Hiking distance is something that I've always been intimately aware of, from all the way back in the days of exploring Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It started as a question of how many waterfalls I could bag after work, a calculation based on driving distance and walking speed and daylight, and when I moved to Wisconsin it became a question of how many individual adventures I could pack in over a weekend. Some estimates had to be done to account for bushwhacking and unfortunate events, and my Physics background served me well for these rough number-crunching exercises. As far as I can recollect my best day clocked in right around thirty miles: an early summer day in the Keweenaw that started with a 'around the tip' eighteen miles and ended with twelve miles on an in-and-out of Mount Baldy.
All this means that my recent achievement of twenty-one miles around Mazatzal Peak came with a grain of disappointment. Sure, it's my first plus-twenty mile day in Arizona and there were tough stretches through overgrown terrain. The elevation difference was significant and the exposure was much greater than anything I dealt with in the Midwest. Still, I've been hiking for close to a decade. Shouldn't I be able to hike further than a measly twenty miles? Aren't I supposed to be getting better at this sort of thing?
That nagging thought sat in the back of my mind when I planned today's route, drove through the darkness sipping on hot coffee to stay awake, and set off from the Cross F Trailhead at three-thirty in the morning. There was a whole gaggle of trails I wanted to cross off my list today - stretching from Sunflower to Mount Peeley - that would total well over thirty miles if I got them all done. Most of them lay along the Arizona Trail and should be well groomed, plus the overall elevation difference was relatively small. Just to be safe I was doing a 'Figure Eight' shape and parking in the middle so I could bail near the halfway point.
With that early of a start much of the first trail, Little Saddle Mountain, was done by the light of a mostly-full moon and headlamp. This suited me just fine. The temperatures were a comfortable sixty-odd degrees for this two-thousand foot climb along trickling creeks. It wasn't until the last mile that the sun began to light up the sky and stars faded away, letting me turn off the headlamp and crank up the speed. I reached the junction with the next trail, Saddle Mountain, a few minutes before sunrise.
I did feel a little bad. The first trail was supposed to be a pretty one with a lot of variety and I only got a vague sense of that during the dark hike. Trees sighed overhead along the creek and, once I crested above them, open grass-covered hills rose and formed sweeping valleys all around. There is a loop hike that I've heard of that starts on Little Saddle Mountain Trail and then climbs a nearby mesa to offer sweeping views of the south. Maybe next year, when I'm done checking off trails from the Mazatzal project, I'll come back here in the daylight and do that loop.
For now I had trails to check. At the trail junction I turned right and followed Saddle Mountain Trail downhill a half-mile to Mormon Grove Trailhead. The sun was brightening up the eastern horizon and a warm breeze flowed towards me, blunt signs of just how hot today was going to get. I paused in the parking lot long enough to drink a half liter of water and crunch a granola bar before picking up and backtracking to the junction. I decided a long time ago that I wasn't going to half-ass this project: every trail had to be hiked from one end to the other, even if it meant backtracking on a busy day.
Saddle Mountain Trail slowly climbed from the junction, a mild five hundred feet or so over a mile. I barely felt it after the steeper Little Saddle Mountain Trail. The route was clear and wide, frequently shaded from the morning sun, and I even walked past a handful of large trees spared from the wildfires. As I climbed I admired the mountain to my left, a reflection of the larger Saddle Mountain ahead, complete with a double peak separated by a arcing drop. Maybe this little peak, topping off at 5888', is Little Saddle Mountain.
I rounded the edge of the little mountain and was instantly struck with some amazing views. First was the distant Sheep Mountain to Mount Peeley ridge, casting deep shadows over the numerous drainages on the southern flank. That was my turnaround point, way on the other end of that ridge. It didn't look that far at all. Closer to me was Saddle Mountain, towering a full thousand feet above the trail and sparsely covered with low shrubs. And speaking of the trail - it cut an straight line along the flank, impressive for even an old mining road or whatever the its origin was. This was turning out to be a beautiful morning.
My route swung west a short distance, jutting into a narrow gap, and then headed northeast, winding in and out of a dozen little drainages coming down off of the tall mountain. The little gap almost, but not quite, had a view to the west. I was really wanting a good view of the western Mazatzals today, doubtful I would get one though. Later I found out that the gap was near Potato Patch, an old clearing from ranching past, a spot I would have loved to zipped over to check out. Today I simply marched away and soon ran into the Sheep Creek junction.
These little four-mile long trails made for some quick milestones. I paused at the junction and gazed west, trying to mentally connect this section of trail with the Copper Camp Loop I had done a few months ago. It was tough - my brain still thinks that the western Mazatzals is a wholly different area. Even after all these hikes my mental map of these lands needs some polishing.
With a shrug I turned away from the junction. There was still another mile of Saddle Mountain Trail, a little loop that swings close to Story Mine and is completely outside of the AZT. The first few hundred yards were well-maintained and easy to follow, and then things began to close up fast. Before I knew it I was shouldering my way through manzanita and catclaw, cursing as the thorns dug red trenches into my arms and ripped through clothes. Never an easy hike out here. A long forty minutes later and I stumbled back to the junction, loop thoroughly cussed out and completed. Never even tried to spot the mine in that mess.
Back on the AZT I found an interesting rock formation for '400', which marks the halfway point between Mexico and Utah. Guess that by doing all the trails in the Mazatzals I'll be inadvertently finishing the AZT between Sunflower and Twin Buttes as well, one of the toughest sections of that long route. I took a quick photo and pushed on, impatient to reach my planned breakfast break spot a mere mile away.
McFarland Canyon was incredibly scenic. Tall pines rose up in the deep drainage, fire-damaged hills rising bleakly around it. I gazed beyond the canyon trying to spot where Sheep Creek and Copper Camp Trails roll over the hills on the horizon and could almost pick out a few bare spots. The mental map was starting to click together.
I trotted down the steep switchbacks into the canyon, shade and tall trees growing high above me as I dropped. The bottom was still cool from the night and pleasant, though I couldn't see any water in the creek. That was a disappointment. Instead of dwelling on that I tracked down the next trail junction and stuck to Sheep Creek, heading west off the AZT and towards Squaw Flat Spring.
When I hiked from the Copper Camp Trail junction to Squaw Flat Spring before I dealt with a real mess of a trail, with deadfall and manzanita and fire damage wiping out most of the route. I had switched between walking the choked and boulder-filled creek and hacking along the path, neither of which was enjoyable. Today couldn't have been more different. The tread was well-defined and clear, a few sections of overgrown easily walked through, and I never had to double-check my GPS. In no time at all I was back near my old campsite, hunting again for signs of the spring (there were none) and admiring the views of the nearby mountains.
Ten miles in before eight. It was time for a break. I began backtracking, now that I had finished the missed part of Sheep Creek Trail, and kept a close ear out for trickling water. I found some small, mossy pools beneath a thick cluster of green and settled next to it, pulling out my water filter and a few snacks for breakfast. My next water source wouldn't be for, shoot, maybe another ten miles, so I needed to get up to a comfortable capacity.
As I sat and filtered I mentally ticked off the trails in my head. Two new trails done, one old trail partially finished. Still need to get that pesky part of Sheep Creek Trail between the old cabin site and Rock Spring, perhaps as part of a planned Deadman Loop. Still had three, maybe four, new trails to tackle today. Plus I was already ten miles distant from the van no matter how I sliced it. At least I had water and, for now, time was on my side.