|Backpack||41.29 Miles||3 Days 7 Hrs 1 Min |
|10,633 ft AEG|
|I’ve wanted to do a multi-day tour of the Rincons since I was a teenager, but interest, fitness, and proximity never seemed to line up. Fortunately for me that alignment finally happened and I had a great (and sometimes challenging) trip.|
The overall plan called for a four day / three night trip that included a visit to the summits of both Rincon Peak and Mica Mountain.
Day 1 — Going up!
The plan for the first day was to hike to Happy Valley camp via Miller Creek and drop the bulk of my gear there. I’d then take a day pack to Rincon Peak and return to camp for the night. Since it appeared that water wasn’t available anywhere near Happy Valley I had to carry all that I would need for the first two days. In case you’re wondering that ended up being 11 liters of water (at 2.2lb per liter it made for a heavy pack).
After an especially brutal 4:00am alarm I was on the road and heading for the trailhead before dawn. I arrived at Miller Creek around 6:30am and upon opening the rear hatch of the truck found my pack in a puddle of water! Not an auspicious start. As best I could tell the pack rolled over onto the hydration bladder mouthpiece and the bladder drained outside the pack. Fortunately something told me that I should put an “emergency” gallon of water into the truck the day before so all I had to do was refill out of that. I was extremely lucky that the leak was external to the pack. Although my entire sleep system was in a dry bag it would have sucked to have the rest of my gear get wet.
I was intent on getting to Happy Valley as quickly as I possibly could. Not only did I want to ensure that I had plenty of time to make it up and down Rincon Peak I knew Happy Valley was fully booked and I wanted to ensure that I got one of the two “good” sites there. I pushed hard up the Miller Creek trail with only a few brief stops.
Lesson learned — never race up a steep trail while carrying a heavy pack! By the time I got to Happy Valley I was absolutely spent. I had never pushed myself that hard on a hike and I was feeling it. The entire campsite was empty so I snagged site 3 for myself, hung my hammock, and got my daypack setup.
After a quick break I set off for Rincon Peak and was marveling at how much better I felt with such a lightweight pack. Then the trail started climbing and my morning adventure really started taking its toll. Getting up Rincon Peak was hard. My legs were spent and my energy reserves were depleted. On top of that I was concerned about water. I knew that I had plenty, but was a bit concerned that this day’s hiking was going to have a heavy impact on the water I had available for myself tomorrow.
After a lot of stops to take pictures and give my legs a break I arrived at the peak. The views were outstanding as expected, but the wind made it really hard to enjoy. I snapped some photos and took shelter behind the remnants of the giant cairn to have a snack.
The hike down was mostly uneventful, but due to the steepness of the grade and my overall exhaustion I was getting concerned that I would end up rolling an ankle. Ultimately, I made it down without any injuries and returned to camp.
The evening was relaxing and the campsite never did fill up. After dinner I read a bit and turned in really early.
Day 2 — Moving to Mica Mountain
Although I got over 9 hours of sleep I was still up before dawn. The plan was to break camp and hike Heartbreak Ridge to cross over to Manning Camp, which would be my home for the next two nights. Knowing that part of this hike was exposed I wanted to be sure to get an early start. I had a quick breakfast, broke camp, and was on the trail by 7:20. I have to say that switching to a hammock has made camp setup and breakdown sooo much easier.
The hike was mostly uneventful. Knowing that I really overstressed myself the day prior I made an effort to keep my overall exertion level in check. I didn’t want to risk overdoing it again as that would be a surefire way to injure myself.
I made a stop at the Happy Valley lookout (the hantavirus hotel) and found it completely locked down. The views were stunning, but the wind was just as bad as the day before so I didn’t stay too long.
After the climb to the lookout the rest of the hike was nice and easy. I routed via Devil’s Bathtub and was bummed to find that there was barely a trickle of water over the falls. I took another break here, but not for long due to the wind.
With a little more climbing I made it to Manning Camp and found the place completely empty. At first I though that the cabin was open, but that was only the door to the breezeway. The kitchen was setup out back and it looked like it had been recently occupied, but there wasn’t a ranger in sight. I didn’t see one the entire time I was there.
I walked through the camp and ended up selecting site 3 (farthest from the cabin). Found some trees for my hammock, cleaned myself up, and took a little nap. After that it was dinner and another early night.
I have to say that Manning camp is a bit spooky after dark when there’s no one else there. It’s kind of like the summer camp setting from a bad horror movie. As I was reading in my hammock I swear I saw a headlamp coming up the trail and later some spillover light from the direction of the cabin on the trees above me. I didn’t think much of it as I assumed that it was a late arrival (it was only about 8:30pm at this point).
Day 3 — Touring Mica Mountain
I had another very restful night (loving this hammock thing) and used the fact that it was 33 degrees to lounge in my quilt for an hour. My view was of Rincon Peak and I spent the time watching the change of colors on the mountain as the sun rose while listening to the forest wake up and get on with its day. I can’t imagine a more peaceful way to start a day.
After getting up I walked around manning camp expecting to see the owner of last night’s light, but found no one. None of the campsites were disturbed and there was still no sign of life at the cabin. Spooky…
I had a lazy morning and eventually hit the trail with a day pack. My intention was to hike as many of the Mica Complex trails as I could. I set off on a counter-clockwise walk of the Fire Loop trail and went off trail on several occasions to take in the view from a rock outcropping or to investigate the forest around the trail. The views from Reef Rock were outstanding and as luck would have it the wind wasn’t too bad so I was able to soak in those views for a bit longer than at prior stops. One thing that caught my eye was a stand of aspens on the hillside below me. At the time I didn’t realize that they were adjacent to the Spud Rock campground which I would end up visiting on my way out.
I continued on the Fire Loop and ran into a pack of 5 or 6 Coatimundi just a little bit past Reef Rock. Based on other trip reports this appears to be a popular spot for them. I always enjoy a Coati sighting as they always appear to be having so much fun.
Shortly after the Coati I started getting a very uneasy feeling as if I was being watched. I stopped several times to look around and saw no one and nothing. I kept moving and the feeling subsided, but I do wonder if I had caught the eye of a bear or mountain lion. It was all very unnerving to say the least.
Throughout this hike I was struck by the overall health of the forest. Sure there was evidence of recent fire, but it wasn’t the scorched earth that I’ve grown accustomed to in the Catalinas and Santa Ritas. I don’t know if it’s a difference in how the NPS manages the land or just pure luck, but I was thrilled to be able to experience it. This is what Mt Lemmon used to be like when I was growing up.
I continued on the Fire Loop and made a stop at the Mica summit then took a detour to scramble up to the top of Spud Rock. This was another impressive view and I had to chuckle to myself that even the most mundane lookout points had stunning vistas and I was becoming a bit jaded. Unfortunately, the wind had picked up again to I didn’t stay longer than a few minutes to take it all in and have a snack.
At this point I was debating on doing the North Slope trail or heading back to camp. It was still early but I also wasn’t sure I wanted to deal with what some trip reports had described as an exhausting bushwhack. Ultimately my stubbornness won out and I dropped down to check it out. I promised myself that if the trail got too sketchy I would turn back. Of course but the time I hit the bad sections I felt I was too far in to turn back.
If you’re not familiar with the North Slope trail it generally parallels the NW Fire Loop, but does it 200 - 300 ft down slope. In 2003 this area was hit HARD by the Helen’s 2 fire and it still hasn’t recovered. This was a hot fire and is one of the few spots on the mountain where it is truly scorched earth. Very few trees are left standing, but most of what has fallen has been cleared from the trail. There were still some rather large obstacles to climb over, but it wasn’t one tree after another as I had feared.
Overall the trail wasn’t too bad and some of the reports either exaggerated its state or were of very different conditions. The trail did simply disappear in several places, but most times I was able to find a blaze to get me back on track. In the times that a blaze wasn’t available I realized that there was a certain method to the madness of these trails and I could generally predict where it should go if the pattern held. I never had to backtrack and always ended up back on the trail so it wasn’t too bad. The biggest issue was overgrowth of thorny bushes (fortunately no cat’s claw) but those areas were limited and easily pushed through.
There were a couple of unburned areas in the middle of the overall carnage and they provided a picture of what the forest had been like. This was a beautiful stand of Douglas Fir with some Ponderosa Pine mixed in. As mentioned by @ShatteredArm the trees that are still there are enormous (especially by AZ standards). The most impressive healthy section was at the NE end of the trail near Italian Spring. The trees were amazing in this area as was the view from a large granite outcrop.
Once I hit Italian Spring I hung a right on the AZT and took that all the way back to Manning Camp.
Upon arrival I met my new camp neighbors who had a clogged water filter. After filtering some water for them I settled in for a relaxing evening.
Day 4 — Going down
I was greeted with another chilly morning, but knowing the stats of the hike ahead of me I knew I had to hit the trail as early as possible. The cold was slowing me down as I wasn’t packed up and on the trail until 8:30. This was a little later than I had hoped.
The plan was to follow Fire Loop trail Heartbreak Ridge Switchback Trail East Slope Spud Rock CG Dear Head Spring Trail Turkey Creek Trail Road walk Miller Creek TH. That’s about 3 miles of trail before I hit Turkey Creek and started descending in earnest.
The first part of this hike was beautiful and I was making good time. While the Switchback Trail is an apt name, I do think that a better one would be the ‘Overgrown Thornbushes with Ankle-Rolling Rocks’ Trail. I was glad to be done with it.
I wanted to stop by Spud Rock campground in order to see what it was like and decide whether or not I would want to stay there on a future trip. Upon arrival I passed through the aspen grove that I had spotted from Reef Rock and it really was a beautiful sight up close. The campground was nice, but I’m not sure I would want to make it a destination. I really appreciated the solitude, but feared that it might be a bit far from everything to be a good place to stay. The spring was bone dry and that further underlined the disadvantage of this site.
Once on the Turkey Creek trail I was making reasonably good time, but was slowed down in spots by the steepness of the trail. Add in some really annoying gnats swarming my head and I was not enjoying myself at all. Fortunately, I had brought along a head net or I would have been truly miserable.
Roughly halfway into the hike I had to stop in order to attend to a hotspot on one of my toes. This was a bit of a shock to me as I haven’t had a blister in decades, but something wasn’t right. Turns out that my big toe was rubbing in a small gap between the edge of my orthotic insole and the upper. Apparently the descent had made the geometry just right to form the start of what looked to be a pretty nasty blister. Out came the Leukotape and after wrapping my toe I was able to stand and walk without pain so I pressed on.
Soon after the steep descent stopped and the trail transitioned into a combination of shrub and grassland. The tree I stopped under to attend to my toe was one of the last spots of shade that I had until I hit the bottom of the road. While I was thankful for the gentler trail tread I was cursing the exposure. I could make good time on this trail, but with the temps already in the high 80s and the sun directly overhead I had to manage my exertion very carefully.
Fortunately, I had plenty of water and was able to maintain a sensible pace, but I wouldn’t want to be on this trail at all if it were any warmer. After about a mile I completely understood the benefit of an umbrella for hiking and made plans to acquire one as soon as possible. Hell, had I run across a pop-up umbrella stand on the trail I likely would have paid a premium for anything that would provide shade.
Aside from the brutal conditions the trek to the trailhead and then down the road was uneventful. Once I hit the campsites near the junction with FR35 I stopped and took a much-needed break in the shade. Continued on and found my truck just where I left it. Fired it up, cranked the A/C, had some lunch, and then started the drive home.
All in all this was a fantastic trip and I have tons of great memories and photos to serve as a reminder of the challenge and sense of accomplishment. Most importantly I learned a lot about myself and some of the stupid things that I end up talking myself into (like rushing up Miller Creek). This experience pushed me outside my comfort zone on many occasions and will definitely impact choices that I make on future trips.
The Rincons really are a special place and I definitely want to spend more time exploring Mica Mountain (off trail) as well as the area around Happy Valley and Rincon Creek. The forest is beautiful and since it requires so much effort to reach you are unlikely to see many people. I saw a total of 7 people over the course of the entire trip and that isolation made it much easier to enjoy nature. There weren’t any noisy people over the ridge disturbing the wildlife nor were there the constant reminders of human presence that you see on so many other trails.
I have to say that I’m somewhat in awe of the people who manage to do a similar loop as a day hike / run. That’s a level of strength and fitness that I can’t really fathom right now. On the other hand I couldn’t fathom doing the trip I did 6 months ago so my perspective will likely change. Even if I get to the point where I could do this in a day I’m not sure that I would want to give up the overnight part of the experience. This forest is truly magical in the early morning and that’s something that can only really be appreciated when you wake up in the middle of it.
|Very slight trickle over the falls to a very shallow pool below.|
||Manning Camp Spring
||Quart per minute
||Quart per minute
|Reasonable flow over the falls to decent sized pools below. Saw deer browsing inside the fenced area so this water really should be filtered, treated, or boiled before use.|