Arizona Trail, Day 21: Heart of the San Francisco Peaks (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 27)

In the land of Arizona
Through desert heat or snow
Winds a trail for folks to follow
From Utah to Old Mexico

It’s the Arizona Trail
A pathway through the great Southwest
A diverse track through wood and stone
Your spirit it will test

Oh, sure you’ll sweat and blister
You’ll feel the miles every day
You’ll shiver at the loneliness
Your feet and seat will pay

But you’ll see moonlight on the borderlands
You’ll see stars on the Mogollon
You’ll feel the warmth of winter sun
And be thrilled straight through to bone

The aches and pains will fade away
You’ll feel renewed and whole
You’ll never be the same again
With Arizona in your soul

Along the Arizona Trail
A reverence and peace you’ll know
Through deserts, canyons, and mountains
From Utah to Old Mexico

“The Arizona Trail,” Dale R Shewalter

Welcome back to Aspen’s Tracks, thruhiking the Arizona Trail.

Chilly start this morning. Camp is surrounded by dry ferns and aspens on the lower slopes of the mighty San Francisco Peaks. It wasn’t evident last night, but getting up this morning as I pack up and the light filters through the branches that there are quite a few aspens around. These are much more mature and larger than most I saw on the Kaibab Plateau. A bikepacker comes through on the trail, and we talk for a while. Like the one I encountered hiking across Grand Canyon in May, he too carried his bike across the canyon on his back. That never ceases to amaze me. Also like the one from May, he estimates it probably adds about 20 pounds to his weight to disassemble and hike the bike across, which is really quite remarkable to consider.

I pack up and get on the trail. As the trail ascends again to traverse the mountain flank, the ponderosas transition further to aspens and mixed conifer forest again. These seem to be slightly past peak in places, but many are still quite magnificent. The trail passes through mature forest and rice grass meadows as it contours along the lower slopes of the mountains below Humphreys and Agassiz Peaks, the two highest peaks in Arizona. The weather is perfect, and the aspen leaves glow in the high elevation light. I’ll let some of their beauty again speak for themselves here, before continuing on in the next entry.

(The San Francisco Peaks are the highest peaks in Arizona today, including Humphreys at 12633 and Agassiz at 12360 ft. Native peoples such as the Hopi believe them to be the home of the Kachina spirits, supernatural beings that visit the villages in the first half of the year. This makes the Peaks exceptionally sacred to local Hopi and Zuni cultures. The wilderness that surrounds much of the Peaks is named the Kachina Wilderness in recognition of this connection, and to native peoples they are the Kachina Peaks.

Physically, the San Francisco Peaks are a product of a volcanic hotspot under northern Arizona that formed what we know of today as the San Francisco Volcanic Field, a cluster of lava fields, around 600 cinder cones, and lava domes surrounding Flagstaff. The most prominent feature are the Peaks, an extinct stratovolcano complex. San Francisco Mountain erupted around 400,000 years ago in a lateral blast (think Mt St. Helens). The eruption carved a hole in the northeast side of the mountain and is estimated to have lowered the height of the mountain by approximately 6000 ft. At an estimated height around 18000 ft prior to the eruption, had the eruption not taken place it would be the highest peak in the continental United States today. The view from the top reaches into Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico at a minimum. I’m not sure if you can see the southwest corner of Colorado. The most recent eruption in the San Francisco volcanic field was Sunset Crater, now contained within Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and probably one of the most unexpected places for many visitors in the United States where one can walk on and get a hands-on experience with lava. Sunset Crater last erupted around 1085 AD, meaning there is human documentation of the event from native people.)

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Aspens and mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34 (San Francisco Peaks)
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Aspens along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34 (San Francisco Peaks)
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Aspens along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34 (San Francisco Peaks)
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Aspens along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34 (San Francisco Peaks)
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Aspens along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34 (San Francisco Peaks)
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Aspens along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34 (San Francisco Peaks)
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Aspens along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34 (San Francisco Peaks)
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Aspens along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34 (San Francisco Peaks)
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Aspens along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34 (San Francisco Peaks)
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Aspens along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34 (San Francisco Peaks)
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Aspens and mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34 (San Francisco Peaks)
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Aspens and mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34 (San Francisco Peaks)
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Aspens and mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34 (San Francisco Peaks)
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Aspens and mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34 (San Francisco Peaks)
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Aspens and mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34 (San Francisco Peaks)
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Aspens and mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34 (San Francisco Peaks)
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Aspens and mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34 (San Francisco Peaks)
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Aspens and mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34 (San Francisco Peaks)
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The Arizona Trail passing through mixed conifer forest on the slopes of the San Francisco Peaks on Passage 34
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34 (San Francisco Peaks)
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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611 miles to Mexico! Arizona Trail, Passage 34 (San Francisco Peaks)
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks
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Aspens among mixed conifers along the Arizona Trail, Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks

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Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Pine Mountain (Passage 21), FR 422 to Pigeon Spring Trailhead

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 51: Mazatzal Divide (Passage 23), Part II

Disruptive event today, an F-16 that flew over while I was packing. It flew extremely low and around a mountain – possibly North Peak – and made me think very seriously about why that would be allowed over a designated wilderness area. Still, I manage to knock out a few miles to Chilson Spring before dark, with spectacular views of Deadman’s Canyon, the Verde Valley, and the western Mazatzal foothills along the way. The mountains are jagged and rugged and the trail traces steep slopes nearly the whole way across precipitous terrain.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 50, Part II: Mazatzal Divide (Passage 23)

It’s here. The Mazatzal Divide represents the heart of the longest stretch of the Arizona Trail within a designated wilderness area. To that end, a reminder on the meaning of wilderness. Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, wilderness is “an area where man is but a visitor and does not remain.” Consequently, motorized access as … Continue reading Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 50, Part II: Mazatzal Divide (Passage 23)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 50: Red Hills, Part II/II

Second day hiking through the Red Hills toward the Mazatzal Mountains. Earning their name through the red rock colors, the Hills also provide hikers with wildflowers and diverse vegetation, in addition to showing the scars of recent wildfires and spectacular views of the range north toward the Mogollon Rim.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 49: Whiterock Mesa, Part III

Departing Polk Spring, the trail continues to provide magnificent views of the northern Mazatzal Mountains and the neighboring Red Hills as it descends to the East Verde River. The trail will pass through both mountain ranges – first the Red Hills, then the Mazatzals. The origin of the name “Mazatzal” is unclear, though one possible meaning is a Nahuatl term meaning “place of the deer.” The Mazatzal Wilderness, which the trail will remain within now until just shy of Strawberry in the central Mazatzals, is about 390 square miles in size. It was one of the original Wilderness Areas designated upon the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964.

Backpacking the Arizona Trail – FR 194 to Pine Spring (Passage 45, Whiterock Mesa)

I got started around 10, heading down Passage 25 toward the East Verde River.
I hike through a gate and enter the Mazatzal Wilderness. Following cairns, the surface alternates between the basalt and more dirt – like walking through a wash. As the trail skirts the rim briefly, a magnificent view of the Mazatzal Mountains and Red Hills opens up to the hiker, then the trail experiences yet another spectacular sunset as it and the backpacker fall off the Mesa to Polk Spring near the East Verde River.

Pink ribbons spread across the bluish/purple sky at sunset

Fossil Springs Wilderness – FR 708

Take a virtual hike through the Fossil Creek Wilderness! Fossil Creek Wilderness is one of the most spectacular areas in Arizona – so much so that permits are required from April 1-October 1. From the Fossil Creek Bridge trailhead, FR 708 begins to climb the wall of Fossil Canyon. A short distance up, the road is gated. Just on the other side is the trailhead for the Waterfall Trail, one of the most popular spots in the wilderness.

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Fossil Springs Wilderness – Waterfall Trail

Take a virtual hike through the Fossil Creek Wilderness! Fossil Creek Wilderness is one of the most spectacular areas in Arizona – so much so that permits are required from April 1-October 1. From the Fossil Creek Bridge trailhead, FR 708 begins to climb the wall of Fossil Canyon. A short distance up, the road is gated. Just on the other side is the trailhead for the Waterfall Trail, one of the most popular spots in the wilderness.

Fossil Springs Wilderness – Fossil Springs Trail

Take a virtual hike through the Fossil Creek Wilderness! Fossil Creek Wilderness is one of the most spectacular areas in Arizona – so much so that permits are required from April 1-October 1. The Wilderness has 11,550 acres with 30 species of trees and shrubs and over 100 species of birds. Fossil Creek itself is one of two Wild & Scenic Rivers in Arizona as well, designated by Congress in 2009 after the Fossil Springs Dam was decommissioned by Arizona in 2005. Fossil Springs, the source of the creek, release 30 million gallons of water per day, incredibly prolific for its location in Arizona.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail – Pine Ridge to FR 194 (Passage 26, Whiterock Mesa)

I finally get off around 11:30 & run into Matt and a female friend near East Tank. I’m glad for the company and we walk together for a while. The road condition is terrible – lots of loose basalt – and the going is slow. I finally reach the split to Strawberry and encounter them again, and their friend who picked them up flags me down and brings me a beer. Some more trail magic! I think my biggest challenges are becoming the pack weight and the solitude. I head for a short side trip to Fossil Creek.

Backpacking the Arizona Trail – Pine to Pine Ridge (Passage 25, Whiterock Mesa)

The trail first rolls through the pines and passes Pine Creek (dry) and Bradshaw Tank on its way to the top of Hardscrabble Mesa, which provides an excellent overlook of Oak Spring Canyon, the highlight of the passage, before dropping to the bottom. Like on the Highline, foliage still lingers in the warmer Canyon. I also spot some cool geology in what appears to be dikes in some of the rocks.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 41, Part II – Highline Trail (Passage 27, Highline)

Having filled up on water and eaten lunch, the trail ascends from Webber Creek and the Geronimo Trailhead toward Milk Ranch Point, jutting out from the Mogollon Rim. This is a much more consistently wooded & shaded stretch that appears to have been spared by the Dude Fire of 1990 and February Fire (2006). It also seems to be wetter here – there are still touches of green in the ferns as the trail ascends. Gamble oaks, maple and ponderosa dominate the trail through this stretch, and the light filtering through the canopy and the leaves is magical.

Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 40-41 – Highline Trail (Passage 27, Highline)

The trail continues to roll across the eroded foothills of the Mogollon Rim, the impressive and distinctive southern boundary of the Colorado Plateau, where the elevation jumps around 4000 ft in elevation. The Highline continues to define itself as a diverse landscape where the species of the desert below and the pine forests above mingle.

The Mazatzal Mountains – the next major hurdle once I make it to Pine – loom in the distance as well, and ironwood line the more open stretches of path across the Highline, where the Dude Fire burned the forest in 1990.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail – Highline Trail, Part II (Passage 27, Highline)

The Arizona Trail continues west toward Pine, curving around parts of the Mogollon Rim that reach out, and segments that sit farther back, rolling across the eroded foothills beneath the parapets that’s tower overhead. The diverse plants continue to amaze. How often do you find blue spruce growing next to agave cactus!

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail – Clear Creek to Mogollon Rim (Passage 28, Blue Ridge)

The trail crossed Blue Ridge and dipped across the steep valley of East Clear Creek, dry at the crossing. I was told that there may be water in one direction near the crossing but didn’t need it and therefore didn’t check. Climbing out the other side, the northern aspect of the slope is apparent – while ponderosas covered the southern slope opposite, the northern one featured Douglas fir and blue spruce. Obviously the different sides show different microclimates depending on the sun aspect, the temperature and moisture levels on each side given the orientation and angle of the slope. The trail rises back to the ponderosa forests on the Mogollon Plateau and traverses them, the site of my first human sighting in 3 days, then reaches General Springs Canyon. Dipping into General Springs Canyon, silence and quiet take hold. I passed a nice campsite near the end of GSC, but the pools nearby were still frozen at the end of the day, suggesting it would get colder in the canyon overnight (and that solar exposure during the day was limited) than on the Rim, so I continued forward to the rim itself. Lights can be seen in the distance, but I’m not sure which town. Likely Pine or Strawberry. Tomorrow begins the descent off the rim at long last.

Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 38 – Blue Ridge Ranger Station to Mogollon Rim (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 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.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail – Mormon Lake to Shuff Tank (Day 34; Passages 29 & 28, Mormon Lake & Happy Jack)

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.

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?

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