Willow Springs Loop
A mostly-full moon hung high over First Water Trailhead and my lonely car parked there. I gazed up at it, debating once again on simply turning around and driving back to a warm bed. My breath wheezed in and out through the congestion of a week-long chest cold as I stood there and let the darkness settle in. It would be so easy to just delay this hike for a healthier day. With the quick step of half-decision I headed over to the trail log, jotted my name down, and left the parking lot. The best way to clear out the lungs is with a nice long desert hike, or at least that's what I told myself as I trotted down a dark Dutchman Trail.
That moon lit up the wide, open trail and showed every stumbling rock and outstretched branch in sharp contrast. The headlamp I wore was only necessary to calm my nerves. It has been a long time since I did a true night hike and every little noise had me on edge. I trotted along, ruining my night vision with the bright headlamp, and quickly passed by the junction with Second Water Trail. There was a deadline to hit this morning.
Today was an exploratory hike. I wanted to scout out the area around Willow Springs to determine if it could make a good camping location. If there was a dependable water source there, it'd be both a great overnight destination from First Water and a possible stopping point to an otherwise dry Ridgeline loop. Of course, though, I had to mix things up for my first visit. Instead of the usual in-and-out route that most hikers take to the springs, I wanted to head up Peralta Trail and try to go up-and-over a ridge to access it.
Before I could worry about any of that there was this dark trail to deal with. My early start gave me a chance to see the sunrise from Parker's Pass. I sure hoped it would, anyways - waking up at 3:30 AM on a Saturday is not the best way to deal with a chest cold. I pushed on under the slowly-brightening skies, criss-crossing over First Water Wash multiple times on the gradual climb towards the pass.
Speaking of crossing the washes, after walking this length of trail so many times I've studied up on what the trail does in hopes of passing the time. First it crosses over an unnamed wash that flows from Massacre Grounds before jumping over First Water Wash five times in quick succession. Then there is a little climb up to Transmission Pass, followed by a drop and another crossing over a tiny unnamed wash. Then, finally, Parker's Pass shows up. I made it just as the sky turned from light blue to a brilliant pink over Peter's Mesa and stood and watched, sipping slowly at some water, as the night retreated.
This was not going to be a sunny morning. The clouds overhead promised shade and quietly threatened showers. That's one the of the reasons I was out here this weekend - today was one of the first days in a long time that the forecast highs were under a hundred. I'll gladly take a chance of rain for those temperatures.
With a few miles under my belt I continued on the trail as it slowly dropped down towards Boulder Canyon. The headlamp was stuffed in my pack, were it would hopefully stay for the rest of this outing, and I munched on a granola bar with my trekking poles tucked under one arm. These next two miles are a bit boring, quick winding turns and a few boulders on the way down to a few trail junctions. The monotonous route and familiar views were lulling me into complacency just as the fearful rattle sounded below my feet.
Man, I hate rattlesnakes. There's nothing like that little shaking tail to get your heart rate up to painful levels. I leapt backwards and all but dropped my trekking poles. Dag nab it, this was one of the reasons I brought them today, to clank against the ground and wake up any snakes before I was on top of them instead of carrying them like a loony. The cold morning temps (it was right around 75 during the sunrise) had probably kept this guy snoozing until I almost stepped on him. I took one quick photo before easing forward on the trail and leaving him to his morning duties.
After that burst of excitement it was with some relief that I ran into an open clearing at the junction of Black Mesa Trail. I paused here and enjoyed a nearby prickly pear and its bright fruit. That was the first snake I had seen all year, and with any luck it'd be the last. Gila monsters, black widows, scorpions, even tarantulas are all shy and slow enough to completely miss out on while trotting on the trail, but those darn snakes like sunning themselves right out in the open and have no trouble striking at a passing boot.
Beyond the junction with Black Mesa was Boulder Trail and Bull Pass. I kept on Dutchman, though, bypassing the wide Boulder Wash and pushing on east. Willow Springs is actually on Boulder Wash, a couple of miles upstream, and I could have just hopped from boulder to rock to it from here. The longer I could push off rock-hopping the better. My route for today began to squeeze in between Black Top Mesa and Palomino Mountain and I gazed up at these two relatively massive bulks of yellow rock above me.
This was new trail for me so I tried to enjoy it. There were a few campsites here, and the rock formations were interesting. Plus, the narrow little wash even had some water sitting in the rock tanks, even with First Water being bone-dry. It was a bit overgrown, though. Compared to the open path I had enjoyed up to this point I was now forced to duck and weave around prickly things with annoying frequency. It was with a certain amount of relief that I saw the end of this section and the junction with Peralta Trail. It was time to start sweating.
There had been a bit of grade over the last thousand yards or so, yet the overgrown vegetation had kept my pace slow. Peralta Trail isn't overgrown and it is slightly steeper. Plus, I had thought that the sun would be on me in full force now, with the sunrise an hour past. That, at least, wasn't a factor. The partly cloudy sky had thickened into a dull gray soup up there, and it even looked like there was a band of rain beyond Weaver's Needle. I tucked into the climb, breathing hard with my chest all clogged up, and made it to first main switchback with a fresh coat of sweat dripping off my face.
My climb wasn't done yet. Peralta Trail continues up all the way to Fremont Saddle, some 1700' above me. I wasn't going that far today, but there was still 500' to climb on this trail before I could start the off-trail part. And the off-trail section wasn't exactly flat, either. I drank up some water, doing my best to stay hydrated this morning, and continued pushing onwards.
There was only one confusing part, where the trail met up with the head of a small canyon and the cairns and paths began to fork and twist around, and it took some head-scratching to figure out which way to go. Otherwise, the trail climbed and I climbed with it. I made good time, too, gaining elevation as the sun began to overcome the clouds overhead. Shade continued to keep me in sub-eighty degree temps even as my elevation crested over Black Top Mesa and the sun lit up the lands around the trailhead to the west. It wasn't until I stopped at a small saddle to eat a decent breakfast and change out my socks that I finally got my first taste of sunshine.
The break was perfectly timed. I finally drained my first two liters and was able to tuck my camelbak bladder hose away. Two more liters of water were waiting in my pack, and I was planning on filtering at Willow Springs for even more. My boots were starting to rub on my right heel so I addressed that hot spot (I was not wearing my normal boots, only a backup pair). Plus, I was a short distance away from the off-trail section. I checked my GPS and map to verify and then, after admiring the sun over Weaver's Needle, followed the trail a short distance downhill before cutting south.
So began the hardest part of the hike, just as the sun decided to show up. An off-trail cut up and over the ridge separating East and West Boulder Canyon. It starts with a 500' climb over a half mile and ends with a 600' drop over .4 miles. I stuck to the north side of a canyon, hoping the exposed face would lessen the undergrowth to deal with, and got pretty lucky overall. There was one rocky wash to deal with and one horribly overgrown one, and the rest of the way was mostly slip-sliding over loose rock. Two steps forward, one step back.
Behind me was a swath of darkness that slowly overtook Peter's Mesa and Malapais Mountain, both of which had come into view during this climb. Rumbles overhead warned me of the approaching storm. The last place I wanted to be during a storm out here was on an exposed hillside. I quickened my step and soon made it to the bare saddle. West Boulder Canyon, and Willow Springs, lay down there, a dizzyingly steep drop down, and I took a minute to get my composure. Off-trail descents are always more difficult than a climb.
I tried every trick I knew of on the way down. I zig-zagged, taking advantage of game trails (at least what I pretended where game trails) when I could. Prodding ahead with my trekking poles saved me from at least a half-dozen false steps. When possible, I leaned into any low brush I could for an easy handhold. Even so, there were two good falls on the loose rock. The first one was small enough, a few feet down over soft gravel, but the second one involved a man-sized rock tearing loose from the wall and tumbling down. A quick lunge saved me but also tweaked something deep in my calf muscle. I sat for a bit, eying up the path the boulder had taken down, before gingerly pushing on.
In the end it was a little canyon that finished the descent. I had tried to avoid it, the overgrown groove that stretched from the saddle above to the main wash below, and had stuck to the sparsely-covered slopes on either side. The last few hundred feet just looked too tempting. I dropped into the rocky groove, shimmied my way down a few tricky spots, and made it to the last eight-foot drop before the drizzle started. No lightening, just a few heavy drops and a smooth rumbling. Enough to wash some of the dust out of the air before drifting away.
Finally, I was at the springs. Well, above them just a bit. The route I had taken was the easiest over the ridge and had dropped me a few hundred feet upstream from my real destination. And, as hoped for, right at an old stone corral. It took some hacking through thorny mesquite to find the piles of rock on the bank. The whole thing was quite overgrown and difficult to trace, though it looked like a decent view of it could be had from an outcropping to the south. I didn't feel like pushing through mesquite any more than I had to and turned back into the rocky wash.
Hopping from boulder to boulder is a tedious way to go forward, yet it's the only way to follow some of these washes. Same thing with Peter's Canyon or La Barge. Look around, find rocks that you hope won't shift, and take a step forward. When they do move, it becomes an awkward dance for balance or a painful fall. It didn't take that many hops to find the start of Willow Springs, though when I did I couldn't help but stop and stare. Sure, there was water, it just wasn't exactly fresh.
Guess this is what you get with a year-round spring fully exposed by the sun - layers and layers of scum. I've heard the water pushes up from the bottom of the wash, where most other springs in the Supes push up in one spot and then trickle down into an exposed wash, which would explain why it looked so gnarly here. I still had close to two liters of water in my pack, more than enough to finish up the relatively flat six miles back to the parking lot, so I skipped past this section without filtering.
The hike was going pretty good, with temperatures just now reaching into the mid-eighties, so I wasn't too torn up about the nasty water. Better to learn this now instead of in the midst of an overnight backpack, when water would be necessary. I eyed up the banks on either side looking for any cairns or campsites or even trees to sling a hammock from. Nothing was visible from the wash. Climbing up the banks could result in finding something, which would mean hacking through tangled, prickly growth instead of rock-hopping. I stuck to the wash and continued downstream.
Water that started from Willow Springs trickled down with me, fading into the dry bed a few times only to bubble up a few dozen yards later. Some of the pools began to look pretty darn clean. I stopped at one particularly fresh-looking waterfall and tried to guess how dependable this spot was. There were huge tadpoles in it, and the bottom of the pool had decent green growth, and it was nice and full with the downstream section seeping into gravel. So, there was enough flow here for a pool to stick around for weeks, if not months, even with a leaky bottom. That was promising.
This wash transitioned to a dry, rocky thing to having lush grass growing in between rocks. Which didn't make the going any easier, since thick grass only meant more hiding spots for snakes, so I stuck to the rock-hopping. I stopped briefly to check out a large butterfly, one that stuck around for me to snap a few pictures as it lazily stretched it's wings, and then found spiky little caterpillar a short distance later. Wonder if they are the same thing at different stages of life.
With those rain clouds gone overhead the sun had nothing to stop it from heating up the canyon. Temperatures continued to climb, steadily moving through the nineties. My meandering route became slower as it got hotter and I began to pause for more frequent breaks. I finally decided to stop for brunch at a large pool of water within site of a milestone hill ahead.
I had plenty of food with me today so I cracked open a salty peanut mix and drank some water mixed with electrolytes. Once my boots and socks were off and drying I pulled some water, filtered it, and then pulled some more. It was only ten in the morning and the rest of the hike should be easy.
That hill ahead marked the end of my rock-hopping. An old trail leads from the wash up and over Tim's Saddle, down through O'Grady Canyon, and then back up to Parker's Pass. Then there's the simple matter of walking down Dutchman Trail to the trailhead, a tedious 2.5 mile downhill roll. In four miles, hopefully two hours, I'd be back at the van and driving towards Gilbert.
With dry socks and two full liters of water I headed out, invigorated by the short break and snacks. The water petered out beyond that last pool and I skipped between tufts of green grass and dry rocky boulders. The canyon turned and I was treated to a northern view of Malapais and Peter's Mesa that I didn't expect and I stopped for a minute to enjoy. While I stood there I glanced down at my GPS and realized that I had missed the turn-off for Tim's Saddle by a few hundred yards.
Man, I had even seen this lazy stack of rocks when I passed by and dismissed them. After looping back I began to climb up the slow and steady trail, frequently losing and re-finding the path as prickly brush grew over the old ways. This was the second-to-last climb and it didn't feel great, fully exposed to the sun with ten miles of distance under my feet. I stepped on one loose boulder, twisting my leg in a funny way, and that calf tinge I had felt back near Willow Springs erupted into a full cramp. There was nothing I could do but stand there, crouched over in pain, and wait for the muscle to relax.
Once I finally reached the saddle I stopped to take a big drink of water. It wasn't much of a climb from the canyon, though with spent legs I felt like I had just summited Camelback. My chest was tight and full as I gazed over at the next saddle, on the far side of O'Grady's Canyon. It didn't look like much of a drop or much of a climb. With a grimace I swung my poles forward and pushed on.
There was one weird spot on the trail where it crossed the wash at the base of the canyon, where the trail seemed to double-back on itself, more due to a weird twist in the wash than the trail. With a bit of luck I avoided losing time and made the right turns. The second climb wasn't nearly as bad and my cramping leg was beginning to work itself out as I made the second summit. The views were pretty good from here, caves and cliffs of Black Mesa showing up from beyond the mouth of O'Grady, and even Four Peaks tried to do a little photobomb above the rows of saguaro.
It was all downhill from here. Well, except for the little climb up Transmission Pass and going up and down the wash crossings and that finally stretch up to the trailhead. It was mostly downhill from here. The faint path slid along the side of a low hill, gently dropping towards Parker Pass, and bumped into Dutchman Trail right at the crest. If someone wasn't looking for it they would walk right past it, which is probably what the rangers are hoping for.
I made two stops on the way back to the trailhead. First was at the pass to filter out that second liter of water, which was much desired at this point, and to munch on some of the last snacks in my pack. Second one was about halfway to finish the water and wipe the sweat from my eyes. My thermometer, which was sitting in the sun for much of this section, was showing an excess of 110. I don't think it was that hot, though temperature is a tricky thing. Sitting in shade vs direct sunlight is a big difference. Eventually I made it back to the van after noon and, with one final cough and pulling out the lukewarm bottles of water that had been waiting for me, I began the hot drive home. A hot shower and some cold medicine seemed like a perfect ending to this fourteen-mile morning.