So why is that we like to backpack? We seem to go backpacking more than we go car-camping. The reason is that backpacking helps us get away from it all, and we can usually find the peace and seclusion that we are looking for.
Usually...but not always...After all, there are other backpackers out there...lots of them...
On one particular weekend in April, we decided to backpack the Horton Creek Trail #285, which connects to the Highline Trai #31, on the Mogollon Rim. The Horton Creek Trail would take us to beautiful Horton Springs, a natural spring that feeds Horton Creek. We had hiked Horton Creek before, as a day hike back in August 2002, and we loved the trail; so now it was time to return there on a backpacking excursion.
To make the trip a little more interesting, John checked out Geocaching.com to see if there were any geocaches hidden along the Horton Creek Trail. It was a possibility, because we wouldn't be hiking in a wilderness area. Sure enough, there was a cache hidden along the trail; John loaded the coordinates on the GPS in hopes that we could find it along the way.
On Saturday morning, April 12, John and Mary and I loaded our backpacks into the back of the Camry and set off on our backpacking adventure. Yes, it was true: we weren't going to take the 4Runner with us on this adventure. With gas at $4 a gallon, we needed to find ways to keep our costs down, and one way was to take a vehicle that had better gas mileage. Besides, it wasn't like we were going to be taking it on any dirt roads; our entire route would be paved.
To get to the Horton Creek Trail, we took the Beeline Highway (SR 87) north to Payson then turned right at the junction with SR 260. From there, we continued east on 260 until we reached the turnoff to the Tonto Fish Hatchery, on the left. After that, it was only a mile to the trailhead parking lot, located at the Horton Creek Picnic Area, across from the campground.
When we arrived, there were only a few other cars in the parking lot, and there was no one in the campground at all. We were in the off-season, after all; the campground was still closed, and most people tended to stay at the lower elevations that time of year. Even we typically don't camp in the high country until May at the latest; before then, it's just too cold up there. However, it had been unseasonably warm already for April; maybe it wouldn't be that cold overnight.
After gearing up for our trip, we crossed the road and walked around the campground gate to get to the trailhead. Right away, we started climbing up a ridge; then, we descended steeply towards Horton Creek, where we crossed over to get to the other side. At that point, the trail followed what looked like an old jeep road - an old rocky jeep road.
That was the one thing I remembered the most about the Horton Creek Trail: it is a very rocky trail. That type of terrain makes hiking difficult for an adult; for a child with little feet, it was even more difficult and, at times, just downright frustrating. Within the first mile of our hike, Mary was worn out...and we still had 2.5 miles to go...
Despite the rocks, though, the trail is very beautiful. For the most part, it runs parallel to Horton Creek, a perennial stream that feeds Tonto Creek. The creek is an amazing sight: pristine and cool, with lots of small waterfalls. Mary had once enjoyed a game of "Pooh Sticks" on the shores of that creek - ah, the memories!
Today, on the other hand, she didn't want anything to do with "Pooh Sticks"; she just wasn't having fun. The rocky terrain and the steady climb was taking its toll on her; it slowed her way down, to a point where we were only hiking a little less than a mile an hour. That was a painfully slow pace for us, of course.
We took an extended break about halfway up the trail, after John indicated that the geocache was fifteen-hundredths of a mile away along a spur trail. We had the option of going with him to go look for it, but with Mary being so tired, she decided that a rest was in order. That said, John went on his own to look for the cache. When he returned, about twenty minutes later, he reported that he was glad that we didn't go with him to retrieve the cache; he ended up getting his boot wet when he tried to get across the creek to get to the hiding place. We wouldn't have made it.
As we started hiking again, we encountered a very large group of Boy Scouts, hiking in the opposite direction; they had just spent the night at Horton Springs. We couldn't believe how many of them there were; there must have been thirty scouts! Was there enough room at Horton Springs for all of them to camp?
We pressed on. The trail continued to climb, and soon, we were in the exposed area. Despite the fact that it was only April, it was very warm; that only made things worse. Now Mary was tired and hot!
Finally, after more than four hours of hiking, we arrived at Horton Springs!
And wouldn't you know it? There was a horse blocking the trail! Someone had tied up a horse under a tree, and his rear end was blocking our path. We certainly didn't want to walk behind the horse, for fear that he would spook and kick us - no one wants to get kicked by a horse! Fortunately, we were able to get the horse to move, and with that, we continued the last few feet to the spring.
We dropped our packs near the spring and began to look for a campsite. We found one on a ledge, next to the creek; there were many others, but this one was the closest to the creek, which meant that we didn't have to go far for water. There was also a couple of large boulders that blocked the campsite, and that gave us some seclusion...
...and we would certainly need it, because traffic was incredibly heavy that day!
There must have been forty to fifty other backpackers in the area. Some of them were camped near us; others were camped off of the Highline Trail and came down to Horton Springs for water. They came in groups of all sizes; the group camped closest to us was small, consisting of two men - best friends, who went backpacking together frequently. Sometimes they took their kids with them; on this occasion, it was just the two of them. They were camped on the ledge above Horton Springs; we talked to them while they were down at the creek, enjoying the scenery.
Other groups were much larger. There was one group that must have been twenty strong; they, too, were camped on the ledge above Horton Springs. Another group - the one camped on the Highline Trail - had about six people. In all the years in which we have been backpacking, we have never seen so many backpackers in one place!
"It's a freakin' traffic jam up here!" John remarked. So much for solitude!
After taking a rest, we decided to explore the springs, which were about two hundred yards from camp. We followed the footpaths that had been worn onto the banks of the creek, and they led us to the springs, which were gushing from under the rocks on the hillside. It was amazing!
John decided that this would be a good time to practice his photography. He climbed all over the rocks surrounding the falls (being careful not to slip and fall over the edge) and took about a hundred pictures of the gushing water. He also climbed over the ridge and found a secondary spring, which was not visible from where Mary and I stood, down by the side of the creek. Like the other spring, this spring was a natural spring, but it poured forth over a man-made wall, which had a pipe sticking out of it. The way that the water sprayed over the pipe was very interesting, and John took some artistic shots of it.
When John was finished taking pictures, we all returned to camp. That was when John made a startling discovery: the GPS was missing! He couldn't find it anywhere. Thinking back, he was certain that he had had it when we arrived at the trail junction, but after that, he wasn't sure where he had put it. I went looking for it, and lucky for us, I found it right where he had left it: on a rock at the trail junction. Good thing I found it before the throngs of people who had passed through there!
Now that the GPS was accounted for, it was time to start dinner and to get our campfire going. While we relaxed by our fire and ate our dinner, we watched the other backpackers traipse back and forth between their own campsites and the creek to retrieve water, and we hoped that we wouldn't hear them when it finally came time for us to go to bed.
Despite the crowds at Horton Springs, though, it was a very quiet night; and, as usual, at first star, John and Mary and I retired to our tents for a good night's sleep.
The next morning, we were awake before anyone else, at first light. Knowing how difficult it had been to hike in to Horton Springs, we thought it best to get an early start on our return hike, so that we could at least make it out of there before evening. After breakfast, we packed up our campsite; and by 8:00 a.m., we were ready to go.
It was a good thing that we got an early start, because we saw some of Mary's best hiking that morning. Granted, the hike was all downhill, which is typically easier and faster, but the terrain was still rough and rocky; that should have slowed us down a lot. Mary, however, handled it well, and she hiked at a pace of two miles an hour!
That meant that we were back at the trailhead by 10:00 a.m.! And without shedding a single tear!
Having finished our hike much earlier than anticipated, we now had time to go to lunch, rather than eat the macaroni and cheese that we had brought along with us. Upon leaving the trailhead, we drove into Christopher Creek and had lunch at the Creekside, one of our favorite places to eat on the Mogollon Rim. We considered that a treat for Mary, for doing such a great job of hiking that day.
And with that ended another Verley adventure. An interesting adventure, to say the least...but a good one...
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