Arizona Trail Cedar Ranch to Schultz Tank or Going Backwards is still making Progress
The Arizona Trail Website, Wiki is a continuous path open for use by hikers, backpackers, cyclists and horse packers. The trail covers 820 miles and was recently designated as a National Scenic Trail. It is continually evolving as trails are built or rerouted. Much of the AzTrail follows old roads that include ranching roads, logging roads, mining roads and forest service roads. The trail is mapped and described south to north starting at the Mexican Border in the Huachuca Mountains leads to the border with Utah near Kanab. I’ve been hiking sections of the trail starting from about 12 years ago beginning at the southern terminus. Recently a friend of mine has started joining in on the hikes. The two of us hiked about 40 miles over 4 days and survived to tell the experience. Here is the story.
While laying in the motel bed the night before being on the trail, and thinking about this section’s official description (Passage 34, San Francisco Peaks) and also about various trail journals posted by others, the obvious decision that this section should be hiked in reverse popped into mind. That is, going north to south instead of the accepted direction as south to north. The reasons were clear. One is that by going north to south we would be hiking from a place with no water to a place with much water. We began with about 4 liters each. There are several stock and wildlife tanks along the way where it may be possible to filter water if any is available. Also, the closer we pace to the high peaks, there will be snow areas, snow melt and one resupply point (a small steel chest) where the trail steward or “trail angels” will provide water or even supplies. Another reason for hiking in reverse is that the northern terminus is too remote and leaving a vehicle there for days can be risky. It makes more sense to walk to the vehicle that is parked in a more popular area than to walk to one that may be vandalized or just have a drained battery or a flat tire. So, the next morning we dropped off my jeep at the Schultz’s Tank’s crowded trail head and drove to the remote Cedar Ranch Tank, parked his Toyota pickup and prepped for starting the hike.
Ironically, at the remote trail head there was one of the resupply boxes. It held only 4 gallons of water. Two were labeled “public” meaning that anyone who needed water could take some. The other two gallons had a name and date indicating that someone had made a prior drop and anticipated their water would be there when they get there. Thru-hikers were the ones more likely to do this. Fortunately, Larry and I had prepared our water. We stepped on the trail and headed south.
Arizona Trail Sign at Cedar Ranch
Did I say get on the trail? Well, right away we started on one of the many routes that are part of the “trail”. They can be mixed blessings bringing either a clear way to pace or a painful rocky, unforgiving boring walk. This route was the latter.
Road and Terrain
The first ten miles of the trail was on roads. Pretty much level up and down but still roads. But, we made good time and had good views of the surrounding lands. Most of what appeared to be hills in the area are exactly dormant volcanic craters. The entire San Francisco Peaks area are the remnants of a major eruption site. Looking at satellite photos many of the small hills have a round peak together with a caldera. We could see our destination which will be the slopes of the highest peak of Arizona, Humprey’s Peak (12,633’). Wiki
San Francisco Peaks at the Distance
One unexpected result of hiking the section in reverse was that we saw a lot more people because they were hiking the common south to north direction. Soon after starting a group came by doing something I’d never seen on any trail of my 37 years of backpacking. First one, then two more uni-cyclists, with full packs strapped on, came down the trail. They stopped for a few minutes. They were very happy with the roads and also that there was some water ahead at the resupply point. They were thru-riding this trail. It was a bizarre sight. They had my full respect. I couldn’t do it. We saw 13 backpackers, countless bike riders (some riding thru, most of them day riders), 6 day hikers near Arizona Snow Bowl and other parts of the trail. One couple backpacking together, Sage and Wes, will turn up again later after our hike was finished.
One of three Uni-cyclists
Our first camp was in a sparse wooded area just off the road next to a dry tank. Temps were in the low 30’s and somewhat windy. Wind would be our constant companion for most of the way.
San Francisco Peaks getting closer
Always in view the first three days was Humphrey’s Peak with its permanent snow cap.
Our first camp was in a sparse wooded area just off the road near a dry tank. Temperature were in the low 30’s and somewhat windy. Wind would be our constant companion during most of the way.
First Night's Camp
The second day would lead us to very different terrain and scenery. We hiked from junipers to pines to aspens. From warm sun soaked roads to miles of dead fall and patches of snow on high slopes. On the way to the side of the Humphrey’s the trail led quite near a controlled burn. It was nearly about a half mile away. Remote enough away to be safe but close enough that we were hoping the Forest Service folks predicted the wind direction correctly. We also passed another resupply site. It was close to dry Kelly Tank and was another steel chest with about 4 gallons of water in it. Larry and I took about two litters each out of the public jugs. There were 2 gallons dedicated to certain thru-hikers. We were thankful for the water supply. It was enough to get us up to the second night’s camp up in the pines with snow on the ground in locations. The peaks of the trail out nearby at around 9200’, is the highest point of the entire Arizona Trail. The second highest part of the AzTrail is just six miles north of the Mexican Border in the Huachuca Mountains at its 9000’.
Half of that second day and the first half of the the third day consisted of navigating four miles of dead fall in the forest. I guess the trail volunteers haven’t made it up there to cut off the large trees laying across the trail. It wasn’t so bad for hikers, though. The cyclists on the trail had to constantly get off their bikes and carry it over the fallen trees. The few we talked to were not happy about these annoying obstacles on the trail.
We traversed through a couple of aspen groves before losing elevation. The trail went through a couple of meadows with flowing creeks and cool breezes. We started seeing more day hikers from the local skiing resort called Arizona Snow Bowl. Many folks had no idea what backpacking was and were confused when we mentioned walking for 40 miles. While on a pack-off break sitting on one side of the trail, Larry and I got into a conversation with a young couple who were doing thru-hiking, heading north. Their names, we found out later, were Sage and Wes from Washington state. Nice folks who were experienced in long hikes. We talked for about 15 minutes before they went on their trail.
We went back to the trail again with our goal for the afternoon being Alfa Fia Tank. We had heard about this tank from a few hikers passed around. All said that it was very nice and that we should plan on spending an hour there. What they said was totally true. We filtered all the water we needed, hung out and enjoyed the sun scene and took some pictures. The tank is fed by seeps and snow melt. Good water.
Alfa Fia Tank
Mallard in the Tank
Back on the trail we kept heading south and losing elevation. Our goal was to be on the other side of a paved road that led to Snow Bowl. On the way down the high peaks slopes we came across another group of thru-hikers. Three young women talked and queried us about the trail conditions and water situation. They looked fresh out of college, if that old. But, remember they had already hiked 600 miles though deep desert and some serious terrain. They were trail savvy beyond their years.
We crossed the road and camped in the Fort Valley Experimental Forest. The night was clear with no wind. I left the fly off the tent and fell asleep watching the stars and looking for meteors.
Third Night's Camp
We got up the next morning, the 4th day, and made it to the jeep at Schultz’s Tank trail head. Along the way we saw at least 20 cyclists. All were polite about trail etiquette, although I’d wish that a few of them would have a bell to warn us about coming up quickly from behind. There were other stuff on that last day, though. By then, my feet were aching. My new Merrell boots didn’t work as well as I’d wish and I got big blisters on the balls of my feet. Plus, there was a junction on the trail not listed on the maps which showed conflicting nomenclature and directions. We got off the trail and had to navigate non-AzTrail trails that headed to the overall direction of the jeep. In the end we had to get on the main access road and walk about a extra quarter mile to the trail head.
Our last goal was to make the drive back to the starting point and pick up Larry’s truck, which was left 4 days earlier. We had decided to pick up a few gallons of water and a six-pack of beer to leave in the resupply point at Cedar Tank for hikers hiking thru. When we got to the truck we were in for a big surprise. Firstly, when we got out of the jeep, from behind some junipers a young woman comes running up and offers me a big hug. I recognized her as Sage from the trail who I have some conversation to earlier. She and Wes had just gotten to Cedar Tank 10 minutes earlier and were in need of a ride to Flagstaff. It seems that Wes also had some serious foot issues and needed to rest up in town. Of course we offered them a ride. Consider it a karma payback or some karma banking. But, as I’ve always said, timing is everything.
Oh, I put the beer and water in the steel chest at the trail head. And what was in the box made me laugh out loudly. It seems great minds take a hike.
Here, I’ll let the photo do the talking.
Cedar Ranch Trail head Resupply Box at end of Hike