Arizona Trail – Tale of Two Trails

In which the real Arizona Trail reveals itself. Over the next eight days I traversed through three wilderness areas that make the 100-mile wilderness in Maine look like a guided nature trail.

Day 20 – 11 miles

I parted with Magic Mike at the Pine trailhead after my zero with some trepidation. The upcoming trail would, by all accounts, be harder than any part of the trail I’d done yet. I had dropped all the cold weather gear from my pack and added a liter of water. Including my dirty water bag I could now carry 5.5 liters of water. It was close to 85 degrees when I set off at noon. The trail almost immediately began ascending and became increasingly rocky. In some of the “rock gardens” I lost the trail and had to backtrack. My feet twisted on the rocks and the first time in 300 miles I felt a twinge in my knees. The trail was also overgrown in places exposing my lower legs to the sharp leaves of the cats claws. I passed the Mazatzal Wilderness Boundary and thought to myself – ah, here’s the real Arizona Trail. I felt lucky to get the mileage I did and as I settled in to sleep I noticed for the first time on the trail I was sung to sleep by an insect orchestra.

Day 21 – 18 miles

The insect music died down sometime in the night. I slept on and off but was moving by 0640. The trail started flat but then eventually I began the steep descent to the East Verde River. I slid a few times on the small rocks and fell twice. The trail was overgrown and hard to see in places and I had no choice but to push through thorny plants. I took a break at the river and then filled water to my 5L capacity – I would hit no other water sources until tomorrow. I began the 3,000 foot climb from the river feeling the weight of each of those liters but knowing I had no choice but to carry it. My legs held on but for every step forward I slid two steps back on the small rocks. I collapsed into a campsite – this had been the hardest day yet on the Arizona Trail and I suspected harder days were to come.

Day 22 – 20 miles

The bugs sang all night long until last call at sunrise. Despite my exhaustion I slept fitfully and tiredly rose to start hiking by 0630. The first five miles were mostly in shade, the rising sun blocked by the side of the mountain. I carried only 2L of water and had no problem getting up to Rocky Ridge where the views made every thorn scratch worth it. I continued on the rocky trail. The click-clack of my poles on the rocks would become the soundtrack to my hike over the next few days, as well as my yelps of pain when my legs met thorny bushes blocking the trail. I slipped often on the rocks arms pinwheeling forward like a bad marionette until I finally righted myself or fell backward onto my pack. Once my manic dance startled two mule deer who bounded on springy hooves up a steep slope. “Show offs,” I muttered to myself. Late in the day I walked .5 mile to a spring to fill up my empty water bottles. I set up camp on a ridge at sunset satisfied with my performance. I had seen no hikers in the last two days.

Day 23 – 25 miles

Didn’t fall asleep until the early morning hours. I awoke at 0600 and hastily packed up. My husband was meeting me with a resupply at Highway 87 in 22 miles and I needed to get moving. The views this morning were beautiful but I could hardly appreciate them – all my attention was on the trail. The trail was barely wide enough to fit both my feet and so overgrown in places I couldn’t see the trail itself. I would venture my foot forward between the cats claws feeling around for stable ground with my toes before taking a full step. The seeming precariousness of it made me anxious. Suddenly, a SOBO hiker came up behind me. He introduced himself as Cy and he couldn’t contain his enthusiasm over the beautiful views the trail offered. He moved off quickly lightly bounding down the trail and I was immediately jealous of his youth and confidence. But, his eagerness made me feel a bit foolish about how I’d exaggerated the danger of the trail in my head and I set off again hiking feeling more optimistic. Amidst the click-clacking of my poles I noticed a few black bugs darting towards my eyes. Before this, the trail has been miraculously free of annoying flies and mosquitoes. I lost the trail in a wash and consulted two cows standing in my way for their opinion on trail direction. Their implacable faces were no help so I shrugged and hiked on. I made it to the resupply rendezvous with ten minutes to spare and hastily rearranged my pack and consolidated my garbage while my husband replaced my water and passed me a footlong Subway sandwich. I gave him a quick goodbye and hiked out under headlamp another three miles to camp. I had made it out of the Mazatzals with heavily scratched up legs to show for it. Up next was Four Peaks Wilderness. Subway never tasted so good.

Day 24 – 20 miles

I hardly slept. I suspect the caffeine in the diet coke I chugged at my resupply stop had an impact. It was chilly in the morning but I warmed up quickly bushwhacking to find the trail again. I hiked through the Boulder Canyon drainage area and ran into trail maintainers going in the same direction. The steep climb out of the canyon took me several hours and I fueled it with lemonade from resupply. I passed SOBO hiker Cheez-It whose name I recognized from all the water updates in FarOut. He had hiked the trail several times in both directions. At the top of the canyon the trail joined a dirt road for 11 miles. The steep, exposed road was tough going and my energy flagged. I filtered water from Pine Flat tank and the comments in FarOut were correct – the water tasted funky but it filtered clear. I thought longingly of that long gone lemonade. Several ATVs passed me but sadly no one offered me a cold one. My mood lightened when I turned a corner in the road and Roosevelt Lake was visible – so beautiful and I would be there the next day. The trail left the road and entered a forested section and I passed a sign for the Four Peaks Wilderness boundary. I filled up with more water from a spring only lightly coated with bugs and found a protected camp site on a ridge. The wind blew and the insects chirped. I rubbed my ankles and knees protectively. My shins were covered in scrapes from overgrowth but so far my body was holding up.

Day 25 – 19 miles

I woke at 0530 determined to get going early. At 0545 I heard two hikers walking by. As I was about to step off a half hour later Cy came walking by as cheerful as ever. I felt sluggish from the beginning. The trail was fairly flat following a contour line around draws and spurs but was so narrow and overgrown that I grew more and more anxious with each step. Suddenly, my left foot slid off the trail and I was sliding over the side heading for a mass of rocks 10 feet below me. I threw out an arm to arrest my slide and grabbed onto a branch of a scrub oak tree. I was on my back head facing toward the rock. As the branch gave a little I began to panic. My backpack was pulling me down and I swung my legs around surrounding branches trying to find purchase. I was finally able to pull up and get a shoulder on the trail – I heaved myself up on to the flat surface heedless of the needles and thorns pulling my hair and scratching my body. I lay there on the trail for a few quiet moments getting my breathing under control. I didn’t want to move but I couldn’t stay there and no one was coming. I swallowed down tears before they could spill and started hiking again. I concentrated on my foot placement during the next few miles of descent. I fell down twice more but stayed on the trail. I finally emerged at a trailhead where I ran into the two hikers who had passed my camp earlier – Watermelon and One Mile. We agreed we’d see each other again at Roosevelt Lake in 12 miles and they took off in front of me moving quickly. The rest of the afternoon dragged on as I negotiated nine miles of rocky descent. The sun blazed hot and my trail morale reached an all time low. The views of Roosevelt Lake were stunning but I couldn’t walk and admire at the same time. I stopped frequently to take pictures and tried to appreciate how lucky I was to have this vantage point. I was relieved when I finally stumbled into the marina at 1700 that the general store was still open. I bought a cold diet coke and had dinner at the restaurant. Watermelon and One Mile were already there at camp and said hello as I set up my tent and called it a night. This was my new hardest day on the trail.

Day 26 – 20 miles

I was up early and hiking out under headlamp before sunrise. Today I would enter the Superstition Mountains and had a 10 mile climb ahead of me. The trail was steep immediately and my exhausted body struggled to maintain momentum. I tried to register the sweeping views as I neared the high point of the climb but I hiked on numbly. The trail flattened out somewhat at the top of the climb. The trail wove through high grass and passed by apple orchards, the sweet smell of apples permeating the air. Frequently I startled mule deer who bounded away into the fading light. I lost the trail near Reavis Creek several times and had to route-find my way in the general direction. As the sun set I quickly filtered a liter and half of water and found a flattish camp site somewhat near the trail. I was spent but could not fall asleep. I lay in my sleeping bag staring at the stars through the tent mesh. After midnight I heard thunder and saw lightning flash in the sky. I quickly put up my rain flap but the storm never materialized over me.

Day 27 – 24 miles

After another restless night I rose early and was hiking by 0545. It was difficult to find the trail amidst the trees surrounding the creek bed and the high grass but eventually I found myself heading in the right direction. The trail ran along a ridge that was fairly level but had been decimated by fire in 2019. I climbed over fallen trees and bushwhacked through overgrown bushes for a few miles until the trail descended into Reavis Canyon. Again I stepped gingerly over rocks and flailed wildly when I slipped. At the bottom I admired the red walls of Whitford Canyon. A storm had begun forming over the Superstitions as I trudged the remaining six miles to a trailhead near highway 60. It was 5 pm and the rain was pouring and the wind blowing wildly. I had been out on the trail for eight days and made it through three wilderness areas. I collapsed gratefully into my husband’s vehicle ready for a zero.

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