Last night's storms left their mark at my campsite on the bank of the Blue River. A few broken branches were strewn around, ground was soft and damp, and the air felt crisp and cool, a welcome change from yesterday's hot, stagnant atmosphere. More alarming, though, was the river itself, which had turned from a slow trickle between rocks into a chocolate-brown rush of water. Filtering was time-consuming, with the silt quickly clogging my Sawyer, and crossing it was annoying, though I was able to remain dry thanks to a few ridiculous hops. It was 5:30 by the time I was back on FR 281 and I anxiously hauled up the hill to Steeple Trailhead.
Steeple Trail climbs 4000' from the forest road, first ascending to KP / Steeple Mesa, then passing Mud Spring and a trail junction, and following a ridge overlooking KP Creek before swinging north to the upper trailhead. This would not be an easy trek to make on my third day out, especially with some of the reported fire damage on the upper sections. My plan was to knock out the first climb before the sunrise, cruise to the spring and refill, and then slog up the second under the full sun. Not elegant, yet hopefully an effective plan.
Armed with undeserved optimism I reached the lower trailhead, found a narrow footpath, and started the climb up a few hills. It felt good to stretch my legs and I soon found a rhythm, cruising and sweating under the predawn light. The trail hugs the south side of KP Mesa so, even as the sun broke the horizon, I remained in the shade. I made excellent time, spooking two bighorns with my speedy passage, and I reached the top of the mesa without issue.
Pausing only long enough to let the sweat dry I continued along the flats, enjoying the easy travel in the still-cool air, waking sun warming my back. Short junipers and agave lined a straight, rocky path, and I let my eyes wander north towards KP Creek, west to the pine mountains, and north at Steeple Mesa. Fire damage didn't really show up until the trail hopped over onto Steeple Mesa, and even then it was light, and the way was easy to follow and stroll along.
Next few miles cruised by. There were a few hills to ascend, short hauls that did little to slow my momentum, and long stretches of open land. The huge, pine-covered hills to the west grew in size, and the once-hazy outlines defined into individual trees and rocky ridges. An unexpected trail branched off to the south, probably dropping into KP Creek at some point. At some point my route curved north into the cut of Steeple Creek, tall trees began to tower above for sporadic shade, and I entered the area of Mud Spring.
There were no signs or obvious spurs, so I wandered around, led by my GPS, looking for the spring. The creek was dry, tributaries more so, and the two spots marked on the map had no water. Last night's storm was apparently not enough to replenish the parched land. I was down to two liters, not enough to finish the climb. There was an option - a side trail that would take me back to Upper Grant Creek, where I had come down a few days ago and I knew held water - though that meant backtracking, which was a last resort. Dejected, I wandered up Steeple Trail a half mile, looking for the junction, and instead I found a small pool of water next to my path, more than enough to refill. I happily setup my system and even dumped out the still-silty water from the morning, pulling to full capacity from the tiny puddle.
Armed with a heavy pack and knowing that I was technically halfway done with the day's mileage I returned to the trail and was immediately greeted with one of the nastiest, toughest, and painful-est stretches I've ever hiked. Three miles of steady uphill, constantly fighting through New Mexico Locust, and without a single spot of shade, along a path that was poorly defined and had countless washouts, was absolutely miserable. I tried to embrace it, accept the challenge and power through, but good grief that trail sucked. The Locust plants in particular were nasty, with thorns that grow over an inch piercing clothes, pack, and skin, pulling me back and throwing me off balance.
When I finally reached the top of the canyon I was tired, bleeding, and feeling like I had literally just climbed to the top of the world. That was not the case, though, and I had a few more hills and ridges to climb. There was some more overgrowth to deal with, and the path faded in and out of definition. The views were fantastic. KP Creek made a shockingly deep cut and the blue skies overhead, especially with occasional big cloud that promised more storms this afternoon, were brilliant.
My route left the ridge and headed north, skirting the edges of a few shallow meadows and dancing along low hills. The trail would have been prettier if the fire hadn't hit so hard, and what was once a pine-covered paradise was now fields of ferns, punctuated by black, charred stumps that rose sadly into the air. I passed one hiker in the ferns, first (and only) other person on the trail, and shared a few words before finishing up, re-crossing Grant Creek and zipping back up to the trailhead.
Over fifty miles in three days - not bad for a little backpack, especially given the elevation and rough trails. The area was magnificent and I can't wait to return. Also, the profile of the hike (drop into a valley, climb up the other side, and turn around and return) would give me a good taste of my next adventure, if possible, a more ambitious one.