Saturday, July 14, 2018

Monsoon Clouds, Giant Swallowtails, & Camelback

Weather:  93º, humid, cloudy

Time:  33.5 minutes

About this Hike:  Monsoon 2018 is in full force.  Temps area little lower, humidity levels are higher, and clouds are hanging over the Valley.  While the blazing sun was not an issue today, the humidity definitely took it's toll on my time up the mountain.

Initially, I thought weather conditions may spur a rush of hikers at Echo Canyon, filling up the parking lot.  I probably was correct early this morning.  The 'Lot Full' sign was tossed to the side, but precariously close to blocking the entrance.  Upon my mid-morning arrival parking was abundant.  Again, I needlessly burned two-times the Vitamin G by driving the Xterra instead of the Mazda.  (I do this because I'm particular about where I park the Mazda; I'm more lenient with the old Xterra.)

It was an enjoyable hike on crowd-free trails.  Views from the top were beautiful in the gray light, and the air around the Valley seems cleaner now that this rain-less spell is behind us.  Large black butterflies (Giant Swallowtails?) swarmed the summit as they often do once monsoon moisture gets in the air. 

All in all, a fantastic day for a hike on the camel's back.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Chevelon Canyon Lake - One Check Off the Bucket List

Weather:  75º, very sunny, breezy

About this Hike:  I seldom blog about my kayaking adventures, this in spite of the fact that I consider kayaking to be hiking over water.

A year or so ago I found a place on the map called Chevelon Canyon Lake.  High on the Mogollon Rim, this man-made inpound of Chevelon Creek beckoned to me.  In June 2016 I kayaked Willow Springs Lake, which happens to be another reservoir on Chevelon Creek.  Willow Springs sits next to AZ-260 and is much more accessible.  Chevelon Canyon, on the other hand, requires about 18 miles over dirt roads.  Warnings everywhere advise it's 'the most remote of the Rim Lakes.'

The drive sounded daunting and was a big part of what kept me from Chevelon Canyon.  I couldn't find good answers regarding the series of dirt roads that lead up to the lake.  Arizona Highways described the final stretch as 'deeply rutted,' in an undated article.  The internet does not abound with information either.  People I spoke to told me everything from, "I did it in a sedan!" to, "High clearance, 4WD recommended."

I even called the Black Mesa Ranger District where a ranger described the road as 'improved gravel.'  With dry conditions this year, I figured erosion on the road would be low.  I decided to give it a try in my RWD Xterra.

Undeniably, I was nervous as FR-300 (Rim Road) gave way to dirt just after Woods Canyon Lake.  FR-300 is a wide, well-maintained dirt road.  Other than some washboarding, which was worse on the inbound side, this is a fine dirt road.  Next is a right turn onto FR-169, where the bulk of the drive takes place.  FR-169 is everything a dirt/gravel road should be.  Seldom washboardy, no ruts, well maintained.  All of these roads are well signed, too.

Another right onto FR-169B encompasses the last two miles of the journey.  FR-169B is said to be the worst section of this drive.  Narrower and strewn with small rocks, FR-169B is a little rough in places.  There are a couple hills that are rutted and tricky, but not bad by any means.  At no point was I nervous about a tip over.  I should also mention that there are no steep drops off the side of any of these roads.

Finally, the Chevelon Canyon Lake Campground came into view.  I nabbed a fantastic campsite (it's first come, first served) in a corner area.  My Xterra was shaded by a big juniper.  My site at this primitive campground was complete with picnic table and a taped-off fire ring.  (We're lucky Chevelon Canyon is even open right now; much of Apache-Sitegraves Forest is closed.)  I should also mention that while this is considered a remote area, my Verizon cell phone seldom had fewer than two bars...

Getting to the lake from the campground takes another 3/4 mile hike down into the canyon.  Remember that what goes down must come up, even after a long day of paddling on the lake.  This is along an old, unmaintained road that is gated at the campground.  ATVs can drive this section of the road.  My guess would be this road was last used when the large concrete spillway that protects the earthen dam was poured.

I carried my kayak down the entire way.  It was tough work, but the views on this remote, beautiful lake were worth it.  A kind gentleman on a quad offered to haul it up for me at the end of the day.

Finally, I shot some video of the drive out of the campground along FR-169B.  Use this to make your own assessment, but remember, monsoon rains, snow, etc. can quickly change a dirt road.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Hot Camelback

Weather:  95º, very sunny

Time:  32 minutes

About this Hike:  According to my records the last time I visited Camelback Echo Canyon was Presidents Day.  As in, back in February. 

My phone record 34 minutes and 44 seconds today.  I am giving myself a handicap on the time due to a number of necessary quick hydration stops.

Admittedly my in-city mountain hikes of choice (Piestewa and Camelback) haven't been my highest Saturday priority anymore.  I have a little bit of PTSD from the nearly shattered knee at Piestewa May 6, 2016.  But I walked away from that fall relatively OK. 

Much as I love a good hike, the thought of falling, getting injured, and not hiking again haunts me.  Even after I meet my crappy insurance's high deductible, would an injury bankrupt me?  These thoughts race through my mind and suddenly a hike doesn't sound so appealing anymore.  Yeah, I've dealt with these feelings a lot lately.

But today I had a great opportunity to visit Camelback.  Summertime heat drives away the crowds by mid-morning.  I had it in my head that with The Valley's ever-growing population it was going to be crowded today.  I drove my old gas-guzzling Xterra up there, ready to snatch any available parking space (I'm very particular where my Mazda gets parked).  Good parking spots were abundant, and had I driven the Mazda I would've used about the half the gas.  Oh's only five miles each way. 

So about this hike....Distance makes the heart grow fonder, and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Echo Canyon again.  Honestly, the heat is a small price to pay for easy parking, less crowded trails, and a certain degree of solitude.  There was one regular hiker in front of me who said it was his sixth time up the mountain today.  I consider myself to be in decent shape, but after one summit and down at Camelback I feel like I accomplished a work and a half for the day.  This older dude put me to shame. 

Humming birds were abundant, and I nearly used a chuckwalla's crevice as a handhold.  Thankfully I saw him in time, or he might not have been too happy with me.  That was all the wildlife I saw today. 

Despite some haze over the East Valley and McDowell Mountains to the north, the rest of the Central Phoenix was pretty clear today.

All in all an enjoyable, hot summertime hike. 

Friday, June 8, 2018

Cathedral Rock & Little Falls – Mt. Charleston Nevada

Weather:  77º, sunny

About this Hike:  After spending the night at Mt. Charleston Resort, it was time for another day of exploring the abundance of trails in the area.  Cathedral Rock (not to be confused with the Sedona landmark I’ve hiked multiple times) is a striking granite escarpment in the Spring Mountains near Charleston Peak.

We parked at a large, paved lot and picked up the well-signed trail from there.  Before reaching Cathedral Rock a side excursion to Little Falls proved to be another waterfall bonus.  These falls were flowing at a trickle with ice-cold water from above.  Climbing up to one of the falls revealed a hand/foot hold with a perfect fossil shell entombed in the granite.

Getting higher toward Cathedral Rock the trail splits off.  A signpost indicates the junction, but the actual sign is missing.  At this point rooftops of the town below dot the landscape.  Cell reception is strong, and these trails are plotted on Google Maps.  We chose the left fork which led to some awesome views of the town.  Eventually it dead-ended and Google Maps said we were at Little Falls, which made no sense as we had visited the falls a ways back while we were still climbing.  There is a deep, narrow canyon wash below and a large sewer cap at the end of this trail.

We doubled back to the junction and went right.  A little more hill climbing and we were atop Cathedral Rock.  Majestic views of the surrounding Spring Mountains and the town below greeted us. 

While time only permitted two good hikes in Mt. Charleston, we plan to head back. There are so many more trails to explore in this desert oasis.

Cathedral Rock

Shell fossil

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Mary Jane Falls – Mt. Charleston Nevada

Weather:  76º, sunny

About this Hike:  Far as I know, this trail’s name has nothing to do with Nevada’s recent legalization of recreational cannabis.  Regardless, it’s amazing this sanctuary exists in the hills just northwest of Las Vegas.  An easy, and relatively short, drive from casinos and parched desert leads you into old-growth forest with towering evergreens and majestic granite cliffs.

Hiking trails abound up here, with well-signed and groomed trailheads branching from all over the main highway.

While Arizona has been in unprecedented drought since the conclusion of 2017’s lackluster monsoon, Nevada has enjoyed considerably more rain.  And of course, the sky island of Mt. Charleston gets considerably more rain than the Vegas valley below.

A steep hike over graded switchback trails eventually gives way to Mary Jane Falls.  Speaking of all the rain, these falls were flowing which was a nice bonus.  The flow wasn’t incredible, but I’d say it was above a trickle.  Likely fed by fast-melting snowfields in the highest reaches near Charleston Peak, I’m not sure how much longer till these falls go dry.  The water was clean and cold, and it fed a rich carpet of wildflowers and grasses in the wash below.

During this out-and-back hike we also enjoyed many old growth trees including Rocky Mountain douglas fir and aspen. There wasn’t much wildlife to speak of, but this is a fairly busy trail.  I can just imagine the crowds beating Vegas heat up here on a summer weekend.

Aspen and pine forest

Flowing falls

Saturday, May 26, 2018

West Spruce Trail 264 - Prescott National Forest

Weather:  73º, dry, sunny, windy

About this Hike:  This is not to be confused with Spruce Mountain near the Groom Creek area of Prescott.  Spruce Mountain Lookout was the first hike I ever did in Prescott National Forest.  But trail 264 is actually two separate trails.  One branches off near town from Thumbe Butte Rd. and the other begins on Doce Mine Rd. just off of Iron Springs Rd. 

We opted for the latter trailhead.  Doce Mine Rd. isn't hard to find—and if you keep your eyes open for it—a sunburned sign indicates Trail 264 turnoff is ahead while you're still on Iron Springs Rd.  You can try these GPS coordinates for the trailhead (I take no responsibility but these coordinates worked for me:  34°34'12.4"N 112°37'22.4"W).  Also note that Google Maps incorrectly spells it 'Dosie.'

The road to the trailhead is bumpy but in OK condition.  My Xterra handled it well.  A Subaru Crosstrek was also eating up this road.  From the turnoff, it's 2.7 miles down Doce to the parking area.  There's a large campfire ring and turnoff on the right, and this is where I'd suggest parking.  I chose to park a little further up on an area of fine black, lava-like rock. 

Trail #264 starts toward the south and is noted by a brown sign.  The trail goes through transitional areas of high-desert scrub, gamble oak, and some pine.  These pines were mistaken for spruce—hence the trail's namesake. 

Shortly into the trail, you'll come to a dry creekbed.  Lined with grey-blue rocks, and towering cottonwoods, this is a great spot to stop and enjoy the scenery.  Look carefully upstream for a granite formation with a perfect cross in it. 

As you leave the creekbed watch for a few cairns, as the trail can be hard to follow.  From here it's a steady ascent into the Sierra Prieta mountains.  I would suggest pants, as there is some bushwhacking, although mercifully it's not long until you're on well-blazed trail again. 

My hope for this hike was to be among ponderosa forest.  As the summit comes into view, deep green veins in the rock indicate pines ahead.  Trail 264 merges with a well-signed old Jeep road.  Follow the road into the forest.  Beyond this, I'm not certain how much further the trail goes.  We were reaching out mandated turnaround time.  We walked through the forest for a bit, and it eventually gave way to clearing again.  Admittedly, this hike seemed a bit disappointing.

However, as we descended along 264, the late-afternoon light brought out more granite formations and old pine trees.  Skull Valley was in clear view.  The bushwhacking didn't seem as bad.  Somehow I managed to find more zen and enjoyment on the downslope side of this trail.  But the workout climbing up was worth it too.  Someday I might go back and try the other end of 264 and see if it puts me into more ponderosa forest.

As an epilogue to this post:  If you want to hydrate and add in some calories, I might  suggest checking out Barnstar Brewing in this area.  Beer tasting at this cool, family-run brewery might have been the highlight of my day.

Ponderosa forest ahead!

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Browns Peak & Four Peaks

Weather:  82º, dry, sunny, windy

About this Hike:  Since joining Arizona Hiker's Facebook group I've seen more pictures of hiking to Brown's Peak in the iconic Four Peaks.  This hike is accessed via the Lone Pine Trailhead which is over miles of dirty, dusty Forest Service road.

My research indicated that above 7,000 feet Four Peaks turns into a sky island with cooler temps, pine trees, and phenomenal views of Roosevelt Lake just on the other side of the Matazal range.  I was sold.

A few years back a co-worker offered to let me borrow his Xterra so I could hike in Four Peaks Wilderness.  While I was humbled at his generous offer, I'm not one to take on such liability.  Fast forward to 2018 and I have an Xterra of my own...

Research indicated that Forest Road 143 to Lone Pine Trailhead may be a challenge for the Xterra, but my gut instinct said it wouldn't be too bad.  Let me preface by saying the Xterra survived unscathed.  FR 143 has it nerve racking moments.  The worst comes when you're about 3 miles from Lone Pine Trailhead the road turns very rocky.  Coming down from elevation is no picnic either, as there are no guard rails to protect from some steep drops.  Other than that, slow and steady is the key to navigating this packed, but sometimes rutted, dirt road safely.

Being the over-cautious driver that I am, I frequently pulled aside to let Jeeps, ATVs, and the like pass by.  Most obliged and passed with a wave (all five fingers extended).  People generally are friendly in nature I find....

An intense journey of two hours carried us 18 miles to the Lone Pine Trailhead.  For an additional 40 miles, you can bypass Four Peaks Road, continue north on AZ-87, and then head south on AZ-188 to El Oso Road.  El Oso is unpaved, but reports say it's in much better condition and is only 11 miles to the trailhead.  The fuchsia Mitsubishi Mirage parked at the trailhead was likely testament to this.  I venture to say that even with 40 extra miles on the odo, you'd probably do this trek in similar, or even better, time.

The hike along Lone Pine took us through high-desert scrub including manzanita, gamble oak, and ponderosa pine.  The vistas overlooking Roosevelt Lake were all that they promised to be.  We did see some interesting wildlife including a scrawny doe mule deer.  Not only was she not bothered by our presence, but she was stripping the foliage like there's no tomorrow—which may have been the case as she looked sickly.

Scree Chute on the left
When you approach the final stretch to the summit of Browns Peak the trail turns very steep and very rocky.  The final incline is infamously called 'the scree chute.'  An acute fear of heights has plauged me since I was a child.  The wind at this elevation was relentless.  These factors combined, I made the difficult—but necessary—call that I would not be going up the scree chute. 

From the photos I've seen, I didn't miss much by not officially touching the top of Browns Peak.  The vistas from near the top are already breathtaking.  Canyon, Apache, and Saguaro lakes come into view.  Superstition Mountain seems but a short jump away from atop Four Peaks.  And while the air quality was thick as soup yesterday, Camelback Mountain way down in The Valley could be seen poking through the mire.

Additionally, the Four Peaks appear to have little surface on their summit.  That would've done wonders for my fear of heights.  And that's another interesting point—as impressive as Four Peaks are from The Valley floor, up close they're surprisingly small.

I'm glad to check Browns Peak off my bucket list.  I'm not sure I'm in a rush to return to Four Peaks.  The drive is long and tiresome for relatively little hiking that you get to do.  If one day I do return it may very well be via El Oso Road.  I would like to explore the Amethyst Mine / Mother Lode trail one day.

Look close. From near the top of Browns you can see the lower Salt River lakes
One of many Roosevelt Lake vistas
Epilogue:  On the drive down we encountered the biggest diamondback I've ever seen.  He/she was sunning in the middle of the road.  I hate snakes, but resisted my urge to use said diamondback as a speed bump and in fact was glad to observe this creature from the safety of my vehicle.