Mazatzal Wilderness Dreaming

The idea of conquering the Mazatzal Wilderness has slowly taken over my daydreams and random internet browsing. And why shouldn't it? Hiking in Arizona has not been as free-ranging as my Michigan adventures, thanks to hostile terrain and less-than-amiable property owners, and exploring designated parks near the Phoenix metro often means wading through crowds of people. If you get deep enough in the Superstition Wilderness, especially the eastern end, solitude can be found, though there are still busy trailheads and occasional large groups to deal with. No such problems in the Mazatzals.

There are several reasons why the Mazatzals are so quiet. The wilderness is rugged and the trails lengthy, making most loops and destinations longer than an average day hike. Even before two disastrous wildfires tore through the mountains in the last few decades most of the official routes were fading away into disrepair. With the exception of the Arizona Trail cutting along the main ridgeline and the accessible and relatively popular Barnhardt passing by seasonal waterfalls, there is no regular trail maintenance. The wilderness sits on the sidelines like a discarded plaything, all 250,000 acres just waiting for someone like me to wander around.

So, my ambitious idea of conquering the Mazatzals starts simple enough: explore every mile of official trail within the boundaries. It's defined, gives me a good base for further exploration in the years to come, and is semi-reasonable. Some quick figuring produces a total mileage of 250 miles (this is the sum of all trails that touch the wilderness in some way). There's an additional 25 miles of trails that are close enough to count, so 275 total. Thanks to a few hikes in 2016, not all of which turned out great, I've already been on 45 miles of them, so I'm already 18% done! Granted, I've knocked out some of the easier ones, but details.

So, 230 miles of hiking in one of the tougher areas of Arizona, wonderfully remote and seldom visited. 230 miles is not completely ridiculous - five or six efficient backpacking loops could knock that out. Provided Katie will let me go on that many backpacks once the third kid shows up, that is. Plus, not all of the loops will cooperate. For instance, a Copper Camp trip that sounds very appealing (Copper Camp -> Sheep Creek -> Sears) would only cover 20 miles of 'new' trail yet would take me over 30 miles of hiking to complete (retracing old trail, plus road-walking). And a second trip would be needed to 'finish' Sheep Creek Trail, furthering the trail retrace. 230 miles of trails could easily entail over 350 miles of walking.

There's also the question of gear. My GPS is now over seven years old and isn't as reliable or useful as it once was. The remoteness of the area concerns Katie and resurfaced discussions around me carrying a locater beacon, like a Spot, even though I think they're expensive and flashy. Even my normal backpacking gear is being called into question. On all three of my trips in 2016 something had failed - shelter, boots, and sleeping pad - and forced an early exit. Early exits mean wasted effort and time.

Will conquering the Mazatzal Wilderness happen in 2017? I sure hope so. It'd make for a great year, especially with how poorly last year was with my hiking aspirations. Grand Canyon is still a captivating target, though that's only a one-day fling (hopefully). I already have a few initial routes planned and am trying to create other reasonable loops while avoiding too many wasteful overlaps. Suppose the best thing to do is to wait until the next baby shows up, then see how long after that before I'm allowed to do another backpack, and then see just how gnarly some of these forgotten trails really are.