Today was one of the best days of the trip. It was also one of the most disastrous. Put simply, "adventure is out there!"
From my campsite, I had a short walk up to a small crest of a saddle where a view of epic proportions opened up in front, and below me. An immense canyon that reminded me of the Little Grand Canyon in the San Rafael Swell reached out for miles in every direction, capped by massive rocky spires on the surrounding mountains. To be honest, I had no idea such a dramatic and enormous landscape could even exist in the Santa Catalina Mountains. The canyon walls dropped hundreds of feet from their peaks at the shortest distances. Every twist and turn of the trail revealed a new and exciting perspective that couldn’t be seen from just a few steps prior. The canyon was equally wide as it was deep, again, mimicking the grandest canyon of them all. It was undoubtedly one of the greatest highlights of the entire Arizona Trail, rocky cliffs dropping steeply from the trail. One misstep would result in a drastic drop down to the lower depths. My pace also slowed quite a bit to try to find a shot that would convey the depth and scale of the scene. I don’t think I succeeded. Kudos to the photographer who does.
The heat intensified as I dropped down into the canyon’s depths. Saguaro cactus began appearing farther below, an indication of lower elevations and hotter overall temperatures. Fortunately it was very easy walking. My pack was near its base weight and an easy downhill stroll made for a pleasant walk as the rugged desert walls grew higher.
I soon found myself in a riparian oak grove with saguaro cactus just above serving as a reminder that hotter temperatures and less shade were just a short distance away. The creek soon dropped off as the trail remained at a steady level, allowing for more colossal views of the surrounding canyon walls, and up into the rugged and rocky desert canyons.
The trail dropped back down along the creek, now passing what my ideal campsite would look like. 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains. A picturesque creek just below. Desert canyons dropping off into unknown landscapes in the distance. Had I hiked for another hour last night, I would have had it. At the same time though, it would have required another hour of hiking I wasn’t prepared to do.
And then I was in Sabino Canyon. To call it a perfect desert canyon would undermine its natural beauty. Rushing water poured through deep pools of the creek, past large and thriving oak, sycamore, and cottonwood groves. Desert canyons joined the larger canyon from all directions, creating a massive complex of ridges and mountains, all lined with varying amounts of Sonoran Desert and high desert grassland vegetation. The tops of the canyon, just on the other side of the overlook I was at earlier that morning, now just as out of reach as the clouds themselves. The beauty of the canyon simply can’t be accurately described. I thought these types of landscapes only existed in the imaginations of painters.
At a creek crossing in the canyon, I was excited to see such large pools in what had thus far been such a dry desert. I was boulder hopping, as I always enjoy doing, around the creek when my foot slipped and I landed in a Twister position, one hand securely on my camera, the other on a boulder below me. The electronics were safe thanks to my leg that had broken the fall. It was just the typical photographer thinking in action: save the gear first, then yourself second. But I had forgotten about my other lens in my shirt pocket. In slow motion (of course), I watched it slip out and crash onto a boulder below, inching its way toward the creek. I fumbled with my positioning, and reached down to grab it just in time. My biggest worry was that the lens glass had just taken a beating since I had lost the lens cap a few days prior. Miraculously, no damage was done, and my leg was also happy to continue hiking. This was my warning though not to boulder hop on slippery rocks, one I failed to notice.
As the trail gradually started ascending higher out of the canyons (it was supposed to go up to Summerhaven at some point), I passed Hutch’s Pool, then realized I passed it, then went back. I needed more water after all before climbing the 5,000 feet to the Wilderness of Rocks. I wasn’t able to find an obvious trail to the main pool, so I stopped at some boulders just downstream from the pool and prepared to take a break there. I unzipped my pack and out fell the worthless camera battery charger I hadn’t even needed at all due to it breaking before the hike. (Why did I even have it with me then? Great question.) It bounced off the boulder and into the creek. I began to boulder-hop after it, making sure everything else was secure before leaving, then caught up to it a short distance downstream. I leapt onto a shallow boulder barely sticking out of the water where I slipped into the creek, but not before grabbing the charger. I made a leap back over to the other boulder, but my foot slipped out from under me and I wound up banging my knee on the rock. Let me rephrase that. I landed on my knee, very hard, bruising it very badly. I limped back to my pack and "iced" my knee as best as I could in the chilly creek while getting some more water and resting. Since my feet were now soaked, this was as good of a time as any to wash off my socks and feet.
Realizing that my knee wasn’t just a light bump, but a more bruising injury that slowed my pace dramatically, I began to get a little grumpy, as anyone would. I also began to blame my shoes. Merrill must have changed something because me slipping on boulders twice in one day is very unusual. At the same time though, I’m also unfamiliar with the traction of my shoes on boulders in this environment. After a long mile of limping along the trail, I stopped, pulled myself back together, and did the only thing I could do in that situation: just keep walking, one step at a time. I continued through the oak lined canyon for quite a while. Perhaps it was my slow pace that made it seem longer than it was, but soon a few ponderosa pine trees began to join the crowded canyon. This was encouraging, if only slightly. It meant that the top was getting nearer. Summerhaven was now much closer, though still many miles away.
I decided it was time to stop for a break. I elevated my knee, had a snack, and drank a lot of water. Upon resuming, the trail climbed out of the canyon and up above the thick grove of trees. I felt much better. I was able to achieve a quicker pace. I convinced myself that it wasn’t a trail-ending injury. At worst, it’d set me back a few days. Either way, I was ready to keep hiking again and my knee wasn’t feeling quite as bad anymore. Perhaps it was because I was hydrated or because I elevated my knee or because the trail was just easier in general. At any rate, I was able to move quicker, and felt much better about it. The views also began opening up. I could see the pass I had crested earlier in the morning, dwarfed by Mica Mountain far behind it. My knee was still hurting, but overall I was feeling much better, and I began to think I might actually reach Summerhaven before sunset.
Then I connected up with the Mount Lemmon Trail. This was a brutally steep uphill climb that went only one direction: straight up. My pace once again slowed to a crawl as Picacho Peak rose from the desert floor far off on the western horizon. I stopped in the middle of the trail to rest again in the shade of a massive boulder. I was disappointed no other hikers caught up with me there because as I lay there, sprawled out in the middle of the trail, I was determined to play the three questions troll from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Alas, it wound up being just for my entertainment.
After some more hiking straight up, the trail leveled off in a much thicker ponderosa pine forest where the air was now noticeably cooler. I rounded a corner and began a small descent when some scurrying in the trees caught my attention. I looked over and saw an odd looking marmot staring back at me. Wait, are there marmots in Arizona? I don’t think so. Then its long tapering tail flicked up behind it. Definitely not a marmot. But what then? This was something new! I studied its raccoon-like face and then it hit me: I was looking at a pair of coatimundis! One of them, high in a tree, seemed just as curious about me as I was of him/her. They soon fled behind the boulders though and out of sight. Had my knee not been in bad shape, I would have followed them. But then again, had my knee not been in bad shape, I also would have missed them completely.
I descended down into the Wilderness of Rocks where Jim of all people caught up with me. He had been taking some time off in Tucson with his wife and was now back on the trail. I told him I was on my way up to Summerhaven since I had just run out of food and wasn’t keen on camping with cougars after they had watched me limping all afternoon. He informed me that pretty much everything in Summerhaven closes at about 5pm anyway and that neither of us would make it in time. He did however have an extra dinner he was willing to share, so we found a great campsite just down the trail and shared stories of the trail thus far. There was even a space for a fire under a boulder which we took great advantage of.
Overall, despite the seeming misfortune, which is about to get a good night’s rest, it was still an outstanding day on the AZT. I’ll take a nero day in Summerhaven tomorrow, will have two relaxing days of hiking to Oracle after that, then it’s a zero day in Phoenix. I’d still say I’m in great shape.