By the time the day broke in brilliant hues of pink and purple over a distant Mogollon Rim I was almost 5 miles into my hike. Yes, another ridiculous early morning in the Mazatzal Wilderness. Today's early start wasn't aimed at getting a ton of miles, though - my planned route was a mere 13 miles and shouldn't take much longer than six hours. The first trail of the day, Gold Ridge, was familiar territory, something I had descended down just a few months before. There was no need to see it in the light. Plus there was the heat. An early start could get me out of the wilderness before the forecasted hundred degree temps. These were the drivers for today's early start, a boring first trail and summer heat.
Well, that was the thought. It was 87° at the trailhead at 3:20 in the morning, which is insane. Doesn't it ever get cool out here? The first few miles of the trail weren't a lot of fun, either. First there were grazing cattle, with their floating reflective eyes mere yards off the trail, suddenly leaping up and galloping away in a noisy cloud of dust. They kept distracting me away from the scattered rocks along the trail that tripped me up a half-dozen times. Then the steep hill started, with an average grade of 1000'/mile, which is about as punishing as it gets. At least it only lasted for a mile and a half. Once all that was past it was smooth sailing along a gentle slant, weaving back and forth along a hilly ridge, under a dim waking sky.
There was one other excitement along the climb. About two miles in I thought I saw a squat, burnt yucca in my dim headlamp next to the trail, which struck me as an odd sight by itself. It was actually the raised tail of a skunk. The smelly little guy waited for me to get within a few yards, realize what it was, and then it scampered off the trail and under a bush, leaving me to wonder how I didn't just get sprayed. Second skunk sighting in a row out here. I'd rather be bumping into rattlesnakes.
As I neared the end of Gold Ridge Trail some good views opened up of the surrounding hills. To the north were the unnamed peaks around Bear Spring and Mazatzal Peak beyond, and south held Mount Ord, Boulder Mountain, and even Superstition Ridgeline. I couldn't make out Four Peaks from this angle, though. I paused to enjoy the view a bit, knowing that it would be the last open vantages I'd have today. The rest of the morning would be spent within an enclosed valley following South Fork down along Deer Creek.
South Fork Trail was the last trail this side of Chilson Camp that I had to knock out. After this dayhike I would only have the longer, more remote trails in the northwest side of the wilderness to visit. It was also one of the last dayhikes of my project, a bittersweet reminder that things only got harder from this point forward. Even if it meant redoing a trail this morning, it was nice to have something simple to focus on today, something I could knock out before noon and be done with.
Gold Ridge Trail ends near FR 201, which I quickly ambled along in hopes of avoiding any road traffic to Peeley Trailhead (there was none), and the start of South Fork was a simple plastic marker along the road. Again, all familiar ground. The descent off the road was hard to make out in the tall grass, only a faint path cutting down at an angle. Like last time I made a line to Pigeon Spring, even though I didn't have to filter anything today. The old cement trough looked even nastier than I remembered it.
It took a while to find the trail from here - turns out that it doesn't even pass by the spring, it stays on the hill right above. Once I retraced my steps I picked it up and followed it downhill, tracking a few switchbacks, hopping over logs, and once even tucking in and pushing through a terrible overgrown section that was thick with thorns. Following it required attention but no GPS assistance. A few cairns showed up near the bottom of a drainage to guide me to the main creek, the actual South Fork Deer Creek, where a slight trickle could be found under young trees.
This wasn't bad at all. I had expected much worse based off of what I read on the internet, a fire-damaged and washed out mess of a path. So far it was faint yet trackable. Compared to Davey Gowan or even Deer Creek Trail this was a piece of cake. Perhaps it gets worse further down. For now it was a dream, as it danced along the banks on a well-defined tread over rocks and pine needles.
The creek would have been difficult to follow, I guess. Thick growth clustered around the trickling bottom when it was flat, and then other times the ground would drop suddenly as huge boulders and waterfalls. Piles of deadfall were strewn down there too, reminders of the fires of the last few decades. Thankfully the path didn't stick to the creek that strict, sticking to the banks and crossing frequently, rarely following the water flow for more than a few yards at a time.
An hour after starting down this pleasant trail and I bumped into an old camp. There's a story behind the camp, something about smuggling Mexicans over the border, but I've heard too many versions to know for sure. It's a bit of a mess. If my pack had more room I'd try stuffing a few of the tattered clothes in. Instead I carried on, feeling a little guilty about not doing my part to keep this area clean, guilt that quickly washed away with the scenic area around me.
I can't imagine an area in the Mazatzals looking better than this. Close to the creek was almost untouched by the fire and had thick green vegetation and huge trees hanging over. The water was deep and clear, trickling softly from one pool to the next. Shade from the tall hills around kept the air somewhat cool from the morning heat. Deer Creek isn't this nice, or Barnhardt, or Y-Bar. South Fork was quickly becoming one of my favorite trails.
There was only one mean part, when the trail swung up on the south bank and stayed level, gradually becoming less and less defined as the creek dropped away to the north. Saplings grew tight and the cairns began to drift apart, leaving me to wander around in zig-zags to find my way again. When it did drop back down to the creek it did so in a drastic manner, plunging down steep switchbacks that aggravated my knees and back. As soon as we made it down to the now dry, rocky creekbed, I stopped for an overdue breakfast break. My first Camelbak bladder was empty and a granola bar sounded amazing, especially after 9 miles of nonstop hiking.
Small planes droned overhead as I relaxed, private pilots flying between Payson and Scottsdale if I had to guess. Their noise was the only thing I heard, that and insects and hummingbirds. No voices or sound of traffic. Man, if I didn't have the Mazatzals to escape the tight press of Phoenix I'm not sure how I'd make do. Its no Upper Peninsula but they'll do. Eventually I broke my reverie, switched out to my spare bladder of water, and continued downhill.
Pleasant trail began to fade away after my break. The sun was high enough now to shine directly into the canyon, heating things like a large-scale solar oven. There was no more trickling water, only stagnant pools, and the tall trees gave way to scattered saplings and cattails. My trail hung out up on the banks more and was surrounded by short, shadeless manzanita. A threat of thunderstorms that were forecasted to start at ten hung over me, especially as clouds begin to collect in the east.
I trotted quicker, knowing that the best was behind me, and when the manzanita turned into foxtails and prickly pear I mentally checked out. The cairns were small and difficult to pick out sometimes, with the little clusters of cacti tending to grow around and through them, so I stuck to the trod grass, knowing that both people and cattle tend to follow the easiest path. This worked well enough and led me back through another pasture and right back to Deer Creek Trailhead.
Back at the car a bit over six hours from leaving this morning, with the temperatures clocking in at 104. I felt strangely refreshed. It was weird not to be completely drained after a hike, to not push hard all day long, cramping and hurting, to have extra water in my pack and a bounce in my step. Maybe I should have done the loop twice. I drove back to Phoenix through the traffic, watching the thermometer on the van tick even higher in the valley, with another Mazatzal trail checked off the list.