All things considered I had a decent night in the Mazatzals, camping at The Park. My tarp kept the wind from stealing too much of my heat and I never woke up from the cold. However, my sleeping pad burst early in the evening, and I had left the patch kit at home and had to make due with overlapping band-aids. That slowed the leak enough to give me hour-long chunks of sleep between blowing it back up. Also, I had a midnight skunk visitor that scared the heck out of me. I let it poke around the campsite and try to get into my pack and kept still to avoid getting sprayed. When morning finally began to light up the sky I hopped up as quickly as my sore hip would allow and packed up eagerly.
Last night I had rolled through my three main options for today. Even with this premature stop I could still try to do my original loop, although I had been hesitant on committing to two fifteen mile days on unknown, unmaintained trails during planning. My poor showing yesterday and sore hip (which the deflating pad did nothing to help) completely ruled it out. Second option was cutting out six or so miles of my original loop with a direct hike down Willow Springs Trail, which would put my near the center of my circle route and make up the lost distance from yesterday. According to the internet, this trail was completely overgrown and riddled with deadfall from wildfire, and I had forgotten to upload it to my GPS to boot. So that was out.
All that was left was a retreat down Mazatzal Divide. There were a few things I could do to try to spice it up - a 'quick' jog down to Club Cabin to spend another day out here, alternate descent to search for Sandy Saddle, or even push all the way over to Y-Bar to add some extra miles. As much fun as all that sounded I decided to take the easiest way out and baby my hip. It would still be a fifteen mile trek with plenty of elevation to cover.
With fresh water pulled from the murky ponds of Wet Bottom Creek I started on the biggest climb of the day, a thousand feet from The Park up to that rocky-capped ridge. I tackled it slowly, enjoying the morning shade, and barely had to stop for breaks. Even with the overgrown sections and loose rock it seemed so much easier than I had pictured it, possibly even easier than it was yesterday. Fresh legs are wonderful.
As I climbed I enjoyed the northern views more, trying to get a feel for the area. It was difficult to pick out Knob Mountain from everything else, let alone guess where the trail went. I think there is a trail that goes down directly to east, sidling next to North Peak before dropping to Mineral Creek. And another one that leans further north to Baby Doll Ranch, with Red Hills AZT splitting off there. From up here I had no idea where those things would be, though I'm sure I'll be up here again sometime soon tracking them down.
Each saddle was a little milestone for me. The first one came after a solid five hundred feet of climb and long, swooping switchbacks. Second was not too much higher up and almost a straight shot south. And the last one was the top. Well, the last one wasn't really a saddle, more of the final crest to the ridge, but it helped me divide up the morning climb into chunks. Once I reached the top of the ridge I quickly claimed a pleasant rock seat and drank in the views of western lands that I could have been exploring today.
Midnight Mesa was surprisingly green out there. One of the trails I would have been on today skirts the edge of that, only some five miles as the bird flies from where I rested, and I've heard it makes for a challenging section. I tried to guess where Deadman Creek carved a deep path westward, over 1300' deep in some areas. That brown hill that rose up close by was an unnamed peak that was supposed to have Willow Springs Trail dancing along it, though I couldn't even began to guess where the trail went on the barren slope. The western Mazatzals is an overgrown monster that I can't wait to explore further.
For now I sat on my little rock bench and drank some of that mucky water from The Park and had a granola bar. Real breakfast would have to wait another hour - this was more a hold-over to keep my growling stomach content. The cool rock felt good against my back and I shivered when the wind whipped over the ridge. I relished the coolness, knowing that the vast majority of my trail today would be fully exposed to the harsh sun.
With some water and snacks down I stood up, stretched out my hip, and pushed over the ridge. The view to the south was humbling. Barnhardt Trail runs down next to Mazatzal Peak, which just happened to be the tallest and most distant thing visible on the horizon from here. I'd like to pretend that the hill in the center sits beyond Chilson Camp but it doesn't. I needed to circle all the way around that hill, looping far to the right, in order to reach the descent.
Going down off this ridge was ridiculously easy compared to going up yesterday during the heat of the afternoon when my legs were exhausted. I trotted over most of it, skipping over the rocks that threatened to spill me and darting around the agave that sprouted in most inconvenient locations. The twisted trees caught more of my attention today. Just what had all of these charred stumps been before the fires? I've heard that some sections of the Mazatzals had large stands of Ponderosas that were completely lost, though these remains were too short and twisted for those stands. Pinyons, maybe, or even something deciduous? Whatever the trees had been, would the come back someday, even with the epic decades-long drought that Arizona was under?
The path crossed North Fork Deadman Creek, dropped past Hopi Springs, and then continued to slope down towards Horse Camp Seep. I wondered idly if someone had camped there last night and was still packing up camp. The last people I had seen were yesterday morning at the trailhead - could I really get away with a whole weekend of solitude? When I reached the turnoff for the camp I swung down quickly and was delighted to see no one down there.
Only the rock pools in the creek had water in them today. Last time I was up here the seep was running, giving me fresh water to pull from, and the pools were dribbling into one another. Today there were only stagnant pools. At least they tasted better than what I pulled out of Wet Bottom. I hobbled around on the solid rock barefoot, giving my feet a break from my boots, and drank freshly filtered water while boiling up some coffee. With hot coffee in hand I found a shaded seat and sat, dangling my feet over a dry twenty-foot waterfall, and relaxed.
Part of me really wanted to stay out here another night, even with my hip hurting and the sleeping pad ripped. Chilson Camp could work, or even Club Cabin. Or I could just be done. There wasn't a lot of water out here and I didn't have a good enough understanding of the trails in the west to trust them. I sat, drank my coffee, and accepted that I really was going to take the easiest way out possible.
Of course, a short distance later on the trail and I passed the boulder-filled wash that leads up to the Sandy Saddle shortcut. It cuts out miles of distance and would be something new and cool to check out, and I didn't have a route loaded up to help me follow the overgrown trail. Next time I'm out here I'm going to make sure I have every single trail that my aging GPS can handle.
The rest of the trail passed by slowly. It was annoying to be back on this section of trail, walking over the same ground and past the same sights that I had seen a few months ago. It felt like it took forever to reach Chilson Camp even though I was making great time. I stopped to drink some water along the way, trying to offset the sweat that was starting to pour off of me in the direct mid-day sun, and was getting low when I reached Chilson. I passed the camp and followed the trail up to where I remembered the spring source and, after hacking my way up the hill, found it to be almost dry. The smallest dribble of water leaked out to water some humble-looking grass below.
Well, I needed water. On a hunch I decided to pass this by and hope that my rock tanks further on the trail would pan out. See, even though all the springs and seeps were failing me, those thunderstorms from a few days ago had left small pools of water in a few tanks. There are some of those tanks further up the trail, halfway between Chilson and the Barnhardt junction, and I hoped that there would be something in there. Sure enough, I found just enough water in the shaded cracks to pull two liters from.
I didn't want to stop here, so close to the trail junction, so I hauled the water a few more hundred yards and sat down by the metal stake marking the AZT. The sun was really pulling a lot of energy out of me and it was barely noon. I pulled out some snacks to munch on while I downed a liter. Voices floated over to me and I saw my first hikers out here, a couple out doing a quick up-and-down on Barnhardt, and we chatted a bit. Eventually they headed down, right after they told me that there were crews working on the trail ahead.
Finally, the last descent. Going down Barnhardt isn't a ton of fun - it zigs and zags along the side of Mazatzal Peak through exposed fields of manzanita before suddenly dropping a few thousand feet to the parking lot. And it's easily the most popular trail in this wilderness. Hikers go up it to see the two waterfalls, canyoneers use it to access the upper portion of Barnhardt canyon, and backpackers use it as a relatively easy way to reach some central wilderness campsites (like Chilson Camp). Meeting some trail crews would spice things up a bit, I guess.
The first half mile was wide and easy to trot down. Perhaps the crews had started at the top and were working their way down. I soon bumped into them and was able to verify that. There was maybe ten in all in the first group spread out over a few dozen yards, mostly young adults with a few teens thrown in. After throwing a pile of cut brush downhill we chatted and I learned that they had been hired by the AZT association and were clearing this trail only to make an easier access to the Mazatzal Divide trail up top. A wider trail here would let them haul water and supplies up to Chilson Camp via pack animals. Sounded like they were planning to be in the Mazatzals for several more weeks at least.
Beyond the trail crew the trail began to close up again, much more than I remembered from my last descent some months ago, and there were some fairly painful sections. Good thing I hadn't switched into my shorts like I had contemplated back at the junction. Every once in a while I could make out that couple I had chatted with up top and, as per my usual competitive nature, I made it my goal to meet them before the descent began. I caught up with them in a rather tight section of trail and we shared a few choice words about the manzanitas as I passed them.
Descending was far too simple this time. On my last visit I was overheating and stopped a few times at choice vistas to enjoy water and snacks - this time was borderline trotting and it felt great. There wasn't any new things to see this time either, and when I saw that the waterfalls weren't even flowing I merely sped past them.
There were a few other people on the trail today. Two large groups of backpackers were heading up, though neither one had a good answer for where they were going to camp that night. Either they were casting a die or didn't feel like sharing. A few day hikers were heading up to see the waterfalls or just hit the saddle. Two more crews were out working, the last of which were less than a few miles from the trailhead. They were in full shade from the canyon walls and seemed to be in much better spirits than the others who were exposed and hacking through thick manzanitas.
A few hours after starting down Barnhardt and I reached the bottom and was greeted by a very full trailhead. One family was setting up a large camp mere yards from my parked car, which made it pretty awkward for me to change out of my sweaty hiking clothes. With all these cars I wondered where everyone was. Maybe more people were heading up Y-Bar, or else they had climbed up Barnhardt early this morning and were playing around deeper in the wilderness. Once I got in dry clothes I hopped into the van and roared away.
Could I have done another day up there? Maybe. My hip got progressively better throughout the day, even with fifteen miles. Shoot, fifteen miles in the opposite direction would have taken me right to Deadman Trail, which would have put me in great condition for finishing my original loop on the third day. However, sleeping out there on a bum air mattress wouldn't have done me any favors, and the last day would have been a 3500' climb along overgrown trails. I tried to be content driving home along the winding AZ-87, looking forward to a good long soak in a tub that I mostly fit in.