Today I hiked up to Manning Camp in the Rincons. It was a slog, but I solemnly swear that 1500 m (5000 ft) of elevation gain on a cloudy day is much easier than walking for a day through the low desert in the sun. Yes, cloudy – absent for once was the picturesque blue sky, but tall, dark and ominous is how I like my mountains. On the way up I met another thru-hiker, Baja. Two in two days? What craziness is this? We parted after a brief talk and when I encountered him again, he was washing clothing in a rare pool of water. I was not impressed by that, chances being good that the pool will be a water source for someone.
At Manning Camp I reunited with Pops, who is also staying at Manning Camp tonight, and chatted with two women staying one night at Manning Camp and one night at Grass Shack. They have tons of experience backpacking in Arizona and I enjoyed talking to them about the AZT and getting their perspective on various segments. One of the women has an old external frame backpack! I want it! (I don’t know why, since I wouldn’t use it… it’s like… a collectable action figure…)
This morning I met Pops C, a fellow thru-hiker and AZT trail steward. Finally another thru-hiker! He apologized for waking me up, but I was already awake, just lounging in my sleeping bag because I only had 10 km to walk today. A permit is required to camp further along the trail in Saguaro National Park, and my permit is for the day afterwards; apparently the trail isn’t usually monitored but I don’t want to camp illegally since I’m a law-abiding type of person. Yet somehow I keep getting questioned by the police… where’s the justice? Pops left after collecting water from the spigot and I continued lounging for awhile before getting on my way.
The trail was lovely today, with desert flowers blooming against the backdrop of the Rincon Mountains, and majestic saguaro cacti flaunting their superiority to prickly pears.
What more could a girl ask for? Water in Rincon Creek, but whatever. Possibly there was a stagnant pool lurking somewhere, but I had plenty of water and was therefore not invested in searching for a stagnant pool. While looking for a camping spot, I came across a Gila monster. Cool, except at the time I didn’t realize that it was a Gila monster, because I thought they were much larger (you would think that before backpacking in Arizona, I would have learned… anything about Arizona). I approached absurdly close with my camera to get a picture, then thought ‘well, I won’t camp here because that might bother the nice lizard’. Then I walked away.
Poll: At this point, who is reading this journal just to see whether or not I die?
My task today was to resupply in Vail. I decided to leave my pack in the El Bosquecito picnic area where I had camped the previous night, walk the eight kilometres into Vail, walk back to the ranch where I had left the trail yesterday, and pick up my pack when the trail passed the picnic area. That was a reasonable plan, right, RIGHT? You would do it too, RIGHT?
When I started walking down the road, a driver stopped and asked whether I was all right. Apparently I was walking outside of normal hours/locations. I asked about directions to Vail and he said that I was headed the wrong way. Oops. He was suspicious of me and asked who I was and what business I had in Vail, but eventually offered me a ride. As it turns out, he was suspicious because he owns the surrounding ranchland and has seen a lot of ‘weirdos’ in his time, but he quickly warmed up once he decided that I wasn’t a weirdo. He suggested that I buy a gun. No thanks! I would just shoot myself in the leg, and that would hamper my efforts in walking to Utah. He dropped me off at the post office and even returned after running his errand to see whether I wanted a ride back to the ranch, but while I had finished filling my baggies of Nutella and peanut butter from my bounce box (much to the horrified fascination of the PO employee) I still needed to buy sunscreen and some other junk.
After purchasing sunscreen and junk, and more adventures with the PO (I had ordered a GoLite umbrella to be sent there but getting it was a trial, the employee couldn’t locate it the first time and told me it wasn’t there), I started walking back to the ranch. In the correct direction, I’m happy to say. I was quickly offered a ride by another fellow, a Tucson business owner interested in the AZT. He was nice as well, even offered to drive me back into Vail had I forgotten anything. I had forgotten lemonade but that seemed like a poor reason for making him drive me back into town.
The trouble came after he dropped me at the Colossal Cave gate. While I was walking down the road, a woman pulled up in a car and asked (yeah, they just kept pulling up) whether I was the one ‘they’ were looking for.
Someone had found my pack at the picnic area and called the police because they thought I was a missing hiker! Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great when people show concern, but is it really so bizarre that someone would leave their heavy pack somewhere while going to do something else? Shouldn’t there be a time consideration for this type of thing? I was only gone for a few hours! After being carted back to the picnic area by a Colossal Cave employee who had been driving around in search of me, I was lectured by an officer about leaving my gear where people could steal it. I was embarrassed and repentant despite doubting that tourists would want my dirty gear. He then asked me what I can only assume were some form questions always asked of hikers who get into trouble, because they were irrelevant to the situation. At the end of it all, I collected my pack, walked to the ranch and started off on the trail again. No slackpacking involved.
What a weird day. Such is visiting the PO in the life of a thru-hiker. Who is negligent with their gear.
At 2:00 or 3:00 AM last night, I heard a dog barking loudly outside my tent. I was sleepy and didn’t contemplate in depth whose dog it might be (honestly, after the conversation at Kentucky Camp I was thinking it was rabid and just glad that I had no beef jerky lying around) until a few hours later I turned on my headlamp to start packing up and heard voices approaching outside. The dog owners? Hey guys, it’s just me again. Sittin’ here in my tent. But perhaps they were different people. Perhaps I was unknowingly part of an exciting story of the interaction between the two groups as Tent Person #1. Switching off my headlamp, I sat still until they left, then resumed my packing and was back on the AZT by 6:00ish.
For a long time the trail was just more cacti with road crossings. Under one overpass was a gate with a lock mechanism you had to pull up to retract the handle. On an Arizona gate sophistication scale from 1 to 10, it would probably be a 9, while the two-wire loop gates would be a -30. A sign read something like ‘Do not dig. Underground facility. For the exact location of this facility, call (phone number)’. I was tempted to call, then hang up when they asked why I wanted to know, but that sort of behaviour from tourists is probably discouraged.
After three hours I reached the Gabe Zimmerman trailhead, where I was disappointed to find no water. Somehow I had gotten the idea that the ranch was right at the trailhead. I continued on into the gorgeous creek valley, which was green and shady and wonderful. I didn’t filter any water at the stream, not wanting to remove any from the lovely environment. Ah my bleeding heart. It would soon stop bleeding.
Not long after re-entering dry terrain, I started thinking that a certain type of rock along the trail was fake because it made a tinny noise when I hit it with my hiking poles. I became convinced of this notion and started taking pictures of the rocks. I can imagine the conversations: (shows pictures) ‘Hey, did you know about all those fake rocks along the AZT?’ (stranger backs away slowly). I get notions like this all the time, but the preoccupation seemed strange, and I had been walking for four hours without a break, two of those in the sun, so I decided to take a long break in the shade with food and water. It made no difference. Those rocks were fake, I tell you!!!
I had about 50 ml of water left when I reached the ranch. I drank a lot of water there, then headed up to Colossal Cave. Took a tour, which was fine. The adventure tours sounded fun but unfortunately they’re expensive, for groups and you have to reserve in advance. The employees kindly located food for me when I mentioned that I was going to have baggie peanut butter for supper. I’ll camp in the Colossal Cave picnic area tonight, go into Vail tomorrow and probably hike out to the edge of Saguaro National Park the day afterwards. My permit to camp in the national park isn’t until Saturday, so I’ll have a few short days.
I filtered two litres of water from the canyon and soon wished that I had taken more. The trail looped ridiculously around desert hills with no shade and unvarying scenery, adding pointless kilometres to terrain that could have been covered much quicker. I encountered a cyclist and was astounded that he was biking in such temperatures (I was also astounded to see another human being, since I’ve seen almost no one on the AZT). At first I tried not to exert myself in the sun, but soon realized that I was moving absurdly slowly (maybe 1-2 km/hr) and had to speed up if I was ever going to get out of there. Eventually the trail levelled out and I entered mindless automaton mode.
Twin Tanks, which was scummy and repulsive, had a small water cache of a few jugs and some individual 500 ml bottles (note that in AZ, cattle ponds are called tanks). None were labelled, so I concluded that they were trail magic and took one of the bottles. I hope it wasn’t someone’s personal cache, but if it was indeed trail magic, thank you! It made me so happy! It’s amazing what 500 ml of water can do for someone who’s been walking in the boiling sun all morning.
I ended up camping fairly close to a highway in an rocky area of prickly pears, which I hope to never see again after this hike. Gunshots in the distance. I’m worried about water – have about 750 ml left. I’m going to leave early tomorrow so I can hike a decent distance before the sun rises.
The caretaker brought me coffee this morning. I usually drink coffee once or twice per year to accept someone’s hospitality or seem more grown-up to a cute guy who never calls me again, probably because of the weird faces I make while drinking the coffee. He and I talked for awhile and he showed me a book about rattlesnakes, also mentioning that rabid animals are common in this area. That’s… good to know…
The trail started out easy today, crossing a pass that was just a gentle rise.
I was enjoying the scenery, but soon after I passed into the AZT’s sixth segment, the temperature rose to awful heights and I started to feel unwell. I took a break and sipped water in the shade until I felt slightly better. When I started off again the trail began weaving in and out of canyons, and finding unexpected water higher up in one, I stopped to camp nearby for the night.
Today’s walking was easy, mostly downhill or flat with a few uphill sections. Just past the junction to Bear Spring was an attractive camping area. More water! It’s a smorgasbord! The AZT then traversed a mountain called ‘Ditch Mountain’, and while the name has a story behind it – a ditch running around the mountain was used to transport and collect water for mining – it’s still the worst name for a mountain I’ve ever heard. ‘I climbed Ditch Mountain today.’ ‘No doubt a second Everest.’
The final segment of the trail before Kentucky Camp had interpretive signs about the area’s mining history. I suppose that some people find interpretive signs disruptive to the scenery, but I always enjoy them. I had just reached the first when I heard gunshots and motors revving from over the top of the hill. I waited for awhile in the hope that the people would leave, then got bored and headed up the trail. A congregation was milling around on the road below: two boys on dirt bikes, horseback riders and people in a truck. Not sure who had the gun(s), but I passed them and continued along the AZT.
The road turned off into the hills and the AZT shifted to the route of a pipeline once used for mining. The scenery became boring and I was glad when I reached Kentucky Camp, which has restored buildings in which one can wander around freely, clean outhouses, two spigots and a hose. Luxury! I was definitely going to camp here! Presently the caretaker drove up and I asked him whether he had rules for campers. He seemed… eccentric but friendly. I camped for the night behind the main building, next to one of the spigots.
On my way out of Patagonia this morning, an AZT sign on the highway tricked me into going through a hole in a fence into the schoolyard – apparently meant for drivers coming down the highway from the other direction, the sign is located after the place where you’re meant to turn. I guess the Arizona Trail Association expects people to have enough common sense to not believe that a hole in a fence is the proper route. After I got back on track, a car drove up and a father and his daughters got out to introduce themselves and discuss the AZT. It was nice to meet a parent so supportive of women thru-hiking solo.
Following a dirt road to the Temporal Gulch trailhead, the AZT entered beautiful terrain with bountiful water.
After passing some pretty campsites with car campers, and a mine entrance sculpted from bluish dirt, I reached a steep climb up a dirt track with great views but no switchbacks.
Even after the AZT switched to single track it had no switchbacks for awhile, apparently following the policy that switchbacks are for wusses, then eventually it realized that many of us are wusses and want switchbacks. At the end of the climb, I made camp for the night on a flat spot. Phew.
Today was a zero day in Patagonia, a weird and fabulous little town with an artsy pizza place, pilates building, organic grocery and <1000 people. In the post office they have a book for AZT thru-hikers to sign, but I’m the first hiker this year to sign it. Y’all are dropping the ball.
After more rolling around in the Canelo Hills this morning, the trail climbed to a dirt road with beautiful views and various traps to lure inattentive hikers away from the trail (pink markers, gates with the ‘please close’ sign). It then passed into pastureland with mean-looking cows that demonstrated no interest in running away or doing anything but staring menacingly. I took a detour through the forest to avoid some of them.
Middle Canyon had pools of water, but cows drink from them, so don’t expect a nice taste. I filtered two litres and classified it as ‘cooking/emergency drinking water’ before starting a long climb up to a high point in the hills and a subsequent steep drop to the Canelo Pass trailhead.
At the trailhead, I drank some of the cooking/emergency drinking water. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be – it did have a bovine taste, but didn’t taste as bad as it smelled, and taste isn’t hard to ignore when you’re thirsty.
The trail climbed again to an obvious saddle, then descended. Initially the scenery was on the level of Scotia Canyon, but transitioned into lovely meadows where I would recommend camping if your (future hiker’s) day is wearing on.
After the lovely meadows came horrible country where every inch of the ground was covered with brambles, rocks or cow droppings. I was still trying to find a campsite in the awfulness when the sun set, so I thought… ‘might as well walk to Patagonia‘, the first of the AZT trail towns.
I think that walking rocky trails in the dark is foolish and should be avoided whenever possible. Moreover, Patagonia was far from my starting point, 42.5 km (about 27 miles), and route-finding was tricky sometimes when the trail vanished at washes. A more powerful headlamp probably would have helped. Even before sunset, I encountered a confusing spot at a cattle tank with an AZT post directing hikers one way and mountain bikers/ATVers the other. If you go the hiker route, you cross water to a sign that says ‘no camping for the next 1/4 mile to protect sensitive habitat’, then the trail disappears. If you head back towards the AZT post, you then see a AZT sign on the near side directing you to the mountain bike/ATV route. That sign would have been nice on the other side, no? At any rate, you’re meant to walk down the gully until you reach another dirt road where the trail picks up.
I ended up walking in the dark for around four hours. As far as I could tell, the scenery for most of those hours was pasture, but near the end I murkily deciphered it getting prettier with grass-coated hillsides. The final section was on road, then finally Patagonia! I must have looked like the walking dead by that point. A border patrol officer stopped to ask whether I was all right, saying that he had never seen anyone walking on the road so late before. I guess that people who have crossed the border illegally keep more reasonable hours.
Awful beginning to day three. I couldn’t find the trail down Scotia Canyon, so I walked downstream until the AZT crossed my path and headed up a hill to the right. After a long, gradual climb through a pasture to the Parker Lake trailhead, I walked to the Parker Lake store with dreams of lemonade, but discovered upon my arrival that the store is only open on Friday and weekends. Fine then. I filtered water from the lake and headed back up the long hot road.
You may be thinking ‘lemonade is delicious, but its absence doesn’t qualify as awful’. Yes, the awful part comes now! While returning to the trailhead, I somehow got on the wrong road, one that took me back to the start of Scotia Canyon. Therefore I had to redo a non-scenic section of the AZT, and by the time I made it back to the trailhead it felt like the morning had been a waste of time. The only pro of walking the same section twice was that on the second occasion I found a map that had dropped from my pocket. Incompetence preventing littering.
The day improved after my blunder. The AZT passed into the Canelo Hills, which of course necessitated much climbing and descending (being hills and all) but were beautiful, especially in the dramatic shadows of the late afternoon light. I made camp in a high but non-windy area apparently devoid of other people and even animals. The evening was warmer than the last two and despite my misfortune/incompetence this morning, the afternoon made today my favourite day on the trail so far.
My first thought when I woke up on day two was ‘another lovely day in Arizona’. Then, ‘damn it’s cold’. The wind was brutal. You’d think that once I managed to drag myself out of my sleeping bag, the cold would have inspired me to get moving, but after finding a sheltered spot to eat breakfast I didn’t want to return to the absurdly cold location of my tent. I finally began walking around 8:30, two hours after I woke up. Easy wake up, hard go.
The trail climbed up and up, passing a spring that I didn’t bother to investigate, until reaching a junction with the trail to Miller Peak lookout. I slackpacked up, the distance feeling longer than 0.5 miles even without my backpack, but the view was worth it.
From the junction, the trail descended through a shadowy forest that reminded me of home. The temperature was pleasantly cool in the shade. One section of trail was covered in icy snow and I felt grateful for my hiking poles.
I filtered three litres of water at Bathtub Spring, which has a ‘no camping’ sign. In this land of scarce water sources, hikers are supposed to be mindful of allowing animals space to access them.
The AZT proceeded onto the Crest Trail, jauntily rising and falling to an extent that I became irritated and was glad when I reached the junction for Sunnyside Canyon, which contained good campsites as well as water. At one point I became confused because I was walking on what looked like a dirt road and the ATA description says that the trail only follows a dirt road for a short distance. I checked my GPS to make sure that I was still going the right way. I was, and there turned out to be a huge sign marking the end of the wilderness area, so it was impossible to miss.
After the AZT moved into a meadow with stubby trees, I reached a gate with a sign reading ‘please close gate, U.S. department of agriculture’ or something similar. Ah, the gates. There were three of them before Scotia Canyon, all with the same structure of two loops of wire holding one of the gateposts in place. When you remove the loops to open it, the gate falls over. At the first gate, I didn’t notice the lower loop and only replaced the top one, so I hope it was still securely shut. At the second, I noticed the lower loop but couldn’t get the post in, so I just replaced the top one. I couldn’t get the third gate open, so I climbed over the fence via a metal bar to one side of the gate. The third area was filled with cows, which I dislike greatly, but these particular cows were nice and frightened and trotted away.
I wanted to reach Parker Lake by nightfall, but had trouble finding the trail on the other side of the road. The sun was setting, so I found what looked like a cow dung-free section of the pasture and set up camp there.
There are probably hikers who enjoy packing up and carefully arranging their gear so that it consumes the least amount of space possible. I enjoy cramming everything into my backpack, getting frustrated when it doesn’t fit and sticking the leftovers into my pockets when the shuttle arrives fifteen minutes early.
Hello day one!
I had the company of two fellow thru-hikers on the shuttle ride from Tucson to the Coronado National Memorial visitor centre, where a trail extends to meet the AZT near its southern terminus. Lupe is an experienced long-distance hiker, but Jim is a newbie, so I have a compatriot. Or I had a compatriot briefly – they passed me shortly after our 11:00 AM arrival at the visitor centre and I haven’t seen them since.
The Coronado National Memorial commemorates Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s Spanish expedition, which marked the first European sightings of the Grand Canyon and Colorado River. I found the trail near the visitor centre and climbed steadily to its junction with the AZT, where I slackpacked to the southern terminus on the Mexican border. The boundary marker where the AZT begins is on the other side of a fence. A fence with a hole in it…
I returned to my backpack, crossed a road and began the steep climb up to Montezuma Pass. Being a quiet lone hiker paid off in the wildlife department: I saw two deer, two grouse and a lizard.
A pretty campsite at the pass tempted me, but I hadn’t made much progress, so I continued walking until I got worried about becoming stuck on the ridge in the dark and made camp at the first viable spot I saw. Today’s total distance = a whopping 6.5 kilometres.
My campsite wasn’t far above the pass and had a gorgeous view, the price of which was rocks and wind. The sides of my tent were flapping and I kept thinking that I was hearing footsteps outside, but after half an hour of hearing footsteps, you have to acknowledge that anyone lurking around isn’t planning to hurt you… unless they’re slowly and ominously building a bonfire around your tent. If I were to be killed by a random stranger, I’d like it to be someone with a penchant for the dramatic.