Monday, April 4, 2011

short spring vacation in Arizona March 2011

Toward the end of every gray, cloudy, rainy western Washington winter, we're going crazy and depressed after months of dreary weather.  The one upside of all the rain is a lot of snow in the Cascade mountains which is good for skiing.  But, we get sick of snow by March and just need to get outside for awhile to enjoy warm weather in shorts and T-shirts.  For the last 10 years or so, I've gone down to the Southwest to hike and camp in the desert and to soak up sun during March or April.  A few weeks ago we flew into Las Vegas, got a rental car and drove east to Arizona which is our usual practice.

Rincon Mountains of Saguaro National Park

The first night we camped at the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) Burro Creek BLM campground north of Wickenburg, AZ.  A lot of "snowbirds" were camped here long-term in their large RVs.  Retired people are pretty quiet campers.  We were the rowdiest campers there.  We tried hiking up Burro Creek canyon but the creek was too high from recent rains.  The camp host said kayakers from Phoenix ran Burro Creek toward Signal a few days earlier.  I wish I would've had the Sevylor Trail Boat for fording Burro Creek.  That would be fun and I haven't used it yet.  (I wish I would've had the Sevylor Trail Boat in 2009 when I had to swim across a deep pool on the Bill Williams River just down from Alamo Dam).  So we wandered around downstream from the campground then up a desert ridge for a few hours.

Next day, it was cloudy and windy with a few showers in the area so we pushed on to Tucson chasing the sun.  Driving through Phoenix was unpleasant because of the disjointed beltway system.  It was very windy in Tucson but partly sunny.

We began our exploration of Tucson area deserts with an introductory trip to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.  It's a great museum with natural history displays and many live animals like red wolves, javelinas, cougars and much more.  Later in the day we dayhiked the west unit of Saguaro National Park for a few hours.  That night we camped in Tucson Mountain Park's Gilbert Ray Campground.  

Next day we drove back across Tucson to the east unit of Saguaro National Park.  We got a backcountry permit for a 2-night, 33+ mile backpacking trip at the visitor center.  A family of javelinas lives near the visitor center.  We lucked out when they came right up to the window and starting taking dust baths with their babies in their depressions.

video
            (about 2 miles east of Grass Shack in the juniper/chaparral zone)

I don't have the time to write up a full trip report but I will offer comments and advice from our experiences.

When I chose backcountry campsites at the visitor center, I underestimated the difficulty of huge elevation gains of hiking from basin at Tucson's edge (about 1000 feet elevation) all the way up to 8000 feet at Manning Camp.  That's of course a 7000 foot gain but I figured since it was strung out over so many miles it wouldn't be so bad.   Thank God there were snow patches above 7000 feet.  I smeared snow onto my face, neck and wrists to cool off.  Despite the snow, low humidity was harder on skin and breathing than what I remember from past trips to Arizona.  It was a damn tough hike up to Manning Camp.  I suppose I've grown more accustomed to humid air? Melting snow also provided water.  I recommend staying the first night at Juniper Spring, 2nd at Grass Shack and 3rd at Juniper Spring.  That would leave time for side trips at the Manning Camp area in the high ponderosa pine forests.

Water is heavy.  I carried about 3 quarts since I did not trust water availability at Grass Shack and elsewhere on the trail.  There was much more than expected due to recent snow at high elevations.  It would've been nice to ditch the tent and use a tarp since it was dry weather.  However, it was cold at night.  It dropped down to freezing at Juniper Spring and to about 40 at Grass Shack.  Manning Camp drops down to 22-25 at night this time of the year.  The tent keeps out scorpions, ants and insects and is warmer than a tarp.  Had I known, I would've brought a warmer sleeping bag, a tarp and carried less water.  "Oh well.  Live and learn".

Unlike other March trips to Arizona, there were almost no desert wildflowers.  Locals say winter had a few dry spells followed by recent cold spells.  

My Big Agnes air mattress did not get punctured by a cactus thorn.  My wife's Thermarest developed a leak so she as forced to sleep on 2 cheap, crappy foam pads (1 of which I packed) from Big 5.  Most desert ground is almost as hard as pavement so foam pads aren't comfortable.  A hammock is great in the desert if you can find a place to hang it.  There were trees to hang a hammock at Juniper Basin, Manning Camp and Grass Shack backcountry camps unbeknown to me when packing for this trip. With so much variety in elevation/temperature and ground, comfortable bedding is a challenge. 

I thought I'd like to thru-hike the Arizona Trail.  After this trip, no way.  There's just not enough water and there's too much elevation gain from basin to range. It's not like the Pacific Crest Trail which maintains a mild grade and a lot of water.  Water shortages could foil an AZT thru-hike.  Section hiking the AZT seems doable, more practical and hence, would be more fun.

One problem in exploring Arizona's wild lands is that most hiking areas require a high clearance vehicle to access.  4WD may not be necessary but you do need a vehicle like a small truck or jeep with high clearance.  Most of the roads down there on BLM land were built for mining and ranching not uninsured, Las Vegas airport economy rental cars.  Many roads cross arroyos and washes that flash flood during the summer monsoon thunderstorm season.  Storms wash rocks across many roads and cause erosion. 

Photos of the trip are at Photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/74014145@N00/sets/72157626128355503/ .

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