It had been a long time since we had last backpacked, and I could tell that John was getting that itch for a backcountry adventure. Having worked his tail off during the entire Memorial Day weekend (which caused him to miss the Arizona Challenge), he was desperately needing a weekend away from it all. So, when we started making plans for the weekend of June 2, John announced that we were going backpacking.
Being terribly out of shape, we decided to do a trail that we had done before: one with a reliable water source and one that was a reasonable distance. After giving it some thought, we chose to do the Maxwell Trail #37 into the West Clear Creek Wilderness Area again. This would be the perfect trail for us to do: only six-tenths of a mile in length, over known terrain, with reliable West Clear Creek waiting for us at the bottom of the canyon. On top of that, it was a trail that Mary had never done with us. John and I had hiked Maxwell twice together, both times before we were married. It was time to introduce Mary to one of our favorite places.
Let's not forget, of course, that the Maxwell Trail was the site of John's famous "Naked in the Woods" picture: the one that adorns every single "Naked in the Woods" journal and even made it to our wedding invitation. Truly one of the milestones in Arizona Hiking Trails history!
We spent the week leading up to our excursion packing our backpacks. Things had changed a bit since the last time we had to pack those backpacks. This trip was going to be the maiden voyage of our new backcountry tent - the one that Santa Claus had brought us for Christmas in 2006; when packed, the dimensions of this tent were different than our old backcountry tent (which had seen better days), so we had to rethink who carried what. In the end, it worked out that I would carry the one-man tent that John usually uses, and he would take the new tent (based on the fact that his backpack is longer than mine).
Another thing that changed was, now that Mary was pushing seven years old, we were able to get her to carry more of her stuff. Mary would carry her old backpack from kindergarten and carry with her a few selected toys and books, her jacket, and her own clothes. It seemed to be a bit on the heavy side at first, so we had her try it on for size. When she announced that it wasn't too heavy, we knew that we were well on our way to raising a proper sherpa!
So, with all of our gear packed and ready to go, we left the house at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, June 2 and began our journey to the Mogollon Rim. To get there, we took SR 87 through Payson, Pine and Strawberry, all the way to Clint's Well, making several stops along the way to get gas, go to the restroom, and to pick up forgotten supplies (i.e. AA batteries).
At Clint's Well, we stopped at the ranger station to inquire about restrictions on the Mogollon Rim. Typically, in June (the dry season), there are fire restrictions throughout the National Forest lands. This year, all of the county parks and all of the Tonto Forest had strict fire restrictions in place in hopes to preventing another large-scale fire; Coconino, on the other hand, had very light restrictions that were limited to the area surrounding Milk Ranch Point; we weren't going to be camping anywhere near there. The ranger confirmed that we were allowed to have a fire, but she also encouraged us to make sure that it was dead out before breaking camp. We assured her that we always do. Before we left the ranger station, the ranger handed Mary a goodie bag filled with Smokey the Bear treats: an eraser, pencils, a pencil sharpener, coloring books, a ruler, and even a Frisbee.
From Clint's Well, we turned onto FH 3 - Lake Mary Road - and continued along that road for several miles, until we came to FR 81. Along the way, we noticed that there was an large amount of traffic on the road that morning. Although it wasn't unusual to have a lot of visitors on the Rim that time of year, it seemed a bit excessive.
Then, after we turned onto FR 81, traffic became a nightmare! We must have passed thirty or forty cars going the other way, just in the first five miles! John was getting a little frustrated; his hopes of a nice, quiet weekend were quickly fading away with each passing car.
About five miles in, we finally found the source of all of the traffic. One of the huge meadows along the road was hosting a "stake" (a Mormon diocese). I later found out that it was time for the annual Pioneer Days, which would explain all of the old wagon wheels and the late 19th century apparel that was worn by several of the women. There were hundreds of people there and probably a hundred trucks and horse trailers parked in that meadow. The people were all working to tear down their equipment, and many of the participants were on their way home.
After passing by the stake, we didn't encounter anymore heavy traffic. But that's not to say that there weren't any other cars headed in the same direction as us. In fact, we were quite surprised to see just how many trucks and SUV's were already parked at the Maxwell Trailhead that morning...and considering how much the road had deteriorated over the years, we couldn't believe that there were so many others who were willing to make that trip. (Of course, we were the nutcases who once made that trip in an Oldsmobile!)
It was about 9:45 a.m. when we arrived: a bit later than we had wanted to start, but that would still put us at camp by lunchtime.
As soon as we stepped out of the 4Runner, we were bombarded by gnats: hundreds of those nasty little gnats! They were everywhere, and we were completely disgusted by them. So, as quickly as we could, we slathered on the sunscreen, loaded up our heavy gear, and headed towards the trailhead to begin our hike.
Despite the fact that the road had deteriorated over the years, the Maxwell Trail had not changed one bit. Almost immediately upon leaving the trailhead, the trail begins to descend through a series of switchbacks, dropping a couple of hundred feet over the first quarter of a mile. Since this was Mary's first time on the trail, we descended rather slowly to give Mary a chance to get used to the terrain on which we would be hiking. Along the way, we were passed by several groups of day-hikers, which indicated to us that we were in for a crowded day of hiking.
The trail soon flattened out a little bit as we traversed the section along the base of the cliff. We proceeded along this section rather quickly...but not quickly enough because Mary soon became bored with it. (It wasn't nearly as exciting as the switchbacks...) "But where's the creek?" she asked several times during the next fifteen minutes. We were so glad when we finally came around the bend and caught our first glimpse of West Clear Creek, because that finally got her to pipe down!
From there, it was another twenty minutes down the hill to get to West Clear Creek, and those were the most strenuous twenty minutes of the hike. The trail there was very steep, and we had to take extra caution to work our way down the hill so that we wouldn't slip and fall...
...and what did I do? I slipped and almost fell! My boot landed on a spot of loose scree, and I nearly fell over. Fortunately, I was able to stop myself from falling by planting my hiking stick firmly on the ground in front of me.
At 11:00 a.m., we finally arrived at the end of the Maxwell Trail, at West Clear Creek. We dropped our packs at the place where the trail intersected with the creek, and John volunteered to venture downstream a bit to find a campsite. When he returned five minutes later, he reported that there were no campsites to be found, so he suggested that we continue upstream a bit. Having been upstream before, we knew that we would find plenty of places to camp; it was just a matter of finding the perfect one.
To make our way upstream, we stepped back onto the Maxwell Trail and followed it for a few feet until we found a spur trail that would take us back towards the creek. Mary and John took the wrong way on that spur trail and ended up in the water; I, on the other hand, stayed on the trail and showed them the right way go to.
About a hundred feet away, we came across the first campsite, which, as we found, was already occupied by several people...and by two dogs as well. The first of the two dogs came racing down the trail to "greet" us with loud warning barks. His owners came running after him, apologizing for his behavior. They grabbed him by the collar and tied him up to a tree so that he wouldn't come after us again.
Although our intention was to put some distance between us and them, in reality it didn't work out that way. We found a perfect campsite about a 100 yards from the other campsite and decided to settle there. It was set on a ledge, just above a lovely, rocky beach next to the creek, and it was across the creek from the other campsite. "Good enough!" we said, and with that, we dropped our packs.
Before setting up camp, we cooked our lunch, which consisted of homemade macaroni and cheese with chicken. It was a perfect meal after that long, exhausting hike down. Then, once we were rested and fed, we pitched our tents.
It was nearly 1:00 p.m. by the time our campsite was established; although there was plenty of time to go exploring further upstream, we really didn't feel like it. Instead, we spent some time playing down by the creek and enjoying the warm weather. We also took a nap later that afternoon. True, we Verleys live for the adventure; but sometimes, you just need to have a lazy day.
Later that afternoon, we had no choice but to hide out in the tent; the gnats were swarming in our campsite (much like they had done at the trailhead), and we were getting bit like crazy by mosquitoes. (We thought at first that we had been exposed to poison ivy when we saw the bites on our legs; we figured out later that we had been bit. What a relief that was!) I thought that I had packed the bug repellent - in fact, I had even refilled the bottle! Imagine my surprise when I could not find it in my backpack! I had neglected to grab it off of the dryer to throw it in with the other toiletries. So, we had to seek shelter in the tent instead.
At dinnertime, we emerged from the tent to begin cooking, and that was when we started our campfire. Although it certainly wasn't cool enough yet for a campfire, it did help to keep the gnats and mosquitoes away for a while so that we could eat dinner in peace.
The next two hours before bedtime were very peaceful and warm. Even after the sun went down, it never really cooled down out there. Instead of hunkering down by the campfire as usual, we played down by the creek: skipping stones, throwing rocks, watching the fish swim by. Finally, at 8:00 p.m., we put Mary to bed, and John and I followed about 30 minutes later.
It was a very rough night for me, from the time I went to bed until about 2:00 a.m. Between John's snoring and Mary's coughing, I couldn't sleep a wink. What helped make the night bearable was that it wasn't cold at all; I was very comfortable all night long.
Around 2:00 a.m. or so, both John and Mary were finally quiet, and I fell asleep.
John and I both awoke around 5:30 a.m. to a surprisingly warm morning. I don't think it got below fifty-five degrees out there. Neither one of us had to bundle up, and it wasn't necessary to build a fire. The only thing I needed was my coffee and a light breakfast to get me going.
Mary slept in until 7:00; by the time she woke up, we were ready to start tearing down camp. While she ate breakfast, we started packing up our stuff; by the time she was dressed, John already had his tent torn down and packed away. By 8:00 a.m., we had our gear completely packed, and we were all ready to go...an hour earlier than initially planned.
It took us roughly an hour and a half to hike out of West Clear Creek via the Maxwell Trail. That was including all of the breaks that we had to take along the way to rest Mary's tired legs. The climb up the trail was hard enough without packs on; carrying extra weight only made it more so. In order to do this hike with the least amount of complaints from Mary, we took breaks at every switchback and whenever Mary needed a rest. This strategy has seen us through many difficult hikes, and this one was no exception. True, it takes us longer to complete a hike, but it does help to prevent the tears of frustration that we often get when we push her too hard.
We reached the trailhead around 9:30 a.m.: hot, sweaty, and very happy to see the 4Runner again. We were also happy that our backpacking trip had been a successful one. So many other trips had gone wrong; it was nice that this one did not.
Since we had left the trail so early, and since we weren't in any sort of hurry to get back to Phoenix, John suggested that we do a little exploring in the area. Specifically, he wanted to find that infamous FR 9366M, where we had once gotten stuck in the mud. We couldn't remember exactly where it was; perhaps we could mark it on the GPS so that we could find it again in the future.
Finding FR 9366M proved to be more difficult that we thought. There were several side roads along FR 81E that could have been 9366M, but none of them were signed, and none of them had a cattle guard. We followed three or four of those roads for a quarter mile or so, looking for any sign that we were on the right road, but each time we came back empty-handed. In the end, we gave up, vowing to return another time with a topo map.
We arrived in Clint's Well at 10:00 a.m.: at just the right time to purchase a celebratory beer and a few snacks to hold us until lunch. An hour later, we were in Payson, where we had a very nice lunch at the Main Street Grille, located off of the Beeline Highway and Main Street. We had discovered this place during one of our geocaching expeditions and decided to give it a try. It turned out to be a good choice; the food was good, and so was the service.
Upon leaving the Main Street Grille, we started back down the Beeline Highway towards Phoenix. Another wonderful weekend's adventure was over...
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