I did this hike with 2 new first time (for me) HAZ partners, Larry and John. We got a pretty early start from the TH at 6:30am. I decided to take 247A to the Skull Mesa Trail since going the 247 way seems to be a bit of a slog regaining the same elevation 3 times over. We got the bottom of the Skull Mesa Trail in about an hour and 45 minutes, which is better than my time of 2.5 hours going the other way last August. Along 247 about a quarter mile above Cottonwood Spring, I pointed out what is listed as the "world's largest crested saguaro" according to the map of this area I posted a couple months back.
The first few hundred yards or so of the Skull Mesa Trail is kind of faint and hard to follow at times. Larry and John, hiking ahead of me, got off trail a few times and found their way back once I caught up. Larry lives in Flagstaff, so after about the 3rd time he got off trail, I joked that he's too used to the Coconino NF trails, all well defined and maintained. You're in the Tonto now, trails out here are more like suggested routes.
We got to the top of Skull Mesa in just over 3 hours. I downloaded 3 of the HAZ GPS routes and had them showing the way to go (or in one case, the way not to go) to the ruins. Making our way across the mesa was fairly easy, if a bit slower since you had to watch your footing on the rocks and cacti. Once we got to the ridgeline, things got even slower trying to find our way around the two mounds along the way. The easiest route is to along the east side of both mounds. And in the case of the second one, definitely stay away from the extremely steep and loose rocked west side. I mistakenly took that side and was hanging onto dead plants and trees to keep from sliding off a cliff.
After that, the ridge widens out making it easy walking again to the pueblo. I can see how people have mentioned that this can be a bit underwhelming, but I thought seeing how many units there are and the huge number of shards everywhere was pretty cool. It seems like the more time you spend there, the more you notice and the cooler it gets. After a few minutes, we made our way up to the fort, whose walls seem to be a bit more preserved. We had our lunch inside the fort, using the walls to shield us from the breezes and keep us warm. The views of Mattys Fork canyon to the east from there are phenomenal. The views in general of that canyon get nicer as you move farther out along the ridge closer to the ruins. From the fort you can also get a better bird's eye view of the pueblo below, which also helps in getting perspective on how much is here.
Once we finished lunch and got back down to the pueblo, we had a discussion on which way to take back. We looked over the saddle and most of it looked pretty treacherous. The steepness wasn't as troubling as the sheer cliffs we noticed. How did so many people make it down that way? Then I checked my GPS and saw that the routes posted went down to the north of where we were looking. So we looked over to the north and saw an area that didn't look nearly as bad as what we had been looking at. And at the bottom you could see Trail 4. This looked actually pretty doable, especially considering that we spent a lot of time bushwhacking over and around the mounds on the ridgeline. The only issue was that John was adamantly opposed to going that way and wasn't comfortable with it. He also didn't have a map or GPS so he also (rightly) didn't like the idea of splitting up. Larry was non-committal either way. John said I could blame him for wimping out so no one will think I didn't want to try it. I don't see a need to do that, but I will point out that he is a Cleveland Browns fan.
We made much better time going back along the ridgeline and across the mesa, mainly since we knew which route to navigate around the mounds. Going down the Skull Mesa Trail took me about as much time as it did going up since my hip was starting to bother me. Going downhill on a steep trail seems to get harder every year I get older. Along the way, I stopped and popped a couple vitamin IBs and by the time we got past Cottonwood Spring, I was feeling better. At the bottom of the Skull Mesa Trail I spotted a petroglyph that I hadn't seen twice before hiking up the trail since it's facing uphill. John and Larry missed it because they lost the trail, again.
We finished up at about 4:15pm, making it just shy of a 10 hour day. Larry had to drive back to Glendale to pick up his family and then drive back home to Flag to be up at 6am for work. That made me happy that all I had to do was make it Mesa for a few bottles of non-aspirin pain reliever and watch that debacle on tv.
My GPS said the AEG was 3800' which seems a bit high. My track is messed up because I forgot to clear it before we started. I may post the track to try to edit out a couple points and come up with my official mileage and AEG stats later, along with posting the pics.