Near this time last year, I was driving down from Summerhaven on the Santa Catalina Highway having just picked up the mail drop I sent there for my thru-hike, only to have abandoned it a couple of hours earlier. Near the base of the highway, heading out of the mountains in the Molino Basin, I saw two other thru-hikers carrying on with their trek just a short distance from where I had departed. It was the right decision to make for reasons explained last year, but in seeing those two hikers on the trail, I couldn’t help but feel like I lost something, that I missed out on writing a new chapter in my life.
I woke up this morning from my first experience cowboy camping satisfied with how it all turned out. There were no creepy crawlies in my sleeping bag, or anywhere else. Plus with a near full moon, it was nice to see the night sky as it was, instead of through a mesh netting. Since the site was rocky though, it reminded me I may not want to rely on inflatable pads for the entire trip.
Second Lunch was off shortly before I had gotten ready and made great time jumping ahead. I headed out soon enough and immediately knew it was going to be a hot day. The sun beat down as I made my way up to a hilly pass. The trail leveled off from there for a while with great views all around. I was back in the high desert grassland hills enjoying its unique variety, only this time it was much warmer.
The trail soon dropped down into small canyons and washes where it followed through the lower elevations for several more miles. As it began a long and strenuous climb out, I stopped for lunch and rehydration. Just beyond my lunch spot, a few mustangs were standing nearby, trying not to use any energy in the heat. I continued past them, sweating profusely up the steep climb. Truthfully though, I don’t think it was so much the climb as the heat.
I finally reached the top of the pass where a fantastic view looking down into the Molino Basin stretched out below. The Santa Catalina Highway curved along the base of the large desert mountains as it wound its way up to Summerhaven. I followed the steep trail down to the Molino Basin Campground to look for more water. In my search I ran into Second Lunch again, but coming the other way. He had gone up the trail and needed to come back for some more water. Ultimately, he gave up his search and opted instead to hitchhike into Tucson for the night. Meanwhile, I found a small creek that had good water, and after chatting with the camp host for a bit, headed up the trail. Since this was the spot where I had left the trail the year before, I was eager to get more miles in from there.
I headed up along the same path I saw the other two hikers the year before, satisfied that I was now farther than last year, and feeling much better overall about the entire experience. A gradual climb headed up toward the top of the basin, where it appeared as though it would just be more rolling grasslands beyond. Near the top however, higher peaks poked out from the closer rocky ridges, teasing a view that was either building, or underwhelming.
As I was passing the next campground, I ran into a delightful family who I had a very enjoyable conversation with. It made for a nice break from the walking as I enjoyed answering their questions about the AZT. I continued on the trail from there where it followed a wash through a large, but not terribly scenic canyon. This underwhelming part of the trail was soon brought to an abrupt end as another pass was crested, and spread out in an enormous gorge was some of the most rugged and wild desert mountain scenery found anywhere in the southwest. Massive mountains surrounded a deep canyon capped with rocky spires, every feature increasingly dwarfing the other. It was as if I was getting a preview of the Grand Canyon hundreds of miles ahead on the trail.
I headed down a steep descent into the heart of the gorge where the Sycamore Reservoir was. Either I missed something, or I realized this actually referred to a reservoir of sycamore trees, and not water. The views heading down revealed more dramatic angles of the mountains and canyon walls, and to the keen eye, even revealed a bit of the road high above and behind the bulk of the good views.
Down in the canyon it felt like a completely different landscape. It was a desert oasis with green grass flourishing beneath vibrant, healthy and large cottonwood and sycamore trees. The rocky walls shot up on the other side of the trickling creek behind the various trees. It was as if I had been instantly transported to a wilderness hundreds of miles from any civilization. It just felt that different and remote.
After finding a healthier part of the creek, I got more water, rehydrated, and began looking for a place to camp. About a mile down the trail, I found a cozy little spot along Sycamore Creek, but was voted out by an angry hornet. Fortunately, there was another good spot just a couple dozen yards away. I won’t be cowboy camping tonight though. It’s a big difference going from a landscape that’s been ruined for cattles’ benefit, to an actual Wilderness Area. So now I’m resting in my tent listening to all kinds of new amphibian noises along the babbling creek, as a near full moon coats the rocky mountains and canyons in a cool soft light.