Monday, March 30, 2015

What to expect on the Arizona Trail

The Arizona Trail was not what I’d expected.  As a relatively new national scenic trail, there are fewer articles and trail journals about it.  I had quite a few misconceptions about Arizona and what the trail would be like before I started.
This is Arizona Trail I expected.
I was delighted to find that the Arizona Trail is also like this!
And it was also like this!
Here are several of the ways that the Arizona Trail surprised me on my 300 mile section hike on the southernmost part of the trail (Passages 1-17).  I hope this helps give those of you who are thinking of hiking this trail a better sense of what to expect:

Diversity of the Sky Islands

Nothing could have prepared me for the diversity of the sky islands.  Traveling between the mountain “islands” and then dropping down into the sea of lower elevation desert provided incredible contrasts.  We passed through many ecological zones and temperatures even within a single day.  The desert wasn’t what you’d think either- there were washes and the green oasis around streams and rivers.  Totally varied and interesting!
Oasis of green at Cienega Creek.
Climbing up and down the Sky Islands was an unforgettable hiking experience.   I’m not gonna lie trudging through the lower elevations was tough, energy-sapping, and sometimes totally miserable.
Is this really a national scenic trail?
But the expansiveness had a stark beauty that we grew to love.  And experiencing these low points really made me appreciate it when we got to the shade of washes, and made my heart leap for joy when we climbed up into the trees.  Having these contrasts gave a unique perspective to appreciation constant change.
Seeing the beauty of cactus and scrub at lower elevations.
Magnificent high elevation forests in Saguaro National Park.
Spines everywhere

All along the trail, cactus spines and spiny bushes would embed in flesh and clothes.  The trail is overgrown in places so we contended with vicious plants that scratched us up.  Abrasion-resistant clothing and long sleeves and pants, and gaiters, provided some protection but we still got stuck.
Battling overgrown trail. Photo by Jan.
Be careful of the spines.  They will attack sooner or later.
The Arizona Trail is not the AT or PCT

The Arizona Trail provided a different experience compared to my section hikes of other long trails like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail.  It felt more wild and was definitely less crowded.  Navigation and water were more difficult, there were fewer planning resources, and not the network of trail angels/trail magic.  All of this, for me, provided a more desirable experience—I loved the challenge and character of this trail.  The fact that fewer people have hiked it and that it's not all trampled to death made if feel quite precious. 

Because there are fewer long-distance hikers, we didn’t see other hikers in towns or camp with other hikers.  It would have been difficult to find new hiking partners on the trail, which was something that is easy on the AT and PCT.  If you are looking for a social experience, this would not be the trail for you.

Section hiking the Arizona Trail rocks

A wonderful thing about the Arizona Trail is that it is a section hikers’ paradise.  The planning resources are designed to encourage section hiking, with lots of information about how to get to the trailheads, best times of year to hike each section, and mileages are given section by section.  We found section hiking to be a wonderful way to experience this diverse trail.

Water sources are highly variable

Water sources along the Arizona Trail varied in reliability, palatability, and difficulty.  Sources included natural springs, seeps, streams, and rivers, or man-made tanks, faucets, or troughs.  I’ve never seen such diversity in water color and aroma, or seen so much water with algae and cowpies, and floating dead things.  You will drink water that you’d previously never consider letting touch your skin.  You will learn to appreciate water in a deep way.
Excited about water.
We're suppose to drink that?
Border issues weren't an issue for us

I was apprehensive about border problems, but we did not see any illegals or drug runners.  Border patrol was highly visible presence south of I-10, and especially south of Patagonia.  On the trail we stayed visible, didn’t hike in the dark, and hiked together as a group of three.  I spent a lot of time feeling apprehensive and scared.  The northbound hikers, including several solo women, hadn't any problems either, but some of them felt scared too.  I still don't know what to think about how safe it was for us to hike there, but I was relieved we didn't have trouble.

It’s way more beautiful that you can imagine

The stereotype for Arizona is cactus and sand.  But the real Arizona is wildly diverse and the variety of plants, trees, insects, birds, animals and rocks is astounding.  We saw hillsides carpeted in wildflowers, walked through towering pine forest, and found deep swimming holes in huge canyons.  You will be amazed by the ever-changing beauty of the Arizona Trail.
Hillsides of wildflowers.
Another colorful Arizona Trail sunrise.
I hope this gives you a better idea of what to expect on the Arizona Trail.  It’s a wonderful trail that seems to be gaining more popularity, and rightly so.  It will provide you with an unforgettable experience if you rise to meet the challenges it presents.
For more information

The Arizona Trail Association's website has planning info and everything you need to get started.

Jan "Beekeeper" also has photos, videos, and more about our trip here.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

AZT Day 24-To Mexico!

Miles 11.9 (Crest Trail) to 0 (the Mexico border)
Arizona Trail Passage 1

Our campsite last night could not have been better--what a way to start our final day for our 300 mile section hike of the Arizona Trail!  Wind gusts howled up the mountains and swirled over treetops, but down in our little spot, I was snug and untouched by the breeze. I lingered in my hammock eating my cold granola trying to savor the moment and tuck it into my memory.  The warmth of my quilts in the cold air, the pine smells, the deep satisfaction in being in the mountains and having everything you need in your pack.
Farwalker tells us the names all the peaks around us.
The location of our campsite also set us up perfectly for a gorgeous sunrise at a saddle with views in both directions.  SO happy Farwalker selected our spot.  If I had been hiking this solo, I would have never camped up here and would have just cruised on past this whole passage in one day.  But because we are doing fewer miles, I got to spend more time here and it is just so worthwhile not to have rushed this gorgeous sky island--certainly a major highlight of this trip and one of my favorite places.
Happiness is...  THIS!
And first rays of sunlight on ponderosa pine--can't get any better than this!
The Crest Trail (which is the Arizona Trail here) follows the ridge and is quite an remarkable trail with good footing for such rugged terrain.  We cruise up high, soaking in the beauty. 
On top of the Crest Trail.
Well-constructed tread on steep terrain.

Through the burn area.
 Unbelievable huge trees up here above 8000 feet.  We pay homage to an ancient gnarled juniper.  And see tree species I'd never expect out here-- blue spruce and aspen.
What are you doing here?
Lichen up here!
More of the unexpected.
Bathtub Spring is the southernmost water source on the Arizona Trail.  It's one of the iconic places of this trail, and I've seen photos of it before in all the AZT trail journals I've read.  I imagine all the countless hikers and others before them who've also gathered water at this very spot.  Sends chills down my spine to think of it. 
Jan gets water from Bathtub Spring.
Steady drip out of the faucet.
A pile of water bottles, food cans, and blankets had been left above the trail by illegals.  We all packed as much as we could carry out into our packs, but didn't have room for everything.  We've seen a few empty water bottles here and there, but this was the largest amount.  So sad.
Too much to carry out.
A half mile side trail took us up to Miller Peak with incredible views.  At 9466 feet, it is the highest peak in Huachuca Mountains.  Being up there felt like the end, the climax, of this journey.  I tried not too get too emotional but it really hit me that this trip was about to end. 
View of Montezuma Pass from Miller Peak.
When we finally got to the Mexican border, as law abiding as we are, we didn’t even pause before squeezing through the barbed wire fence to stand at the monument.  How totally fitting that the trip ended with barbed wire, and we could think about all the dozens and dozens of barbed wire fences and gates we've been through.
We made it to Mexico! 300 miles!  Woohoo!
It was also fitting that our trip ended with our characteristic sillyness that been a constant highlight of our trip.  We'd been hearing from a few of the northbounders about the register at the border--some mentioned they'd signed it and others said they couldn't find it.  Well, Jan and I were ready because of course we knew about the register and couldn't wait to see the names of all the people who'd we'd met that had signed it.  Imagine our surprise when we could not find the darn register anywhere near the monument.  I wished we'd taken a video of us looking under rocks and cactuses, checking along the fenceposts, tapping on the monument with our hiking poles to look for the secret opening to hiding spot for the register (it's under a rock on Springer Mountain on the Appalachian Trail after all!).  I imagine there is some sort of spy camera and that the border patrol saw us acting all strange-haha!  OMG we felt so incompetent!

We decided to just hike back to the parking area at Montezuma Pass where we hoped we would have enough cell phone reception to google the location of the darn thing.  Which is exactly where we found the register--near the parking area!

Farwalker's husband met us at the trailhead with ice cold drinks, and took us back to town.  The scenery we passed this last day was unparalleled-such diversity and certainly a highlight of the entire trip.  I still can't quite wrap my head around it all.  Nothing like I imagined.  So much laughter and fun and challenge and beauty. 
Another AZT sign pointing the way north.  I love that we always go the other way.
Thanks so much to my parents and Farwalker's husband for being such awesome support this trip!  And thank you all for reading and following along!  More posts about gear, planning, and such to follow...

AZT Day 23-Miller Peak Wilderness

Miles 24.1 (Parker Canyon) to 11.9 (Crest Trail)
Arizona Trail Passage 1
12.2 miles (with 2,800 foot gain)

Big day of climbing today- my favorite! But first, we met my parents at FR48 for a record quick resupply just past Parker Lake. 
Heading out early to skirt around Parker Lake.
My parents brought us fresh food (yogurt, avocado, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs-yum!) and the latest news about how Grandpa spent his first few nights in the nursing home and is doing fine there.  Yay!
Resupply frenzy in the wash.
And we are off again in only 45 minutes!
So delighted to have my parents' loving support, not just logistically but I know having this experience with them is something I will treasure my whole life.  I love that they not just get this whole hiking thing, but want to be part of it.  Feel so fortunate for that!
Me and my parents.  All smiles!
Today we climbed up into the Huachuca Mountains, the southernmost sky islands along the Arizona Trail.  It's up Soctia Canyon then up Sunnyside Canyon, then up up up the switchbacks.
Mimulus-lined streams in Sunnyside Canyon.
After we fill up on water for the rest of the day in Sunnyside Canyon, Jan and I use teamwork to corner and catch a bubble butt/ whirligig beetle.  They are super fast swimmers and hang out in groups at the surface of the water.  They also keep a bubble of air trapped so they can swim underwater a long time.
Finally caught a whirligig beetle after many days of trying. 
I loaded up with extra water so I feel more exertion on the 2800+ foot climb.  It's hard but that good kind of hard that makes my body feel like it is this amazing mountain climbing machine.  As my muscles respond and my legs move in the rhythm of my breath, everything seems right with the world, and its one of the few times I feel completely happy in my own skin and can love my body just as it is. 
Big mountains ahead.
As we climb, the leaves get smaller and forest types transition again and again.  We enter ponderosa pines. And then there are lupine and rocks.  
Towering ponderosas.
And then we enter a whole new world up here where the trees are all windswept Japanese sculptures and the sea of desert stretches in arcing waves.  We gaze at the steep downhill slopes, and wonder what are those mountain tops in Mexico like, and is anyone up there looking across the valley over at us?
From our campsite up above 8000 feet.
We bathe in the warmth of the setting sun feeling small and grateful to be up here listening to the bird songs.  We talk about the wonder of this trail and how it makes us feel so strong that we made it here and oh so happy.
Farwalker sets up her tarp right at the top where she can see forever.  I tuck my hammock down below in the lee of the hillside beneath towering ponderosa pines with pine needles and grass and crunch of pine cones and pine needles and breathe in the crisp air.
Feeling strong as I set up my hammock for the night.
It is still early when I sink into the comfort of hammock and warmth of quilts for my last night on the Arizona Trail for this trip.  It is so cold up here at high elevations that being in bed by 7 PM just makes sense.

I love knowing I can just rest here for the next 10 hours. No to-do list, no emails I have to write, no things I should be doing. I am free from feeling like I should be doing something else, or that I'm slacking off by doing something mindless. Instead I can just be here. Maybe think, maybe listen to the wind. Feel my body relaxing and letting go of everything.

AZT Day 22-To Parker Canyon

Miles 38.8 to 24.2 (Parker Canyon)
Arizona Trail Passage 2
14.6 miles

Woke up refreshed and energized.  The sound sleep I got in my hammock last night made up for my lack of sleep in the hotel.  Guess it makes sense that my hammock now feels like I'm in my "own bed" since I've spent more nights in it over the past year than anywhere else.
Strong old trees.
Got all fired up on the morning climb, passing lots of incredible trees.  Hard to slow down.  Fortunately I could go out in front of Jan and Farwalker and do my own pace and wait at junctions or high points.  My legs feel like they are going to explode with energy unless I hike hike hike, like my legs are some sort of wild untamed animal that need to run up these mountains.
Scared by barbed wire fencing, but still kickin'.
Rolling terrain all day.  Dropped down into canyons with pools of water including Middle Canyon and Pauline Canyon.  The oaks are turning color and Farwalker says they'll drop their leaves soon as the buds burst and new grown springs forth.  She calls this "spring-fall."
Remarkable diversity of galls these past few days.  I slow down to check out all the fuzzy galls here, and see the spider webs glistening in the dew (with cool trapdoor or funnel webs?)
Galls with trap-door spider web in background.
Ohh look how cute this one is!  I want to keep it as a pet! Photo by Jan.
Gained a ridge with views into canyons in both directions.  Amazing feeling to be able to see so far. Behind us is Mt. Wrightson where we were a few days ago.  Farwalker points out more landmarks-- Los Cabezas in the distance and the high San Rafael valley.

We camped in Parker Canyon amid big spreading oaks, near a stream with great flow.  Even with this gorgeous campsite, it's hard to stop hiking at the end of the day. My legs and body feel so strong and I long to keep hiking til dark like I do when I hike solo. I miss what it feels like to be tired and sore at the end of the day. I didn't anticipate that it would feel this difficult to do shorter miles.
Evening light on Parker Canyon creek near our campsite.
But I'm so happy that at this campsite there is a stream.   I watch as a water beetle (perhaps a whirligig beetle?) catches a fly and the other beetles chase it around trying to steal its prey.  Better than TV!  Then I try for a long time to catch the water boatmen (unsuccessfully).  Next, I turn over rocks and watch the spiders.
Spiders suspended above the stream.
I relax about the miles.  I wouldn't get to watch stream critters for hours, or take all these photographs, if I were doing more miles.  I'd be hiking and then drop off exhausted at the end of each day.  On this trip, I have all this energy to run around and explore.  So that makes me appreciative to be here with Jan and Farwalker and doing this hike this way.
Hanging from real actual tall trees for a change!
I can't believe there are only 24 miles to Mexico. I love waking up every morning outside and getting to hike all day through such beautiful and varied landscapes. I don't want this trip to end!