It was my hope from the very beginning that I’d be able to share a bit of the glory and adventure of Sirena’s through hike on the AZT. The fact that I am insanely envious barely plays into it at all (wink). So, when my schedule shifted about a bit and opened up an opportunity for me to not only join her for Passage 4 but to take her family camping afterwards in my travel trailer, King Gilbert, I was ecstatic! An overnight on the AZT…with my celebrity friend…just the two of us and the foothills of the Santa Rita mountains on one of the most beautiful weekends of the year? Oh yeah. I’m in!
Passage 4 of the AZT follows the Temporal Canyon Road in Patagonia for the first 13 miles. For most through-hikers, road walks are similar to unwanted chores: often necessary, rarely enjoyed. Sirena had taken care of the first 7 miles of the road walk the day before to speed things up, so we had only about 6 miles to go before we truly got off into the wilds. Luckily, even road walking in this area can be scenic and rewarding. Winding through the oak forests and over the pools of Temporal Gulch wasn’t such a horrible chore at all – and the terrain offered enough distraction to keep us contented as we hoofed along.
Throughout our walk on the road, we were amazed at the amount of water that we were finding. The spring boxes were full, and there was often a slow trickle in the bottom of the canyon. Although it has been an unusually dry (and warm) winter and early spring in southern Arizona, it seems that a few well-timed storms have really helped out these riparian areas. It’s unlikely that the pools will remain long without more moisture coming from the sky and soon – but it was a real treat to know that we would not have to worry about running dry on this particular piece of trail.
Once we turned off onto the Walker Basin trail and got back to our preferred single-track hiking, the mountains rewarded us with even better vistas and diversity. Mt. Wrightson, the highest mountain in the Santa Rita range, is topped by Baldy Peak at 9,453 ft. This barren, granite summit presides over the entire range like a patriarch, and it’s steep wooded flanks have always called to those seeking solitude and adventure. Both Sirena and I have visited the summit on multiple occasions – but somehow it’s even more impressive to see the mountain this way – wandering about at it’s base staring up. Although the Arizona Trail does not climb to the top of this range as it does with the Rincons and the Santa Ritas further north, it does provide hikers with an intimate experience with Wrightson just the same.
16 miles into Passage 4 (9 for us today), we arrived at Bear Spring. Our initial plans were to camp near the spring, as Sirena had often wanted to but schedule often didn’t permit. The spring is a beautiful spot – cold, clear water from the tank and a sycamore-studded stream babbling just down the hill in Big Casa Blanca Canyon. There were some ideal tent sites near the creek, and plenty of trees for my hammock. We took our hiking shoes off and dunked our feet in the icy creek, filtered and drank our fill of the delicious water and considered our options. It was still early in the day, with hours until sunset, and our feet now felt refreshed and ready to go again. We decided that while the spring was an ideal spot, we’d take our chances on the trail ahead and keep moving just a little while longer. Besides - we knew there was a group of high-school students hiking the opposite direction who were supposed to be staying at Bear Spring as well that night, and we really didn't want to be all settled in when they crashed (if they were coming).
Luckily, we found them just a few hundred yards down the trail, camped in a large spot beside the creek. Now we knew where they were, we could camp in confidence that we'd not be disturbed by "eager young minds" that night.
Beginning at Bear Spring, the trail follows a historic drainage feature called a “flume”. This ditch was dug into the mountainside in the early 1900′s as a part of an effort to provide water to a gold mining operation in nearby Kentucky Gulch. Water from Bear Spring was diverted into the flume and ran in the ditch for 2 1/2 nearly level miles to the next improvement at Tunnel Spring. Because of this historic engineering effort, the trail feels almost dead-flat, and contours high above the steep floor of Big Casa Blanca canyon. At one point, Sirena began telling me, it’s supposed to duck through a hole in the rock – but she missed the spot back in 2008 by accidentally taking the bypass built for equestrian use. She was just finishing the story when we came around a corner and found the “hole-in-the-wall” – a small tunnel through the conglomerate rock that makes up the canyon walls. Her excitement made passing up the Bear Spring camp 100% worthwhile!
As the sun got lower in the sky, we began to look for a spot to camp. Since the trail is carved into the mountainside, we started to scan the ridges and slopes that ran perpendicular to the trail for a spot. I spotted a faint foot-path heading off onto one such ridge, and we followed it out to one of the finest campsites we could have hoped for. A small fire ring, cleared spots for ground sleepers, trees for hammocks and drop-dead amazing views to the south, west and east. We arrived just in time to settle in before the evening light show started, then made ourselves a modest fire and ate Thai green curry chicken and rice by its glow. For girls like Sirena and I, it simply does not get any better.
The next morning we didn’t get an early start (which is SO typical of us!), but we were on the trail in plenty of time to cover the 10 miles remaining to our base at Kentucky Camp. We had more historic flume hiking ahead, followed by a series of small ups and downs along the historic water system, and ending with a short but wearing road walk from Kentucky Camp to my trailer just down the road. We were low on food (Sirena’s finally got a through hiker’s appetite), and eager to get back before her family arrived at camp. Never the less, we hardly hurried. The trail is just too much fun to rush!
By the time we caught sight of Kentucky Camp, we were hungry and a little tired in the feet - ready to kick back and relax. It was good that from the same ridge where we first spotted the buildings, we could also see King Gilbert - full of food and promising sandals and chairs. We were on a mission!
Seeing her family's reaction to my choice of campsite was hilarious. It was a busy weekend in the grasslands, and the larger, more established sites had already been taken when I arrived Thursday night. However, I picked out a spot on a ridge with 365degree views - but no existing fire ring or bare dirt. Where do we camp? Where do we make a fire? I lead them through the steps of building the fire ring and that process stamped down the tallest grasses immediately around the trailer. By sunset, they were as in love with the spot as Sirena and I had been. Just took a little "getting used to" the Arizona way of things
I took my hammock down the hill to the nearest copse of trees for my hang that night and slept with a contented smile. What a great weekend on the Arizona Trail!Wildflowers
One spot of poppies, blue dicks scattered, cacti looking like they're starting to bud out.