Snaking along the base of Picketpost Mountain, Arnett Creek has dug out a little canyon that holds onto a semi-reliable trickle of water and lush riparian environment. The creek pulls from the southern end of Apache Leap, picking up leftover tributaries that Queen Creek missed, before itself meeting up with the larger creek once exiting its canyon. There are a few historic sites located along and near the creek, including old mines and stagecoach roads and even an abandoned town. Today, though, we were only interested in the creek, in the trees and trail that travel along the stream, and we had a simple in-and-out trek planned.
We reached the trailhead thirty minutes after the sunrise. It was still cloaked in the cold shadow of Picketpost and cluttered by dozens of car-campers and RVs. As we got out of the Jeep and started distributing gear an over-eager trail volunteer came up to greet us, asking us questions about our plans and drive, gathering information for the Forest Service about this major trailhead along the Arizona Trail. She gave us some welcome tips on an alternate route down to Arnett Creek that we took, avoiding the main trail and taking a spur over Alamo and over a low ridge.
All of us were cold for the first fifteen minutes in the shade, shivering as we climbed over the ridge, and the sunlight on top was most welcome. It didn't last long, as the trail quickly plunged down the other side, taking a deep and shaded cut into the rock, with newly chiseled steps to guide us along. Even once we passed the ridge and re-entered the sunlight we were now in the wide mouth of Arnett Creek, with the cold air collecting and spreading through the valley, and I wondered idly if we should have brought more layers.
Our trail passed by mesquite and grasslands, catclaw and meadows, things that pricked and things that soothed. We chatted idly about the different plants and how certain trees and cacti preferred different temperatures and water amounts. Eventually we crossed the creek once, a dry crossing with huge cairns to mark the way, then a second time. The kids began to complain about wanting a snack and a break - less than an hour into the hike - so, when we made it to the third crossing and found trickling water and nonnative palm trees, I let them wander a bit and play with the mud and rocks while I took some pictures.
This crossing was a bit muddy so I helped each kid across, lifting them up and over the slick spots, and we continued on, following the easy, sun-speckled path. This was a very easy trail to follow, wide and flat, and there were plenty of horse-sign along it, stinky and not. I hoped we would run into riders today. We reached the fourth crossing, an exposed and rocky affair, and I promised them each a snack once they crossed safely. Noah and Thomas had no problem, but Charlotte, even with new hiking books, balked at the challenge, and soon began to whine about the impossible crossing. I found a good seat on the far bank and watched them figure it out on their own. Noah tried to coax her across, pointing out different options, while Thomas began to build her a bridge. Between the two of them they helped her across and we enjoyed the promised treat. Afterwards Charlotte decided to hold Noah's hand, her big, helpful brother, and I dallied behind and sighed about them all growing up to fast.
The next few crossings were no problem. We stopped and played with a few waterfalls, blocking flows and letting the cold water trickle over obstacles, and splashed in pools. The weather began to warm and a few speedy groups caught up and passed us on their planned routes. There was a mine up ahead, and the old townsite, though I ruled them out for today's outing. At 2.5 miles we turned around. Five miles would be plenty for the kids, especially the 2 year-old Charlotte.
Returning was faster, with some of the obstacles known and the distractions not as shiny. We saw groups of horse riders, both of which stopped for us and let the kids pet horse-noses, which was much appreciated. Layers were shed and final snacks consumed. On a few occasions I let the boys pick their own route, rock-hopping or bushwhacking, while Charlotte and I kept to the trail, keeping them within earshot as they explored on their own. Once we made the final dry crossing, though, it became a much more simple march out.
Instead of taking the spur back to the parking lot I opted for the old way, the connector to the Arizona Trail, just to change things up. It felt like a longer climb and more sudden drop and was otherwise the same. Horse-friendly, I suppose, with no stairs to navigate. Picketpost kept dragging my attention away from the path. One day I'd like to climb it, and it's slightly less than Flatiron, which means it could make an easy morning hike. When we returned to the parking lot the volunteer welcomed us back, congratulated the kids on the long adventure, and then we headed back to Phoenix with barely enough time for a quick bath before the Super Bowl.