Summertime hiking in Southern Arizona requires some flexibility- you have to be willing to either get up before the sun rises, acclimate to hiking in the inferno-like heat, or become nocturnal. One of my favorite times to go on a night hike is around the full moon. This month, I decided to visit one of my favorite areas for watching the moonrise- the Arizona Trail heading east from Molino Basin toward Redington Road in the Catalinas. When going for a full moon hike, it is important to choose a trail that will be illuminated during the time that you want to hike. This trail is ideal because it is on the eastern side of the Catalinas and gets illuminated right at moonrise.
I started my hike at 6:30, just as the sun had gone behind the hill and shaded the trail. The Arizona Trail uses the Bellota Trail, which starts at 4300 feet, switchbacks 450 feet up to a saddle, then plunges down the other side 800 feet to West Spring. It crosses several drainages before continuing toward Bellota Ranch, a fancy dude ranch nestled in the valley. This particular piece of trail and I have a long history and I have lost count of how many times I have hiked it. In what seems like another lifetime, when I was really sick from my Fibromyalgia, I would come here and barely be able to make it up to the saddle and be sore for days afterward. At one time, the longest hike I had ever done in one day was a 13 mile out and back trying to get to The Lake. Several years ago, my husband Brian and my dogs hiked this piece with me when I was trying to complete the Arizona Trail. And more recently, this is where I ended up last year to watch the Supermoon eclipse. It's one of those trails that you feel like you could almost hike it blindfolded and your body would remember where to go.
I made my way to the saddle, stopping to admire the Manzanitas with their "little apples" on and to sniff the junipers. The view from the saddle of the Bellota Ranch way in the valley below, Agua Caliente Hill, and Helen's Dome atop Mica Mountain in the Rincons remains one of my favorites, no matter how many other spectacular places I have seen. I was so intent on watching my feet on the rocky descent that I missed the actual moonrise. When I looked up the moon was well above the rocky outcrops of the northern face of Mica Mountain. As I made my way down the switchbacks I saw several deer bounding away and stopped to watch the sunset for a bit. The trail reached the first drainage and climbed out of it before descending to West Spring, a concrete tank for the cows with a trough around it. More bounding deer- a larger group this time, and the trail reached a gate. It then followed a two-track through a drainage that was lined with junipers and the occasional cottonwood.
I'd camped along this road on my Arizona Trail hike during deer hunting season, it was much quieter now. I had met Kean Brown, the cowboy-hat wearing manager of the Bellota Ranch who had explained to me that the horses that I usually see in the area are retired horses from the ranch that are now free to roam as they please. Just as I was thinking, "I wonder where the horses are?", my headlamp illuminated a pair of eyes belonging to a large brown horse with a white stripe on his face. All the other times I'd seen the horses, they had kept their distance, but this one started walking toward me. I am a massage therapist and I love to work on animals, but I very rarely get to interact with horses. I took a deep breath to calm myself, knowing that horses can sense tension, and put my hand out near his face. The horse pushed its face into my hand and I stroked its head, talking in a gentle voice. After letting the horse get comfortable, I massaged his sides and along his spine, feeling him shift his weight toward my hands. At one point, it was hard to believe it was real- I'm massaging a horse in a beautiful moonlit valley! It was truly magical. After a while, I bid my new friend adieu and began hiking back toward the trailhead.
The moon was out, but I was a little snake-paranoid, so I had my headlamp on for much of the hike. I did encounter one rattlesnake at the last creek crossing before the ascent to the saddle. It was a very calm, non-rattling snake and was kind enough to pose for some pictures before slithering off the trail. I found a slab of rock to take a break on before the final climb to the saddle. The truth is, I really didn't want to go back. I had brought a small cushion to relax on and would have been perfectly content to sleep there for the night. My husband was expecting me back that evening, so I settled for a short nap. I awoke refreshed and made the moonlit ascent to the saddle and down the other side, reaching my car at 11 pm. What a fantastic way to beat the heat and still get in a decent hike- you can bet there will be a lot more night hiking to come this summer.