Backpacking the Pinalenos

by Logan Monday, October 18th 2010

I don’t know if I can call myself an avid backpacker just yet but I think I am starting to get there, mostly thanks to Craig Little. Craig is a master backpacker or as he puts it an “extreme picnicker”, so I will call him a Master Extreme Picnicker. In the past six months I have been lucky enough to get to tag along on two of his backpacking adventures. Craig is usually ambitious with his trip choices; he likes to tread the path less trodden and make big loops in the big hills. We have a similar aesthetic. The trip to the Pinaleños, while mostly on trail, was still what I would consider ambitious because not many people go to the Pinaleños for much more than day hikes, and our loop (as we found out) used trails that don’t see much traffic. We planned to hike up Ash Creek on the north side of the mountains, top out just below Hawk Peak, traverse east over to the Around the Mountain trail and use that to access Frye Canyon and take it back to the bottom and then bushwhack the deserted low lands back over to the car, 25 miles… four days… totally doable.

I have been wearing Vibram’s Fivefingers for over two years and I haven’t looked back. I started wearing them as a lightweight compact option for a decent/rappel shoe for multi-pitch rock climbing. The first time I used them to hike off the back of Tahquitz Rock I was changed and they became my preferred off road shoe. I felt more in touch, more balanced and they forced me to pick my lines with more care and foresight. They expanded my experience of the 3D world that is nature. Of course there was a bit of a break in period my feet had to adapt to a less cushioned and unsupported way of life, in other words they had to become tougher and stronger. I am glad to say that they have over the past couple of years done just that. The Fivefingers have graduated from an occasional hiking shoe to my full time footwear and so for this trip I thought why throw on my heavy hiking boots when I could keep it light and bring two pairs of Fivefingers instead.


Just so that people know the Ash Creek trail head starts up and left of the creek at the end of the jeep road it does not follow the creek like we thought. However the creek is so pretty if you are like me it will draw you in as it did our party. There seems to be a faint trail that follows the creek for a while, we were obviously not the only ones to miss the trailhead. So we hiked the creek for quite a while before, due to a rainstorm and a tight section of canyon, we had to make our way up a ridge composed of mostly exposed rock. We picked the wrong side to scramble up. From the high ground on the west side of the creek we saw the trail across the canyon on the East Ridge… oops. It was a good thing that we saw the trail because once we back tracked and bushwhacked over to it the sailing got a lot smoother and the rain let up. I was glad to be wearing my Fivefingers they seemed to perform quite well on the numerous scrambley (my word but you can use it) sections that we encountered due to our off trail shenanigans.

We camped about half way up Ash Creek near a place called Oak Flats, there just happens to be a great camp spot right off the trail you can’t miss it and when we found it we knew it was home for the night. The next morning brought great cool temps and lucky for me a fresh dry pair of Fivefingers! Everyone else had to use their wet shoes/boots from the day before. I LIKE DRY SHOES, especially when you can carry two pair for the weight of less than one pair of hiking shoes let alone boots.

Ash Creek is beautiful, full of cascades and exposed cliffs and Ash Falls is a spectacular 120-150 foot stream of white water combining those two elements in a very captivating way. Our second day of hiking brought more amazing views and some steep hiking. It was shaping up to be a great day. A little more rain a lot of elevation gain and raspberries galore; we hit the mountain at the right time. We made our way up through the pines and aspens until we hit the road that would take us east over to the start of the Around the Mountain trail. I prefer the trails and their dynamic construction much more than the hard packed flat road, Fivefingers and our feet are better suited for variable terrain. My feet only started to noticeably hurt on the road so I stayed on the softer more shapely shoulder. We made camp in a flat part of the forest just off the dirt road that leads to the ATM trail, sadly we could not safely make a fire but we had Sailor Jerry to keep us warm. It got cold and windy but after such a beautiful day of hiking we were all in good spirits. If I were to sum up the second day and barely do it justice I would say Ash Falls, Aspens and Raspberries.


Around the Mountain trail starts on a shaded hillside and after the rains of summer looked more like the North West than the South. Moss covered boulders and lichen covered trees bordered the rarely used trail. It seemed like we were alone on the mountain except for the bears and mountain lions. In fact the only evidence of use on the trail were the lion scratches and occasional bear and cat scat. The rest of the day was spent descending the mountain on trails that were barely visible through the thick growth. The views were amazing and the growth was beautiful, it felt remote and wild. Frye Canyon was just as pretty as Ash but in a different way. The fire that had burned it years before opened it up and made it thick in under brush perfect hunting grounds for Mountain Lions.

We saw many indications of the large cats through out the day, then at the base of the canyon while we were out on a rocky out cropping looking down on swirling pools and cascades carved out of the rock I turned to see something I had always wanted to see, a mountain lion descending out of a juniper 30 yards away! It was amazing and took the words right out of my mouth when I finally got the words out it had all but disappeared up the hill. I then had a reaction I never thought seeing a mountain lion would prompt… I chased after it. My brother and I charged up the exposed ridge hoping for another glimpse, I was lucky enough to see it again just before it walked out of view. My brother and I continued to pursue the great cat to the top of the ridge but it was gone. We were foolish and excited. I do not recommend pursuing mountain lions they are not to be trifled with. However the puma was out numbered and by running after it my brother and I were acting much more like predators than prey… still kind of a bad idea.


We camped that night at the turn around at the base of Frye canyon surrounded by waterfalls on both sides. We got up early in order to beat the heat back to the car. This meant that we had to bushwhack the desert through drainages choked with mesquite and cat claw it sounds like less fun than it was. It was a beautiful morning and the views up at the canyons we had spent the last three days ascending and descending were spectacular. Even crossing the un-trailed desert I felt confident in my Fivefingers, I remain a convert and believe that there are few activities these “shoes” aren’t capable of handling. We made the car just before it got scorching and celebrated with one last dip in Ash Creek before heading into Safford for burritos.


Coiling Barbed Wire in Douglas

by frank Monday, October 11th 2010

For a little over a year now, Summit Hut has had a program running called “100 Days of Service”. This program allows staff members to take time out of their work-week to volunteer in the community. Staff members are then compensated, by Summit Hut, for their hours. Over the last year, we have been out in the community counting bullfrogs, leading youth birding trips and doing a saguaro census! We’ve had staff members build trails, pull invasive grass and teach Girl Scouts outdoor skills at the Summit Hut Outdoor Adventure Camp. Most recently a group of six staff members, including myself, joined an effort put forth by the Sky Island Alliance (SIA) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to remove barbed wire fence from the border just east of Douglas.

Me Pulling Fence - Photo by Sarah Williams

This event was interesting on many fronts: social, political, environmental and personal. When one heads down to the border, one cannot avoid thinking about the political issues going on, but interestingly enough the politics of immigration played a very small role in this adventure. Politically, this was a great partnership between a government organization, BLM, and an advocacy and service organization, SIA, which worked towards a greater good for all of us. The mission was simple, or so it seemed. Head to the border, a few miles east of Douglas, and remove a seven-strand, barbed-wire ranching fence that was acting as a second barrier for wildlife using this corridor in their migration (the iron vehicle fence being the primary blockade).

Barbed Wire Fence and the Border – Photo by Meaghan Callahan

As soon as we got to our border marker, we could sense there was something amiss. Just the other side of the vehicle fence there was a bright and shiny, brand-new barbed-wire fence. Apparently the rancher had changed his mind about the agreement to remove the fence and he replaced it instead. This new fence was only a three-strand fence which does alleviate some of the issue, but still poses more of an issue than no fence at all. Without permission to remove the new fence, our task would shift. Our new goal was to clean up as much scrap fence as we could (and tires, trash, clothing…and a car bumper) that all acts as a tangling threat to wildlife.

The entire day spent down there was a tremendous reminder of just how amazing the southern Arizona desert is. The cliffs and rolling hills were amazing, the vegetation was spectacular, even the giant grasshoppers and their slightly annoying clicking were impressive. It was also a reminder of how human actions (and inactions) contribute to harming this spectacular environment. We spent just about five hours cleaning around 2 miles of border. We collected a trailer full of barbed-wire fence, eight tires, and a pretty good collection of trash, in just two miles! As we returned to Tucson, the crew was in agreement that more work needed to be done, and we wanted to help. Hopefully you want to help too! Keep an eye on the Summit Hut website and Facebook page for future volunteer events you can join us on and check out the Sky Island Alliance for a great organization that is out there all the time doing their part.

The Summit Hut Crew
Front: (left to right) Meaghan Callahan, Kathy Simko, Costas Sofianos;
Back: Frank Camp, Dave Weeks, Traci Henne


Aliso Spring

by Dave Baker Monday, October 4th 2010

Established in 1984, the Rincon Mountain Wilderness provides a protective buffer on three sides of Saguaro National Park East in southern Arizona. With few trails and often remote access points, this wilderness area is rugged, steep and blissfully neglected. One of the few trails in the wilderness area climbs the broad southern flanks of Rincon Peak to Aliso Spring , perched in a remote canyon bottom among pinion and juniper trees. This is a nice area to tramp about, with interesting countryside and fine vistas.

Rincon Mt Wilderness & Rincon Peak

Rincon Mountain Wilderness along the southwestern slopes of Rincon Peak

The Aliso Spring Trail was most certainly established by cattlemen who installed steel and concrete tanks near the spring to provide water for their bovine charges. (During a visit to Aliso in March 2010, the water system was in disrepair and all tanks were dry even though the spring showed plenty of water.)

Steel water tank

Steel tank near Aliso Spring

References to the Aliso Spring Trail are hard to come by, appearing on very few recreation maps of the area. I learned of the trail thanks to the Rainbow Expeditions “Rincon Mountains” map, last published in 1994. It has been decades since the trail may have received maintenance; it is overgrown with brush and is especially tough to follow in the upper reaches. Helpfully, much of the route parallels a fence line, but we failed to find any sign of the final section of trail and bushwhacked the last half mile or so to the spring. This often feels like a cross country hike, so bring a map and compass or GPS, and be prepared for off-trail navigation.

A little over half a mile south of Aliso Spring and far from any trail maintained or otherwise, the wreckage of a World War II bomber is scattered several hundred yards along the flanks of a lonely, remote ridge (at approximately 32.08216 N, 110.55523 W, WGS84). The ill-fated A-20 Havoc careened into the mountainside on a stormy summer day in 1945. Reaching this crash site involves full-on rugged, brushy cross-country travel.

A-20H crash site

A-20 Havoc bomber plane wreckage

Find the trailhead by driving to the junction of Old Spanish Trail and Pistol Hill Road southeast of Tucson. Turn north on Pistol Hill Road (unpaved), drive 1.4 miles and turn right (east) onto an unmarked dirt road. Now drive east for about 1 mile to a fork in the road; bear left (east) onto the less traveled of the two forks, and drive about 0.7 miles and park near corrals. A high clearance vehicle is desirable for this final 0.7 mile segment.

Step through a gate on the far side of the corrals and walk east on a jeep road for about 1.4 miles to the windmill and steel tank at Papago Spring. From Papago Spring, first a jeep road and then a sketchy trail climbs hillsides to the southeast for 0.4 miles to a prominent saddle on a long ridge. At the saddle step through a gate to the east side of a fence line. For the next 1.7 miles the trail closely parallels this fence as it follows a long ridge northeast towards the Rincon high country. It is easy to lose the trail in this section, but by staying near the fence, it can usually be picked up again in short order. Unable to find an obvious trail heading towards Aliso, we left the fence at some rock cairns piled up near the 5,480’ elevation contour (approximately 32.09081 N, 110.55762 W, WGS84), and struck out cross country in an easterly direction to Aliso Spring and the cattle tanks.

Fence line trail

The faint fence-line trail climbs a long ridge.

Season: Fall, winter and spring. These south-facing slopes of Rincon Peak can get hot.

Water: Water might be found at Papago Spring with its windmill, and Aliso Spring shows seasonal water as well. However, as always, bring plenty of your own water in case these and other sources are dry.

Difficulty: Difficult. The one way trip to Aliso Spring from the corrals is about 5 miles and involves roughly 2,100’ of elevation gain. The trail described here is often faint and hard to follow, and near the end pretty much disappears altogether. So, this is more a wilderness route than a trail walk. Map, compass or GPS, and cross-country route finding skills are needed.

Note: The hike as described is all on Forest Service property. Reaching the trailhead however, requires passage across State Trust Land. At the turn off of Pistol Hill Road, a sign states: "State Trust Land ... Enter only with valid lease or permit ... No Trespassing". Information about obtaining State Trust Land permits can be found here.

Maps: Rainbow Expeditions “Rincon Mountains”


Click map for larger image


Backcountry Baking

by Craig Monday, September 27th 2010

A few years ago I read a tip in Backpacker Magazine about how to turn your cookset in to an oven using a technique called the twiggy fire. The long and short of the method is to build a fire on top of your cookset using twigs the length of you palm, no larger in diameter than your pinkie. I like to do this when it is appropriate to have a fire so I can use the coals to help start the twiggy fire; also a light coal bed warms the bottom of the pan without burning. I just searched the Backpacker website and found the twiggy fire directions. They describe building the twiggy fire on top of the cookset while using a stove on the bottom. I’m sure that works great but I will continue to build my twiggy fires in my fire ring.

I can bake nearly anything using the twiggy fire and my cookset. My cookset, by the way, is the MSR Alpine 2; hyperbole aside, the finest, most versatile cookset known to man. I have had it since the early nineties and am sure it will serve me well for decades to come. I have baked lasagna, pita pizzas, cornbread, and dumplings in soup. Cake, however, is by far the crowd favorite. Serving a freshly baked cake to your friends in a beautifully remote locale is a sure fire way to garner a rep as a backcountry badass. So let’s walk through the process so you can amaze your friends on your next adventure.

Things you will need:

1. Cooking oil of choice. I use Canola oil. I have a 4oz nalgene bottle which is always more than enough.
2. Cake mix. I prefer the brands that are on sale.
3. Powdered egg. Backpacker’s Pantry scrambled eggs are simply powdered eggs and we have them at Summit Hut
4. Clean water
5. Mixing utensil. I use a long handled spoon, and you guessed it, we have them at Summit Hut.
6. Cookset with a 2 liter pot w/lid. I use a MSR Alpine 2 and we already know how I feel about that.
7. Bowl or separate pan to mix in.

At Home:

***Disclaimer*** I don’t measure, I eyeball. If you have concerns please do the math.

1. Divide the cake mix in half. Place half in zip top plastic bag quart size.
2. Place a little less than half of the egg package in with the mix.
3. Write with a marker on the zip top bag how much water and oil you will need.

On the trail:

Oh boy
Backcountry Bakery

1. Get your fire going. While a small coal bed develops gather lots of twigs ranging from pinkie size to very thin.
2. Mix the cake mix with the oil and water until there are no powder lumps visible. Cake batter is pretty thick. You can always add more water, you can’t take it out.
3. Once you have enough coals, move some aside for your baking and save some to keep the main fire going.
4. Dump some leftover oil in the 2 liter pan. Swirl the pan to coat the entire bottom and as much of the sides as possible. Heating as you swirl makes it easier and faster.
5. Scrape the batter into the pan and cover with the lid.
6. Place the pan onto the coals. If you use too many coals the bottom will burn.
7. Place a few coals on the lid to help get the twiggy fire going. Lay on some tiny twigs, dry grass, pine needles or whatever you have that will catch easy and spark.
8. Once the flames catch, build the fire up with the twigs you have gathered. If you pile too high the fire will just fall over off the pan.
9. Repeat the process of building the fire up and burning down a few to several times before you even think about checking the cake.
10. Don’t try and rush the process. If you build the twiggy fire too high especially towards the end you will burn the top. Also if your main fire is close by and hot rotate the pan a few times.
11. Once you can smell the cake it is probably done. Be careful when checking the cake you don’t want to get any ash on it. Stick a knife in the center or wherever happens to be the thickest part, if it comes out clean its done.
12. Remove from fire and let sit for a few minutes
13. With the lid secure flip upside down and smack on flat surface. (I prefer the top of my lid) Lift the pan and hope it didn’t stick, if it didn’t you are a twiggy fire Jedi.
14. Enjoy!

cake in lid
Finished Cake in the Lid

I have burned a couple but have mostly had great results and they never fail to please. Get creative and you can bake anything. A quick tip on cleanup: boil water in the pan put the mixing bowl in the boiled water and wash it off then use the water to make chunky hot chocolate to share with the cake.

I will be baking a chocolate cake using a twiggy fire on Sunday, October 3 at 11 AM in the parking lot of our Wetmore location for our Food Tips & Tasting event. Please drop by, say hi and taste some samples from our food manufacturers; and if the force is with me a twiggy fired cake.


The Authors

Dave BakerDave Baker

I'm Dave Baker, founder of Summit Hut, an independent outdoor retailer based in Tucson, Arizona since 1969. As an experienced and passionate hiker, climber and backpacker, my blog is intended to be an informative and interesting look into the outdoors and the outdoor industry.

Dana Davis

Dana Davis

I’m Dana Davis, co-owner of the Summit Hut. I mostly enjoy hiking and road biking though I often do other things to keep it interesting (mountaineering, motorcycling, backpacking, climbing, you name it!) My biggest challenge is sometimes finding the balance between career, family, and fun but it’s working out so far!

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

I'm Dan Davis, after retiring from the National Park Service as a Ranger and manager, I worked for the Summit Hut until 2009, then retired for good (maybe). I'm now spending my time traveling around the southwest writing and working on my nature and fine art photography business.

Emily Gindlesparger

Emily Gindlesparger

I’m Emily Gindlesparger, a member of the Summit Hut floor staff. Since moving here from the Midwest, I’ve been taking advantage of all possible adventures in Arizona: rock climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, whitewater kayaking, caving and trail running; I’m always excited to see what’s next!