Hiking in Arizona has become more appealing over the last year. To avoid the hot summer temperatures I can start early in the morning or drive to the higher elevations around Payson and Flagstaff. I've only run into a handful of poisonous creatures and never felt like I was in actual danger. Cactus needles are about as annoying to deal with as mosquito and black flies. Basically, the move from the Midwest and how it has effected hiking hasn't been nearly as bad as I originally thought.
In fact, 2015 was a huge year for me on the hiking front. Whether it's been short trips with my boys or longer hikes with Chris or just going solo, I was out and about on several dozen adventures last year. I'm starting to get into backpacking and went on a few weekend trips in Arizona (oh, and there was that week-long trip to Isle Royale too). Chris and I did a rim-to-river-to-rim at the Grand Canyon in a single day and we've covered huge swaths of the Superstition Wilderness. And now, as a new year begins to roll around, there are plenty of new and exciting opportunities to stretch towards.
Backpacking with Katie
By far, the thing I'm most looking forward to in 2016 is taking Katie along on a few trips. I enjoy the solitude while hiking, and Chris is a great companion to bring along, but the thought of bringing my wife along and sharing something that I'm so passionate about is incredibly exciting. We're going to take it a slow, starting with a short loop in the western Superstitions in a few weeks to test out the waters, and if things go well we may try for a longer adventures in the summer and fall.
Outside of sharing time together in the outdoors, something that we once did frequently up in Michigan but haven't done over the last few years, I'm interested to see how this changes the way we collect gear. When you have a traveling companion there are things, like cooking stoves and water filters, that are redundant to bring along. Also, you get to cook together, (maybe) share tents, swap equipment, etc. I've already been thinking of getting some duplicate items (a sleeping bag for summer vs winter camping, as example) and if Katie really gets into it we could get a bit creative.
Oh, and yes, this is all just laying the groundwork for an Emerick family expedition to Isle Royale in 2025.
The best thing about the Superstitions is how immersive the experiences out there can be. There is the wilderness itself, some 160,000 acres big, and then there is the history and the significance of the land. And it's not just the Lost Dutchman gold rumors of the western mountains - the central and eastern lands hold Native American ruins and more recent ranching remains that can make for great destinations.
Last year I explored much of the western side (though not all) and made a few cautious attempts to the east. The biggest problem is access, as the more distant trailheads require an all-terrain vehicle. Anyways, this year I want to make some serious headway in the eastern highlands, where year-round water, pine forests, and cooler temperatures would be a pleasant change from the smothering heat of Phoenix. Also, there are some significant peaks to bag, such as Tortilla and Buzzard's Roost, that are relatively nearby.
Salome, Hellsgate, and Sierra Ancha
There are more lands around Phoenix for exploring than just the Supes, though, and there are three more wilderness areas that have caught my eye. Salome and Hellsgate are two that are to the northeast and surround deep canyons with year-round water. They are a bit small, though - Salome is less than 18,500 acres and Hellsgate around 37,500 - and hold few trails. A few weekends of cross-country backpacking could hit up most of the major sites.
Sierra Ancha is also not that large, around 21,000, though it seems to be much more rugged with a high point of 7,733. And it is a relatively short drive from Gilbert. With its higher elevation this could make for good summer day hikes… I'm just hesitant to try backpacking out there yet, with the huge elevation swings and few trail loops.
There are plenty of other small wilderness areas to the north, including Fossil Creek, Wet Beaver, West Clear Creek, and Munds Mountain, that may drift up during the year. They aren't that much farther than Hellsgate and offer cooler temperatures and year-round water sources, features that the nearby Superstitions have a hard time promising. Though I have heard that they do see a lot more traffic in the summer, something I usually try to avoid.
Speaking of other wilderness areas, there is one that I've been completely ignoring which happens to be larger than the Superstitions: the Mazatzals. It starts on the north side of Four Peaks Wilderness, just on the other side of 87, and has an impressive 252,000 acres and 240 miles of maintained trails. The highpoint is at Mazatzal Peak at 7,903'. And that's about all I know about it.
I've been ignoring it because of how distracting Four Peaks and the Superstitions have been. However, if I'm going to be backpacking more in 2016, then the Mazatzals are quite appealing. The high elevation means cooler temperatures and there is actual trees and grass on the slopes of the mountains. Also, that many miles of trails could mean plenty of long backpacking loops. I need to do some more research on water sources before committing to anything, though.
Oh, and Extra
Speaking of more backpacking, that is definitely something I want to start doing more. There are still the boys to consider, as well as how much stress to put on Katie and/or babysitters while I'm out enjoying the outdoors, which is why I'm probably not going to do anything as epic as Isle Royale this year. Probably not, anyways.
There are a few ideas floating around for a good long 2016 adventure. There are the Tetons in Wyoming, and non-traditional loops in the Grand Canyon, and the Wonderland Trail up in Washington, all of which would be a lot of fun and would take more than a long weekend to enjoy. I'm still trying to figure out just how much Katie would let me get away with, which may change once we're out there together and she realizes just how much fun it can be.