Someone has their HAZ signature making the statement something akin to "You take a piece of the mountain with you, the mountain takes a piece of you with it". That is a good summary of how this hike went for us, though I can correctly say that the mountain got the lion's share in this trade.
There definite lines of distinction when it comes to skill level and when you should turn around. We opted to shoot for the "In over our head" version of this hike. I will try and break down my experience into sections when you might consider your options. Keep in mind that Tonto Parks has posted a sign at the TH that they are going to be doing some trail(did not specify which trail) maintenance and not to disturb ribbons. I did not notice lots of crisp new ribbons so thing may certainly be change in the coming months.
The first 4.5 miles is pretty basic as far as route finding and ease passage. I think most people can manage this, and it still pays out plenty of beauty dividends. The trail description says that groups with kids should, if I read it right, might turn around 2.5 miles from the "South Fork Trail" begins (not the TH). At this point there is supposed to be the ruins of an old cabin. I did not see it and I quit looking for it at 3.25 miles from "TH" (Not from the start of SFT) but anywhere within the 4.5(Th) mile range would be suitable for your average fun, non-life threatening hike for most people.
A variety of birds made our experience in this area a nice group of blue birds perhaps the Mexican Blue Jay. There was also new yellow breasted bird pumpkin in this area that I haven't yet identified but the rest of the body was an average brown color. They had calls that was really pleasant and the flock must have drowned out the highway traffic because I don't recall that at all. Coming down the Gold Ridge on the way out we also saw two cows, and two calves grazing. Something (not us) startled the calves and they ran to one of the cows followed shortly after by the other adult. They maintained a tight grouping for quite awhile as we viewed them from a distance. We never could detect what was scaring them.
Between 4.5-5 miles things get a little complicated and will probably cause most to turn back. We had run into fellow HAZ'rs Kingsnake(Preston) and Mountain98dew(Brian) a short while before this point. I think they had made it a little further than this but they wisely were headed back to the TH. It was nice meeting both of them, and knowing what I know now we probably should have turned back with them. But we had tasted the rugged beauty of this place and we wanted more.
For those who persist the thick, prickly fauna retract and the creek cascades over a plentiful array of little water falls, and green, richly colored spongey moss. I enjoyed this section very much. It abruptly comes to end with a sharp turn to the south and one large 12' foot wall. There was not a real water fall to speak of but it was impressive how quickly it came up on us. I was startled into an expletive when I looked up and saw. Look to the left of this and make your way up the steep dirty scramble that begrudgingly lends itself as a work-around. I am not completely positive that I didn't get off trail doing this because later I would intersect with a trail that looked like it came from the area to the west behind me, but if you do go that way you'll miss the next water fall. So after coming around this first fall there is a small drainage that breaks high and east, stay right. The canyon corners west again in short order and it is here that I believe the 50' water fall(though dry at this time aside from a seep at the bottom) in the hike description. It looks like a dead end but keep walking to it and a climb-out, and another waterfall(small flow) reveals itself on the right. At 5.5 miles This is where Wendi and I probably should have turned around, this would have made a nice full day hike for strong hikers. Not realizing how much further we had to go compared to the shorter distance of turning back we continued on. In truth at the pace we kept under these conditions we should have left 6:30ish am, not our late start of 8:20 if we really wanted to complete the whole of this hike.
Alright, so your an absolute animal (JuanJamieIII I am thinking of you) and you've successfully negotiated the climb-out , now is where a trail coming from the east reveals itself. It's about 15' above and probably easy to climb up too if your interested in another dirty climb. Or if you don't mind a slight bit of exposure continue another several 10's of feat to yet another 10' water fall(small flow). To the left of that is a boulder laden climb out that has a little bit more exposure but not too hard. I never checked the back trail to see if it indeed was part of the "Official" trail but the remainder ahead of us definitely was so we kept going and so far aside from the patch of trail between 4.5-5 miles things were looking pretty good. The canyon and the trail seem like the perfect adventure.
At 5.75 mile point, however, the fallen tree situation that everyone talks about really begins to assert itself. The gravity of what we were seeing stopped us dead and we reevaluated our situation. Finishing the hike involved another mile at least of constant tree hopping as far as we could see and the mile was only taking us that much further away from the TH. Heading back might of been the right decision but we had 4 hrs of sun left and it had taken us almost 6 hrs to get to this point. I remembered a triplog by Ihike that talked about shorting the loop and bushwhacking it to Gold Ridge. I had even earlier looked at the topos to try and guess where they bailed just in case we needed too. Oddly enough we were just shy of it. With the promise of the easier trail out it seemed like the best choice.
Hastily we scrambled up and over a small ridge. The flora was dense though thankfully not all of it pointy and occasionally we would find a game trail to follow. Another drainage was below us but we tried to stay high, though eventually the terrain forced us in. Thankfully passage was fairly easy and the small stream never soaked us. Once again fallen trees threatened to block our way but they were mostly high and the branches that hung down easily shattered with stiff swing of a stick. There was moment that I was so focused on staying dry and looking for the next obstacle that I didn't not realize that the next dry step was a bed of fur, and the disintegrated remains of a deer. I immediately found the next best dry spot, and told Wendi to step somewhere. I didn't think to take a picture, I think I was just stunned by the way the remains seemed almost posed. The spine and skull were still intact and exposed along the length of one side. With horn sticking straight up and nose just it's tip touching the water. I didn't want that image to get stuck in Wendi's head so we moved on.
Eventually this splits yet another time but this is where we departed stream and start up the ridge that divides them. Another 500' above us on the top of this ridge was the Gold Ridge trail, our Valhalla as far as I was concerned. At first slope was steep but manageable, the flora was mostly manzanita and crispy remains of the occasional tree, perhaps juniper. But the higher we went though steeper it got and at about a 150' from the trail the flora got really dense as a tall pointed scrub plant got added to a mix. It would seem that our Valhalla had mote. This scrub became impossible to navigate but we powered through as best we could until finally we found a fallen tree that bridged a good chunk of this mess. I didn't realize it but the trail was pretty much three steps away from it's other end. Man Oh' man, did I kiss the very ground of this blessed trail, yes I did.
It was now 3:30, we just shorted, by my estimation at the time, 2 miles (In reality it was 2.3) of the loop but add back in the mile we bushwhacked. I figured that left us 5 miles at a presumed rate of at least 2 miles an hour and that equals one big pumpkin smile. We should be back at the TH at about 6 with almost a 1/2 hour of daylight left! And that is pretty much the way it went. Along the way we(I) even got to see a live deer with nearly identical rack as the dead one we had seen earlier. Talk about metaphors. The trail did have 4-5 logs to negotiate but it was flat and aside from a few areas where the flora were trying to retake the trail it was pretty open. It seemed the deer were really the ones maintaining this trail, a lot of tracks. Bushwhacking up that hill was hot work even in these cool temps. It never dawned on us unroll our pant legs but at this point our legs were raw and even the occasional blade of grass was like pouring salt in an open wound and we quickly unfurled our pants.
The views from up here were amazing, almost immediately we could see Lake Roosevelt to the southeast and to the north, a good chunk of the Rim. And of course Rye was easily seen. The cool breezes were welcomed. After a mile or so the TH could even be seen from 4 miles out. Gold Ridge Trail becomes a crazy "Rolling Hills" decent. Neither of us were crazy about the decent portion too much, luckily we both had freshly clipped toenails. The TH couldn't come soon enough but eventually we made it safely back to car. Wendi told me on the way home that she had given up on even getting back to the TH and was eyeballing camping spots. I didn't tell her I was in the same mindset and had been pocketing dry kindling wherever I could find it. She also had apparently bumped her head pretty good ducking under a fallen tree not realizing that she needed to duck under a second hiding behind the first. She didn't say anything about that but that was when she was ready to bail on the trail.
Nice meeting you Preston and Brian!
A special thanks to Ihike for posting your idea about a shortcut, probably saved us a lot of grief. I'll post the track for just the segment of the shortcut we used.
Oh I almost forgot about the Caddisfly Larvae. I think it is the proper identification of strange little larvae that spins a case with it's silk and attaches various tree litter and tiny rocks that weigh it down, submerging in forest streams and ponds. They look like tiny sunken little bits of tree branches. I spotted a quite a numbered group of them moving the submerged areas of the creek bed.