I desperately needed to get away from the cabin and the family. They're all nice enough and all, but holy cripes! I can only sit still for so long before I get just plain batty! Since I figured it would be quite a while before I got out this way again with a whole day to kill, it seemed only logical to check the Baldy Loop of my list. I don't think I could have chosen better in this wet, glorious monsoon season!
Note to self (and to others a warning): Eating green chile at Los Dos Molinos in Springerville the night before a hike is probably NOT a good plan. The consequences are, well, they're not fun.
I started out from the East Fork trailhead at nine am on the nose. I can tell that there have been some changes to the TH with the paving/widening/whatever-so-called-improvements of SR 273, and they have created some of mankind's largest parking stalls at the trailhead. Lil' Bit positively disappeared in them.
Lilo and I started off by hiking the connector trail as described in the write-up. I thought I'd be pretty glad to have the part described as the least interesting done early in the day, and I was right. It was actually a very nice bit of hiking, some easy ups and downs, expansive meadows and lush forests, everything you expect in the White Mountains. After only a little over an hour, we had made it to the superhighway of the West Baldy trail. Now, I'm not certain of this, but I think that this used to be called Sheep's Crossing. I visited it when I was just a tiny thing (like, looking up to grasshoppers tiny), and I always remembered that green valley as being one of the most beautiful places on earth. While I've seen a lot more of the earth, I still think that the West Fork Little Colorado canyon belongs high up on that list. Lined with wildflowers, blooming grasses and thick, green growth - well, you can just imagine an artist somewhere using it for a model of paradise. (Not to mention that there wasn't a single thing in sight to prick, poke or stab me).
We encountered a fair number of hikers along this stretch of the trail, but everyone was friendly enough. We did seem to be missing the "uphill has the right-of-way" etiquette lesson, but since the hill is so gradual I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. Lilo was in trail-dog heaven, with the tall grasses and occasional dips down to the creek.
There were a few backpackers up ahead of me on the trail, and though while I was walking, I was typically gaining on them, my photo stops kept them at a distance. Then, they disappeared altogether. I can only assume that they found some fantastic camp. I know I spotted a few on my own, which I think I may have to come back to in the future, and I wished that I'd at least brought my hammock for a mid-day nap. But, I knew the fam was anxious about my being out at all, so I continued to make good time as I started the uphill portion of the hike.
I wanted to stop and eat my lunch near one of the many small tributary streams that come down off of Baldy's flanks, but either the altitude or the Los Dos Molinos were wrecking havoc on my inards, so I just kept on truckin'. Of course, I stopped for pictures, to enjoy the scenery, and to check out a few potential campsites... But what REALLY slowed me down on the ascent were the wild strawberries. Y-U-M! I had seen wild strawberries before, and even tasted a couple here and there, but I've never seen the kind of quantity and ripeness that were carpeting the western slopes of that mountain! Stomach troubles forgotten, I stopped and snagged as many as my little fingers could grab. I packed a few choice specimens in my baggie to give to the fam back at the cabin. They didn't really deserve it, but that's just the sort of wife/daughter/sister I am.
The climbing got a bit harder once I'd passed what I assumed was about the 11k mark. I slowed my pace yet again, and met up with a rash of other hikers coming down. Four groups with dogs and one group angry about all the dogs. I guess someone's out-numbered today. I'd started the hike in a long-sleeved shirt, but by now I was getting warm. No matter what elevation, if you're heading uphill in full sun in Arizona's monsoon season, you're in for a sweater. I was pretty much dripping by the time I made the summit.
Now - if you've done this hike you know, the summit is a bit of a anti-climax. I was expecting it, but I wasn't really prepared for it. Signs all busted, bags of trash hanging from sign posts, trampled earth and zero visibility beyond the line of trees. I suddenly wished I'd taken more pictures of the vistas on the way up! One couple who I'd been playing leap frog with most of the day was hunkered down on a log under some stunted trees, grumbling about the disappointing destination. I shrugged, decided to find a better lunch spot down the hill, and headed down the East Fork Trail.
While the West Fork has the beautiful canyon, the East is a more interesting trail in my opinion. The plane wreck just below the summit, the amazing granite formations and "hoo doos", the occasional rock outcropping that affords sweeping, incredible views...it's got many more interesting moments than the west.
I dragged myself up the hill to the upper part of the plane wreckage, mostly because my brother is an aviation buff, and I knew he'd want photos. Turns out that was a great choice, because the views from the upper wreckage and the delightful spring in the same meadow made a perfect spot for me to finally get a little food in the grumbly tummy.
We hiked on to a outcropping, where I ate a little more, threw myself around a little and enjoyed a few minutes out of the somewhat claustrophobic forest. Storm clouds were gathering, but they all seemed a long way off. By the time I made it to those really cool granite hoodoos, it started a light rain. I put my raincoat on as a precaution - but figured I probably wouldn't really need it. Boy was I wrong!
About a half-a-mile further down the trail, it started to rain in earnest. Occasional blasts of thunder and lightning made Lilo jump a bit, and hurried my feet on. Actually, Lilo was hilarious in the rain - she rain from one little bit of shelter to the next, each time laying down and looking at me with a "mom, can we get out of the rain please,please, please" look. I didn't think this storm was a quick blow-over, so each time I just zoomed past her hidey-spot, and she quickly picked up after me.
I was dreading the open stretch of meadow I knew was coming toward the end of the hike. Right as we exited the tree line, the storm kicked up a notch - from rain to pour - and a nice, fat thunderbolt rolled through the valley. As much as the strawberries and photo ops had slowed down my feet earlier, the weather now had me just short of a run. Stomping through puddles, soaked from the hem of my jacket down from rain, and hem-up from sweat, I booked it back to the car. I just know that I rushed through some really beautiful trail, camera locked into it's water-tight case and head down to avoid slipping. I was reassured with the thought, however, that it would not have been a proper White Mountains monsoon hiking adventure without getting good and soaking wet!
We got back to the car (I happened to be driving my mom's) and as I was toweling Lilo down to be clean enough for the backseat of a real car, the rain stopped. A large pickup truck with a family of four pulled in, and they gawked at me and Lilo before starting in with the usual questions. The were amazed that I'd been rained on (I guess I didn't look like the drowned rat I felt like), and even more amazed that I'd hiked for 8 hours straight. I wasn't in the mood to chat, though, and they moved on pretty quick.
A quick epilogue, too... As I'm pulling out of the parking area onto the highway, this little brown Chihuahua looking dog comes tearing down the road and into the lot. No humans in sight - not even an area where humans might have been. I tried for almost 20 minutes (wet cold rainy) to get that little dog into my car so I could try to find it's owners, but it would not come within 20 yards of me. Little bugger even tried to take off with my Lilo girl! He raced back down the highway eventually, and down into a driveway for an administrative area of some sort. I can only hope he had someone down there who was more patient with his ornery brown pumpkin than I.
I love this hike - it's now on my list of really great AZ hikes that I know I'll do again and again. Hopefully, next time, I'll actually get to enjoy the end!