Return to the Sierra Ancha Wilderness: Cold Spring Canyon…

I’ve been up since 3AM.  I’m sitting in my truck in the pre-dawn darkness at a far corner of a Walmart parking lot sipping black coffee…waiting.  Waiting for the rest of the group.  Waiting to take the long ride out to Cherry Creek.  Waiting to continue an adventure we started two years ago…

The main part of the trail into Cold Springs Canyon was easy enough.  We started from the same old mining road we used to access Pueblo Canyon a couple years prior, about 23 miles down a seldom used 4×4 back road along Cherry Creek.  This time with a more suitable vehicle, we 4-wheeled our way up the mining road to a small, level clearing once used as a camp.  From here it was supposed to be less than two miles in to Cold Springs Canyon to the Crack House.

Crossing Cherry Creek in the Range Rover - by Jabon Eagar - Sierra Ancha Wilderness

Crack House is the nickname given to the 700 year old Salado Culture cliff house ruins we were after.  When you see the site, the name is obvious.  This cliff dwelling is literally built into a naturally occurring crevice at the base of a 600 ft shear canyon wall.  The 3-story mud, rock and timber dwelling was discovered in the 1930s and documented by Dr. Emil W. Haury as part of the Gila Pueblo Project.

Long view of the Crack House at Cold Spring Canyon from the trail - by Wilderness Dave - Sierra Ancha WildernessAbout a mile up the main trail you get a glimpse of the Crack House…if you’re lucky.  You’ve really got to be looking for it and luckily, some of us had better eyes than the others.  Jabon Eager and Mike Sorensen were with me again on this hike, the same guys I hiked Pueblo Canyon with.  The only one missing from the original Pueblo Canyon party was my (now) wife, Merelyn.  As the three of us hiked deeper into the canyon looking for the side trail that would lead us to the site, Jabon was the one who managed to spot the distinctive black square hole in the cliff face that marked the entrance to our ruins.  Now, with a frame of reference, we excitedly continued forward.

Wilderness Dave stopping for photographs along Cold Spring Canyon Trail - by Jabon Eagar - Sierra Ancha WildernessEven the primary trail is nothing more than a narrow ribbon of roughly flat ground wrapped tightly against the steeply descending canyon walls.  It’s a seldom used trail that had become overgrown in some areas and we were looking for an even more obscure side trail to guide us up to the ruins.  We followed the path until we were standing below the cliff ledge where we had seen the entrance to the Crack House.  None of us had discovered any sign of a side trail, but as we stood below the cliffs there was what could only have been a drainage path or a rough game-trail leading straight up.  Could this be the trail?  Jabon consulted his print out of the Trail Description he’d found online as I consulted my topographic map.  “This section is nothing short of NASTY”, is what the report says.

“Nasty” is a very subjective description.  To some, a “nasty” trail is any trail without asphalt or concrete.  So with little to go on, we eyed this barely discernible clearing heading straight up the steep slope with trepidation and doubt.  It certainly looked “NASTY”.  We decided to give it a shot.

I took point and scrambled up the slope, unsuccessful.  Jabon followed close behind and when I ledged out, he took another path to the left with the same result.  We both moved laterally toward the cliffs to find something – anything - that looked like a trail.  We found many, followed some, and one-by-one discovered they led to nowhere.  As we crawled along our imaginary trails, glancing up occasionally in an attempt to orient ourselves, I spotted a crack, high in the cliff, carefully filled in with stacked rock.  Far too small to be our Crack House, it must have been an old granary.  Granaries were often created high out of reach and used to store food for the Winter.  This meant we were close.

Mike retreated early, probably getting tired of dodging the numerous geological samples I was generously sending his direction.  Jabon and I retreated next and as I followed Jabon back down slope I lost my footing and my bad knee gave out, crumpling completely under my weight.  Aside from the intense pain and initial fear that I had crippled myself, the fall wasn’t bad and after a short rest I was able to continue on my own.  Jabon backtracked looking for another possible trail and returned later having been unsuccessful.

Mike had had enough and decided not to join in the fight for the prize after our first attempt and failure.  Jabon and I had a little more gumption in us and agreed on a second attempt after having talked through our options.  When Jabon had backtracked he was also able to locate the ruin again visually and note where it was in relationship to where we had been climbing.  We were directly below it at one point and could not find a route.  But now we had our bearings and we knew it was directly above us…

The Punch Bowl below the ruins in Cold Spring Canyon - by Jabon Eagar - Sierra Ancha Wilderness

This meant there had to be a trail above us as well, we just had to find it.  Jabon and I were not leaving this canyon until we’d found the Crack House.  For Jabon and I, this trip had been simmering in the back of our minds for two years now, since Pueblo Canyon.  We were here, no more than 100 feet below the site we’d read about and we were not going to walk away now.

We both chose different lines and committed to them.  He blazed up the left side of the trail we had originally attempted and I crawled up the precarious slope on the right.  My knee was sore from my earlier fall and Jabon was making better progress.

I keep losing my footing.  The steep canyons out here in the Sierra Anchas are in an extreme state of erosion and nothing is stable.  I am constantly worrying about my bad knee as I hoist myself up one precarious foothold at a time, following nothing but the whisper of a trail, not able to see my target but knowing that it is up…somewhere up.

After much sweat and swearing Jabon triumphantly called down that he’d found the trail.  This spurred me on and I hacked my way through Prickly Pear cactus and overgrown Cat’s Claw trees in my fight for the trail.  Before long, with sweat dripping from my dusty brow, I had found it as well and quickly set off in pursuit of Jabon and the Ruins.

The real path to the ruins wasn’t much better than the trail we’d been forced to blaze.  It simply had the benefit of being an actual recognizable trail.  It still amazes me that so much vegetation can cling to the steep, eroded slopes of these desert canyons.  I found myself crawling through brush and vines, sliding under tree branches and carefully dancing around cacti, yuccas and agaves.  Finally, after a near vertical scramble, I reached the rocky shelf that led to the Crack House.

The photos say more than I can about the impressiveness of this cliff dwelling.  Both of us have studied enough about the archaeology of the area to approach the site with cautious awe and respectful curiosity.  Because of its protected location, the floor structures are in fantastic shape.  The crack which this structure was built in cuts clear through the cliff.  The main room, which is on the third floor, makes a sharp left turn about halfway through and presents visitors with a balcony window framing an amazing view of the valley to the southeast.  Jabon photographed the interior of the ruin creating some of the most detailed interior shots of this site ever taken.  We stayed for a short while, soaking it in, quietly reveling in our triumph.

For me, there is an addictive nature to this sort of hiking.  These canyons are littered with sites like this.  Not all of them are as dramatic or as well preserved, but they are here.  Most of these sites see so few visitors that trail descriptions are few and far between, pictures are rare, and the academic documentation incomplete.  Finding them takes work.  That, for me, is what draws me to these kinds of hikes.  I like the research, the exploration and the satisfaction of discovery.  Even though this hike was probably no more than 2 or 3 total miles of hiking, it was far more gratifying than many longer hikes I’ve been on.

We concluded this hike on a high, excited to have had the experience.  Our conversations inevitably revolved around where we would go next.  There are rumors of more ruins in Cooper’s Fork, the canyon to the east across the creek.  Another rare site in rugged, inhospitable territory with no established trail and minimal documentation…sounds like a fun trip!

Photo Gallery

To see more Jabon’s fantastic work, check him out on Facebook.

These archaeological sites are in the condition they are in because of the rarity of visitors.  I have deliberately left out a trail map and directions in hopes that these sites do remain undisturbed by the general public.  Like most protected areas, their inaccessibility is their salvation.  One of the lessons learned from other important archaeological sites that have turned in to tourist attractions is that people are inherently destructive.  If you do visit some of these historic structures, treat them with respect.

Kendrick Mountain Wilderness -or- Prelude to Humphrey’s Peak…

Kendrick Mountain

Humphrey’s Peak is the highest point in Arizona at 12,633 ft.  It’s been on my must-do list for a while now.  A couple months ago, I started chatting with Matt on Twitter about hiking Humphrey’s Peak in June.  My only worry was that I have not been at high elevation in a long time.  The last time I spent any real time above 10,000 ft was hiking the Mount Rose Summit (10,776 ft) in Tahoe in 2010.  Prior to that, my last experience above 10,000 ft was in Peru all the way back in 1998.  I’ve never really had trouble with elevation, but things change over the years so I needed to see how my body would react at elevation and I wanted to do it before making a run on Humphrey’s Peak.

Dirty TruckMy buddy Bryan does a lot of bike races (he was the reason I was in Prescott for the Whiskey Off-Road).  A few weeks ago he asked me, kinda of last minute, if I wanted to go camping with him for another bike race.  The race was a popular 104-mile relay called the Barn Burner.  The Barn Burner Mountain Bike Race covers a 26-mile loop that weaves in and out of the Kendrick Mountain Wilderness area, home of Kendrick Peak.  Kendrick Peak tops out at 10,418 ft and is part of the same volcanic San Francisco Mountain Range as Humphrey’s. It would be a perfect warm-up for hiking Humphrey’s Peak so I packed up some gear and set to drive out to Flagstaff.

That day I had some work that needed to get done before I could get on the road so I got a later start than I wanted.  I didn’t leave the house until close to noon.  By the time I was on the freeway headed north, it was already pretty hot and weekend traffic headed out of town was getting thick.  To make matters worse, there was an accident reported on the freeway about 10 miles ahead and all of us were stuck in a slow crawl up a long grade out of the valley.

That’s when the truck stalled.

I spent the next hour or so with the hood up on the side of the freeway as vehicles crawled by trying to figure out why the truck would have stalled.  I was certain my weekend was ruined and I’d be headed back in to town in a tow truck.  I had managed to get it started once or twice only to have it die on me again seconds later.  Eventually I got it started again and it was done stalling…probably water in the fuel line, but at least it was running again and I was headed north to the wilderness.

Hammock CampingA few hours later I was at camp at the C&C Ranch with nearly 4,000 other people in what was probably the dirtiest, dustiest piece of land in Arizona.  There were signs on the way in describing how the land had been destroyed by overgrazing and the soil was loose and devoid of nutrients.  The soil was so soft and dry that it would billow up in front of your vehicle like water as if you were driving through a shallow pond.

Crazy amounts of dust along with the crowded nature of the camp area convinced me to hike up above the flat into the trees with my hammock and camp above the chaos.  Before it got dark I wandered up to the tree line and found a good spot to hang camp, then walked back down to be “sociable” and have dinner with the race crew.

After a nice dinner and a cold beer, I headed up to my hammock and snuggled in for the night.  More and more I find myself enjoying this style of camping.  The temps got down to about 40 degrees that night and I slept like a baby.  I’m getting used to using a top-quilt and keeping warm with an insulated sleeping pad.

Early the next morning, I shuffled down off the hill and back to my truck to make some camp coffee (thanks to Coffee Brewers).  My plan was to wait until the bike race got going before heading to the trailhead.  The road I would take to the Kendrick Peak trailhead is the same road being used for a portion of the bike race and I didn’t want to be in the way, or creating unnecessary dust for the riders.  I headed out about 8:30 and was near the trailhead by 9am.  The first wave of bikers had made their way around and I couldn’t drive all the way to the trailhead without impeding the race so I parked off the road a half-mile or so down from the trailhead parking lot and hiked up.

Trailhead ParkingThe parking lot is well kept and big enough for nearly 20 cars.  It also has some posted trail and wilderness information as well as a permanent bathroom.  The trail wasn’t crowded but there were several cars in the lot and a couple of groups getting on the trail about the same time as myself.

Kendrick Trail MapI really love hiking in Northern Arizona.  The pine forests with thick green grasses and ferns remind me of a slightly drier version of the Pacific Northwest.  The trail is well maintained and easy to follow.  Though the 4-mile hike to the top is a continuous incline, it’s not terribly aggressive making the hike fairly moderate.  Hiking up the mountain, the trail weaves though Ponderosa Pine, Aspen, Oak, Fir, and Spruce trees and is home to Mexican spotted owls, mule deer, elk and black bear.  I didn’t get to see any real wildlife while I was up on the mountain, but the scenery was amazing even with large sections of the forest along the foothills still recovering from the 15,000 acre Pumpkin Fire back in 2000.

Kendrick Mountain TrailMost of the trail zig-zags through the forest, but occasionally opens up to offer views to the to the south as well as casual glimpses of Humphrey’s Peak to the east.  I kept a solid pace marching up the switch-backs, passing many of the hikers who were already on the trail.  Surprisingly, many of the hikers seemed to be in the over-fifty set.  With the exception of a young woman running the trail and two other women hiking together, I think I was the youngest hiker on the mountain.  When I reached the grassy saddle there were a couple of groups of day-hikers resting on fallen logs enjoying a mid-morning snack.  Smack in the middle of the saddle, surrounded by tall pines and green grass is the old, historic fire lookout cabin.

Built around 1911, the old log cabin is still in pretty good shape.  It was originally built as a shelter for the men working the fire lookout at the summit of Kendrick Peak.  It still has a functional door and glass windows.  Inside, the cabin is kept up with an old spring bunk bed, desk and storage chest with some emergency gear.  On the desk, along with other miscellaneous items, is a small notebook used as a trail sign-in book.

Kendrick Mountain lookout cabinThe trail splits at the saddle.  To the west you head up a rocky, narrow trail to the summit and the fire lookout building and can continue west along the ridgeline on the Pumpkin Trail.  To the northeast the Bull Basin Trail can take you down the north side of the mountain where it connects back to the Pumpkin Trail.  Having done this shorter trail, I would like to go back soon and hike the Pumpkin trail, hammock at the meadow next to the cabin, and then hike back down the Bull Basin Trail.

Kendrick Mountain TrailI left the cabin and headed up to the summit, so far feeling minimal effects from the elevation.  The hike from the saddle to the summit is less than half a mile and, though rocky, is not difficult.  At the top, the fire lookout dominates the peak.  In fact, you can see the massive fire lookout building from quite a distance (I was able to see it from camp that morning).  I’ve been to several fire lookouts in Arizona and this one is different than any of the others I’ve seen.

The first thing that makes this fire lookout unique in Arizona is that it is the only lookout post that does NOT have vehicular access.  The volunteers that work this post have to backpack the 4 miles in with all the gear and supplies on their backs.  There is a very small helipad near the structure for emergency extractions.  I hiked around the back of the structure and across to the helipad where several hikers were stretched out on the warm concrete like lizards soaking up the morning sun.  I pulled an apple out of my pack and soaked up the view from the peak while I ate my snack.

After a short rest, I noticed that most of the hikers had left.  So I secured my pack and walked up to the lookout building to meet the guy working there and have a chat.  It turns out that many of the Arizona fire lookouts are manned entirely by volunteers, most of which have no affiliation with the Forest Service.  I also discovered that they are typically in need of more volunteers on a regular basis.  The guy I was talking to, Ken, said he lives in Phoenix and comes up to man this post for about 5 weekends out of the summer.  He works a regular 9-5 during the week and uses this as his Summer getaway.  Where do I sign up??!!  I asked a few questions and managed to collect some contact information for the guy who manages the schedule for the volunteers.  I plan to call and get my name on the list.

Kendrick PeakThe lookout building itself has a propane stove and fridge, solar power, a bathroom, two double beds, a hammock and 360 degree views from one of the highest peaks in Arizona.  Sounds like the perfect Summer cabin to me!

I thanked Ken for the information and headed back down.  The total hike for me was nearly 9-miles round-trip because I parked further away from the trailhead.  The hike is typically about 7.5-8 miles RT with an elevation gain of nearly 3,000 ft.  The total trip took me about 3 hours. All in all, I never really felt any issues with the elevation even at the solid pace I was keeping.  Humphrey’s, here I come!

Side note: My phone battery has not been working properly lately so I have no track map.  I also had some technical difficulties with my DSLR right before reaching the saddle so I don’t have any pictures of the fire lookout.  Guess this just means I really need to hike this one again!

Hydration Summit – Week 1…

Today marks the beginning of Week 2 of the Hydration Summit, a huge collaboration of 16 outdoor adventure writers discussing everything you ever wanted to know about hydration.  For those of you who have not visited the site yet, I thought I’d do a breakdown of some of the highlights of Week 1.

June 4th-

My first article hit the night before the summit went live because I wasn’t paying attention and didn’t schedule my publish date properly.  I crafted a full product comparison of the 4 top hydration reservoirs competing in the hydration system market today.  I focused on presenting the CamelBak Antidote, the GEIGERRIG, the Osprey/Nalgene Hydraform Reservoir and the Platypus Big Zip.  Each had their unique advantages.  Go check it out and let me know which reservoir design you prefer.

Paul posted his article comparing the nozzle designs of each system as well.  His review systematically focused on the Pros and Cons of each nozzle (bite valve) and illustrated the differences.  He also got feedback from other users so his article didn’t just present his opinion.  He compared the CamelBak, Osprey, GEIGERRIG, Outdoor Products, High Sierra and Platypus.

June 5th-

Katie presented a fascinating, and somewhat disturbing (Blowback!) article about techniques for creating water pressure in your hydration system in order to spray water from the bite valve.  She presented multiple techniques (some of which I have tried myself) but ultimately focused on the one true “pressurized system”, GEIGERRIG.  There are times when having the ability to spray water through your hydration tube is a very handy ability.

Hendrik gave us a nice little comparison review of 4 different hydration backpacks.  Not all packs are created equal and many are designed for specific activities, making them less versatile and more specialized.  Hendrik compared the Osprey Raptor 18, GEIGERRIG 1200, the GoRuck GR1 and the LAUFBURSCHE huckePACK and discussed the advantages and disadvantages of all of them.

June 6th-

Phil published an informative article explaining the dangers of cross-contamination when refilling your hydration system and how to avoid it.  He shows us the most common points of cross contamination are:

  • Dirty hands – Putting “dirty” hands in your mouth or eyes
  • Dirty nozzle – Contaminating your hydration system hose nozzle
  • Dirty reservoir – Putting “dirty” water into a clean hydration reservoir
  • Dirty hose – Touching a clean hose with a “dirty” one

June 7th-

Whitney‘s fantastic and informative article about hydrating in the backcountry gave us an introduction to what the potential threats are in backcountry water sources.  She then follows up with explaining proper treatment techniques to avoid drinking contaminated water and becoming ill.  She offers some great tips for being safe with your drinking water.

June 8th-

Jessica had an opportunity to interview virologist J. David Beckham, MD, Assistant Professor in the Infectious Diseases Division at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine about hydration issues during outdoor activities.  Her interview digs deeper in to the problems of contamination in backcountry water sources and the dangers of drinking untreated water.  At one point she asks Dr. Beckham, “Are you confident relying on an inline filtration system, being able to fill your pack from a stream and have it filter thru the line and be immediately potable? Why or why not?”  That is an important question and you should check out his answer.

We also had some great additions to “Stories from the Trail” where you guys get to tell us your real life hydration stories.

I kicked off Week 2 this morning with my newest article about how to deal with illness and dehydration in the backcountry.  The danger of having to deal with the problems associated with drinking contaminated water are low on smaller trips.  Most of the time, you will be back home and near medical help when you start to feel sick.  But on longer trips into the wilderness, it is entirely likely that you’ll have to deal with a serious bout of illness and dehydration is the most dangerous challenge you’ll face.  I discuss ways to deal with it.

Look for Ryan‘s article later this week about hydration supplements!

Tradition or Habit…

When I was younger, some of my favorite outdoor excursions were whitewater rafting trips with my Dad. Sometimes it was simply an afternoon trip down a class 2 with my brother and I close to home. Other times we’d be on epic week-long trips with a huge group of river rats floating multiple rafts and kayaks. Usually on the longer trips, the entire group would get together after the trip and, over pizza and beer, add up the trip expenses and settle up on money while rehashing our recent adventures. We often rafted the Illinois and Rogue Rivers in Southern Oregon and our favorite stop was always Wild River Brewing & Pizza Co.  Pizza and beer, after 3 or 4 days on the river, just seems like an appropriate way to end a trip.

Once I had moved away from home, my father and I still found adventure together.  I would often fly back home for river trips or he would travel out to meet me somewhere for a multi-day backpacking trip.  Somehow, without really planning or thinking about it, we would end a long excursion with pizza and beer.  Even in South America after spending 4 days hiking the Inca Trail and visiting Machu Picchu, we returned to Cuzco and found a pizza place where we could end the trip properly.  At some point along the way it just became expected.  I guess that’s how traditions develop.  Slowly, naturally and without planning.  You can’t force a tradition, it just happens or it doesn’t.

These days, I have found myself falling into a similar tradition.  It’s simple really: I don’t like to hike on a full stomach.  That, inevitably, leaves me famished after a long afternoon of hiking.  So, I have developed the habit of stopping in at a local brewery or micro-brew-serving restaurant for lunch/dinner after my hikes.  Any restaurant will do so long as it’s got good local beer and it’s NOT a chain.  I’ve been lucky so far and found some amazing little places to celebrate this extension of an old tradition.  I didn’t really recognize it at first, but as I reconnect with the outdoors and that part of myself that has always loved the outdoors I am also reconnecting with the old traditions that carried me here.  It’s a way for me to give homage to the experiences and traditions that fostered in me a deep and lasting love of Wilderness.

What is even more exciting to me, is the prospect of having traditions that I will someday be able to share with my children.  Traditions that will allow them to have some level of connection with their grandfather.  Traditions that will hopefully encourage the same kind of fondness for nature and adventure that I share with my soon-to-be wife.

I know I’m not the only one.  I want to hear from you guys.  What are your post-adventure traditions?  How do you celebrate a successful excursion?  How did your tradition develop and how will you ensure that it continues?

Soldier Pass and Brin’s Mesa Trails- Sedona, Arizona

Red Rocks from Soldier Pass - Sedona, Arizona

“This here…”, he said pointing to my map sprawled across the table. “..This here is the sink hole, Devil’s Kitchen.  We just came back from there.  Even if you don’t do the trail, it’s worth checking out….only a hundred yards or so up from the trailhead.”

Devil’s Kitchen is the ominous name given to the only sink hole in the Sedona area.  It sits right at the base of a small peak, known as The Sphinx, that marks the beginning of Soldier Pass Trail.  I had stopped in to what has become my regular pre-hike stop to seek trail suggestions and get updates on road and trail conditions around Sedona.  The Hike House has only been around about a year and half, but seems to have a very passionate, knowledgeable and helpful staff.  I’ve stopped in here before every hike in this area since my first hike up Mund’s Wagon Trail. As I was reviewing trail suggestions, an older couple walked in who had just returned from hiking Soldier Pass that morning and were more than happy to offer their vote for the trail.

“It’s really something to see…”, the older gentleman went on about the sink hole. “…all the rock just lying there where it collapsed probably thousands of years ago.  Worth a look.”

So, with multiple endorsements for Soldier Pass and an opportunity to make it a more substantial hike by combining the entirety of the Brin’s Mesa Trail, I folded up my trusty map and headed out.  Easily enough, the parking lot and trailhead for Soldier Pass Trail (and several connected trails) is just up Soldier Pass Road off of the main drag heading west from Sedona.  A short drive through a small subdivision delivers you to a modest, gated parking area that defines the trailhead to Soldier Pass.  It’s a well maintained dirt parking area with defined parking stalls, signs and maps but I can see how it’s dozen or so vehicle capacity would be grossly inadequate during peak season.  From what I’ve heard, this place is literally crawling with tourists hiking and biking the trails during the peak season.

Soldier Pass - Sedona, ArizonaThere were a handful of cars in the parking lot when I arrived.  Mid-morning, mid-week, off-season I didn’t expect to see a lot of people out but I knew I wasn’t going to be completely alone on the trail.  The morning was a beautiful 67 degrees when I hopped out of the truck and packed a few essentials, and non-essentials, into my new Osprey Exos34 (yes, I am testing out a new pack and so far loving it).  I slung the new pack over my shoulders and took a few minutes to adjust it properly for it’s maiden voyage then headed out.  Just as you get started there is a plaque on a boulder stating the trail was dedicated in 1995.  The trail’s construction, signage, and markers were apparently a cooperative effort between the Friends of the Forest and the Famous Red Rock Jeep Tours.  A short walk down the well maintained trail quickly brings you face to face with the Devil’s Kitchen.  I really wished I’d been properly equipped with a good wide-angle lens in order to capture the gaping hole properly.  Aside from the hole itself, the most significant feature is a huge triangular-shaped slab of stone that collapsed in one massive chunk around 1970 and is often referred to as The Grand Piano.  Contrary to the dramatic “…all the rock just lying there where it collapsed probably thousands of years ago” promise, reports are that the sink hole collapsed sometime in the 1880’s.

coffee pot from Soldier Pass - Sedona, Arizona

I spent a few short minutes trying desperately to capture the sink hole properly with my insufficient equipment before giving up and moving on to Soldier Pass Trail.  In the 1860’s and 70’s, General Crook and his men would make camp along this trail down in the wash.  They would use the area as a resting point to hunt and fish on their way up from Fort Verde (now Camp Verde) and called the area Camp Garden.  General Crook used an existing Apache trail leading up over the pass to raid the Apache food stores in an effort to roost them out of the area and coax them into moving to the Reservation.  In later years, Soldier’s Pass would be used by local ranchers to move their cattle out of the canyon and up to cooler elevations during the warmer months.

I plodded along the trail happily soaking up the late morning sun and enjoying being on the trail.  I walked right past where the Seven Sacred Pools are supposed to be…mainly because I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for and partly because there is no water this time of year.  So the Seven Sacred Pools are more like the Seven Sacred Dimples in the sandstone and were thus, missed.  There is a point about a half mile or so in where the trail seems to split.  One trail clearly heading in toward the canyon and the other trail heading up.  As I walked along Soldier’s Pass, higher along the trail I remember looking east toward several significant natural arches in the cliff-side and thinking, “damn, I wish I could get over there and check those out.”  Turns out, you can!  The trail I saw that seemed to lead into the canyon is a short hike to the arches/caves in the side of the cliff below Brin’s Mesa.  I WILL have to go back to check those out.

coffee pot from Soldier Pass - Sedona, Arizona

Soldier Pass is a relatively easy trail, the beginning of the trail is not much more than a pleasant walk in scenic country.  But the trail does reach a point where you are climbing pretty steadily to traverse the pass.  It’s at this point where the views become impressive.  Looking back the way you came, the view opens into a wide panorama of the Sedona Valley.  You get a full view down the valley into Oak Creek Canyon, across the airport plateau, and beyond.  There are also a ton of great spots to stop and have lunch, rest, enjoy the view and snap off a few pictures.  However, I imagine this area is uncomfortably crowded in the peak tourist season and I wouldn’t stop here.

Sedona Brins Mesa Trail - Sedona, Arizona

Brin’s Mesa Trail…

Once up and over the pass it’s a short slightly downhill walk to the intersection with the Brin’s Mesa Trail.  This trail climbs from FR152 on the west end up the mesa and around the ridge the that dominates the east side of Soldier Wash.  Soldier Pass Trail hits Brin’s Mesa Trail just about in the middle.  Heading right, takes you up across the mesa and down Mormon Canyon to Jordan/Cibola Trails where you can cut back to the Soldier Pass trailhead and parking area.  Heading left will take you out to FR152 and deeper into the Wilderness area.  I chose to add the miles and explore Brin’s Mesa Trail both directions, taking it out toward FR152 first and then returning back the same way past Soldier Pass and up the mesa.  Brin’s Mesa trail has a different character to the west, down the hill.  It repeatedly crosses a small tributary of Dry Creek and during the wet season would probably be a lot of fun.  As it is, the trail is very nice.  You spend most of your time in the trees, a rarity for most of Arizona, and the ground ranges from slightly rocky to soft sand.  This was an easy, quiet, pleasant hike and I found myself lost in my own thoughts, ambling freely down the trail simply enjoying the solitude.  Before I knew it I had reached FR152 and the end of the trail.  I unstrapped the pack, dug out a few snacks and plopped down on a slab of red sandstone for a quick break.  After helping a few lost hikers and bikers who weren’t quite sure where they were, I pulled my pack back on and headed up the trail.

In no time at all, it seemed, I was back at the intersection of Brin’s Mesa and Soldier Pass.  Someone had scrawled arrows in the loose dirt of the trail pointing in the direction of Soldier Pass.  Apparently, it easy to miss your turn if you are planning on heading the opposite way I went and down Soldier’s Pass.  The sign at this connection does show arrows for following both trails, so just pay attention to the signs and it shouldn’t be a problem.  I did run in to a few folks all the way at the far end of Brin’s Mesa Trail who were wondering how they missed Soldier Pass.

Getting higher up on to the Mesa you can see the remnants of trees burned out in the fire on Wilson Mountain in 2006.  Much of the undergrowth and many of the trees have started to come back, but there is still a great deal of dead sticks standing along the foothills of the mountain.  The dead trees I encountered along Brin’s Mesa are presumably casualties of the same 2006 fire.  The views from the mesa are fantastic and I found a perfect little knoll to the west of the trail that overlooks Soldier Wash Canyon to stop for a little mid-hike yoga practice.  This is the first time I have actually stopped mid-hike for yoga practice but the location was perfect and I had brought along my new light-weight Manduka travel mat just for this purpose.  The setting was perfect for it, I couldn’t pass it up.  I also found it to be incredibly effective for renewing my energy for the hike.  After my short break, I continued my hike across the mesa.  As the trail reaches the edge of the mesa, before plunging into Mormon Canyon, the view down the valley opens up again.  As before at Soldier Pass, this is the photographer’s vantage point.  Take time here to snap off a few impressive shots.

The climb descending down into Mormon Canyon was similar to Soldier Pass, it was a quick descent that mellowed out and turned into an easy path.  It quickly crawled through the trees offering glimpses of Cibola Rock and Steamboat Rock, the two dominant rock formations above this the trail.  It connects to Cibola Trail just before the Jordan Trail Parking lot.  This parking lot is paved and much larger than the Soldier Pass parking lot with bathrooms.  If the Soldier Pass lot is full, one could easily park here and traverse Cibola trail before heading up Soldier Pass.

Cibola trail is a nice short connector trail that cuts across a low pass to join Jordan Trail which I took back to the trailhead at Soldier Pass.  It starts off easy enough but has a bit of a climb in the middle to get over the pass.  It’s not difficult, nor long but it was described by an older lady I encountered on the trail as “a strenuous hike”, so I guess it’s all relative.  I ended the hike in great spirits, happy to have spent the afternoon on the trail and looking forward to a beautiful Nut Brown Ale from Oak Creek Brewery.  The perfect way to end a day of hiking in Sedona.

 

Soldier Pass to Brin’s Mesa – Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness.

Some trailhead parking. From Sedona take Highway 89A west to Soldier Pass Road.  There is a small, gated parking area and a Red Rock Pass purchase booth at the trailhead.  The parking area closes at 6PM.

Trail Length: 8.8 mile round-trip (as described here)
Elevation Gain: 700 feet
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Open:
Year-round but very crowded during peak season.

 

 

Big Jim Trail


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.

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.

My Trail Journal and topo map with route...

I 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.

The 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.

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.

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…