Yet another humbling experience in the beautiful, rugged Mazatzals. I only hike here about once a year, which really isn't enough to familiarize yourself with an area. So both times I've nearly got myself in over my head. The forest service obviously doesn't put much money into this part of the Mazatzals other than the Barnhardt trail and the road to the TH. Combined with the Willow fire that tore through here over two years ago and you got yourself a route finding nightmare.
We got a late start due to morning commitments and headed out from the Barnhardt TH on the Half Moon trail towards the Rock Creek TH (3 miles). This is a fairly easy trail to follow until you approach Rock Creek. We followed the trail thru a recovering burned woods to the creek, but couldn't seem to find the correct crossing (later on the return we discovered that that was the correct place). We found a faint path instead that headed to the west and eventually head south up towards Half Moon spring that ended at a hunter's camouflaged perch. There I decided I should be checking the map more closely and discovered we were at least a half-mile off course. We backtracked down to Rock Creek and bushwhacked up the other side to the trail on the ridge. We eventually made it to the junction with the Rock Creek trail, much later than desired.
Proceeded up Rock Creek trail towards the saddle (another 3.5 miles), following the faint overgrown path and others' footprints. Our route finding skills were in full gear, but we lost the trail another 4-5 times whenever we entered burnt areas. The cairns along the way helped, but more would have helped. We eventually made it up to the false saddle where the waterfall was flowing and the pools were full. Which was a very nice touch to a long trip. Noticing we were still a good 2+ miles from the saddle and still losing the trail every now and then, we were thinking of turning back around here. But we pushed on, determined to reach the Mazatzal Divide and possibly finish the day with a loop going down Sandy Saddle & Barnhardt back to the TH. We were on a good trail near the top that was heading south a bit up the canyon when it just died out on us near a cliff band after a downed tree. Unable to find the continuation, I broke out the map and thought we may have gotten on another side trail and started looking for a trail up to the ridge. We would have eventually found the trail given more time or just bushwhacked the remaining quarter mile to the divide. But I was totally pissed off at this ridiculous remnant of an 'official' trail and losing daylight fast, we decided to cut our losses and get off the mountain at fast as possible.
We motored down the mountain now knowing where to go, putting up some more cairns in the sections we got lost in. We made it back to the crossing of rock creek in about 1.5 hours as darkness was setting in. We lost the trail in the darkness in that wooded, burnt region on the south side of the creek. Unable to re-find it, we headed in a SE direction under the full moon towards the Barnhardt canyon. Without a trail, it was easier bushwhacking towards the east and away from the range and deeper canyons. As we neared Barnhardt Canyon, with that massive reassuring NE face of Mazatzal Peak looming to the SW, we hit that huge catclaw 'meadow' and headed west towards the range to bypass it. We eventually landed ourselves back on the trail with about a half-mile to go to the truck. We eventually made it to the TH, having spent about two hours hiking under the full moon with about two miles of that off-trail.
I'm very thankful for my great sense of direction and adequate gear (so glad we had pants on) to help me keep a cool head through the whole ordeal. In the future, I'll have to watch the map more carefully and give more time to a new trail, especially if it's in a burnt region. And sometimes you just need to know when to give up and head back to the car. Maybe this experience with help me eventually break down and buy a GPS for these rare instances when one would be very helpful. Plus a good humbling experience is good from time to time to bring yourself back down to earth and realize your limitations.
The 'trail' from Half Moon to Rock Creek to the saddle is at least a 13 mile RT if you can follow it, but I figured we did about 15 miles with the side trails, bushwhacking, and many times getting lost.