We needed to get out to the backcountry. It was early summer in 2021, and the kids and I were raring to go on an adventure. There was a spot, next to the Sierra Ancha Wilderness, that I had been looking forward to exploring, so with a loose plan and two full backpacks we headed east, driving past Superior and Globe and up AZ-288, leaving the desert behind and entering the pine-covered mountains. We were going to Hell's Hole for an overnight backpack.
First mile was an easy uphill trot along an old road grade, and the kids happily ran ahead while I chugged slowly along, carrying both an overnight backpack and a stuffed daypack, looking more like a slow-moving turtle than a hiker. My plan was to hike a few miles in this evening, spend the night under the pines, continue to Hell's Hole proper tomorrow as a dayhike, and then grab the overnight gear and return to the trailhead. The total route isn't that long (just over 5 miles, one-way) - it's the elevation I was worried about. An overgrown section of trail drops 1200' down to the creek. That's a big climb for the kids, too much for a single day, so splitting the adventure into two days seemed like a prudent approach.
We soon reached the first saddle and started down the other side. The Armer Ranch sits in the creek valley here, and we could make out some of the buildings and pastures from the trail. If it wasn't for the constant fear of fires during the summer I'd love to live in the Arizona high country, with a dirt driveway under towering Ponderosa pines. We finished the descent and hopped across Workman Creek (this is the same creek we'd see tomorrow, down in Hell's Hole, only much further downstream and downhill) and hauled up the other bank. We found a flat spot with a fire ring and quickly setup camp, eager to eat dinner.
Dinner was a disaster. I had brought along pizza quesadillas (which is normally an easy, tasty dinner) and completely scorched them on my flat pan. We salvaged what we could and snacked through the evening. The darkness came quick, and with it came the cold, and we huddled around the campfire, cooking s'mores and shivering in the sudden change. All three kids were eager to get in their tent and me in my hammock, and by eight the silence of the night was complete.
I woke early after a restless night and quickly tore down my hammock, knocking out some of the camp chores before the kids woke up. I had my breakfast half-eaten before they emerged, blearily blinking in the cool morning light. They helped over the next hour and soon we were all fed, bags were packed, overnight gear tucked in a safe spot, and it was time to start our dayhike.
First mile was a steady uphill walk under Ponderosa pines through the cool forest. Kids move slow and I shivered aplenty, wishing we could walk faster to warm up, and eventually gave up and hoped that the sun would push the cold away. We gained a small ridge and our pine forest gave way to shorter growth, a mix of manzanita and juniper. I was surprised to see just how rugged the surrounding hills were. Expecting rolling hills like the ones close to Payson, instead there were sharp cliff bands and talus-covered slopes, the rugged landscape of Sierra Ancha on a smaller scale. So that impressive geology carries over to north side too, it appears.
Our ridge passed quickly and then it was time to drop back down to Workman Creek. Trail conditions, which had started so nicely this morning, quickly degraded into long sections of overgrowth. The kids hate this stuff. I can't blame them, especially Charlotte, when the prickly stuff that brush against my legs is over her head. Tread was good and we plowed through, taking advantage of the intermittent clear sections to stretch our legs.
I knew that this was going to be a tough hike and kept re-evaluating our day. After all, pushing through brush is easier when gravity is on your side. Climbing out of this was going to be tough, and by mid-day the sun baking the hillside would be less appreciated. Kept telling myself that it was only 1.5 miles of trail and that we had plenty of daylight to take it slow.
From the ridge to the creek took us two hours, and our trail fizzled out near the bank. Kids didn't mind. The moment they saw the deep pools and trickling water they were entranced, any tiredness cleared from their faces, and they rushed forward, grabbing rocks and creating giant splashes that could have been seen from outer space. I found a safe alcove to protect myself from the worst of it and filtered up water for the return hike, and then made myself comfortable in a rock cranny, enjoying their shouts of glee and handing out sugary treats.
Eventually I had to be the bad guy and corral everyone for the return trip. There was some talk of mutiny that I squashed by promising ice cream on the drive home, and that, under the warming sun, was enough to start the haul out. Noah and Thomas did great, often dashing ahead, and I had to give them strict instructions to not go more than a single switchback ahead so I could keep tabs on them. Charlotte struggled, which was fine, and I ended up carrying her through the thicker sections.
Two hours to climb out, which was interesting. Either my help with Charlotte made the going easier than I had planned or brush is equally hard in either direction. We made it back to the ridge shortly after noon and I let Thomas and Charlotte wander ahead, which turned out to be a mistake.
Noah and I had been chatting happily, enjoying the surroundings and talking about my past adventures in the Sierra Ancha Wilderness, while the other two went far ahead looking for ladybugs. Concerned, I ended up dropping my pack with Noah under a juniper and jogging ahead to search for them, finding them waiting at the trail junction. Some of my past instruction must have stuck and they were smart enough to wait here instead of picking one and continuing without me. We headed back and enjoyed a small lunch.
Lunch done, we headed back to our campsite in the now-comfortable pine forest, grabbing the overnight gear and making the haul back to the car. I was tired and Noah was a big help, hauling extra weight and chatting happily about the adventure. He's really been enjoying our adventures and has been asking to get his own hammock, wanting to break out of the crowded tent.
Returning to the old two-track was a dream and all three kids took off, running full-bore downhill to the Jeep, and I awkwardly trotted after them. We enjoyed cold sandwiches and drinks before driving to Globe for ice cream - they absolutely earned it. Both the Sierra Ancha and Hell's Hole Wilderness were making for great summertime overnights, with their higher elevation providing reasonable temperatures, and I wish there were more reasonable trails for us to backpack. As bad as the thick manzanita was on the descent today, the locust and catclaw that thrive in the fire-damaged portions of Sierra Ancha Wilderness would scar my kids in more than one way.