Great long distance backpacking in southern Arizona? Have to admit I used to think not, but that was simply due to my weak imagination. It was the Arizona Trail that first opened my mind to the enormous possibilities Arizona holds for stitching together long distance backpacking trips.
Our route – about 95 miles of walking
The AZT changed another preconception of mine – that somehow it wasn’t really hiking if you were walking a 2-track jeep trail instead of a traditional hiking path or bushwhack. The AZT quickly drives home the lesson what a valuable resource the vast network of 2-track trails are to long distance walkers in Arizona. Further enlightenment about distance walks in southern Arizona came from the Sky Islands Traverse web page where the folks who brought us the Grand Enchantment Trail show off a beautiful long distance route in southeastern Arizona.
Turkey Creek alcove
With all this in mind, friend Dave and I decided to cook up a long walk from the headwaters of Aravaipa Canyon down to our homes near Tucson. Wanting to learn more about the Galiuro Mountains we picked out a route that headed almost due south from the east end of Aravaipa Canyon, taking in three magnificent Galiuro drainages: Turkey Creek, Rattlesnake Canyon, and Redfield Canyon.
Bypassing a wading pool
Our route then turned westwards across the San Pedro River to the base of the Rincon Mountains and the seldom visited upper reaches of Espiritu Canyon which drains the northeast side of that range. From the head of Espiritu we followed cowboy trails towards the Rincon high country and finally bushwhacked to the magnificent trail network that surrounds Manning Camp. Here we picked up the Arizona Trail and followed it down past Hope Camp and finally met a ride home near Old Spanish Trail.
About 95 miles long, the route was a fine mix of trail, 2 track roads, and many miles of off-trail walking as well. A few times we were happily surprised to stumble upon unexpected paths and fence line trails when the map showed nothing but bushwhacking ahead. I must add that in several locations the off-trail terrain was very rugged and at times hazardous as well.
I for one love off-trail travel and found many of these sections some of the very best of the trip, especially wild and rugged parts of Turkey Creek and Redfield Canyon. However, the bit between the northeast boundary of Saguaro National Park and the Rincon Mt trail network was choked with manzanita and scrub oak, drawing blood and eliciting plenty of grunting and some cursing.
Abandoned mining equipment in upper Rattlesnake Canyon
Nine and a half days were spent on the walk, many covering eight to ten miles, picking up more miles on days when there was plenty of trail or 2-track walking. We lingered a bit in the Powers Garden – Powers Mine area, devoting extra time to explore old cabins, mine sites, and work areas that tell a mute but very compelling story of the extraordinary human effort and toil that was expended extracting a living from these remote mountain hideaways so many years ago.
With a start at the beginning of March, 2012 we hoped that we would find plenty of water along the way and avoid late season winter storms. Indeed, we found collectable water each and every day of the walk. Major drainages all showed water, though intermittently, and many (though not all) spring sites indicated on the map were wet too. None-the-less, with a healthy respect for potential heat and thirst, we always packed plenty of water just in case - usually starting each day with 4 or more liters even though the map might show springs and big drainages ahead.
Matate in Pipestem Canyon
Fortunately, no winter storms occurred during the walk. Given our water concerns, we tried to lighten up other parts of the pack and decided to carry summer weight sleeping bags as one way to drop some weight out. While planning the trip we saw that most of our camps would be below 6,000’, so we figured our 35 degree bags would work fine. And mostly they did work well, though we had a few nights where temps fell into the mid 20’s, and one night the thermometer hit 16 degrees before climbing higher as the sun rose. By wearing everything we had to bed and wrapping chilly feet in empty stuff sacks, we managed to get some sleep.
Redfield Canyon wall
A stand-out part of the trip? That’s a hard call, with each and every day of the walk presenting splendid backcountry surprises. But I have to say I was especially moved by a fantastic section of Redfield Canyon downstream from the Jackson Cabin trail. The canyon here narrows dramatically, pressed in by soaring and colorful rhyolite cliffs. Immense boulders have calved from the cliffs and piled into the narrow gorge below, seemingly ending hope for any forward progress, and it is tough going indeed. Flowing water and a riot of riparian vegetation, dominated by stately cottonwood and white barked sycamores, contribute to a profound feeling of wonder and remoteness. The leafy canopy makes it difficult to see the tops of the cliffs above, but deep, somber shadows cast on the jumble of titanic boulders give the impression of being in the bottom of something very deep indeed. No place to be during flood!
Well, back home and back to the drawing board – a perfect time to start sniffing out another long walk for next spring.
Rincon high country