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Jungle Fighter

Monday, April 15th, 2024: Hikes, Pinalenos, Round, Southeast Arizona.

You’d think I would’ve learned by now that the twelve-to-eighteen-mile hikes I crave are simply not accessible from January through April. But I guess it will always be frustrating to give those up every winter.

I was so frustrated this weekend that I decided to return to the route I’d hiked over in Arizona only four weeks ago. The trail continues down into a new canyon, and it appeared to have been cleared of brush, so this Sunday’s goal was to reach the bottom of that canyon, adding a thousand vertical feet to the return hike.

The day was forecast to be clear, with afternoon temperatures at the trailhead reaching the 80s. My vehicle’s air conditioning was destroyed when I hit a deer two years ago, and on the back road that leads to the trailhead, it was warm enough already that I had to roll down my side window. There, I was amazed to discover brittlebrush – encelia farinosa, one of my favorite spring wildflowers in the Mojave Desert – covering the foothills.

By the time I hit the trail in the mouth of the canyon at 9:15 am, it was already warm enough that I had to unbutton my shirt. The sweat was dripping off me as I labored up the steep, rocky trail over the shoulder into the tributary canyon. Spring flowers were exploding, but I was discouraged to notice isolated patches of invasive brome grass even within the wilderness study area, which hasn’t been grazed in decades. Other than that, the vegetation here is remarkably wild.

Past the trail junction above the tributary canyon, the dauntingly steep climb to the distant saddle felt as hard as ever. Damp stretches of trail showed the tracks of three hikers who preceded me more than a week ago, two men and a woman. Despite the trail being clear all the way, I had to stop frequently to catch my breath, and it took 3-1/2 hours to go the four miles. As the tributary canyon narrowed, a cool breeze came up and I had to re-button my shirt.

Last time, I’d ventured less than 200 yards on the trail into the new canyon, where as I mentioned above, a trail crew had cut brush. But now I discovered their work ended right beyond the point I’d reached before. Beyond that, the trail was overgrown with shrubs, blocked by deadfall, and in many places the old tread was completely eroded away – all 1,000 vertical feet of it.

I debated turning back, but after a few minutes of that I started pushing through, figuring I would just see how bad it was. The advantage of the brushy overgrowth was that it stabilized the soil, so in overgrown stretches, you could easily follow the old tread. I found myself comparing this with the scrub oak thickets that have replaced mixed-conifer forests near home after wildfires. The scrub oak thickets have very stiff branches, but they only reach chest height, so you can use your torso to force your way through, optimizing your center mass and avoiding scratched hands.

But these Arizona post-fire thickets had long, slender trunks and branches that grew high overhead and arched over the old trail, interlocking from both sides so I had to walk with my arms upraised and head bent forward so my hat would keep the branches out of my eyes. My hands ended up covered with scratches, but since long stretches of overgrowth alternated with clear stretches, I kept going.

My first goal was to round a corner to my left which would give me a view of the crest above, featuring the summit of the range. But when I reached that point, it looked like the canyon bottom was only a few hundred feet below, which encouraged me to keep going.

For the next hour, I pushed my way through thickets, crawled under fallen logs, stepped high over the outstretched branches of deadfall crowns, and inched carefully across steep slopes of loose dirt where the old trail had completely collapsed. One blessing was a scarcity of thorny locust, the scourge of higher elevation burn scars back home, but there was still enough to damage my new shirt and canvas pants.

Switchbacks took me downstream of the point I’d seen from above, and I knew it would be even harder to bushwhack back up from the bottom, but now I was committed.

The old wildfire had almost completely destroyed the mixed-conifer forest on this slope, but as I approached the bottom, where the fire had been slowed by cooler temps and higher humidity, I finally entered intact forest, and soon I found myself on a grassy bench. Below lay a broad debris field which had been colonized by post-fire trees and shrubs. I had to pick my way through more thickets and deadfall, stepping precariously over the boulders in the debris flow, while somewhere beyond, the stream was roaring, still unseen.

On the other side of the overgrown debris flow I reached a vertical bank and saw the stream cascading over rocks ten feet below. A major post-fire flood had deposited the hundred-foot-wide debris field, then vegetation had colonized and stabilized it, and finally, winter snowmelt and summer monsoon flows had cut a deep channel along the edge of the debris field.

Of all the backcountry water sources I’ve visited, this had to be the purest – its origin is the back slope of the summit, an endangered-species preserve where humans are prohibited and there are no active trails, and the entire canyon has been free of livestock for decades. I just had to fill my drinking bottle and take advantage of it.

Surprisingly, now that I knew what to expect, the bushwhack out of the canyon was easier than I feared. I just had to take it slow.

The descent from the saddle is so steep, it was hard to control my speed going down. I kept telling myself I had plenty of time, then a few minutes later I would find myself running down a stretch of hard-packed dirt. Unsurprisingly, that took its toll on my knees.

But the worst was yet to come. I’d forgotten how much worse the surface is on the final two-mile stretch to the trailhead. This is not only steep, it’s either lined with loose rocks or cut into deep steps by rectangular boulders emplaced by the original trail-builders. The result is one of the hardest trails I’ve ever found on the knee joint.

On the plus side, as I traversed the lower slopes of the tributary canyon I was serenaded by frogs – or toads? – with a resounding croak like a slow, low-pitched machine gun. Due to the long bushwhack, the steep grades, and the brutal trail surfaces, it ended up taking me 8-1/2 hours to go less than 11 miles out-and-back.

I spent the night in my new favorite small-town motel, discovering a burrito that turned out to be big enough for three meals, and waking up to an espresso bar next door. I keep saying I live in paradise, but sometimes it’s hard to end one of these weekend getaways…

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