Day 1: Mexico to Miller Peak Wilderness
Today went a little longer than expected and now I’m camping amongst some snow that’s still hanging on from a storm that dropped several inches in the higher Huachuca Mountains the previous night. There’s a wind that’s fortunately not coming too low below the pine trees rising far above me, but it’s still probably gonna get below freezing tonight, if it’s not already there.
I shared a ride from Phoenix with two other thru-hikers, Jim and Dave. Jim is a local Phoenician, while Dave flew in from Canada. We got an early start, heading south on I-10 by about 6:45am. We headed straight to Sierra Vista where we dropped off Dave’s rental car, then met our shuttle to head to the trail. While we enjoyed our conversation with the driver, he had a couple of facts wrong about some things, such as Miller Peak being 11,000 feet. It’s actually about 9,500 (which I reconfirmed with the rangers). He also said there were brown bears. Not likely. Brown black bears perhaps, but definitely not brown bears, a type of grizzly. Nevertheless, he was friendly, courteous, and we enjoyed our trip with him. We were caught by surprise though when we found out the Visitor Center of Coronado National Memorial was the end of the line. Apparently the company didn’t have permits to go up to the trailhead.
I went inside to check options with the rangers and it turns out we just needed to hike a 2.6 mile trail up to join with the AZT. Given that we’d have to backtrack from the trailhead on the pass anyway about two miles, this only wound up adding about 1.5 miles and was actually a really pretty trail. Dave wasn’t too fond of it because he wasn’t planning on going to the border though.
The trail brought us up along a gorgeous canyon lined with oak trees and desert grasslands. At this point we had all established our own pace so I was hiking alone shortly after starting.
At the top of the canyon, the trail smoothed out a bit and rolled over massive grassland hills, the southern foothills of the Huachuca Mountains. Soon after, it met up with the AZT where I headed down to the border.
Once at the border, I enjoyed the silence of nothingness for a bit, then started up the seemingly endless climb toward Miller Peak. Though the climb is a challenging one, I was able to be back at the trailhead in pretty decent time. I stopped at the picnic area there and had lunch before continuing onto the bulk of the climb, which follows the Huachuca Crest Trail through the sky island.
On my way up, about a mile north of the trailhead, I ran into Dave who seemed to be struggling with the climb, which is very easy to do. We chatted and joked for a bit and I continued past him.
About a mile later, I hit the park border and started into the Miller Peak Wilderness, where snow from the previous night’s storm was still hanging on to the steep hillsides in the shade. Fortunately the trail also isn’t quite as steep through this section, so I was able to continue climbing at a decent pace.
The hillsides slowly began to transition into sharp, jagged mountainsides as the trail gradually approached Miller Peak. The trail also went from chilly shade to warm sun as it crested over a ridge and onto its west side. Here the pine trees were growing more plentifully and the pure silence was broken up only by a gentle breeze brushing through the treetops… and the clanking of my hiking poles.
Soon the trail started back up an excruciating climb over a long series of small switchbacks. The trail became noticeably rockier here when not covered in snow. Up and up the trail rose unforgivingly, not the least bit concerned with how tired or sore you (I) might be getting.
The sun was beginning to get a bit low in the late afternoon as I approached the fork to go up to Miller Peak, now in pretty consistent snow. I decided not to go up to the peak this time since I was more focused on finding a place to camp. Up till that point there were few, if any, decent options.
I pressed on through much thicker snow now as the trail dropped down along the backside of a ridge covered in evergreen trees. After passing through an aspen grove, I found myself in snow just above my ankles. Thanks to the refreezing temperature, it was a little tricky to stay upright. I actually wound up falling into the snow twice. With no gloves (always bring gloves to the Huachucas!), one hand that caught my fall began to go numb. Peeking through a break in the forest, I noticed the sun was going down, so it was time to find camp. I found a nice clearing, put up the tent, then put on the rain fly (to help trap in heat), then put it back on the right way, then jumped in and set up my bed while eating dinner, giving my fingers a chance to thaw out.
I would have loved to have done more photography tonight, but I was not counting on this type of cold so soon, especially given the temps the week I’ve been in Arizona, so after dinner it was straight to sleep.