Saturday, April 18, 2015

Big Climbs and Great Views - AZT Colossal Cave to Oracle (Passages 7 to 12, mile ~100 to 200)

So I finally got to a computer in town and am updating the damn blog already!

I left off at Colossal Cave - which we never got a chance to tour but it's probably like most caves.  It was either miss lunch or catch the next cave tour since the cave was 2 miles away from lunch! We hitched a ride by standing on the side rails of a jeep on the way down, so that was fun. There was an AZT Association event on 3/28 so we got to meet the famous Matt Nelson in person who is even friendlier in person than over email. The trail days event was mostly a meet-n-greet with various trail organizations including a local raptor trust showing off a tiny elf owl! The woman said she weighed the same as 10 pennies! 

The event included a Greek dinner from one of the local trail stewards who owns a Greek restaurant at the campground about 3 miles down trail.  Rather than actually hike it, we left our packs at the campground, got a ride with one of the AZTA folks back and hiked with just a water bottle back to the camp.  After the awesome dinner and some beer we hit the trail in the dark to get closer to the Rincon mountains - a 5,000 foot climb up to 9,400 foot Mt. Mica right in Saguaro National Park.  Mountain bikers at the trail event told us the next creek was flowing so we didn't have to carry much water - a huge bonus at the start of a 6 day section! 

During the night hike little flickers of light were scattered all over the trail - the eyes of dozens of spiders!  I even spotted a huge tarantula before it skittered away into its hole!  Rachel was not happy about this...

We made camp two miles from the creek in a nice sandy wash, talked to some locals out for a quick dawn hike and hit the trail early.  The climb was long and hot but there was water flowing at every possible source so we stayed hydrated. This also meant lots of annoying gnats! The Saguaro forest started well before the park boundary and we were quickly surrounded by telephone pole sized verdant cacti with none to dozens of huge twisted arms among millions of tiny yellow and purple wild flowers.

We finally reached Manning Camp 18 miles later just as the sun was setting.  The campsites were scattered and hard to find but we got to a nice one and settled in for the night with my tarp as a wind break.  The next morning I made a small fire and sent Rachel for water but gave her bad directions and she wounded up going half a mile down trail to the last water source instead of 100 yards to the giant roaring spring near the camp.  That does not make a happy girlfriend, especially when the fire burned out by the time she got back!

 Later that morning we summited Mt. Mica (2 tenths of trail) and headed down down down a steep rocky descent back into the low desert full of jumping choya and prickly pear cactus.  Rachel is slow on the descents so I had to wait a half hour every hour I hiked and my patience was wearing a bit thin...  We camped just past "The Lake" a cesspool of a cow pond that night and I had to get 2 liters from it.  Not too bad after filtering but its hard to rehydrate when you know what you're drinking! The two mosquito's buzzing around my face that night didn't help either.

View from the back side of Mt. Mica

Looking down the descent from Mt. Mica

The next day, April fools day, we made a wrong turn immediately after a creek and went up a dirt road to a ranch.  We realized our mistake in 3/4 of a mile but I saw a rattlesnake on the way back! I almost jumped out of my shorts when I heard that rattle!  We kept hiking over some 1,000 foot climbs and descended to a USFS campground where supposedly the host would give us water from the forest service. That was not the case as the host made a big fuss about it and claimed there was no water in the area, despite the large pools of clear water 20 yards past his trailer... We filled up and headed up through an old Japanese internment camp but there was little information about it on the trail.  As the sun fell we descended into the Pusch Ridge Wilderness in the Santa Catalina Mountains - absolutely stunning cliffs of white banded gneiss and granite shone in a brilliant orange and pink dusk display.  We didn't make it as far as originally planned due to the steep descent but camped in some tall grass recently depressed by a small herd of mule deer.  It felt so natural to lay in the same spot as wild animals had the night before. 

Pusch Ridge Wilderness

The next morning we made it to Hutch's Pool  - an Olympic sized swimming pool of ice cold water in the Sonoran desert!  I swam but it was too cold for Rachel.  It would have been a nice spot to camp but was kind of over used - I preferred to sleep after the deer.  The hiking was pleasant in the shaded riparian oak trees until we started climbing out of the canyon.

Hutch's Pool

We climbed over several ridges that day and up the insanely steep, loose and rocky Mt. Lemmon trail to the Wilderness of the Rocks near Summerhaven - a rich peoples summer house community with a tiny grocery store and pizza place on the slopes of Mount Lemmon.  We were extra motivated for pizza and pushing hard to get there before the restaurant closed at 5:00.  To cut off some road walking we decided to take a side trail directly into town instead of the AZT to the road and then 1.5 miles up the road to the pizza place.  Unfortunately this started off a series of badly chosen short cuts as the trail was through a recent burn area, covered in blown down trees, narrow or washed out trail and probably cost us more time than it saved.  I ran off ahead of Rachel and made it to the Pizza place at 4:32.  Too bad they shut off the ovens at 4:30 and there was no pizza for us...

We got some snacks at the store then wandered around town looking for somewhere to sleep.  I asked the local fire station when we stopped in for water and they pointed us just down the trail to some camp spots off the road.  The wind was insane since we were at the top of Oracle Ridge - it turned my tarp into a sail and blew sand into our faces all night but we were too tired and foot sore to go any further (not that there were any decent campsites on Oracle Ridge anyway). 

Start of Oracle Ridge - half road, half over grown trail

The next day we were tired and cranky but had only 14 miles to the town of Oracle and the incredibly hiker friendly Chalet Village motel.  We reserved a room the night before and made it down the over grown, steep and rocky descent. One of the owners, Marney, picked us up at the trailhead minutes after we got there and swept us away into an awesome little A-framed motel room.  We learned some other thru-hikers came in an hour or two after us but didn't meet them until the next morning when we all went for Mexican breakfast.  The local place made burritos the size of a small child for like $6!  Marney and her husband were so friendly, they gave us a discounted room and the other thru's (Pod and Gnar) their big RV to sleep in since the motel was full!  We spent our second zero day of the trip watching bad movies and hanging out with Pod and Gnar.  We had a panic about the water situation for the next 100 miles - Marney got a text saying there was a 40 mile dry stretch.  Fortunately my maps had more information and a fifth thru-hiker also heading up to the Grand Enchantment and Continental Divide Trails (guess I'm not so original...) told us about a broken windmill with water in the well.  Two public water caches would also make it easier and our longest dry stretch would only be about 15 miles.

Pod + Gnar in the RV

Marney + Jim

Our humble abode!

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