Ten miles sat between me and the trailhead as I began my descent from the unplanned bivouac site. My original plan, which had started yesterday, was to do the Midnight Mesa Loop, a 36 mile adventure in the central Mazatzal Wilderness, in a single day, and I would have made it if it wasn't for some cramping issues and a late start. At least I'd like to think I would have made it. Anyways, now it was time for a steep drop down the western end of Red Hills Trail and a familiar trek along Dutchman Grave and Verde.
From the little mining pit that I huddled in last night the trail drops a quick 150' through tall grass with few cairns to guide a way through. There were a few switchbacks that I could just make out in the dim light, otherwise it was a headlong, slow-motion, tumble down the rocky hill. This was what had stopped me, looking down this hill and not knowing how far this section was. In retrospect I guess I could have easily managed the drop after sunset.
Below the drop was a wide, flat road bed, which must have been a staging area for the numerous mines that dotted the hillside. This was way more active than I had previously thought. There wasn't any equipment left behind that I could see in the gray morning light, just piles of poor rock and a wide staging area. It took awhile to figure out which way the trail went, and once I did it was easy cruising for a time, than a painful, overgrown boulder hop along the drainage at the bottom, and then a great trail showed up to curl around the southern hillside.
So, less than a mile of difficulty, and then a cakewalk. Man, I so could have done this last night. Would have been less scenic, sure, but doable. Then again, I'm not sure when I plan on repeating these Mazzie trails, so maybe it's best that I stopped for the night to enjoy this segment during the light. The hills were soaked in red and stacked with saguaro, with Razorback stealing the horizon to the west. It was easy going on this trail, only a few spots where the cairns drifted away and the flat sections hid any trace of tread, when I had to wander and hunt for a way forward. There was at least one spot where I got completely turned around, confused by the mesquite trees and grass, and I had to bring out my GPS and watch step-by-step to un-muddle the mess.
About an hour after starting the sun began to peer into the valley, lighting up the western slopes. My trail had continued to follow the drainage from the mines, circling southward, and we were nestled in a deep creek valley that flows directly into Sycamore Creek at the valley of Dutchman Grave. Anyways, the sun was beginning to wake, and with it the birds in the leafy trees, and I poked over a few times into the creek to see if the birds were hanging around any water sources. Everything was dry, though.
Right at seven I reached Dutchman Grave and the end of Red Hills Trail. Finally, another (lengthy) Mazzie trail completely finished. Now all I had to do was follow Dutchman Grave and Verde Trail, both of which I had just hiked this summer, down HK Mesa and over to Sheep Bridge. Before that I needed some water. The three liters I had camped with were gone and my throat could use some moisture. Luckily, the lower spring is less than a half mile from the trail junction.
A few months ago the lower spring was barely worth a mention. I had to dig in a pile of dead leaves to find a single, sad cup of water. The late summer storms since had transformed the spring into a happy cascade, originating from the roots of a large Sycamore and dribbling down a small rock face. Even had my choice of a few different pools and rocks to filter from. Of course, I picked one that had a little recline, although I had to share the space with a dark spider that looked very… widow-y.
The water tasted a bit skunky, so I washed the first liter down with some fruit-y snacks and mixed the second with some electrolytes. Strangely, I didn't feel that refreshed after the break. It wasn't hot out yet, so my energy levels were probably tied more to the restless night than fresh water, and I didn't have the patience to take a nap. Instead I pulled one extra container of water for the walk and hauled out, eager to reach the trailhead and the ride out and (eventually) my bed.
One of my tricks to pass the time is to think of how many obstacles are left in the hike. It could be miles, though I tend to think of trail segments or climbs instead, as they are easier to count and feel more meaningful to complete than a 15-20 minute mile. Today, thanks to the overnight, there was only two climbs to think about. The first had been earlier, during that curve around the hillside on Red Hills Trail, and the second was the saddle out of this valley. This second climb was barely 250', peanuts compared to the thousand-foot-plus hauls from yesterday, and it hurt like the dickens.
At least it was all downhill from here (it never is). Five miles of easy cruising along HK Mesa, which was green and lush and lovely, lit up with flowers and buzzing with insects and birds. Even the Sycamore Creek to the south, the possible location of the ruins of HK Ranch, seemed brighter and more lovely than during my summer visit. Rain really does bring the desert to life.
Dropping off of HK Mesa meant dealing with a few new obstacles, including a downed cactus and some loose rocks, and the short section of Verde River Trail seemed more difficult than I remembered, especially the rocky drops down and up Sycamore Creek. A rock rolled underfoot near Sycamore Creek and dropped my hip down, hard, on sharp thing, and that hurt for the remainder of the hike. At least the creek was flowing at the bottom. When I finally reached Sheep Bridge I zipped across quickly, marveling briefly at how empty it was on a weekday, before reaching the Jeep and pulling out a lukewarm Gatorade to sip.
Finally, Midnight Mesa Loop was done, as well as Lost Spring, Midnight, and the final section of Red Hills Trail. Now all that was left was Wet Bottom and north of it, segments of Verde and Bull Spring, and all of the Mazzie Trails would be completed. I felt a little bitter at not finishing this loop in a single day, knowing that a few others had, even though it had meant hiking past midnight (fittingly) for them; still, I preferred my safer bivouac decision to that craziness. And today I had enough time to drive home, take a quick shower, and pick up the kids from school. From one wilderness to the next, I suppose.