|Hiking||7.70 Miles|| 3 Hrs 38 Mns ||2.15 mph|
|2,117 ft AEG|| 3 Mns Break|
|It's not the fire. It's the flooding. Wow.|
I've posted a ton of photos. Not because they're pretty. But I haven't seen photos posted from here post-fire and I have tried to document as many of the scenes as possible. The photos are geocoded if you'd like to look up the exact locations.
I had wanted to check out Mt. Graham for the first time since the 2017 Frye fire and this summer the forecast always seemed in opposition to the times I could head that direction. This weekend the forecast seemed a lot more reasonable than what actually happened, but that's the nature of summer in Arizona!
Saturday morning I headed out from the bottom near Cluff Ponds. The first creek crossing was manageable, but that will vary based on recent runoff. It was not subaru-able, and I was happy to put it in 4-Lo to crawl up the loose boulders on the edge of the creek. The second crossing is now the end of the road, and at less than a mile from the previous end of the road, there's really no reason to expect the FS to bother repairing it. So chalk up some extra mileage to this hike from here on out.
As I climbed, the clouds over the peaks got angrier looking and eventually rain was evident. I decide to check the radar, and it looked ugly. Once the rain started and there was lightning on the ridge I bailed. There was no reason to continue hiking toward a storm like that!
As I drove around to the top of the mountain, I received a NWS flash flood warning for Ash Creek. Over 1.5" of rain had fallen in an hour and the creek had risen 3 feet. Seemed like I had made a good decision!! On the mountain, it rained all night long, tallying 3.2" at Columbine. So the next morning seemed like a great time to attempt to explore the trail from the top down.
There's scant sign of a trail in the upper portion where the fire burned hot and left a forest of matchsticks. The ground is ashy and after the rain it was a muddy mess. Most of the trail tread was washed out but I was able to follow it in a lot of places. The new growth aspens have really taken over, which I won't complain about. But when they decide that working on rebuilding this trail again makes sense, there will be a lot of aspen growth that needs to be cleared.
At the bottom of the initial switchbacks, the trail has become the creek, with water eroding and digging a deep channel where the trail used to be. Countless trees have fallen and blocked the path. This kind of thing will continue for years here. About a mile down the fire damage dissipates and the creek drainage is only occasionally touched by burn area from the ridges above. This condition continues for the rest of the hike to the falls, and appears similar all the way to the bottom. But the ridge to the east of the creek from the bible camp downward appears to be largely torched. This is surely the primary cause for the catastrophic flood damage along the creek.
The main drainage crossing about 1.3 miles down was one that I had difficulty with. The flood channel was so deep and the sides so unstable that it was challenging to find spots to climb into and then subsequently get out on the other side. These are 15-foot vertical walls of crumbly dirt and rock.
Below this point there were many reasonable sections along the old road bed where travel was ok. Crossing the creek above the mill site was a bit tricky again, and below the mill site where another drainage comes in from the west was a definite challenge.
There are places where the old trail cut is evident, and there are others where it is clear that the flood has eroded the shelf where the trail once traveled. With my travel going so slowly, I opted for the bypass route when I came to it, which seemed to be a better option. There wasn't much fire on this hillside, but the tread is still eroded, and the lack of use for two years has made it quite overgrown. But rehabilitating this bypass won't be too difficult.
I reached the point where I could view down the complete Ash drainage to the Gila Valley below. It was just some steep switchbacks now before I was able to see the falls. While the flash flood from yesterday had dissipated, the flow was still very strong, and probably as much water as I've ever seen flowing over them. As I tried to find a couple of the familiar photo locations to share "how it looks now" photos I was stuck by the continual sound of crashing rock down the falls. The creek isn't just flowing water right now, but continues to move rock down the mountain.
As I turned around and headed back up along the creek itself, I actually considered that it may have been wise to have a helmet. I was wary of loose banks that might slide and trees that might fall, but I hadn't considered the loose rocks that were bouncing through the granite bedrock sections of stream.
In places I attempted to find the old tread, but for the most part I just rock-hopped upstream. There were a couple of crossings where getting wet was unavoidable. There were a couple of small falls I couldn't climb safely, or was unhappy with the stability of the hillside I would have to climb. I was careful to not loosen any earth and debris that might cascade down on me.
As I worked my way back up to the mill site, I decided that I didn't want to retrace my steps in the muddy matchstick upper section of the hike and instead made a beeline up 400 feet to the bible camp. I was a little surprised to find it deserted, but also unharmed by fire. A longer, but far quicker hike along the road brought me back to Columbine.
I was happy to see that so much of the canyon had not burned. But the flooding was truly devastating. I can't imagine how many years it will take for that eroded rock and gravel to sprout new life, for it to resemble a mountain stream with grassy banks once again. Fire burned areas will sprout new life. That flood damage though...