Sunlight filtered softly through the tall pine trees as I eyed up my three kids. We had spent the last few months preparing for this moment, testing our limitations and gear, and I still wasn't sure if we were ready for this particular adventure. Day-long hikes and car camping were one thing -- an overnight backpack was a whole different challenge. Putting my hesitation to the side I swung on my heavy pack, took one last look at the Jeep, and we set off towards the start of the trail.
Last night we had driven up from Phoenix and spent the night on top of the Mogollon Rim near U-Bar Trail, part of the Cabin Loop. This seemed like a good testing ground for us, given that I've done different versions of this loop... four times? At least four times. It's a mostly flat loop through shaded pine forests with plenty of water sources and campsites along the trail. We would stick to the eastern side, which is around eighteen miles in all, and split the distance over two days.
U-Bar Trail is a real treat to start the adventure featuring easy hiking along a flat forest floor surrounded by huge pines and ferns. Each kid had their hiking pole and school backpack full of snacks and their water bottle, and they tromped along in single file singing songs, and the first few miles passed quickly. We paused briefly at Dane Spring before pushing onto Dane Canyon, the first big canyon of the day, where we stopped for a longer break and I let the kids hunt for "lobsters" (crayfish) in the intermittent pools. The happy sounds of kids playing in the otherwise-peaceful forest made for an enjoyable rest in the mid-morning air.
Climbing out of Dane Canyon was tough, and the ridge felt hot compared to the cool air of the canyon below. I was glad that we had stopped for a long break and that lunchtime would be around the corner. There was a road to cross and some washes to follow, and soon enough we were dropping right back down into the second canyon of the day.
Barbershop Canyon is always a treat. Its well-shaded and has several large campsites alongside deep, dependable pools. We stopped and I prepared a special lunch - mac 'n cheese - for the kids. They played with the water (with strict warnings to keep their boots dry) before and after eating, and I made sure to give all of us a long break before the hot afternoon ahead. We still had a ways to hike before our evening campsite.
Climbing up Barbershop is a haul, and once we were on top there was a stiff, hot wind blowing through the forest. The next few miles dragged. It was hot, kids were crabby, and our slow pace wore on my patience. I used candy and stories to bribe them, and a other hikers broke up the monotony, its just a few boring miles. At least we spent some time on old forest roads, which allowed me to hold slow hiker hands, and give them a pace to keep up with. Eventually we dropped down into Houston Draw and had a short break at Pinchot Cabin.
This was one option for camp, though it would make tomorrow a very long day, and since we still had hours of daylight I decided to push up Houston Brothers Trail to Aspen Spring, which is normally a very enjoyable section of trail. The kids were exhausted and spent much of the time arguing amongst themselves. With promises of dinner treats, I cajoled the troop to continue moving forward, and by five we reached our destination. We set up camp together before I let them explore the creek and nearby spring.
Another couple showed up an hour later and camped at the other side of the meadow, likely happy to keep their distance from our raucous. With a fire ban in place we kept a low profile, cooking quesadillas over a gas stove, snacking on cookies instead of the usual s'mores, and while the kids missed the usual campfire, they seemed content after I supplied enough food. The sun set and I tucked them in before setting myself up with some tea and a book, and soon I had drifted off as well.
I woke early, as I normally do while camping, and quickly packed my gear up and cooked my breakfast before waking up the kids. They packed up most of their gear by themselves and we headed out in the cool morning air, all three of them munching on granola bars and drinking freshly-filtered water.
Houston Brothers Trail travels through large, open meadows south of Aspen Spring, then enters into a pleasant forest, then turns into a small roller-coaster of little hills before meeting Barbershop Trail. We finished the trail around ten and took a short break before turning east on Barbershop, and soon were strolling along the pleasant, fern-covered meadow of Upper Barbershop Spring. I've always enjoyed this area and we took a long break here, playing on the boulders and pulling water to finish the hike.
The final few miles were tough. There are four small climbs, short compared to yesterday's deep canyons, almost insurmountable for tiny legs. The afternoon heat began to cook and my treat supply ran low. I made a mistake at one of the forks and the kids were instantly convinced that we were lost forever. When, after an eternity, we reached the Jeep, there was a sudden surge of energy and a great celebration.
Two days was a good length, especially given the limits of our gear and the size of my pack, but the mileage was too much. Twelve miles would have been perfect and would have allowed more play breaks scattered throughout. Regardless, taking three young kids on a two-day backpack seemed ridiculous a few months ago, and I'm incredibly impressed at how well they all did.