Arizona Trail Approach, Day 8 (Part III) – Buckskin Gulch to AZT

Wire Pass, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

I make better time than I expect, and encounter the Dragoos from Oklahoma about 1.5 mi from Wire Pass. I’m surprised that I’m that close to the Pass, since I hadn’t expected to make it for several miles. We have breakfast together and hike out, and find another large petroglyph panel at the junction between Wire Pass and Buckskin. After a tight squeeze through the Wire Pass narrows – I had to take my pack off and pass it through separately – and a water fill up and interesting conversation with Pete from Brockton, Massachusetts, they give me a lift over to the AZT.

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Buckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

Buckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentBuckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentBuckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

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Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Buckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentBuckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentBuckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentBuckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentBuckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentBuckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Buckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Buckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Wire Pass, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_4062.jpgWire Pass
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_4063.jpgWire Pass
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentThis image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_4064.jpgWire Pass, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentThis image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_4069.jpgWire Pass, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Wire Pass
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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To Thruhike or Section Hike, That is the Question

When many individuals are first looking at getting into thruhiking, they face one crucial decision after trail selection – to section hike, or thruhike. Each has different advantages and challenges, and may be better suited for one trail than another. Today, we’re going to discuss these. First, we need to define each. For our purposes, … Continue reading To Thruhike or Section Hike, That is the Question

National Park Quest: Tonto National Monument

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 Amazing Arizona Trail – Inspiration Point to Roosevelt Cemetery (Passages 20 & 19, Four Peaks to Superstition Mountains)

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.

Arizona Trail Backpacking Logistics – AZT Gateway Communities: Tonto Basin

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.

Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Four Peaks South (Passage 20)

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 Amazing Arizona Trail – Four Peaks North (Passage 20)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Four Peaks Passage to just south of Pigeon Spring. The terrain is incredibly precipitous – in places the trail seems to occupy the only level ground around. Fire impacts are present throughout as well, a legacy of the 1996 Lone Fire. Magnificent views of Roosevelt Lake, the southern Mazatzal foothills, and the Sierra Ancha across Tonto Basin.

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.

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 47: 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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Just What is the Difference Between National Park Service Designations, Anyway?

Zabriskie Point sunrise, Death Valley National Park

It’s National Park Week! As I head toward the next national park on my account of the Arizona Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument, I wanted to stop and address one thing that is the source of a lot of misconceptions and questions about the National Park System.

Just what is the difference between all those national park designations, anyway?

Sunrise, Joshua Tree National Park, California
Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
General Sherman Tree, Sequoia National Park, California

First, an important observation here. I realize that this is an age where things like nuance and capitalization are treated as irrelevant or unimportant. On this note, such things are often critical, because we are dealing with laws and presidential actions.

Great Fountain Geyser eruption, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

OK, some background. For those who aren’t aware, the National Park System has a variety of designations for its component parks:

National Park
National Monument
National Preserve
National Reserve
National Seashore
National Lakeshore
National River
National River & Reccreation Area
Wild River
Wild and Scenic River
National Scenic River
National Scenic Riverways
Scenic & Recreational River
National Historical Reserve
National Scenic Trail
National Military Park
National Battlefield
National Battlefield Site
National Battlefield Park
National Historical Park
National Historic Site
International Historic Site
National Memorial
National Recreation Area
National Parkways
National Park for the Performing Arts

Fort Point National Historic Site, San Francisco
Linville Falls on the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina
Big Slackwater, Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Whew. That’s quite the list! Just for an added twist, some parks contain multiple designations in one contiguous area. For example, the North Cascades National Park Service Complex includes not only the National Park but also two contiguous National Recreation Areas, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan. More on that to come. Many parks in Alaska and at least one in the lower 48 (Great Sand Dunes) contain both National Parks and Preserves, which each count as two national park units – the Park and the Preserve. There has been discussion about New River Gorge (currently designated a National River) being redesignated as such as well.

Washington Monument, National Mall & Memorial Parks, Washington DC

All of the above designations can be created by an Act of Congress. Congress can name a park anything it wants. It could name a park the National Playground or National Backyard if it wanted. It would be kind of ridicuous, but it could do it.

Now, National Monuments. How about those?

Sipapu Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona
Wildflowers on a rainy day at Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah

Well, the Antiquities Act of 1906 grants the President the authority to create parks from previously owned public lands, and under the law such sites automatically receive the designation of National Monument regardless of their characteristics. Most are smaller sites, focused on a single resource. A great example of this is Jewel Cave National Monument in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It primarily protect the cave beneath the surface; the surface area is relatively limited in size. Other examples include areas like the Statue of Liberty.

But, there are some important caveats here! First, as noted, Congress can name a park anything it wants, and at least one National Monument has been created by an Act of Congress, not a Presidential Proclamation under the Antiquities Act – George Washington’s Birthplace National Monument in Virginia.

George Washington’s Birthplace National Monument, Virginia, on a gray President’s Day

Second, not all National Monuments created by Presidential Proclamation are small – some, despite meeting the legal size requirement to be limited in scope to the “proper care and management of the objects to be protected” are larger than some National Parks, partially due to the scale of the landscape and “objects to be protected,” and partially due to recent decisions by Congress to rename two relatively small sites, Gateway Arch and Indiana Dunes, as National Parks. Organ Pipe Cactus and Chiricahua National Monument are both substantially larger than either. (I think the characteristics of both make them better suited to be National Parks, personally, but Congress has not taken action to make that change.)

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona
Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona

Third, not all National Monuments are managed by the National Park Service. This is important because other land management agencies have different missions, which may be either more multiple use (Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management) or more resource protection (Fish & Wildlife Service) than the Park Service is, which is primarily resource protection with a dose of public recreation and access thrown in to allow the public to experience the protected resources – “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” as the Act creating Yellowstone famously proclaimed. Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, Grand Staircase National Monument, and Gold Butte National Monument are examples of BLM National Monuments. Misty Fjords National Monument in Alaska is an example of a US Forest Service National Monument. Bears Ears National Monument in Utah is joint BLM/USFS; Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument in Arizona is joint BLM and NPS. More on this separately.

Different designations generally reflect the core resource or landscape of the site. National Seashores and Lakeshores largely contain spectacular stretches of coastline; the various battlefield designations (National Battlefield Park, National Battlefield, National Military Park, National Battlefield Site, and, in one or two cases, National Historical Park) protect historic battlefields; National Historical Parks and Sites generally protect historic areas, with the primary difference between those two being the relative size of the park, etc. National Parks generally contain a variety of resources, what the Park Service would term “multiple resources,” typically both natural and cultural, and thus tell a diverse story.

Bodie Island Lighthouse, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina

The key words here, however, are “largely” and “generally.” Why? Because there is, despite public perception and common belief, no actual legal dfference between the different designations; there is no law that defines legal characteristics for each designation. As noted above, Congress can name something anything that it wants. Gateway Arch National Park, for example, protects an almost exclusively cultural landscape. Mesa Verde National Park protects a primarily cultural landscape, albeit in a beautiful setting in southwest Colorado.

Interior dome of Old Courthouse, Gateway Arch National Park

There’s one rough exception. National Preserves and National Reserves are a unique designation that often allow additional resource activities that would be prohibited in the other designations.

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, California

Now that we’ve gone over the designations, what misconceptions might you hear about these?

Well, first and foremost, you might hear some suggest that there is a status difference between them – notably, that National Parks are a higher “status” or an “upgrade.” This manifests in two ways. The first is the belief that there is some kind of hierarchy within the park system. This is what drove the redesignation of parks like Gateway Arch (formerly Jefferson National Expansion Memorial). And I admit, it’s a misconception I fell for myself at one time. However, its not true. The mission of the Park Service is identical regardless of designation. The management is largely identical, and differences are generally due to other parts of founding legislation, not the designation*. Most parks regardless of designation prohibit the gathering of resources within the park, but while Cape Hatteras National Seashore allows the gathering of seashells, Grand Canyon National Park also allows the gathering of pinyon pine nuts. The authorization for parks to allow such activities is written into other parts of the founding legislation, and is unrelated to the designation itself (as evidenced by the fact that both a National Park and National Seashore allow a variation on a similar activity). When parks such as Gateway Arch, Cuyahoga Valley, and Indiana Dunes were redesignated, all that changed was the letterhead and signage (and visitation). For this reason, when names are changed or a park of a different designation is renamed a National Park, “redesignation” is a more appropriate phrase than “upgrade.”

Brandywine Falls, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
Brandywine Falls, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

The second manifestation is that there is a difference in legal protections or legal status between the designations established by Congress and National Monuments. Now, I will observe that it many national parks start as National Monuments and are later further established by Congress, but there is a solid legal argument that since National Monuments are established through a path established by Congress and since the Antiquities Act, their legal status is identical to that of a park established directly through an Act of Congress. Major modifications thus have to be made to the site by Congress once established, just like with all other sites, rather than by the President. There is material in the Congressional Record and further legislation since (the Federal Land Management Policy Act of 1976) to back up Congressional intent on this matter.

It’s also easy when visiting an area like the Black Hills to compare somewhere like the previously mentioned Jewel Cave National Monument to the nearby Wind Cave National Park. And it is true that Wind Cave received its designation due in part to the 30,000+ acres that Wind Cave protects on the surface in addition to the cave beneath. While Wind Cave and its surface of mixed grass prairie and 450 pure bison are unquestioningly magnificent, the two parks should be viewed based on their individual characteristics. Wind Cave didn’t receive its designation because of anything it had that Jewel Cave didn’t, nor vice versa. They each received their designations because of the legal means through which the parks were established, and because of the characteristics of the individual site.

Pronghorn on the border of Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park, South Dakota

You might also hear some people say that “national parks are different from national park units.” Well, yes – but all 419 parks are units of the park system, including all 62 National Parks. Indeed, the better way to distinguish between the two is to use capitalization to indicate the 62 Congressionally-designated National Parks, since it is an official title granted by Congress, whereas the lowercase “national parks” usually refers to all 419. NPS typically reserves the term “unit” for a subsidiary part of one of the 419 parks, such as the “North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.”

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Lastly, as further evidence of the relative insignificance of most designations, there are at least 5 designations for battlefields, as referenced above. As a native of northern Virginia, I’ve been to many of them. The difference between them (other than the obviously smaller National Battlefield Site) is extremely limited, to the point of being practically nonexistent. If designations were truly impactful, this would not be the case. Indeed, I believe that one of the simplest ways to streamline park nomenclature would be to establish one designation for all battlefields. I favor “National Battlefield Park,” which makes both the primary resource and the National Park Service connection clear, but I’m open to other thoughts as well on that matter.

Antietam National Battlefield during the annual luminaries event, Maryland
Rose River Falls, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

I also mentioned North Cascades above. The three parks that make up the North Cascades National Park Service Complex are the product of compromise and politics and show how those processes influence designations and park establishment. When the park was initially proposed, the entirety of the North Cascades complex was within the National Park. But residents of the town of Stehekin were concerned – likely due to some of the misconceptions above, in part – about the implications of living within the border of a National Park. So that area was drawn into Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. In addition, the state of Washington wanted to build a road across the area, but park advocates wanted the park to maintain a wilderness character. So the road corridor became part of Ross Lake National Recreation Area, dividing the National Park itself into the North and South Units and accessed only by hiking trails and one short 6 mile spur road. Many visitors never actually cross into Park itself. Yet, all three parks are managed together as one unit despite their different designations. The different designations are the result of politics, not status or any other reason.

I hope this clarifies park designations somewhat. It’s important to remember that at their core the parks represent, protect, and interpret the shared natural, cultural, and historical story of America, beautiful and ugly. And the name a park receives as part of its role in telling that story is relatively limited in impact relative to the story itself. As Shakespeare famously wrote, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Have you been subject to any of these misconceptions over the years, as I was at one time? What do you think could be done by Congress to clarify such misconceptions and confusion that might result from the various nomenclature that is currently employed?

*with the exception, again, of National Preserves and National Reserves.

Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 1 (AZ/UT Day 8, Part 4)

Northern Terminus of the Arizona Trail

The Dragoos give me a lift from Wire Pass to the Arizona Trail Northern trailhead at Stateline Campground in Coyote Valley. Much appreciated!

The starting point of the Arizona Trail is well marked by several monuments and a large BLM sign. On one of the monuments sits a plaque inscribed with a poem about the trail written by Dale Shewater, the “Father of the Arizona Trail.”

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, “Father of the Arizona Trail”
Northern Terminus of the Arizona Trail
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Judging by everything I’ve heard about the trail and know about the area, it seems an extremely fitting description of the trail and it’s experience. It’s time to put the literature to the test.

We take the obligatory starting point photos, and I head out. I make it about 5 miles onto the start of the AZT, where I encounter some section hikers and camp near Buckskin Mountain. The sunset is spectacular as remnants of a tropical storm coalesce above Coyote Buttes to the west. Unfortunately my phone died coming out of the canyons so I didn’t capture a picture, but I am sure it won’t be my last or only spectacular sunset on the AZT. I get sprinkled on a little overnight but manage to stay dry for the most part. The true long trek to Mexico has at long last begun. The slot canyons were incredible, gorgeous, amazing – pick any superlative you want. But they are done, and the remainder of the Arizona Trail proper now awaits.

Northern Terminus of the Arizona Trail
Coyote Buttes from the trail hiking up Buckskin Mountain from Coyote Valley
Arizona Trail, Passage 43 (Buckskin Mountain)
Coyote Buttes from the trail backpacking up Buckskin Mountain from Coyote Valley
Arizona Trail, Passage 43 (Buckskin Mountain)
Coyote Buttes from the trail hiking up Buckskin Mountain from Coyote Valley
Arizona Trail, Passage 43 (Buckskin Mountain)
PJ (pinyon-juniper) scrubland is the dominant landscape on Buckskin Mountain, a dramatic shift from the alternately bare and green riparian corridor of the slot canyons in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Arizona Trail, Passage 43 (Buckskin Mountain)
Hiking through PJ scrub on the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 43, Buckskin Mountain
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Backpacking through blackbush and PJ scrub on the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 43, Buckskin Mountain
Hiking through blackbush & PJ scrub on the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 43, Buckskin Mountain
Looking back on Coyote Buttes and Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, seen backpacking the Arizona Trail ascending Buckskin Mountain across Coyote Valley.
Arizona Trail, Passage 43 (Buckskin Mountain)
Hiking through blackbush and PJ scrub on the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 43, Buckskin Mountain
A rather macabre sight…
Arizona Trail, Passage 43 (Buckskin Mountain)
As an open grazing area, one must always be careful of livestock when passing through this stretch of the AZT, as well as other stretches on USFS or BLM land.
Arizona Trail, Passage 43 (Buckskin Mountain)

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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.

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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.

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.

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Passage 43 (Buckskin Mountain)
Trail SurfaceDirt
Length (Mi)10.8
SeasonMarch-November. Lower elevations hot in summer with little shade.
Potential Water SourcesSeasonal tank (mi 4.1 SOBO/784.6 NOBO)
Seasonal tank (mi 10.6 SOBO/778.1 NOBO)
TrailheadsNorth: Utah border at Coyote Valley (mi 0 SOBO/788.7 NOBO)
South: Winter Road Trailhead (mi 10.6 SOBO/778.1 NOBO)
Trailhead AccessVehicular access to all trailheads
WildernessNo
Possible resupply pointsNone
DifficultyEasy
Potential campsites (mileages S to N)Best near summit of Buckskin Mountain, after initial climb out of Coyote Valley/just before final descent into Coyote Valley. Developed campsite at Utah state line in Coyote Valley.
ThreatsHeat – wear a cotton shirt so you can soak it. Synthetics aren’t great in the desert.

Hyponatremia – “drunk on water.” To avoid, ensure adequate salt & electrolyte intake and ensure you eat as well as drink water. Symptoms are almost identical to dehydration, but drinking more makes it worse. Prevention is by far the best solution.

Dehydration
Permits Required? No
Cell service?Limited
Ecosystems traversedGreat Basin Conifer Woodland
Sources: Personal experience, Guthook Guides & ATA Guide to the Arizona Trail. Note that due to wildfire, Passage 43 is currently closed to access by the Bureau of Land Management.
Great Basin Conifer Woodland
Common Trees/Shrubs* Big sagebrush
* Fernbush
* Fremont barberry
* Gambel oak
* Hopbush
* Mormon tea
* Rabbitbrush
* Serviceberry
* Stansbury cliffrose
* Junipers
* Piñon pine
Common herbaceous plants* Cutleaf
* Phacelia
* Wild onions
* Buckwheats
* Bladderpods
* Evening primrose
* Penstemons
* Sego-lily
* Grasses such as muttongrass & squirreltail
* Groundsel
* Indian paintbrush
* Locoweed
* Phlox
* Pinque rubberweed
* Sedges, such as clustered field sedge & western sedge
* Wild cabbage (unusual, thick stemmed)
Common succulents* Banana & Bailey’s yucca
* Beehive cactus
* Claret cup hedgehog cacti
* Prickly pear cacti
* Whipple cholla
Passage 23 & 22 Ecology (source: Arizona Trail Association AZT Guide). Only California and Texas are more diverse ecologically than Arizona.
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Backpacking Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness – Buckskin Gulch to the Arizona Trail (AZT Approach Day 8, Part 2)

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Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

I make better time than I expect, and encounter the Dragoos from Oklahoma about 1.5 mi from Wire Pass. I’m surprised that I’m that close to the Pass, since I hadn’t expected to make it for several miles. We have breakfast together and hike out, and find another large petroglyph panel at the junction between Wire Pass and Buckskin. After a tight squeeze through the Wire Pass narrows – I had to take my pack off and pass it through separately – and a water fill up and interesting conversation with Pete from Brockton, Massachusetts, they give me a lift over to the AZT.

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Backpacking Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Hiking Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Backpacking Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Hiking Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Backpacking Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Hiking Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Backpacking Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Hiking Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Backpacking Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_3890.jpg
Hiking Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Backpacking Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Hiking Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Backpacking Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

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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.

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.

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Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Trail SurfaceRustic (the river is the trail)
Length (Mi)45 (Lee’s Ferry to Wire Pass via Buckskin Gulch)
38 (Paria Canyon, Lee’s Ferry to White House)
20 (Wire Pass to White House via Buckskin Gulch)
22, approx. (Buckskin Gulch to White House)
1.8 (Wire Pass to Buckskin Gulch)
SeasonFall-Spring. Brutally hot in summer.
Potential Water SourcesSprings. Unless informed otherwise by a BLM ranger, there is likely no water in Buckskin Gulch and the Paria River should be considered undrinkable even when filtered. Know how to recognize desert springs.
TrailheadsParia Canyon North: White House
Paria Canyon South: Lee’s Ferry
Buckskin Gulch Middle Exit
Buckskin Gulch West
Wire Pass
Trailhead AccessVehicular access to all trailheads
WildernessYes
Possible resupply pointsNone
DifficultyStrenuous
Potential campsites (mileages S to N)Best near springs. Some higher-water campsites in north, south of Buckskin Gulch-Paria Canyon confluence.
ThreatsFlash flooding – Extreme hazard here. Know the forecast daily (an inReach or other satellite communicator helps with this). Know how to recognize the signs of a flash flood and how to react. You cannot outrun a flash flood; you must climb above it. This is not possible in Buckskin Gulch – do not enter it if storms threaten.

Heat – wear a cotton shirt so you can soak it. Synthetics aren’t great in the desert.

Hyponatremia – “drunk on water.” To avoid, ensure adequate salt & electrolyte intake and ensure you eat as well as drink water. Symptoms are almost identical to dehydration, but drinking more makes it worse. Prevention is by far the best solution.

Dehydration

Because there is no trail, there are places where boulders must be climbed around or over and at least one spot where your pack must be hauled over a boulder jab. Flash floods change the trail, shifting obstacles around, removing some and adding others. Expect the unexpected.
Permits Required? Yes. 20 people max per night issued on BLM website.
Miscellaneous Leave No Trace is different in the desert. Know desert principles and carry wag bags. One will be provided with your permit.
Cell service?Nonexistent
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Backpacking Buckskin Gulch, Paría Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness (Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, AZT Approach Day 7)

Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

After several hours spent trying to fill water bags and talking with a friendly BLM ranger, as well as a farewell encounter with Philip and Raj, I begin backpacking up Buckskin Gulch. After dragging my pack over the boulder jam – a much more difficult undertaking than yesterday without the pack – I start upcanyon (see photos). It’s an incredible journey that photos will tell better than words, heading westbound through the canyon and gazing up at the narrow strips of sky, icing light and rare deeper light penetrations. No quicksand, which can form here at this time of year but has not this year with how dry it has been. There are places where you can reach out and touch both sides of the canyon at once. Yet the logs and debris lodged high up in the canyon continue to tell the story of the harsher side of the water that can flow through here, as opposed to the delicate beauty currently evidenced.

Backpacking Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Hiking Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Backpacking Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Hiking Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Backpacking Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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It eventually becomes clear that I won’t make it out to Wire Pass today as hoped, so I let my friend Steve know to cache the water and supplies he’s leaving for me at the start of the AZT on his way back from Page and settle in for the night. Looking for an early start to get onto the AZT itself and start heading toward Jacob Lake tomorrow.

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Hiking Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Backpacking Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Hiking Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Backpacking through Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Hiking through Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Backpacking through Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Hiking through Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Backpacking through Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Hiking through Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Backpacking through Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Hiking through Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Backpacking through Buckskin Gulch, flooding debris obvious here
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Hiking through Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Backpacking through Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Hiking through Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Backpacking through Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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 31 – Anderson Mesa to Double Springs (Passages 30, Anderson Mesa & 29, 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.

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Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Trail SurfaceRustic (the river is the trail)
Length (Mi)45 (Lee’s Ferry to Wire Pass via Buckskin Gulch)
38 (Paria Canyon, Lee’s Ferry to White House)
20 (Wire Pass to White House via Buckskin Gulch)
22, approx. (Buckskin Gulch to White House)
1.8 (Wire Pass to Buckskin Gulch)
SeasonFall-Spring. Brutally hot in summer.
Potential Water SourcesSprings. Unless informed otherwise by a BLM ranger, there is likely no water in Buckskin Gulch and the Paria River should be considered undrinkable even when filtered. Know how to recognize desert springs.
TrailheadsParia Canyon North: White House
Paria Canyon South: Lee’s Ferry
Buckskin Gulch Middle Exit
Buckskin Gulch West
Wire Pass
Trailhead AccessVehicular access to all trailheads
WildernessYes
Possible resupply pointsNone
DifficultyStrenuous
Potential campsites (mileages S to N)Best near springs. Some higher-water campsites in north, south of Buckskin Gulch-Paria Canyon confluence.
ThreatsFlash flooding – Extreme hazard here. Know the forecast daily (an inReach or other satellite communicator helps with this). Know how to recognize the signs of a flash flood and how to react. You cannot outrun a flash flood; you must climb above it. This is not possible in Buckskin Gulch – do not enter it if storms threaten.

Heat – wear a cotton shirt so you can soak it. Synthetics aren’t great in the desert.

Hyponatremia – “drunk on water.” To avoid, ensure adequate salt & electrolyte intake and ensure you eat as well as drink water. Symptoms are almost identical to dehydration, but drinking more makes it worse. Prevention is by far the best solution.

Dehydration

Because there is no trail, there are places where boulders must be climbed around or over and at least one spot where your pack must be hauled over a boulder jab. Flash floods change the trail, shifting obstacles around, removing some and adding others. Expect the unexpected.
Permits Required? Yes. 20 people max per night issued on BLM website.
Miscellaneous Leave No Trace is different in the desert. Know desert principles and carry wag bags. One will be provided with your permit.
Cell service?Nonexistent
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