An absolutely EPIC Saturday hike on the rim! Sit back, relax, and enjoy as I attempt to put the experience into words! (Update: Better grab a snack and take a restroom break first ... this ended up being sort of lengthy!)
With the FS having opened all the rim roads five days prior, and the forecast calling for a spring storm Friday night, I thought it would be a great opportunity to see this area in rare light ... a fresh blanket of snow. Normally, it's too cold, too far from an open road, and too limited by the short winter days to attempt. But this was a perfect opportunity, so I decided to go for it!
Friday night I had two birthday parties to attend, so it was a late night. I had pre-planned though and packed everything I needed in my truck, so when I woke up on Saturday morning around 8, I had a bowl of cereal and headed north. It had rained, hard, at my house overnight, but only for a few minutes as the cold front passed through. The NWS was predicting 1-3" of snow in the higher elevations, with locally higher amounts possible, and scattered snow showers on Saturday. It sounded perfect to me!
The weather was dry until I got to Payson, when it began snowing lightly. By Pine, there was some light accumulation on favorable surfaces. Ascending the rim, the accumulation increased and the mercury finally dipped below freezing. Thankfully, snow was not sticking to the road, and driving was uneventful. The Rim Road is unpaved, and as such, it was snow covered. There were only one other set of tracks on the road, and maybe 2-4" making for relatively easy driving for the 12 miles to General Springs.
I arrived around 11:30, having previously decided that I would have to be hiking by noon if I was going to complete the loop. It was snowing lightly and I got everything together to head out on the Fred Haught Trail. It was then that I heard noises coming from inside the General Springs Cabin. I was definitely caught off guard ... I was the only car that had traveled the road that far since it started snowing the day before, and there were no cars at the trailhead. Not sure exactly how to react, I yelled out "Is there anybody in there?", and to my surprise, somebody yelled back! I waited patiently, and curiously, as the door was slowly unbarricaded from the inside. After a minute or so, the door was open and I went in where I met Paul and Drew, two AZT hikers who had holed up in the cabin the night before. After introducing ourselves, we had a brief HAZ mention as well as a discussion about the weather forecast. They had started on March 17th, and having intentionally not carried heavy winter-weather gear, decided to ride out the snow in their sleeping bags in the cabin. Not really a problem, just a very boring way to spend a couple of days!
So they asked me what I was doing up there, and asked if I was just a crazy Norwegian, which I had a double-take trying to figure out how they could have guessed that ... only to remember my hat has a Norwegian flag on it! So, yes! I'm definitely a crazy Norwegian! They asked me my plans for the day, and I told them I just wanted to go out and enjoy this area in the snow, hoping to do a loop hike. Upon asking when I expected to return, I replied "later this afternoon, by sunset", and added that if it continued snowing or the going got too difficult, I would turn around and head back.
So I left Paul and Drew to their sleeping bags and headed down the Fred Haught Trail. I chose this loop because I have hiked it before and am familiar with it, and because it follows a draw where route-finding in the snow wouldn't be difficult, even if I wasn't exactly on the trail. After all, it is generally impossible to follow a trail in a snow-covered pine forest.
The snowfall changed from flurries to squall off-and-on all day, and while I could hear the wind howling in the treetops it was generally calm in at ground level. About 3 miles out, I approached Fred Haught Spring, and could already feel that I had been giving my legs a good workout. Even though there were only a few inches of snow on the ground, hiking in snow is a lot more work than a hard-packed desert trail. I contemplated turning around and calling it a 6-mile day, but I really wanted to get to Aspen Springs. I knew I would have no problem getting the 4.5 miles to the cabin, but was cautiously concerned about the remaining mileage to return from there. Screw it! Not only am I a Crazy Norwegian, I'm also damn stubborn. Plus, I had warm, dry feet, and was clothed perfectly, so I was comfortably warm, and not wet from sweating.
So shortly after deciding to go on, the sky opened up in that 2-3"/hour kind of dumping. It was incredible. I plowed through Quien Sabe Draw, and the snow stopped and the sun broke through for a minute. The changes from one minute to the next was impressive. The sun was out for my traverse of Bear Canyon on FR95, exposing the beautiful contrast of red rock cliffs and a beautifully unspoiled snow-covered road.
Next, just as I was heading down the hill to the Pinchot Cabin, I spotted an Elk in the meadow below. He didn't notice me, so I yelled, and he looked up to try to find me before deciding to dart off into the woods, along with a second Elk I hadn't previously seen.
I signed the trail register at the Pinchot Cabin and headed up Houston Draw the last mile and a half to Aspen Springs. It was snowing fairly steadily the whole way, but I still managed it in about 35 minutes, arriving at Aspen Springs at 3:15. I took refuge from the snow in the little cabin, which was only halfway helpful since it was only marginally more wind- and snow-tight than an open field. Nonetheless, I was able to grab half a bag of beef jerky, swap out my socks, rest my legs, and plan for the best route back.
I checked the exact sunset and realized I had under 3-1/2 hours left. That's also when I realized that the extra batteries I had for my GPS were AAA, when I needed AA. The AAAs were for my headlamp, which I also noticed had not made the journey from my front seat to my pack. Doh! I had slowed to under 3mph in the snow, so I knew that I couldn't stay on the Houston Brothers trail and have any hope of getting back to my truck ... it was at least another 11 miles, and I wasn't sure I had the strength for that much more distance anyway.
I am very familiar with the area, and decided that I would bail out to FR95 and take it back to the Rim Road. The key for this is that FR95 is on the west side of Bear Canyon which would cut the distance significantly from staying on the Houston Brothers trail on the east side of the canyon. The catch is that I would have to go off trail through the canyon to get there. And that's when my GPS batteries finally gave up on me!
Luckily, I knew generally where I wanted to go, and knew that once through Bear Canyon, it would be impossible not to run into FR95. I also had downloaded some tiles of the Topo maps onto my trusty iPhone/Camera/GPS. I had plenty of battery life remaining since I had purposely put myself into Airplane mode earlier. Having recently switched to Verizon from AT&T, I was shocked that the few times I turned off Airplane mode to get an exact GPS bearing, i would suddenly receive a flurry of emails and text messages. So there was some comfort in knowing that I could probably make a phone call if needed.
So I headed down into Bear Canyon, and let me just say ... it's crazy steep. Oh, and I'm a Crazy Norwegian. I wouldn't have gone down this slope on skis if there were no trees and another 5 feet of snow! But I basically just slid down the side, bouncing from rock to tree to rock, letting the snow absorb my bounces, all the while lamenting what it would be like climbing the other side. Upon reaching the bottom, however, I was surrounded by the most awe-inspiring natural beauty. It was amazing. Photos can't possibly do it justice, but the snow just framed the cliffs and trees and rocks in such a perfect, peaceful, amazing place. I will have to come back here again this summer!
Not wanting to stay too long, I decided to begin the grueling ascent, proceeding only 20-30 steps at a time before stopping to catch my breath for a minute. I eventually came across a very fresh set of elk prints (it's still snowing ... I can tell they are fresh), and decided to follow them since usually the animals know the "easiest" way up and down these deep canyons. Sure enough, 10 minutes later, an elk hops up and runs away not 50 feet in front of me. He was too fast for me to get a photo, but I saw that he had been laying down in the snow on the steep hillside of the canyon. I don't know if that was a "defensive" spot where he could keep an eye out for predators, but he didn't hear me coming, so I'm not sure how good of a spot it really was!
Finally I reached the top and FR95, but was unsure how far I had to go to get to the rim road. I looked at the time and began to wonder if I was going to make it before dark. I bit of anxiousness set in upon realizing that I didn't have my headlamp and it was still snowing and once the sun set, it would be completely dark. I figured that even so, I would be able to follow the road.
There were some off-trail options for me to take a more direct route back to the truck and shave some mileage, but I decided that it was a smarter decision to just stay on the road at that point. Even if it got dark, I knew I could keep walking and eventually get there. But it was going ridiculously slow. FR95 had just been graded, so the roadbed was not firmly packed, but instead was soft like sand. Only it's spring and the ground is warm, so the snow was melting from below. The road was basically mud under the snow. That made for some incredibly heavy steps. I found out later that it was 3 miles worth! I had tried to walk parallel to the road on the normal forest floor, but that was just as slow due to rocks and logs and other under-snow obstacles.
My slow progress on FR95 as the skies darkened made me mentally pre-plan for an arrival up to an hour after sunset. I knew I would be fine, I just wasn't really looking forward to hiking in the dark. I was really, really looking forward to getting to the rim, and having only what I thought was about 2 miles on FR300 back to the truck. But FR95 just continued forever!
Finally! I arrived at the Rim Road at about 6:30. Less than 25 minutes before sunset. Luckily, the road had not been recently graded, and in fact there were one set of tracks having driven the road. So I set forth down the hill to the trailhead, hiking in the tire track in the road, and made awesome time. It turns out the last stretch was just under a mile and a half, and I did it in under 30 minutes, arriving back at my truck looking like the abominable snowman!
When I arrived, Paul came out of the cabin and we chatted for 20 seconds before I said that I would get a change of clothes and then come in and visit with them for a minute. It took me at least 15 minutes to get changed and unpacked. My truck had 4-5" of new snow accumulated since I had arrived, which might explain why the going got so much slower as the day went on. What happened to that forecast of 1-3" with just "scattered instability showers" during the day. Apparently the rim is highly unstable!
I went into the cabin to greet Paul and Drew, and when I opened the door, I was a bit surprised to see that they were all packed up, and just rolling up their sleeping bags. Of course, that's when I realized that they weren't about to head out hiking. "Do you mind giving us a lift back to Pine?" I smiled, and said not at all!
So we got everything packed into my truck and began the harrowing 12-mile drive back to Hwy 87. It's a good thing that Paul and Drew didn't know what they couldn't see, because there's about 2.5 miles of that road that is right on the edge of the rim, and in a burn area, so it is totally exposed. It was full-on whiteout conditions, in the dark. I couldn't stay too far on the "high-side" of the road because the snow drifts were too deep to drive in, so I had to stay closer to the edge. White-knuckle, two-hands, kind of driving. Paul and Drew were talking about their adventure thusfar and asking the kind of general questions you ask new people that you meet ... where do you live, work, etc. But I kept my answers pretty short, anxiously looking forward to reaching Hwy 87.
I think it took about 45 minutes to drive those 12 miles, which technically isn't too bad. I think Drew took a video of part of the drive, which hopefully I'll get to see one day. I would have liked to take a video, or even a few photos, but I surely wasn't going to do it myself while driving, nor was I going to stop my truck. I was very happy to have a capable Taco with good tires!
Paul and Drew called a friend who has a cabin in Pine and arranged to stay there, so I drove them down the hill and dropped them off. It sounded like they were going to wait a day or two before heading back and continuing their trek toward Mormon Lake, Flagstaff, and the Utah border.
Paul is on HAZ and had posted a few AZT queries prior to his trip: profile.php?u=58052
and he has his own blog following their adventure if you're interested in it: http://hikingdude.com/
All-in-all, it was a great adventure and an amazing experience. I'm glad I was able to experience this area during the snowstorm, and even more happy that some anxious moments were the only negatives!
(gps track shows bear canyon crossing and FR95 bail track http://hikearizona.com/map.php?GPS=11878
And I don't care what HAZ computes, I guarantee I burned over 4000 calories!