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Ash Creek-Shingle Mill Loop, AZ
mini location map2015-05-09
40 by photographer avatarchumley
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Ash Creek-Shingle Mill Loop, AZ 
Ash Creek-Shingle Mill Loop, AZ
Hiking avatar May 09 2015
Hiking22.00 Miles 6,363 AEG
Hiking22.00 Miles   3 Hrs   27 Mns   6.38 mph
6,363 ft AEG
1st trip
Lee wanted to do a loop involving Ash Creek, and having only previously been to the Pinalenos once, and never to Ash Creek, I was happy to join him on this trip. I didn't know much of anything about this area and have only since begun to research it some more. There's a lot of history and it is worth doing some reading to put context to it all when you are there.

After a Friday night car camp along the creek, we set out in the morning from Cluff Ranch. This meant that the first four miles and 1300 feet gained was on the road, but that was necessary to make a loop with Shingle Mill. The first mile of actual trail parallels the creek well above the drainage before finally dropping down into what can only be described as a lush mountain stream. From here, the route climbs steadily under the canopy of bright green trees (and through thick fields of poison ivy), making numerous creek crossings along the way.

After a mile along the creek, the trail takes a crazy steep route up some well-built switchbacks to ascend above a set of falls that you can only see bits and pieces of as you climb around. There's a horse's skull at the bottom that is no doubt the result of a fall while ascending this precarious section of trail.

Another mile later, at the top of the steep switchback climb, you arrive at Oak Flat, where a single campsite is available, but moderate terrain would make it relatively easy to set up anywhere. Again, watch for poison ivy, as it was still prevalent here. We opted to continue, going an additional mile and a half to just below where the trail switchbacks away from the creek again. Here we found a great creekside campsite that needed only about 15 minutes of improvements to fit our two tents. There was an existing fire ring and a plank set on rocks for a nice fireside bench. One can only wonder if this plank was one of the many pieces of lumber that were "lost" while descending the poorly-engineered flume a hundred years ago?

After setting up camp, we chatted with the only other people we saw all weekend, a family hiking one-way from top to bottom. From there we headed upstream along the creek, hoping to get to the bottom of Ash Creek Falls, which GPS showed to be just 0.4 miles away. This is an incredibly scenic area and scrambling along this steeply ascending creek was a blast. We reached the base of some scenic falls and then backtracked a bit and went to a nearby drainage where we had seen some more falls through the trees. Sure enough, another 75-footer! :y:

After heading back to the falls on Ash Creek, Lee decided to try and catch some Apache Trout in the pools downstream while I was sure I could climb to the top of these falls, hoping to find bigger and better falls above it. This might be the dumbest thing I've done in a while. ](*,)

Getting up there is crazy steep. The rocks along the falls are the slipperiest things you have ever set foot on. Wet or dry. The bypass options involve steep chutes of loose dirt and rock, trees with roots that don't support your weight, and generally nothing to hold on to. So yeah ... it was so much fun! :y: :scared:

I launched a boulder downhill that would surely have killed Lee if he was nearby at the time. :o Next to the falls, yelling is pointless as neither of us could hear anything but the rush of water flowing over the rocks. On my return attempt, I dislodged a small boulder and went tumbling about 20-feet down at the mercy of gravity. I'm still not sure how the boulder didn't follow me down as I was sure I was going to have a minimum of some broken bones and a world of trouble. :stretch: It would probably be until at least sunset before Lee realized that I wasn't just exploring anymore and set out to find me. :pray:

From there on out I was extra-triple-cautious about getting back down. In the meantime, I had gotten to the top of the second set of falls, where I believe it was just a short scramble up to the base of a narrow slot fall described by nonot and photographed by vaporman here on haz.

Ultimately I was able to get back down with just a solid shin bruise and a little blood loss. Back at camp I enjoyed well-earned beer and briefly soaked my leg in the sub-45-degree creek. 10-seconds was pretty much the max before needles and numbness set in. Extra kudos to Joel who had mentioned the poison ivy and prompted me to pick up a bottle of Tecnu before leaving on Friday. I scrubbed my legs and hands, and made sure my daytime clothes didn't contact my camp clothes. So far, I'm PI free, so I'm hoping my precautions worked! :pray:

Big fire, dinner, and a great night sleep set up a great Sunday hike out.

The first mile gains 1300 feet and is the man's way to start your backpacking day. :wlift: (I only cried twice. Maybe three times? ;) ) But the reward looking down on the top of Ash Creek falls from above is totally worth it. From here we headed back down to the junction where we stayed to the west on Shingle Mill trail. This is a well-constructed old road that is now largely overgrown and features some solid brush-fighting sections. Neither Lee nor I could understand why such a well-constructed road was not maintained as a hiking trail by the FS. We chalked it up to funding.

The only places the trail was difficult to follow was where it passed through a drainage. Over time the road that once was has long since eroded and there's not really a path anymore. So just pick your best line and find the way across. Several of the drainages had pools with a light flow of water. I think we saw a few leaves of poison ivy at one stretch, but this is totally unlike the Ash Creek drainage! There were many very scenic sections with beautiful shade trees over an open grassy forest floor.

On a prominent point above Shingle Mill Canyon about a mile before Horse Camp, we encountered the remains of one of the tramway towers that once stood here. It was amazing to imagine a tramway built 95 years ago carrying lumber down the mountain across this point.

Shortly thereafter, we reached the junction for Hulda Gap Corral, but opted to skip the short side trip. From this point on, the hike basically sucked :bdh: . The next two miles or so consisted of a narrow quad track -- but one I can't imagine anybody ever wanting to ride. It was a rocky roadbed of misery and one that I'm confident I could walk faster than anybody could ride. The last four miles the road is wider and could be done in a high-clearance 4wd vehicle, but is the true definition of a Jeep trail. Once again, most of the route could be traveled faster on foot. It would be a bone-jarring rock-crawling mess in a vehicle.

There's also no rewarding value to these lower six miles of Shingle Mill trail. It is some of the driest, blandest, harshest, rockiest desert you have ever seen, devoid of even the smallest shade-providing shrub or tree. And now we figured out why the upper part was not maintained. I still think that the 2.5 miles from Ash Creek Trail to Hulda Gap should be cleaned up. It could be a real gem if not for the overgrowth. But coming in from the bottom simply isn't worth the six mile road hike to get there. If those six miles were on a reasonable dirt road and you could drive significantly closer, that would also be another story. But it's not.

So anyway, we reached the end of the road and took a one mile off-trail hike through the desert back to Cluff Ranch and the truck parked at Pond 3. After some relaxing and fishing along the pond it was time to round up and head home.

One nice surprise for this hike is how surprisingly close it is. Less than 2.5 hours to get to. Not at all like driving to the top of Mt Graham!

Thanks for the suggestion Lee!

Water note: I never carried more than a liter. I drank straight from Ash Creek and didn't even consider filtering the pure snowmelt. No illnesses endured (yet?). I finished my liter by Horse Camp on the way down and filled another there, but never drank any of it. The cooler back at the truck was more appealing :)
wildflower observationwildflower observationwildflower observationwildflower observationwildflower observation
Wildflowers Observation Light
Random colors at higher elevations. Ocotillo explosion at around 4,000ft.

water 1 out of 5water 2 out of 5water 3 out of 5water less than max Ash Creek Falls Medium flow Medium flow
It gets stronger than this, but still a steady flow. Surface water flowing all the way to Cluff ponds.

water 1 out of 5water 2 out of 5water 3 out of 5water 4 out of 5 Cluff Reservoir Number Three 76-100% full 76-100% full
Full. Filling. Overflowing.

water 1 out of 5water 2 out of 5water 3 out of 5water less than max East Ash Creek - Pinalenos Medium flow Medium flow
Nice flow over the falls near the jct with main fork of Ash Creek

water 1 out of 5water less than maxwater less than maxwater less than max Shingle Mill Canyon at Tr#35 Pools to trickle Pools to trickle
Dry in sections, light flow in others. Basically if there was bedrock it was wet, if not it was dry.

dry Tramline Tank Dry Dry
Looks like it would only hold a small amount of muddy water immediately after rains.

water 1 out of 5water less than maxwater less than maxwater less than max West Shingle Mill Creek Pools to trickle Pools to trickle
Slickrock slot just above trail crossing appears to be a perennial source of surface water. Clear pools, and light flow through this section.
33s over 45s
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