It is a long drive to Quartzite. I was heading there, early one weekend morning, to visit some of our extended family, with all three kids and a thermos full of coffee. We decided to make the drive a little longer. Instead of the more direct route on I-10 we headed northwest on the 60 towards Wickenberg, a meandering desert highway with few passing options. We chose this route so that we could visit one of the furthest Maricopa County parks from our house, Hassayampa River Preserve, before our pass expires at the end of February.
Reaching the park a few minutes after it opened, I pulled into a mostly empty lot and headed into the little park building. There was no direct entrance to the trails - instead, you had to go through the building and talk to a friendly man at a desk. After checking our pass I corralled the kids towards the back door, glancing at some of the exhibits on the way, and then exited the warm room and emerged into the brisk morning air. I scanned the trail map and picked the most direct route to Lyke's Lookout, the only meaningful elevation gain in the preserve, which would hopefully warm our blood.
The trails were well-groomed and flat, winding through the riparian environment, and the kids easily led us along the River Ramble towards Lyke. Shoot, someone had even raked the path, as if yesterday's footprints were something to be hidden away under a fresh turn of dirt. More likely they wanted last night's animal prints to be more visible for early hikers. Either way, we didn't see any tracks. We crossed the Hassayampa, a small and simple creek that steamed in the cold air, over a narrow bridge that distracted the kids for a solid ten minutes.
Shortly after crossing the bridge our trail suddenly got real, zipping up a rocky outcropping, with a few exposed sections that had me hovering behind Charlotte in case of a misstep. The climb was only a hundred feet, enough to give us a good view back at the visitor center and down on some railroad tracks to the west. There were also a few palm trees lurking in the east, definitely out of place in this environment. Once the stress of seeing my kids creep towards the edge hit a limit I circled them up and we retraced our steps, walking down the Lookout and back over the river and all the way to the Lion Trail junction, within sight of our starting location.
Lion Trail makes for a nice loop, crossing the river twice, and easing next to a section of railroad tracks. Other than that it was a boring half mile. The kids fought over who got to lead and I tried to lose myself into reading the few plaques along the way, or checking the map to see how to effectively hit as many of the preserve's trails without doubling back (hello graph theory), or calculating what time we had to leave in order to arrive at Quartzite by noon.
I picked a route that included a bit of Mesquite, Palm Lake, and Willow Walkway trails, plus a newer bypass. Based on some rough estimations I figured that this extra distance would have us back to the parking lot by ten and eating lunch with the grandparents after noon. Palm Lake Trail circles Palm Lake and has palms along it, which explains the trees we saw from the lookout. The water itself was scummy and stunk, and the kids were convinced that alligators lurked under the surface, and I couldn't argue with their logic.
Two more shockers, finding mesquite trees along the Mesquite Trail and willows along Willow Trail, waited for us. We passed the easy travel by talking about the nearby roadway (whose noisy traffic was audible throughout most of the hike) and wildlife and how it's important for us, as humans, to take care of 'wild' areas for animals to live. On our way back to the lake Thomas launched into a ad-hoc song about how Emericks are a hiking family, and Noah and Charlotte joined in, and I just about melted on the spot.
We reached the parking lot right on schedule and I distributed some snacks before we headed out. The park was pleasant, and the few keepers we saw were nice, but I'm glad we visited it as part of a larger trip. Even if it had been in season, with green growth and shady trees, Wickenberg is a long drive from Gilbert, and it's hard to justify coming all the way up here for such a small park.