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Turning of the Season

Tuesday, October 5th, 2021: Chiricahuas, Hikes, Southeast Arizona.

Two weeks without hiking! Life was only going to get harder in the weeks to come. I just had to get away for a day – maybe to that “range of canyons” on the Arizona border.

Like so many times before, I swore I would do an easy hike – from the first, most popular trailhead, a 9-mile out-and-back peak climb with 3,100′ elevation gain. Only a half-day hike, leaving me time for another short hike if I felt like it, an early burrito and beer, and a reasonable drive home before dark.

Since my last hike, our weather had flipped from monsoon heat to fall chill. Everyone agreed that this monsoon had been our best in over a decade. But most people had only experienced it in town, in the form of flooded streets, rain and hail on windows, pets frightened by thunder. I’d experienced it deep in the wilderness, soaking wet from sweat, dew, or cloudbursts, struggling through rampant vegetation, with lightning striking nearby. In this new cooler, drier regime, I found myself looking forward to winter.

At a thousand feet lower than home, the weather at my destination was forecast to be mild and partly cloudy, with no chance of rain.

I got an early start, but by the time I reached the trailhead, the parking area was filled with half a dozen vehicles. I checked the time. There was another hike I’d really been hoping to do here, but had decided would just take too long to get me home at a decent hour. It involved a slow drive up a rough 4wd road to the trailhead, and a 15-mile out-and-back, extending the last hike I’d done there, to the farthest southwest peak in the range. If I could fit it in, it would yield views over completely new terrain.

I did the math in my head. My goal would be to return to the cafe for burrito and beer before the 6pm closing time. I was early enough that I should be able to drive that 4wd road and reach the actual trailhead with enough time for an 8-1/2 hour hike, which on decent trails would yield at least 17 miles. 15 seemed totally doable, so I drove deep into the mountains and started up the 4wd road through rolling oak and juniper forest.

Someone had left the cattle gate open. The rocky road was bone-rattlingly bad as usual – I had to creep between 5 and 10 mph, switching into 4wd at the high-clearance part. I passed a parked pickup truck, and a half mile later, a second. Damn, what a busy day here.

But nobody besides me had made it all the way to the trailhead. Plenty of water was coming down the unnamed creek, from our wet monsoon and last week’s heavy rains. I set out up the trail, and within the first half mile met two bear hunters.

They were young guys, probably early 30s, tall and fit. One looked like an urban professional, the other seemed more like a skilled tradesman. I said there always seemed to be a lot of bear sign around here, but they pointed to a tall Gambel oak nearby and said there were no acorns to speak of, the bears were likely to be someplace else. They wished me a good hike and I continued past them up the trail.

This north slope was saturated with moisture, and the creek poured noisily through its rocky gully. Where the trail led across meadows, the grass stood chest-high.

Partway up the switchbacks to the waterfall overlook, in burn scar overgrown with oak and scrub, I came upon tall shrubs I’d seen before, bearing, to my surprise, what looked like black raspberries. They were thimbleberries, Rubus parviflorus, but I didn’t know it at the time. I tried one – slightly sweet, but mostly bitter. I tried another. All in all, not enough flavor to make them appealing, and I wondered idly if they might even be poisonous.

I continued climbing the steeper and steeper slope past the overlook to the high entrance to the hanging canyon. I was intending to make short work of this first part of the hike, where most of my elevation would be gained, so I could focus more on the crest part of the hike, which consisted of long traverses with only a few hundred feet of up and down, and those spectacular views. But I’d forgotten how steep this first part is.

And in the hanging canyon, the section along the creek is always slow as you work your way back and forth over boulders and through dense vegetation. That creek bottom is the coldest place I know in the Southwest, so I pulled on my sweater. Fall had already started to color the riparian foliage down there.

I met a forty-something backpacker coming down the creek. He said he’d driven to the campground on the crest and had spent a couple of nights along the crest trail. I should’ve asked him how he was planning to get back to his vehicle after dropping thousands of feet on this trail. But I was already running late.

Up out of the congested canyon bottom and into the old growth fir forest on the upper slope. I stopped at the Forest Service cabin to drink water and dig out snacks for lunch, and surprised two middle-aged day hikers, guys who looked like professionals from a big city, who were resting in the grass before returning down the trail. I’d never seen so many hikers in these mountains.

By the time I reached the crest trail junction in the high saddle, where intact forest ends at the burn scar, I’d used up almost 3 hours to go less than 4 miles. My goal for the day was looking unlikely, but I would go as far as I could.

The crest trail goes much faster, and at 9,000′, it was in transition from the last of the monsoon flowers to the beginning of fall color. Butterflies, mostly smaller ones, were swarming all over the trail ahead, but it was chilly up there and I had to pull on my sweater again. That would turn into a theme of the day – getting chilled, pulling on my sweater, getting sweaty, taking it off again.

On this good trail, I walked fast up to the junction below the summit of the range, and turned downhill to the west from there, traversing across a steep, burned north slope into more fir forest where the trail becomes slow again across talus partly buried under damp soil, moss, and lichen. I was seeing where the mountains stored moisture in a wet monsoon, and where the vegetation was responding to it.

From the forested saddle west of the high peak, I entered a new watershed, which I’d only just discovered on my last hike here. I’d found it to be a wonderland of rocks, and this is where today’s hike really began for me.

The time it had taken to reach this point proved that I’d miscalculated the distance to today’s goal. Whereas I’d believed it to be about 7-1/2 miles one-way, it was now looking like between 8 and 9, and much of that was always going to be slow. I was now hiking out a rugged, exposed ridgeline with lots of ups and downs, and at every little saddle along the way, I could spot the fire lookout on the peak I was heading for, and it didn’t seem to be getting any closer.

But what a trail! This ridge was interrupted regularly by rock outcrops through which the trail builders had threaded a narrow track, taking advantage of natural gaps in the rock. I would look at a wall of rock ahead and expect the trail to bypass it, but it climbed and zigzagged through instead, and there were often fields of wildflowers before and behind.

In the short saddles between outcrops, the trail got harder and harder to follow, but eventually I always came upon some sort of minimal cairn, sometimes just a single rock perched on a stump or boulder. I didn’t bring a map and was expecting the trail to cross over the ridge into a new watershed earlier, but it became obvious that I’d reach that part only after traversing the modest peak – 9,440′ Raspberry Peak – at the end of this ridge. And I ran out of time at the saddle just before the trail’s turning point. Checking the map later, I would find I’d gotten with two-thirds of a mile of my original destination, but the lookout tower due west of me still appeared no closer.

If I’d known how close I was, I might’ve been tempted to continue. But the lure of that beer and burrito was strong, and I’d already had too many experiences of driving home in the dark, hungry and exhausted, desperately needing a shower and too tired to eat when I finally arrived after bedtime.

I felt I’d timed my turnaround well, allowing a little less time for the return because it’s mostly downhill. So I didn’t rush back – in fact, I took time to enjoy the views, rocks, flowers, and butterflies, stopping often for photos. With the cooling weather, aspens were beginning to turn, yielding isolated patches of gold widely separated across the vast slopes.

I was dragging my feet a little before leaving the big, rocky southern canyon and crossing the watershed north. From the little forested saddle below the summit, I began picking my way faster through the buried talus. Heavier clouds had formed just west of the crest, and I wondered if I would get any rain.

From the trail junction below the summit, the good, smooth trail went fast, and I soon turned my back on those top-of-the-world crest views to drop into the hanging canyon. It struck me that despite running into 5 people along the lower trail, I hadn’t seen anyone on the crest. It was Sunday afternoon, and the weekend visitors were probably well on their way back to Tucson by now.

After working my way down the overgrown creek bottom, when I reached the rim of the hanging canyon and regained the broad view over the interior basin to the northeast, I realized my time was getting tight. My left knee was starting to hurt, so I dug out and strapped on my knee brace, which makes me feel a little like a “bionic man”. With the knee brace, I can pound my way down steep slopes with relative impunity.

The farther I went, the tighter my time was looking. I figured if I kept up the pace to the trailhead, I might just have enough time to reach the cafe. With the changing of the season, the sun was lower now and the last part of the trail was in shade. I was chilly but still drenched with sweat from the effort of hiking fast – not my favorite combination.

Finally I reached the vehicle, stashed my gear, and began driving down the rough road. Despite its violent bouncing and rattling, my vehicle wears good all-terrain tires, and I knew it could handle a little abuse, so I drove it much harder and faster than usual, watching the time as I went. When I reached the graded gravel road, I really started speeding. It was going to be super close.

In the end, I reached the cafe about 5 minutes before closing. There was only one other party in the tiny dining room, an elderly couple. This county is one of Arizona’s worst COVID hot spots, and the lodge website features a dire virus warning from a local doctor, but no one was masked, not even the staff. I ordered my beer and asked if they had a room available. It would be great to finish dinner, take a shower, and get a good night’s sleep before driving back early in the morning. Yes! They had a room.

Whenever I run into a backpacker, I envy them. And whenever I pass an empty campsite returning from one of these hikes, I yearn to pull over and stay the night. I’ve replaced much of the camping gear destroyed in last year’s house fire, but while working 6 days a week to get my house habitable I just don’t have the time or energy for camping or backpacking yet. That day will come.

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