The canyon keeps calling me back...and I always await anxiously my next journey into her depths.
My trip this time was planned as a 35th birthday celebration for one of my closest friends. I had two out of practice backpackers, a canyon virgin and a backpacking virgin along for the ride. It was Halloween weekend, a full moon and the weather just went wonky. I knew we were in for an adventure.
A note for future forgetful hikers: Peace Surplus in Flag not only is open until 9pm most nights, but they also rent hiking poles, so when you leave yours in the trunk of the Miata 300 miles away, you won't be completely blinking out of luck.
Our itinerary would not have been ambitious to some, but it was certainly enough to challenge this group. We spent the night at Yavapai Lodge the night before the hike, and between the call of the General Store, the Cafeteria and my (ahem) forgotten permit, we didn't hit the trail until almost 11am.
We waddled down the trail, which was just as steep as reports had given. A few sections, I'd stop and look back at my ducklings and be amazed that a) someone thought 'yeah, let's put a trail here' and b) that even more people think 'yeah, I'll hike down this beast with 40 pounds on my back'. Crazy hoomans. The views from many sections, however, were spectacular. I thoroughly enjoyed this part of the descent - particularly because I'd been able to procure the aforementioned poles! Well, there was that one little spill that ruined my Halloween costume, but we won't get into that...
We made it to the mesa a little before one. Then there's the food and water stashing activity - always fun in a group with an architect, an engineer and a border patrol agent. Talk about complicated! After playing a bit around the old cabin and exploring some of the ruins, we continued on down to Cottonwood Creek via one of the gnarliest pieces of trail I've ever had the pleasure of crawling down. Okay, so it wasn't as bad as say, the Dante's trip to the Infeno, but it was more like a controlled free-fall than a hike. About 1/4 mile from the bottom, I notice another group descending the hill. I did the math and realized this group was heading for the same camping area as we were. I was gonna be darned if I let them get the choice spot, so I kicked it into high gear, left my ducklings in the dust and made for the flat spot. Only a few minutes to spare, myself and one of my partners threw our packs down in a beautiful little camping spot right on the creek. Shaded by cottonwoods and cypress. We were quite impressed with ourselves. As if in revenge, the second group arrived, explored, set up camp in the second nicest spot then proceeded to talk very loudly for the entire evening. Sounded like they were having fun, though.
We fought back with a highly contentious game of Yahtzee and a birthday dinner to die for. Pasta with pesto, salmon, capers, sun-dried tomatoes and mushrooms - topped with fresh parmesean and followed up with molten chocolate lava cakes. mmmmmmm
Next day, after another spectacularly late start we circumnavigated the mesa on the Tonto Trail. As with all Tonto hiking, it was spectacular. I'll never get over the awe of that feeling - suspended in the center of the great chasm, surrounded on all sides by cliffs and canyons. Ahhhh. Not more than 1/8 mile before the junction with the Page Spring trail, we encountered a couple of young Frenchmen, with daypacks and loose sneakers. They asked if we had a map, because they might be lost. When I asked where they were headed to, they replied Horseshoe Mesa - did I know where it was. Well, I pointed to the spot about 1000 feet over our heads and they looked unphased. As late in the day as it was, I recommended that they follow us back up the trail they'd just come down and return to the rim. Cheerful and friendly, they agreed and we were all off again.
We climbed steadily to the turn off for the spring, at which point I set the Frenchmen loose. It was clear that their young, unencumbered limbs were able to move much faster than ours, and they were burning daylight fast. They promised me they had enough water and off they went. It was depressing to see how fast they went up that hill. Our group split up, with one pair continuing up, and the rest of us collecting water from the spring. It's a beautiful spot, with hanging ferns and a lovely place to sit. I didn't notice any funny taste to the water at all.
It was getting chilly on the shaded trail as we started in on the steep stuff. We were split as to whether this trail or the one to Cottonwood Creek was more treacherous, but this definitely had a few hair raising moments. If you're afraid of heights, be ready for a very uncomfortable walk. Slow and steady won the race, however, and we made the top before the legs gave out. We camped in one of the very fine spots east of the cabin on the mesa, meeting up with some other hiking friends for the evening's frivolity. This would be a tough place to camp in warm weather - there wasn't a stitch of shade to be found. However, with the full moon, it made for a magical, eerie experience I won't soon forget. I did a little hiking late at night on my own, exploring the mesa by the glow of la luna. Makes me wonder how I ever make it here in the city...
Last morning was another pokey one, again not really on the trail until 10:45. Gotta love the cool season, right! I would have thought that my adventure was over, with only the climb to go, but we had a couple more fun curves to negotiate. First, my trusty little camera decided that it'd had enough abuse for it's lifetime and it gave up the ghost. Muy triste, rest in peace little Lumix. Then, at a snack stop on a narrow saddle, we found a black pouch containing two epi-pens. It was sitting a ways off the trail, on the exposed ground. It didn't look deliberately stashed, so I carried it out. (It's now safely in the hands of the rangers at the Desert View lookout). I topped out just before 1pm, the rest followed about 10 minutes behind. Not a bad showing for such a motly crew!
To end a VERY long trip descrip, we changed clothes at Desert View, amid the chaos of construction there. Then we had a late lunch/early dinner at the Cameron Trading Post...mmmm, Navajo Tacos. It was a LONG drive home, especially since my car stereo was stolen a week ago and my IPod died. But, a shower and a good night's sleep, and I'm ready to go back! I totally missed the west arm and the cave...
Additional notes for future hikers: Trekking poles are essential imho on the descent and ascent. They're a pain in the pumpkin on the Tonto, though, which is too narrow with woody bushes to make the sticks work out.
If you find a Petzl e-Lite on the ground somewhere near the Cottonwood Creek campsite, pick it up and feel lucky, and move on to another area to do your business. I lent mine to another hiker, who dropped it while making a deposit, and we never saw it again.