Driving west of Phoenix can be a dreadfully boring endeavor. The desert is flat and hot, the highways are straight for miles, and there are few smatterings of interesting rocky formations in the distant haze. I've driven this way a few times on the way to Quartzite, where my grandparents live and parents winter, and I always stock up on sugary snacks to keep myself awake. Today, though, today I headed west on I-10 for a different destination. It was time to check out some of those interesting rocky formations with the kids.
It's over two hours to reach Eagletail Wilderness. 84 miles west on I-10, then a quick haul down the paved Salome/Harquahala Valley Road, then 7 miles on a dirt section of Centennial, followed by a very sandy and nasty 4 miles on the El Paso Access Road, and finally a few miles down a forest road to Courthouse Trailhead. Those last few miles were definitely the worst. I was hunkered over the steering wheel, dodging the sharper rocks and revving over loose gravel, snapping at my kids when they got too loud in the back. I was relieved when the long drive and tough going paid off with an empty parking lot under the imposing gaze of Courthouse Rock.
I filled my backpack with a plethora of snacks and treats for today's hike. Sure, I made them a large breakfast before leaving the house, yet that was hours ago when it was still dark, and we would be in the hot, exposed desert for much of the day. Once everyone was properly ready we headed out on Ben Avery Trail, which started as a two-track running along a cool wash, and were soon surrounded by a fantastical bloom of desert flowers and plants.
As expected, they bickered about who got to lead, so I had to step in and rotate our line-up every twenty minutes or so. Charlotte is especially sensitive, and will throw a big fit if one of the boys get too close to her, thinking that they are trying to cut in front of her - which is often true. Thomas had a big meltdown an hour in about his trekking pole not working correctly so I simply took it from him, and then he screamed about it for awhile. I distracted myself by gazing at the impressive rocky crags of the wilderness, imagining the bighorns gazing down at our raucous group with disdain.
Our trail started as a two-track and switched to a single footpath, climbing a small rise and then coasting down the other side, sometimes dancing between sandy washes, other times bouncing from bank to bank within one. There were traces of water from the recent rains and the kids amused themselves by playing in the mud and splashing rocks. Our going was slow and I didn't rush them. We had all day out here and I was only mildly concerned about the afternoon heat.
Eventually we neared the cliffs around Indian Spring, the basalt walls that held onto hundreds, if not thousands, of ancient petroglyphs, layers upon layers from different centuries and tribes. We had a quick glance before pushing onto the spring. We were all ready for lunch and I hoped that the actual spring site would make for a good break spot.
Indian Spring was a bit disappointing. All I found was a narrow basalt tank, maybe a foot deep, with no nearby trickle. I expected something more impressive given the historic importance of this location and the recent rains. Perhaps there are more springs nestled in the cliffs, forgotten by modern travelers, that I missed. There was no room to spread out for lunch, so instead we backtracked into the main wash, paused for a quick photo break in field of owl clover, and then picked a large boulder to huddle under.
Lunch was a relatively grand affair, with sandwiches, yogurt, juice, and dessert. They deserved a decent meal for this hike. While they chatted and ate I filtered water from the basalt tank, more to test out my Sawyer than for necessity, as it had performed poorly during my adventure at Deadman Falls. Turns out that all it needed was a good backflush. They played, I packed, and then we took a creative route back up to check out the petroglyphs.
It was past noon as we marched back to the trailhead. The temps were not high, not this early in the year, though the direct sunlight took a toll. There was at least one decent tantrum that resulted in a handful of glochids, those tiny cactus needles that are more like angry fuzz than big pokes, which required some careful tweezers and cuddling. A few extra breaks helped, too. Eventually we returned to Courthouse Rock and the trailhead.
This wasn't our longest or hardest hike, ending up just under seven miles in length. However, the heat really did drain them. All three were sleeping before I got back to El Paso Road and we had a very quiet drive home. I'm glad that we made it out west, and that I finally stepped into Eagletail. That being said, we'll probably be spending more time in the cooler, higher elevations this summer, to the north and east.