In my dozen or so trips down the upper portion of this outstanding trail, I have never gone past the falls overlook. I have always wanted to see the Oak Flat area further down and with the backside of the Grahams now closed for winter, I had to hit it up from the bottom. I started from the Berry Patch Rd camping area out at Cluff Ranch and took the road (4X4 IMO) up to where the trail departs and starts the climb up into the mountains. The first mile up was a steady climb then a gradual decent down into the canyon along Ash Creek. The next mile along the creek was the real highlight of this trip! The autumn trees are almost bare now creating a rainbow of leaf litter covering the ground & creek and looked awesome! At times I was walking on what felt like a foot of leaves and if it wasn't for the cairns, I may have not been able to find my way through this section. I passed many nice small waterfalls (a lot more than the upper trail has) and a big 40 footer as the trail left the creek and headed up to Oak Flat. This next mile up to the flat was a series of what felt like endless switchbacks and had me out of breath a few times before finally leveling out and entering the flat.
Just 1 minute after entering the flat I blew what could have been my best wildlife photo ever! Reaching the flat I took off my pack & camera and laid them on the ground to walk around & stretch a bit. 10 steps in I looked up and staring right at me 10 FEET AWAY up a tree at eye level was a black bear cub, I almost soiled my pants! As I walked calmly backwards towards my camera the head of another cub emerged from behind the tree a little higher up. As I got to my camera the cubs were now climbing down to the ground and as soon as I got my camera out and pointed, they were running down the ravine and I was only able to get a terrible rear shot
I thought I had learned this lesson before, but I guess I needed to learn it again and that is to Never be without my camera on me at all times when in the wild!
I had planned to explore more of Oak Flat, but not knowing if moma bear was near I decided to end the trip here and head back down. Darkness now comes early on the northern side of the Pinalenos and hiking back through the Ash Creek portion was dark and a little spooky at 4pm. I emerged back into the sunlight the last mile to the road only to have it disappear again as I made my way back to the Berry Patch CG ending another great trip on my favorite mountain!
I have now seen all but the middle 1.5 mile section of this trail and IMO the lower half is just as beautiful as the upper!