Bear Mountain – Sedona, Arizona…

I am forcing myself to get outdoors.  

This summer’s heat in Phoenix has been miserable for me.  I don’t know why it feels so much more oppressive and suffocating than summers past, but it does.  More than I have in a long time, I find myself hiding inside and making excuses.  I don’t like excuses.

After a great week in Pennsylvania, where the weather was significantly better, I felt energized…recharged.  I also returned to Phoenix to find the weather was a little more reasonable and a storm system was providing some much needed cloud cover in the mornings.  So, for the first time this summer, I had a solid week of outdoors activity and I didn’t want it to stop.  So as the heat rose, I planned to head up north and get some trail time in around my new favorite stomping grounds…Sedona.

Originally, I was looking for a nice long canyon hike that would allow me to amble along in the shade of the high red-rock walls.  I day-dreamed of running along a dusty canyon trail through Cottonwoods, Junipers and Pine trees.  This, unfortunately, would continue to be a dream as I did my pre-trip research and found that afternoon thunderstorms were forecast for the weekend in Sedona.  Monsoon season thunderstorms in Arizona mean flash floods and a secluded canyon is not where you want to be.  So, as often happens…change of plan.

I browsed my Sedona Trail Map and found a few interesting options that seemed far enough off the beaten path to offer some solitude.  Early Sunday morning, I got myself packed and headed north out of town.  Sunday was also National Hammock Day, so part of my goal for the day was to find a good place to hang my ENO and soak in some classic Sedona views.

driving up 179

In Sedona, I made my requisite stop at The Hike House to review trail options and take a look at their gear selection.  Deb met me at the door and ushered me in to show off some of the new gear and chat.  Then we looked over the map and she agreed that it would be a bad time to do any canyon hiking.  In lieu of a canyon hike I wanted to summit something.  Wilson Mountain was out of the question because it would get hit the hardest by any lightning and monsoon rains.  I asked about a small, strenuous hike on the west end of town that climbed up into the southwestern corner of the Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness.

Bear Mountain summit trail is only a 5 mile hike round-trip.  That would make it a much shorter distance than I wanted to hike but with nearly 2,000 ft of elevation gain in the 2.5 miles to the summit, it is strenuous.  Knowing it was a summit hike and storms were due to make their way in, I grabbed a cookie (thanks, Deb!) and headed toward the trailhead.

Bear Mountain as seen from the trailhead

There were a few cars parked at the lot that serves as the trailhead for both Bear Mountain and the much shorter Doe Mountain hike.  There is a decent sized parking lot and restrooms here.  There is also an automated pay-station for the Red Rock Day passes (I don’t think the passes are required anymore, but for $5 it was better to have it and not need it).

Cactus at the start of the trailThis mountain looks much different on paper than it does in person.  On paper, there are a couple of obvious climbs but I was not expecting the exciting geological adventure this mountain offers.  The trail starts across the road from the parking lot in a relatively flat, cactus laden stretch of iconic red soil split by ribbons of deeply eroded washes.  It climbs slowly straight to the base of the mountain comprised of heavily eroded cliffs of Schnebly Hill Sandstone.  A steep 400 ft climb brings me to a distinct ledge of Apache Limestone that has resisted erosion enough to create a relatively level path along the wall of the cliffs above.The first dramatic views from Bear Mountain

It’s Sedona, so I’m already impressed by the views and stopping to take pictures.  The rocky trail is more narrow and overgrown through this section and I am careful to watch for the cairns as I find myself nearly following false trails here and there.  This shelf ends at a narrow cut in the mountain side where the trail begins another steep climb.  I’m excited to see a trail becoming more technical and interesting.  As I hoist myself up out of the ravine and on to the first plateau, I’ve left the cactus behind.  Though there are still Agave, the low-land cactus has been replaced with Manzanita…and lots of it.

rocky trail to scramble to the main deckThe views on this first plateau are impressive, but I know I’ve barely started my climb.  I was anxious to see more.  This is the first place I run in to fellow hikers on their way back down.  A hundred yards or so later I run in to another couple resting further up the trail.  The deck at this section of Bear Mountain is a transition from the Schnebly Hill Sandstone to the very orange Coconino Sandstone.  The scrubby Manzanita is thick across this deck, but still relatively treeless.  Following the cairns carefully, the trail climbs another 500ft or so through a maze of rock and brush across a steeply inclined deck.  The rock gets lighter as you climb eventually revealing a twisted section of sandstone, bleached almost white, turned on it’s side and eroded to reveal etched swirls and striations unlike anything else I’ve seen in Sedona.

This section of the mountain becomes very narrow with sheer cliffs falling into twisted red canyons below on either side.  You gotta follow the trail on the 3D map below to get a good feel for this narrow bridge of rock.  It really was amazing to walk a few feet in either direction and be staring down into steep canyons, each with very unique character.

This is also where the trees start to occur.  I found myself scouting for a place to hang the hammock on the return hike.  It was a meager selection at first, with solitary trees perched here and there.  After more climbing, however, the trees became a little thicker and stronger and options were starting to present themselves.

There is a plateau that sort of presents itself as a false-peak.  In fact, when I got the plateau there were a couple of guys there resting and they announced “you made it!” as if this was the summit and end of the trail.  Clearly, with mountain still above me and my GPS reading that I still had a quarter mile left to go, they were mistaken.  I spent a few minutes taking pictures and soaking in the view from the false-summit but I wanted the top and time was running short.

CLOUDS!This entire time I’d been hiking and watching the clouds far up to the north.  An innocent line of clouds that morning had slowly grown to a picturesque desert sky and then transformed into a black, shadowy mass pulsing with flashes of light and emitting a menacing growl from time to time just to remind me it was coming.  I picked up the pace and made for the summit.  The last push to the top is very different than the rest of the trail.  As I’ve seen in a lot of summit hikes, part of the trail is less traveled, rougher and the cairns are more important to keep on the right path.  The rock here is more broken and loose and the vegetation changes again becoming more scrubby with grasses and Yucca.

Love the flag in the wind and the clouds gathering above...The top is marked with a small pile of rock and a small American Flag.  I paused at the top looking down across the flat, open valley to the southwest.  I stood on a fractured and pitted ledge of stark white Kaibab Limestone at the precipice of a great canyon and watched two hawks chase each other and grapple in the sky below me.  Then as the thunder reminded me of my time frame, I grabbed a few shots of the lone flag at the summit and moved on.

One the way down I found a great spot to hang the hammock overlooking Fay Canyon where I could watch the storm roll in over Wilson Mountain toward Sedona.  I was strapped between two pine trees at a ledge just 20ft or so off the trail and watched a couple of hikers pass below me.  I had a little snack and some water while I rested and watched the clouds move across the horizon, grumbling deeply as it moved, white lightning splitting the sky.

Before too long, I packed up my stuff and returned to my march down the mountain.  I picked up the pace, jogging through the flat parts and scrambling through the more technical sections.  Before I knew it was back to the narrow climb to the main deck, quickly working my way down I was back to the foot of the mountain in no time and headed to the truck just as the first drops of rain were starting to fall.

I drove back into Sedona through intermittent rain.  I stopped in to the Hike House again to say goodbye and grabbed a smoothie for the ride home since I wasn’t really feeling up to a full dinner.

watching the storm come in from my hammock

Bear Mountain really is a great summit hike for Sedona.  It is a very unique experience in place where unique experiences abound.  I think next time I will want to hike Fey Canyon and Boynton Canyon, the two dramatic canyons on the north side of Bear Mountain that offered such amazing views.

Bear Mountain – Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness.

Plenty of trailhead parking. From Sedona take Highway 89A west to Dry Creek Road.  Follow until it dead-ends and make a left on to Boynton Pass Road toward Boynton Canyon.  Another left at the next intersection will take you to the trailheads for Boynton Canyon, Fey Canyon then Bear Mountain and Doe Mountain.  There is a small parking area, bathrooms and a Red Rock Pass purchase booth at the trailhead.

Trail Length: 5 mile round-trip (as described here)
Elevation Gain: 1,800 feet
Difficulty: moderate to strenuous
Open: Year-round but not suggested during winter when snow is expected.

View Bear Mountain by wildernessdave on Breadcrumbs

 

Big Jim Trail

Big Jim Peak
This hike was specifically chosen to satisfy two main desires I had in selecting a hike.  First, that there was a peak to summit.  I had been toying with the idea of focusing on peakbagging in the mountains around Phoenix, and this was the first hike I specifically chose based on that goal.  Second, it was a very obscure trail that has seen very little traffic.  I really wanted to hike a trail in an area new to me on a trail that was not heavily used nor established.  Big Jim Peak sits about 6 miles into a remote portion of desert called Hell’s Canyon Wilderness west of Lake Pleasant along Cottonwood Creek, north of the Phoenix Metro area.

Big Jim Peak

Singer ‘Walkin’ Jim Stolz hiked more than 28,000 of trail before his death in 2010.  Walkin’ Jim Loop is named for this intrepid outdoorsman, adventurer, singer and author.  The trail was originally blazed by Bob Greg and named after Jim Stolz with the latter’s permission.  Jim later accepted Bob’s invitation to hike the trail with him in 2010 shortly before his death.

I was planning on doing this hike with a small group, but as often happens, people slowly began to back out.  When I finally accepted that I was going to be hiking alone, in an unknown wilderness area, I began to doubt the trip and almost backed out myself.  I collected information, maps and researched the trail and the area.  The morning of the hike, I came very close to cancelling.  Then, ridiculous as it may sound, I thought of my dad…and the idea of backing away from a challenge because of ‘the unknown’ suddenly seemed unreasonable.  So, I grabbed my gear and followed the directions to the trailhead.

There are old ranch roads that traverse this wilderness area.  The whole area used to be cattle land and there are still some wild cattle loose in the area, as well as wild burros and a variety of other wildlife.  The trail actually crosses some old homestead sites deep in the wilderness with partial fences, debris and artifacts littered about the clearings.  The trail is fairly well worn in the beginning and crosses Cottonwood Creek a couple of times.  As it takes you further into the desert, the signs of use diminish and the trail becomes more overgrown.  It became clear to me a couple of miles in the that main use of the trail was by the local wildlife, not humans, and I was forced to stoop below branches and push through overgrown brush.

Big Jim PeakI had marked my route beforehand on a fairly detailed topo map, and was able to follow the trail easily despite it’s spotty and faint appearance.  In places, the trail can disappear completely but is marked relatively well with cairns for those with a careful enough eye to catch them.  There were portions of this trail where the only way to continue the route was to walk from cairn to cairn.  The topo map was invaluable at times, and allowed me to triangulate my position and reorient myself.

Big Jim PeakThe trail itself is a lot of fun.  The terrain changes repeatedly, the trail wanders through dense Mesquite forests, crosses dry and wet creeks and washes, climbs up and over various rock formations covered with a variety of lichen and drop in and out of several small canyons.  The trail is very remote, and one of the few places where I really noticed the silence.  Desert silence is a strange thing, and unique.  Occasionally, I could hear the motor of 4×4 vehicles in use on some of the old, abandoned ranch roads.

About 4 miles in, there is a sign marking the side trail to Big Jim Peak (peak 3465).  The Peak dominates the horizon for a couple of miles prior to this intersection.  The peak trail actually heads across the foothills of this small range and into a canyon just below the peak.  From here it snakes up the canyon to a saddle between the peak and the rest of the ridge.  The trail ends here.

Hiking to the peak is a trailblazing challenge, forcing you to make your own way through the scrub brush and grasses.  There are some cairns along the way to help remind you that you are going in the right direction.  I eventually crested the craggy rock that surrounds the peak, and was able to boulder hop to the highest point.  With a little searching, I was able to find the hidden glass jar with the peak ledger in it.  It had rained the previous week so the ledger was still slightly wet and I had trouble writing my name on the page.  The last entry was from October of 2008.  Though I’m sure there had been other visitors, the idea of being the first one on this summit in over 2 years was exciting.

Big Jim Peak

I pulled off my pack and spent some time at the top watching eagles hunt along the cliffs below my position.  I dug my lunch out of the pack and found a relatively flat rock to sit and enjoy my lunch.  From the peak, I had a great view of Lake Pleasant to the East and the remaining desert wilderness to the west.  It’s a fantastic vantage point and I was disappointed I had decided not to bring my good camera.  I laid down on a boulder for a bit to enjoy the sun.  When I decided to start down, I sat up and grabbed my gear and felt a sharp sting on the back of my thigh.  The intricate, animated dance that followed had to have looked insane.  luckily, I was alone and by the time I had stripped out of my pants the only evidence left of my visitor was the barb and venom sack still pulsating from the scorpion that got me.  I had never been stung by a scorpion before, but living in Arizona, you know what the dangers are and I now had a sense of urgency to get back to civilization.  I had no idea if I was allergic, or if my body would react weird to the sting and I was 6.5 miles from my truck.

 

Big Jim Peak

The return hike was a little of a blur.  Mostly just pushing hard to get back.  I was running low on water, it had gotten warm out since I had started my hike and I was feeling fuzzy.  I don’t know if it was lack of water, fatigue or the scorpion but the hike back was way harder than the hike in.  When I finally got back to my truck, I felt relieved.  I downed some Gatorade, loaded my gear and started the drive home.

I estimated the hike would be about 9.8 miles round-trip.  However,  when my GPS died at the peak it read close to 6.5 miles making the round-trip closer to 13 miles.  I really would love to do this hike again when I can spend the night on Big Jim Peak and get some sunrise shots over Lake Pleasant before hiking back.  Hopefully without a scorpion encounter…

BJP09

The Hiker’s Hike…

Havasu Creek Canyon, Arizona circa April of 2000

 

Lately, I’ve been thinking I might not be getting the best experience out of my hikes.  I think about how I used to hike and what made me excited about a particular trail and something has changed.  I feel like I’ve been doing so much fitness-oriented hiking lately that I can’t down-shift and enjoy a hike purely for the experience.  As I make the effort to change this, it made me start thinking about why I hike, what draws me to the trail and how what the trail has to offer changes my approach to the hiking experience.

Slot Canyon in Northern Arizona

What draws me to the trail these days is very much about goals.  I find myself choosing hikes based on bagging a new peak, beating a previous time or simply logging miles in to my fitness routine.  My choices are less about the experience and more about the route, the terrain and how fast I think I can complete it and get back home.  So much so that I don’t even carry a camera with me anymore.  There’s really nothing wrong with this, especially since I am in recovery from an injury and I am focused on training for a race.  Fitness goals are very important to me right now, but I do miss hiking purely for the joy of discovery.

Havasu Creek near confluence with Colorado River

When I first moved to Arizona and began hiking in the desert, every hike was about getting to see something new.  It was about the varied terrain, the exotic and esoteric plants, the fascinating little creatures that scurried about…it was about the journey.  The desert was a new place to me and I would find myself randomly picking hikes in far off places just to see what I could find.  I wanted to stand under a new waterfall, look from a new peak, see new trees and hear new birds.  I recall hikes where I would spend huge amounts of time just watching a rattle snake, or the spectacle of a tarantula migration or inspecting some old piece of mining equipment long since left behind.  Some of my best and most memorable hiking experiences were from this time in my life.  A time when every trip was a new adventure in every sense of the word.

Today I feel torn.  Part of me enjoys the convenience of a trail within a 10-minute drive of my house in the city that offers me 3, 5 or 7 mile options that I know I can complete in a set amount of time.  It’s definitely better, in my opinion, than asphalt.  But there’s another part of me that misses the exploration side of hiking, the adventure and the sense of discovery.  I feel like I should have more reverence for the trail, more respect and acknowledgement of the uniqueness that makes each trail special.  The problem I have is that many of these local trails just don’t feel special anymore.

I think it’s time to push out of my comfort zone.  It’s time to visit new places, take the road less traveled and reintroduce ADVENTURE to the outdoors again.  I know there are amazing places out there that I have yet to visit and I want to start making those destinations more of a priority.  We all hike for different reasons and there is no right or wrong, as long as you enjoy yourself and stay safe.  I can still run in town and climb local peaks to build cardio and endurance, but I really want to hike the kind of trails that used to fill me with a sense of wonder…a true Hiker’s Hike.

And who knows, maybe I’ll start carrying a camera again…

Grand Canyon, Arizona circa October, 2007