Four Girls, Lost (sort of) in Pine Mountain Wilderness — Part One
Tip #1: If you choose to go to Pine Mountain Wilderness, and you don’t particularly enjoy trailfinding, I highly advise you to stick with the first 2.7 miles of the Nelson Trail #159, then take a left onto Willow Springs Trail #12, which, after an additional 1.6 miles, will lead you to an the always-exuberant experience of cresting a mountain. Then, turn around and go home. If you decide you’d like to brave some trailfinding, invest in a GPS unit that has topo maps on it, or you’ll be up a canyon, surrounded by sheer walls, not knowing how to get out (more on that, later).
Tip #2: If you have a map, even a very good map, like this one, where the map’s creator has handily placed little fishies where there is supposedly running water, even if you go hiking directly after some torrid rainfall, don’t expect the fishies to actually mean that there’s running water. Also, especially in Arizona, if the first mile or so of your hike is by a babbling creek, and you see other creeks on your map within the wilderness boundaries, don’t expect them to similarly babble. Invest in a good water filter (like Erin’s Katadyn — more on that, later) and be thankful for those cloudy pools of odd-tasting, but now filtered-and-safe, life-giving water.
Tip #3: If, in spite of being well-equipped with said GPS, good maps, and multiple trail descriptions, you still get lost, make sure you do it with a group of level-headed friends, so that everyone still enjoys themselves, in spite of treacherous circumstances and a bit of niggling fear.
And now, on with the real story.
(Note: I didn’t take the pics for this trip; many thanks to Jessica for toting the camera along.)
My friend Erin and I have been semi-planning an overnight hike for, oh, about a year now. The planning began in earnest a couple of months ago, and we mostly settled on a place called Willow Valley, on the northeast end of West Clear Creek wilderness. It would be 9-ish miles of boulder-hopping and swimming through a canyon that is, at times, lush and brilliantly green, and at other times, more like a slot canyon, with narrow passages framed by towering sheer rock walls. We had picked May 23-24, a Friday and Saturday. As we were planning, our friend Jenny got wind of the trip, and we invited her along, too. Then, Erin was chatting with her friend Jessica about it, and invited Jessica, too. Frankly, my husband (and I think Erin’s, too), felt a lot better about there being three or four women on the trip, rather than just Erin and me.
As the weekend approached, we anxiously watched the weather reports. Now, it’s the end of May. It hasn’t really rained in the Phoenix area since early February. Normally, rain is eagerly looked forward to, and joyously welcomed, here in the desert. However, when the rain comes on the very day that you’ve been planning for a YEAR to go hiking… well, I wasn’t all that excited about the cooling temps, wind, and big, splattery raindrops, after all.
Thankfully, all of us either a) didn’t have work on Memorial Day Monday, or b) were able to get it off of work, so we opted for a Sunday-Monday hike, instead, delaying for only two days, which also worked fine for all of our families. The rain did clear, as predicted, and we were able to set off, after meeting at Erin’s at 7 a.m. on Sunday, under blue skies.
However, since it had rained, and the temps were a good 15-20 degrees cooler than normal, we thought it would be best not to hike in a narrow canyon choked with rainwater runoff, which we’d have to swim through. So, we decided on an alternate hike we’d already looked into, Pine Mountain Wilderness.
It took us just over two hours from Erin’s house to reach the Salt Flat campground, where the trailhead was for the hike. It’s a gorgeous, small campground, with three or four sites, each with a picnic table and fire ring, with a mix of huge deciduous trees and pines. However, there was no water in the creekbed that runs through the campground. Maybe one can find running water earlier in the spring, with snow melt, or in midsummer after the monsoons. I don’t know. But, it’d be perfect for family camping if there was water in the creek. (There is, however, plenty of water in Sycamore Creek, only a few hundred feet from the campground, though I prefer my creeks to babble and chatter right outside my tent flap.) Perfect, that is, except for the toilets. (More on that below.)
There’s pretty much no “official” information on Pine Mountain Wilderness online, but we did find a number of hikers who had gone, taken pictures, and posted trail info online. This was a big help.
Well, it was sort of a big help. When the trail disappears, and the GPS unit is really of no usefulness, and you’re surrounded by brush and trees and boulders, those trail descriptions that say “trail grows faint; watch for cairns” really doesn’t help, either.
I also firmly decided that the well-travelled Todd, of Todd’s Desert Hiking Guide, is absolutely surly. He gave the beginning portion (which is all he did) of this hike only half a star, out of a possible five. Now, it could be that since it’s been five and a half years since he’s made this hike, things have greatly improved, but golly. It just seems to me that every trail description he writes up, he finds something (usually somethings) completely to his disliking, and he gives a perfectly fabulous hike one star. Or two. Or, like this one, a half, out of spite for his being somehow inconvenienced or disappointed. I’ve even seen him down-star a hike simply because he should have worn pants, and his shins got scratched up. That’s not the trail’s fault, Todd!! Most of the outdoorsy people I know are rather chipper, the kind who find the silver lining in each cloud. Not Todd. He finds the cloud in the silver lining. Granted, he’s right about some of his trail description at Pine Mountain: The trail does grow faint, but not until much later on the hike. The whole way up to the crest of the mountain is great. And, as he noted, the pit toilets at the trailhead are trashed. They’re both missing their doors, one toilet seat is broken, and they didn’t look (or smell) like they’d been serviced in, oh, at least a year. However, who comes to a Wilderness area for the pit toilets??? Not me. Big deal. So the toilets are trashed. Todd says: “What [Pine Mountain Wilderness] really is: a poorly managed hangout for hunters and cows.” I disagree. I’m more in line with this hiker’s description:
From Todd’s description, I thought we’d possibly be traipsing through foot-deep cow pies, with nary a real trail in sight. We certainly saw evidence of cows being present rather recently, but it’s not like they tore through the place, and even though cow droppings are a pet peeve of mine (especially in hikes on public lands — double-especially in federally-designated WILDERNESS areas), there weren’t so many of them to bother even me.
We mostly followed the trail description and map of helpful hiker “Moovyoaz” at www.hikearizona.com, which is a free alternative to the (IMO) huge ripoff of www.trails.com. However, as described above, our group hiked along Nelson Trail #159 until the junction with Willow Spring Trail #12, at which point we continued east. The trail was well-marked and well-travelled all the way to the summit. It grew a bit steep towards the end, but since it’s a mountain, that’s to be expected. The actual summit is a short scramble up off of the trail. We hung out at the top for a while, snapping pics, and enjoying the view.
Jessica, Jenny, Erin, and myself
There was an alarming number of ladybugs/ladybird beetles at the top. Some sort of beetle convention?? Or do they migrate??? I don’t know. But there were millions.
After we descended the crest and headed to the southwest for the hike towards our campsite, things started to get… interesting.
However, I’ll have to save that for the next installment. 😀