Backpacking the Pinalenos

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 Pinalenos, while mostly on trail, was still what I would consider ambitious because not many people go to the Pinalenos 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.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Jerry Cagle says:

    Well written. I have always toyed with the idea of a backpacking and or/climbing trip in the Pinalenos, but it just doesn’t seem to materialize. Now maybe…

  2. Kristi says:

    As if I didn’t want a pair of Five Fingers bad enough already…! Fun trip. Glad you didn’t catch the mountain lion 🙂

  3. I was there last week on the Ft. Grant side. Figuring that there wasn’t much use, I took some loppers to trim up the trail which it needed and then ran into new downfall that completely covered the trail and made in mostly impassable. I called the Safford District later in the week to report. Anyway – I am now completely in love with these mountains. Some stuff off the web about them:
    *They have over 7,000 feet (2,100 m) of vertical relief, more than any other range in the state.
    *According to The Nature Conservancy, they traverse five ecological communities and contain "the highest diversity of habitats of any mountain range in North America."
    We are so lucky to live in Southern AZ.

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