On the southern edge of the Mazatzal Wilderness is a little hiking loop made up of access roads, the Arizona Trail, and an old ranching single-track on top of Black Ridge. I've been wanting to take the kids on this loop for a while and, once I felt confident in their endurance, we headed out on a crisp spring morning and parked at Cross F Trailhead. The cold air immediately sucked our breath away and all of us bundled up before starting up the powerline road, hands tucked in pockets and collars cinched tight.
The old ranch trail starts from the established Arizona Trail (Sunflower portion) and climbs 900' up the back of Black Ridge. This east-facing climb is something I've dreaded tackling, with the hot Arizona sun and all, though it was welcomed this morning. Once we were done shivering on the powerline access road and a short jaunt along the AZT we tackled the climb, hauling up the loose, rocky slope, shedding sweatshirts as we heated up. The views distracted us from the steep climb and soon we were perched on top of the ridge, basking in the sun and enjoying expansive views to the south.
I was quite pleased with our progress. This climb was the main barrier of entry for the loop and the kids had knocked it out handily. We found a large juniper and huddled on separate rocks, relaxing over snacks and water. I spent the time looking around and pointing out interesting features, especially of the western side of the Mazatzals, which my kids hadn't seen much of until now.
There were a few small valleys and washes to cross on the ridge. Since this route isn't an official maintained trail the going was slow, plenty of rolling rocks underfoot to mess with the kids, and our westward progress was hard-earned. We played a few games to pass the time and eventually reached Brunson Tank, which I was surprised to see was quite full, and paused here to toss some rocks.
A bunch of confusing forks showed up after the tank and I had to reference my loaded route to figure out which way to go. Our planned loop descending into the upper reaches of Sheep Creek, though there seems to be several trail options that continued west along Black Ridge. Once I found the right path we headed down, dropping under some protected slopes that sheltered spiky growth, and then crossed the dry creek. Curious, I left my kids at the creek with a snack and jogged downstream, looking for any sign of water along the creek. I found two sad puddles and nothing that resembled dependable water, even at the marked "spring" on the map.
We had one more climb left to finish the off-trail portion of the loop, and it was a tough one, with plenty of competing game paths to chose from and loose, rocky ground to traverse. By now the cold morning air had dissipated and I could tell the kids were getting tired. We slogged through the valley, gaining elevation, and reached Little Saddle Mountain Trail shortly before noon.
A quick stroll on the nice trail and we bumped into a familiar unnamed creek, the one that we've hiked along several times before in warmer temps. There was a slight trickle over a rocky waterfall, right above a rocky flat, and we pulled over, more than ready for a lunch break. I let the kids scramble on the rocks while I cooked up some mac 'n cheese for them. We had a pleasantly long rest here, eating and playing next to the trickling waters.
The final few miles was a simple downhill stroll next to the happy creek. Charlotte took one fall on some loose rocks and we held hands for the rest of the hike, which I can't complain about. There were periods of shade and more of sun, a few other hikers to walk around, and some silliness whenever possible. We reached the Jeep around two in the afternoon and piled in, content with the day's adventure, and I could finally check off this little loop from my list of Mazatzal adventures.