|Backpack||59.30 Miles||5 Days |
|13,800 ft AEG|
|Arizona Trail Trek
I met four backpackers in Payson who'd signed up to hike with me on my journey northward from Mount Peeley to the East Verde River. There were well-graded switchbacks up the slopes of Mount Peeley and the trail steward Joe pointed out landmarks in the range. Joe knows these mountains better than anyone I know and it's always fascinating to learn from him.
This entire range was burned in the Willow Fire of 2004 and when I'd tried to hike this passage in 2009, it was in terrible condition. Washed out trail on steep slopes, constant climbs over downed trees, and fighting through brush made me feel unsafe hiking it solo. I had hiked to the Barnhardt Trail junction and exited out of the wilderness and hiked out to Highway 87 and reconnected with the trail at the East Verde River. Totally different experience this time. Joe and others have put in countless hours to maintain this piece- sawing downed trees, removing brush and fixing the tread- and it was wonderful to hike on.
We contoured around and then climbed to reach a high point with incredible views south to the Four Peaks and then got views of the striated face of Mazatzal Peak. This place is a geological delight! We could see the path we'd be taking the next couple of days and then I got my first glimpse of the San Francisco Peaks in the distance, capped with snow. I could hardly contain myself- I could see Flagstaff! A momentous occasion indeed.
A little farther on the trail and we were at our campsite for the night at Bear Saddle. Little did we know what we were in for...
We said goodnight and went to our respective beds. I'm not sure exactly of the time, but in the middle of the night the wind started howling through the trees like nothing I've experienced before. Must have been 50+ miles an hour and LOUD! Every time I opened my eyes I could see the tall pines swaying back and forth in the wind.
No one got a great night's sleep, and it was chilly in the morning as we left camp. The trail contoured and descended the flanks of Mazatzal Peak, then met the Barnhardt intersection. All fresh trail from here to the East Verde for me!
There was a lot more water than we had expected in the drainages, even ones not on the water chart, thanks to the rain last Saturday.
We took a break and a nap under a juniper before continuing on toward our camp at Horse Camp Seep. This is a fantastic camp near gorgeous pools of water and a place I'd like to come back to explore more thoroughly. Slickrock and water- one of my favorite combinations!
After a night at Horse Camp Seep, me and my four hiking companions packed up and headed up the hill toward a rocky outcrop above the camp. As we got closer, I could tell that the view was going to be spectacular. Even though it was a hazy day the 360-degree views are some of the best on the entire AZT. Saw a shadowy figure of the San Francisco Peaks still looking very far away. Incredible that I’m going to walk there.
The trail to The Park was in good shape, and we took a lunch break in a beautiful stand of pines. Next up was the aptly named Red Hills passage. Beautiful red rock canyons and hills, up and down, up and down.
There were pools in the drainages from the storm that happened right before our trip and we found a nice place to camp with a sunset view and a sliver of moon.
The next day we hiked to the Brush Spring Trail and were passed by a very fast thru-hiker from Oklahoma. He was amazed by the beauty of the state- I feel so lucky to call Arizona my home, all these incredible landscapes available to me whenever I want.
Brush Spring Trail went through hills thick with green vegetation, thankfully the brush wasn’t encroaching onto the trail. The whole trail through the Mazzies was in much better condition than I had expected, it was nice to not have to climb over burnt trees or get scratched by thorny bushes. After a break at a nice campsite near Brush Spring, we climbed to a saddle overlooking our descent to the East Verde River.
The trail follows an old road that plummets thousands of feet down to the LF Ranch. Temperatures got hotter and the umbrellas came out for shade.
It seemed like it took forever to descend to the ranch. We heard the ranch before we saw it- the sounds of peacocks calling, cows mooing, and dogs barking. The LF Ranch is a working cattle ranch run by Maryann Pratt, completely surrounded by the Mazatzal Wilderness. Maryann also welcomes weary hikers with a bunkhouse to stay in and home-cooked meals. I had heard about the ranch for years and was super-excited for my stay.
The ranch is on the banks of the East Verde River and we went to check it out. There was a great swimming hole and nearby the cool waters of Rock Creek joined the East Verde. What a place!
Unfortunately for my travel companions, their trip was at an end and they hiked out the rough four-mile access road to their cars. It was a great group and I really enjoyed their company.
I went back to the river for a swim and relaxed until Maryann brought out the most amazing dinner- vegetarian lasagna, a giant salad, bread and pie for dessert! She knows the way to a thru-hiker’s heart for sure!
I had an enjoyable stay in the bunkhouse and then Maryann fed me again, a wonderful breakfast to start my day. It was so hard to leave this sanctuary, I could have stayed for weeks, chatting with Maryann, swimming in the river, watching the peacocks, staring at the beautiful surroundings. If you’re coming through the area, plan an extra day, you’ll be glad you did. Visit http://www.lfranch.com for details and reservations.
I hiked back to the East Verde crossing and spent way too much time lounging around on the banks, enjoying the river. I had a full day of climbing ahead of me and it was going to get hot.
The Arizona Trail uses an old, steep, nasty road filled with softball-sized loose rock for it’s ascent from the river. It would be so nice to have new singletrack built, but projects like that cost money and for now, the road is the trail.
I ascended to Polles Mesa and hiked from cairn to cairn across the plateau. Then the trail came to Whiterock Spring, where I refilled my water. Whiterock Mesa is my favorite part of this passage, it has wildly shaped rocks that look like dinosaur bones contrasting with the red dirt. I found a cairn that I had built with a flower-holder rock from back when I hiked this in 2009.
After Whiterock Mesa came Saddle Ridge, another field of rocks to navigate. I climbed to the wilderness boundary and had a little celebration- I had just finished the last wilderness area on the Arizona Trail! Miller Peak, Mount Wrightson, Rincon, Pusch Ridge, Superstition, Four Peaks, and now the Mazatzals.
My dad met me at the Twin Buttes Trailhead and took me into Pine, where I feasted on artichoke and spinach pizza from That Brewery. The Mazatzal Wilderness is a true gem of the Arizona Trail and I’ll be back to explore more for sure!
The next day I hiked from Twin Buttes into Pine, stopping at beautiful Oak Spring for a break by the water. It was exciting for me to hike into the Pine Trailhead and connect my steps from Mexico to Pine. Love this little town nestled under the Mogollon Rim!