Finally, the time for our first backpacking trip had come! We spent Friday and Saturday night in the Aspen Campground near Woods Canyon Lake, and Sunday night we camped along passage 26 of the Arizona Trail. We started at the Pine Trail head traveled northbound (NOBO) to climb the Mogollon Rim to Forest Road 300.
We met up with Heather’s parents, grandmother, and uncle at their RV campsite #130. This was the maiden voyage for their 40′ older-model Country Coach, which less than a year ago was purchased from my mother and step-father. It was great to see it again, and I’m glad it’s not only in good hands, but also still in the family. We pitched our 6-person Coleman tent, which is a perfect size for the two of us, Maddie, Morgan, Harley, and Maverick to squeeze into at night.
Heather’s pack weighed in under 22 lbs and mine came in at 28. That included the 10 lbs of water each of us carried, and our combined food weight was 5 lbs. My guess is we’ll see the weight of our packs drop as we gain more backpacking experience and confidence. We do enjoy a hot meal out on the trail and will tolerate such weight, as evidenced by the home-made beef stew I made ahead of time and froze to take with us!
On Saturday, I dropped our minivan at the General Springs Trail head on the 300. Thank you Wayne (Heather’s dad) for the shuttle from camp, which one way on the bumpy dirt road was a 28 mile, 75 minute trip! Th next morning we left the kids in the care of Heather’s family (thank you!!), and then Wayne gave us a ride to our starting point, a good 50-minute drive from camp. Major props Pops! After taking some photos, we finally hit the trail at 10:15.
It was a beautiful morning with the temp in the low 70’s. There was a 50% chance of rain forecast, but the sun was out with scattered clouds in the distance. We each packed 4 liters of water and lathered on a good layer of sunscreen, plus we brought our filter system to use at water sources along the way.
Our early pace was fast as we made a gradual climb through manzanita bush and alligator juniper. There was very little shade, so we were ready for our first break 4 miles in at Red Rock Spring. The water was a stagnant trough, but I took the opportunity to use the filter for the first time and water the dogs.
We continued with mild ups and downs along the Highline Trail just above 6,000 ft for the next 2 hours before finally dropping 500 ft down a canyon to Weber Creek and the Geronimo Trail head. We had been hearing thunder in the distance, but by then the clouds were over us. While enjoying the shade, water, and cool winds, we put on our ponchos and rain covers on our packs because rain was surely coming.
Seconds later we were not only being rained on, but we were being hammered with tons of pea-sized hail! We waited for the hail to stop, trying to take cover under some trees and a Forest Service sign. Though it was still raining, we decided to keep moving on because we were still 4 miles from our planned campsite. So much rain had fallen that the trail had become the path of least resistance and was flowing with water! Cold and with heavy, wet shoes, we hiked in the rain for almost an hour before we were suddenly forced to stop. A flash flood was flowing down a wash that intersected our trail!
After waiting 45 minutes, the water level dropped low enough to where we were confident we could cross safely. Still sprinkling, we carried on as fast as we could. The rain never let up, and we finally made it to Bray Creek at 6, almost dark because of the clouds. Another couple made it there before us and were nice and cozy inside their tent. We got ours set up as fast as we could, but Heather waited outside in the rain with the dogs while I dried the floor of the tent off with my shirt and set up our sleeping pads and quilt. By the time we were all in the tent, it finally stopped raining.
We were so happy to fill our bellies with that hot beef stew! We scarfed that down along with a cookie, and then we watched an episode of 24 before crashing. Suddenly I jumped up in my sleeping bag at the loud bugle of an elk that was in the campground! (Heather was still laughing about it later.) One or more were in the area and the calls went on throughout the night. Neither of us slept very well, but we stayed warm and dry and survived our first night backpacking! We crawled out of our tent at dawn to find a beautiful clear blue sky, ate breakfast, packed our wet gear, and were on the trail by 6:45.
Day 2 on the trail provided a little more shade than the day before, and the hike was pleasant even though our shoes were still wet and the trail was muddy. This was our first time using them, and we found our hiking poles to be very helpful for balance and beneficial for our core muscles. We spent the first couple of hours in an open range where we startled 2 cows and then later passed a bull and his harem. The ups and downs through the canyons were a little more difficult than yesterday, but all the springs and creeks were flowing. The dogs took full advantage of the crossings, and we refilled our bottles.
We crushed the first 6 miles and made it to Washington Park before 10 am, but we were only at 6,100 ft. Our van was parked 2 miles away on the Rim at 7,200 ft. That meant there was going to be a serious climb! The first mile was my favorite section of the trail as we followed the Verde River and it’s shady tree cover. We found a pretty mushroom, and think I spotted some poison ivy. This was a busy area as we saw several families and groups enjoying their Labor Day outings.
The last half mile was the toughest of the trip as we climbed through the Ponderosa forest. We hiked up the Railroad Tunnel Trail and its steep, rocky surface at a grueling pace. The dogs were really struggling and had started bleeding on their paws. We pushed on, offering them encouragement to keep going knowing we were near the end.
A quarter til noon and we made it!
ps – We learned a lesson regarding the safety of our dogs. Their pads are still tender and their bodies still sore 3 days later. They aren’t as young, athletic, and invincible as we perceive them to be, so we won’t include them on our overnight hikes unless the trail conditions are ideal and we’ve taken proper precautions.
Miles hiked: 20.2
AZT miles logged: 20.2