashes of yellow, red, and orange to the green ponderosa woodlands. The trail crosses two spur trails leading to overlooks with more magnificent views of the canyon. Both well worth the minor extra mileage and time.

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Arizona Trail: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Part 4

Wrapping up at Walnut Canyon National Monument. After wrapping up the fantastic Island Trail, the Rim Trail yields some great sites as well, including an unexcavated site and several pueblos. The views of the canyon itself are pretty amazing too.

Arizona Trail, Day 26: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Part 3

This morning starts with a stop at my last national park in northern Arizona, Walnut Canyon National Monument. Walnut Canyon National Monument protects over 80 cliff dwellings of the Northern Sinagua people. Named for the historic Spanish name for the general region, Sierra de Sin Agua, or “mountains without water,” the Sinagua people built the dwellings between 1125 and 1250 CE. The dwellings are, as the name suggests, located in Walnut Canyon, a 20 mile long, 400 ft deep and quarter mile wide canyon carved by Walnut Creek in the Mogollon Plateau southeast of Flagstaff.

Arizona Trail, Day 26: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Part 2

Walnut Canyon National Monument, one of 420 national parks in the National Park System, protects over 80 cliff dwellings of the Northern Sinagua people. Named for the historic Spanish name for the general region, Sierra de Sin Agua, or “mountains without water,” the Sinagua people built the dwellings between 1125 and 1250 CE. The dwellings are, as the name suggests, located in Walnut Canyon, a 20 mile long, 400 ft deep and quarter mile wide canyon carved by Walnut Creek in the Mogollon Plateau southeast of Flagstaff.

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Arizona Trail, Day 26: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Part I

Walnut Canyon National Monument protects over 80 cliff dwellings of the Northern Sinagua people. Named for the historic Spanish name for the general region, Sierra de Sin Agua, or “mountains without water,” the Sinagua people built the dwellings between 1125 and 1250 CE. The dwellings are, as the name suggests, located in Walnut Canyon, a 20 mile long, 400 ft deep and quarter mile wide canyon carved by Walnut Creek in the Mogollon Plateau southeast of Flagstaff.

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Arizona Trail, Day 24: Elden Mountain, Part 3 (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 31)

Welcome back to Aspen’s Tracks, thruhiking the Arizona Trail from Utah to Mexico. I want to note that this hike was completed before the coronavirus pandemic arrived, but it has left me with quite a bit of time in quarantine to write up my experiences on the trail. Exiting the shadow of Elden Mountain, I … Continue reading Arizona Trail, Day 24: Elden Mountain, Part 3 (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 31)

Arizona Trail, Day 24: Elden Mountain, Part 2 (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 31)

The Arizona Trail wraps past golden oaks and aspens through Schultz Pass and innumerable drainages, then opens out to areas potentially impacted by the 1977 Radio Fire. Hiking on, the trail skirts Little Elden Mountain. Views of Elden Mountain open up, and I hike across 89 through a tunnel, entering the Painted Canyon Preserve. Sunset clouds glow in the sky as I hike south.

Arizona Trail, Day 24: Elden Mountain (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 30)

The Arizona Trail wraps past golden oaks and aspens through Schultz Pass and innumerable drainages, then opens out to areas potentially impacted by the 1977 Radio Fire. Views of Elden Mountain open up, and I hike across US-89 through a tunnel, entering the Painted Canyon Preserve. Sunset clouds glow in the sky as I continue hiking south.

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Arizona Trail, Day 23: Flagstaff Zero (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 30)

Today is going to be a busy off day. I start it with a stop at Macy’s European Coffeehouse, an awesome breakfast place in downtown Flagstaff. They make particularly great waffles, but given the hiker hunger that all thruhikers suffer from, I add a smoothie and a breakfast sandwich for good measure today. I always make a point to stop here when I’m in Flag.

Arizona Trail, Day 22: Flagstaff, Part 3 (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 28)

The trail crosses to the flanks of Elden Mountain and continues to drop down toward Flagstaff. It crosses the Coconino National Forest border onto McMillan Mesa and into Buffalo Park, managed by Flagstaff. A wide rice grass meadow composes much of the park, crisscrossed with wide paths providing magnificent views of the San Francisco Peaks. Just magnificent, especially seen now in the late afternoon.

Arizona Trail, Day 22: Flagstaff, Part 2 (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 28)

The gambel oaks are glorious with the light passing through the leaves, and the views of Elden Mountain – the other side of which was “apocalyptically burned” in the 1970s Radio Fire, according to my AZT guidebook – are spectacular. Mule deer graze among the rice grass and trees. The gambel oaks continue to look incredible. It’s amazing how as I progress south I seem to be seeing the progression of the foliage across different tree species as well as within the species. Makes for an ever changing and spectacular color display.

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