On New Year's Eve a storm rolled across central Arizona. In Phoenix, the valley of the sun, we saw intermittent rain under gloomy skies, though the mountains surrounding our valley were dusted by a more wintery mix. When I woke up on the new year and saw white on the upper portions of Superstition Mountain my mind was instantly made up. Today was the day that my kids would hike in snow.
Moving atypically slow, we ate a big breakfast and got our gear in order, including big jackets and several dry layers. I wanted to give the roads a chance to clear and the temperatures to warm before heading up. We then took the Beeline towards Payson and, shortly after passing Fountain Hills, were greeted with fantastic scenes of a snow-covered Four Peaks and Mazatzal Mountains ahead. Before we reached Sunflower we were driving through slush and ice, which introduced an interesting problem - other families had the same idea as me, wanting to head out and enjoy the snow, although their version was merely stopping on the shoulder of a state highway to toss snowballs at each other. We passed the multiple hazards, took a very icy and unplowed old road down to the side of Sycamore Creek, and then parked along the shoulder. It was time to introduce the kids to snow in the Mazzies.
Cross F Trailhead is one of the few access points in these mountains that is right along a paved road. There is a small area to pull-off on one shoulder, one that was far too treacherous to tempt with the van today, and then the trail simply climbs up the other side. It's hard to spot on a normal day, let alone a day with everything freshly covered. Once we got situated we headed out, Charlotte bundled in the carrier and the boys leading the way into the snowy woods.
This trail is Little Saddle Mountain, and the first mile is basically an access spur to the Arizona Trail. Once it meets up with the AZT it turns north and climbs up towards Saddle Mountain and Mormon Grove within a scenic creek valley. There's no way we could go that distance today, so I figured we'd do the spur, turn south on the AZT for a short ways, and then turn back east on a two-track, forming a little triangle with the van at one point. Little Saddle Mountain Trail would be the prettiest section, with junipers hanging overhead and a nearby creek, and it would have just enough climb to give us some good views.
We were immediately faced with route finding issues. The cairns were buried in snow, tread completely invisible, and our surroundings were so darn wonderful to stare at that it was hard to focus on a way forward. There is nothing like a thick blanket of snow under blue-blue winter skies to resurface memories of the Upper Peninsula. Together we wandered up the hill, veering on and off the trail, my boys wide-eyed and confused at this white powder everywhere.
I was a little worried about them, being so small and in such a cold and weird environment, and seeing them in the vastness of these foothills put things in drastic perspective. Sure, they had nice jackets and hats, but their gloves were knitted (in fact, Thomas was wearing socks for gloves) and boots were not waterproof. Normally don't have to worry about such things in the desert. As we walked I told them about how snow is made from ice, and ice is water, and if you play with the snow it will melt and get you wet and that's bad. They seemed to understand, though it didn't take long for Noah's gloves to be soaked through and his complaining of cold hands to start.
We walked under laden junipers and along a trickling creek, up a few steep slopes and next to old ranching fences, all draped in fluff. We ate some snow and drew our names with sticks, uncovered spiky agaves and knocked snow off of branches. Even Charlotte got into the fun, laughing when she was dusted by a falling clump. The last leg of our trail got a bit tough, the harsh grade and slick mud making our forward progress challenging, and I had to help haul the boys up the final climb.
A white little valley lay in front of us, with the same unnamed creek that had trickled next to us and drains from the heights above. It was time to turn off Little Saddle Mountain Trail and onto the AZT, which here is part of Sunflower Trail. We turned south and bumbled downhill, marching along, and soon bumped into the water. This was too much to turn down. We stopped here and I let the boys play, picking up handfuls of snow with them and dropping it into the water, watching it speedily melt away. Eventually we turned away and continued up the other side of the valley for the last climb of the day.
Even though the boys were exhausted by now, and had quite a few complaints about another uphill section, we made it to the top and were greeted by a small clearing. They surprised me by leaping off the trail, falling backgrounds, and making snow angels. I have no idea where they picked up this trick. Sure, they made 'dust angels' a few months ago in Wave Cave, yet I'm not sure how they knew what they were doing. Probably some television show. I'm just glad they didn't plop down onto some half-hidden agave.
Snow angels and little snowmen littered the small clearing by the time we left. Poor Charlotte was getting impatient by now, wanting to join in the fun, though I was being over-protective of her. She doesn't have hiking boots and, while she had more layers, they were not as water resistant as the boys. Plus her language skills are limited, so if she started getting cold it'd be hard to communicate, and also she's my little girl, so yeah. We moved on down the trail and I let Thomas take the lead. He did a great job sticking to the faint path and brought us right to a large tree at the next junction.
It was well past time for a snack break, so I found a dry spot for all three and doled out some goldfish. I could tell that the boys were getting close to the end. Luckily it's all downhill from here, a simple two-track back to the van, one that even had some fresh tire tracks to break up the deep snow.
As we sat and ate something unexpected happened. A branch right above Thomas shed its load, landing a solid clump of snow right on his unsuspecting head. I watched it happen, almost in slow-motion, and held my breath, preparing for what I'd assume would be a massive fit, with how tired he seemed. Instead he let loose a deep belly-laugh, almost falling over in glee at this surprise. It was a beautiful and sincere childish moment.
Then it was time to go. We headed down the road and I let Charlotte walk, keeping her on the tire tracks to keep her shoes dry. It took her all of five seconds to discover how wonderful snow tastes, and she spent the entire time dragging her mitten in the deep snow next to her and plopping it in her mouth. We made lazy time downhill, occasionally slipping on the packed tracks, enjoying the warming temperatures and scenery.
The roads were slushy and mostly clear when we made it back and I let loose a sigh of relief. I had been so worried during this outing. It's one thing to take all three kids for a hike in the Supes, when the city is a quick 30 minutes away and the biggest concern is cactus spines (and snakes, I guess), and another thing to venture down an icy road with an aged minivan and take them on a snowy hike on remote trails… Yeah, this outing had been a risky one. Can't complain about the result. The kids got their first hike in the Mazatzals, complete with snow, and they talked about it for weeks afterwards.