Some adventures are so great that they are often repeated over and over again...
When my best friend Suzanne announced that she and Katie wanted to go car-camping with us sometime in June, John and I suggested that we all go to Flagstaff. We could camp north of Hart Prairie, off of FR 794, where we have camped several times in the past; and for our day hikes, we could do two of our favorite kid-friendly hikes: the Lava River Tube and Red Mountain.
We have done the Lava River Tube and Red Mountain together in one adventure twice before. In February 1999, John and I camped with Bill and Erika in their motor home near the entrance to the Lava River Tube. We were there to meet with Klaus the caterer, who catered our wedding in July 1999; while we were in the area, we did both trails. Later, in June 2004, we took Erika camping with us and did both trails again - the Lava River Tube with John Coffman and Jan Banka, and Red Mountain without them. In addition to those excursions, John and I did the Lava River Tube on one other occasion, in November 1998, while in Flagstaff to look for a place to get married.
It is no coincidence that we should always do these two trails in tandem, since they both had common origins. Both the Lava River Tube and Red Mountain were formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago. The Lava Tube was created after a volcano erupted and lava oozed along the ground; the surface of the lava flow solidified and turned to rock. The lava continued to flow underneath the newly formed surface, creating a cave. By the same token, Red Mountain was once a volcano that exploded, creating a cauldron that is now a great place for rock-climbing.
After coordinating our calendars, we decided to go on our camping trip during the weekend of June 13-14 - the weekend before Father's Day. During the week leading up to our trip, I worked to get all of our camping gear cleaned and organized. It had been more than one year since we had last car-camped; and though the gear in the pod had stayed clean and well-preserved, the gear in the camping box had not. In fact, we had to throw out our old camping box - along with half of the gear inside of it - after the Great Verley Laundry Room Flood. (The box had been sitting on the floor of the laundry room, and there was a hole in the bottom of it...and I didn't discover it for an entire week...ew...) So now, I had to get a new box and restock it with new gear.
The morning of our trip arrived, and at 6:30 a.m. - a half an hour early - Suzanne and Katie arrived at our house to caravan with us to Flagstaff. That was great, because we had just finished getting ready as well; the earlier we got on the road, the better.
After figuring out who was riding with whom (Mary would be riding with Suzanne and Katie) - and after John gave Suzanne an explanation as to where we were going and where to meet up along the way - we left the house and set off on our trip.
Our caravan took us north on I-17 towards Flagstaff. At the halfway point - Camp Verde - we stopped at our typical spot to regroup and to use the facilities; then we kept going north until we arrived in Flagstaff.
Once in Flagstaff, John and I realized that we had forgotten to pack the gas for the camp stove. Since it had been so long since our last camping trip, we weren't sure just how much gas was left in our stove; we decided not to risk it and stopped to buy another can. While John was in Bashas buying the gas can, he also bought peanut butter cups to use to make S'mores. We had brought along all of the ingredients to make them; but then one of my friends on Facebook suggested using peanut butter cups instead of plain chocolate. John and I were intrigued; and as a result, he bought three packs so that we could all try one.
As we left Bashas, we started north on US 180 for about twenty miles, until we came to FR 794. From there, we went in about two miles and looked for FR 9624L - the road where we had camped several times in the past. We found it, but we were disappointed to find that the site was already taken; but there were plenty of other sites around there that weren't taken, so we just took the best one available.
We set up our homestead - three tents and the pop-up canopy and all of the gear - then we sat down to have lunch. Meanwhile, the girls crawled into the kids' tent and started playing; they spread out their toys and played with Mary's Webkinz stuffed animals until we called them to eat lunch.
After lunch, we gathered up our headlamps, lanterns, and flashlights - as well as our jackets and Camelbaks or water bottles - to prepare for our trip into the Lava River Tube. We put it all into the back of the 4Runner and started back down US 180, towards FR 245, a few miles away.
It had been a few years since we had last taken FR 245, and we were surprised to find just how bad it was. The road was very rutted and had obviously not been graded in a while. We could only imagine that the bad economy was to blame for it; the Forest Service probably didn't have to money anymore to maintain their roads.
We took FR 245 for about three and a half miles then turned onto FR 171, which was in slightly better condition. We took that for one mile then turned onto FR 171B - otherwise known as the road where we once fell through the ice in the Oldsmobile. We followed that road a quarter of a mile, to the parking area.
A lot had changed since we had last done the Lava River Tube. It used to be that you could park within a few hundred feet of the entrance to the cave; now, the last few hundred feet of FR 171B is closed, and there is a huge parking lot at the end of the road. On top of that, the parking lot was nearly filled to capacity with cars that morning; apparently, the Lava River Tube has become a popular destination! It was going to be very crowded in that cave...
We grabbed our gear and walked down the trail for a tenth of a mile, to the entrance to the cave. Before we could enter the cave, though, we had to do one thing: find the geocache that was located a hundred feet from the entrance. It was an easy find; while we had the container open, we dropped in one of our newly-made travel bugs - a stuffed lamb called the "Mary Had a Little Lamb" travel bug - so that it could begin its journey.
As expected, the Lava River Tube was incredibly crowded that afternoon. Just at the entrance to the cave, there must have been twenty people milling around, either making their way out or climbing inside. Despite the crowds, we donned our headlamps and followed them inside of the cave.
To enter the cave, we had to maneuver down a slope of large boulders, some of which were cold and wet, to make our way to the cave floor. Once on the cave floor, we could no longer see the daylight at the mouth of the cave, so we had to turn on our lights in order to see where we were going.
Walking through the cave is an amazing experience. The Lava River Tube is very dark and very cold, holding an internal temperature of about thirty-four degrees year-round. The cave floor is rocky and sometimes requires care in where you place your feet. For the most part, the ceilings of the cave are very high, but there are times when the tunnel narrows drastically and you have to duck to avoid hitting your head.
About five minutes from the cave's entrance, we reached the fork in the tunnel; John explained to Suzanne that the right fork forces you to crawl through, but the left fork is wide and tall. Suzanne and I decided to stick with the left fork, so John took the girls through the crawlspace at the right. While we waited for them at the end of the tunnel, where the two forks meet up again, we could hear Mary and Katie giggling as they crawled through the tight space.
We continued on together through the cave, along the way meeting lots of fellow spelunkers. I couldn't believe how many people we saw in there; we had never that many people before. There were so many people that John had a hard time showing us just how dark it really was in there, because we could always see someone else's light coming towards us. At one point, we did get a break in the traffic, so John had us turn off all of our lights, just for a few seconds, to give us a feel for just how dark the cave was.
"This is why you never want to be in here without a light," he said. "You could actually die in here." And with that, we told the story that we had read on the internet, about the guy whose flashlight died on him while in the cave and he had to make his way back through the absolute darkness. He was a bloodied mess by the time he made it out of the cave; but he was lucky to be alive!
After about a half an hour or so of walking - or, in some cases, crawling - through the cave, we made it to the end. We took a long rest there and ate our snacks, while the kids played at a makeshift table that they found. Then, once we were fully rested, we started back towards the entrance.
About five minutes after we started hiking, I got my foot stuck in between two rocks - and when I say "stuck", I mean that I couldn't get it out by myself. The rest of the group was way ahead of me and I had to call them back to help me free my foot. "Well," John joked to Mary, "I guess we'll have to find you a new Mommy!"
"No!" Mary shouted in protest. "I want MY Mommy!"
It took John a few minutes to free my foot from the rocks. He had to turn it in such a way that I was able to pull it loose. Of course, if that hadn't worked, I would have had to pull my foot out of my boot and that would have worked - so, it wasn't like I was going to be stuck forever in the cave.
Soon after I got stuck, we came to one of the areas where the ceilings were so low that we had to duck and crawl on all fours to get through it. That was when Mary fell down and couldn't get back up again; she was obviously tired and getting a bit delirious. A passer-by helped her get back up again; and once we were through that area, we made her sit down and eat a snack to help her regain her strength. It was unusual for her to get that tired so fast; the only thing that we could attribute it to was the fact that she had been ill earlier in the week and was still not up to par. For the rest of the hike, I insisted on holding her hand as we made our way through the cave, just to make sure that she going to be okay.
By the time we made it to the mouth of the cave, though, Mary was fine, and she immediately jumped ahead of us and scrambled up the boulders as quick as a flash. In no time at all, she was back in the daylight again, and I was right behind her. The rest of the group followed just a few minutes later.
After taking five minutes to rest at the mouth of the cave, we walked back to the parking lot. Once back at the 4Runner, we shed our headlamps and jackets and hiking gear then got in and drove away, towards camp.
We arrived at our campsite around 3:00 p.m., at which time it was naptime for us - for most of us, at least. Mary crawled into her tent and fell asleep within fifteen minutes. Suzanne and Katie went into their tent, and Suz slept until dinnertime; Katie laid down with her but didn't sleep. John and I also laid down in our tent; John slept for a little bit, but I didn't. I guess I just wasn't tired enough.
Around 5:00 p.m. - after Mary and John awoke from their naps - I decided to get the campfire going. Although it was still a couple of hours until sunset, it was already getting cold outside. In no time, I had a nice, roaring fire going, and we all gathered around it to stay warm. The girls took turns reading each other knock-knock jokes from a book that John had purchased in Camp Verde (Knock Knock Jokes for Kids); John read a book; and I worked on Naked in the Woods on my iPhone. It was a nice, peaceful evening...
At 6:00 p.m., Suzanne woke up from her nap, and that was when we all started cooking dinner. Following dinner, we relaxed by the campfire and waited for darkness to fall so that we could start making S'mores. The girls couldn't wait to start making them - okay, really, they couldn't wait to get into the chocolate and the Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and the graham crackers. Neither one of them cared for roasted marshmallows. Me? I couldn't wait to try a S'mores with my wine!
It turned out that the S'mores went very well with the Merlot that we had brought along with us to enjoy that evening. While the girls ate chocolate and graham crackers, John and Suzanne and I roasted marshmallows to make S'mores and enjoyed them with a glass of wine. We also went with Lysa's suggestion and tried the S'mores with peanut butter cups, and they were excellent! While we ate and drank, we told stories and laughed out loud and had a wonderful night. We were having so much fun that we didn't want it to end.
Of course, as everyone knows, John and I are never up late when we camp. Typically, we are asleep at first star, and we wake up at first light; so it was highly unusual that we stayed up as late as we did that night. We made it to 9:30 p.m. before we decided to turn in for the night.
Despite the fact that the girls were determined to sleep in the small tent together, in the end, they decided to sleep with Suzanne in her big tent. Mary dragged her air mattress and sleeping bag into the big tent and plopped them down in the empty space next to Suzanne's mattress. Katie, too, put her sleeping bag into her mother's tent and curled up next to her so that they could keep each other warm overnight.
Unfortunately, they didn't stay very warm overnight. Suzanne decided that she definitely needed to buy warmer sleeping bags for herself and Katie before they go camping again. I can certainly understand that; after all, I'm a wuss when it comes to the cold.
Suzanne wasn't the only one who didn't sleep well that night. The night was anything but peaceful, and there were several times when I was awakened by various noises. At 1:00 a.m., some idiot started firing off a gun; that lasted about a half an hour. At 3:00 a.m., the elk started bugling through the forest; true, it was neat to hear them, but it was awfully early in the morning!
The elk started up again at 4:30 a.m., at which time John decided to get out of bed to go find them. He wandered away from our campsite and managed to find several of them grazing about a mile away, in the aspens. He wasn't able to get any pictures of them, but when the rest of us woke up, he made sure to tell us all about them.
John had already returned to camp when I awoke at 6:00 a.m.; he even had the campfire going to take the chill off of the morning. He and I sat around the fire and enjoyed the peaceful morning for a little more than an hour, at which time the rest of the camp awoke to start the day.
Our plan for the day was to go hike Red Mountain; then, once we were done with that, we would return to camp and pack it up. After eating breakfast and changing clothes, we prepared for our hike by refilling Camelbaks and packing snacks. Then, at 8:30 a.m., we all climbed into the 4Runner and took off for the trailhead.
To get to Red Mountain, we went north on US 180 for about ten miles or so, until we reached the turnoff for the trailhead, off to the left. We then followed that dirt road for a quarter of a mile, to the parking lot.
Before we could start hiking that morning, we stopped to look for a geocache that was supposedly hidden at the trailhead. Now, this should have been a very easy cache to find - trailhead caches normally are - but even with all five of us looking for it, we just couldn't find it. After a while, we had to give up on it; otherwise, we weren't going to get to hike!
Just after 9:00 a.m., we started hiking the Red Mountain Trail - a virtually flat, 1.2 mile-long trail that leads to the remains of the ancient volcano. Throughout the hike, we could see the beautiful red mountain ahead of us, and we kept telling the girls how much fun it was to rock-climb inside of the cauldron. They were chomping at the bit to get there.
About halfway through the hike, the trail entered the wash. Walking through the wash was difficult, of course, even if it was flat; Mary hated it and complained every step of the way.
At the end of the wash, though, we came to the ladder at the dam, which we climbed to enter the cauldron of Red Mountain. The trail then ended at a "campsite" - there is a sign there that says "No Camping", but it is obvious that someone has camped there before. The site is shaded and made for a great place for us to rest a few minutes before we started playing.
As soon as Mary was rested, she immediately went to the same crevice where John and I have climbed many times in the past; Katie followed, and Suzanne and I trailed after them to watch them. Mary and Katie tried to climb up the log that was propped up against the crevice at the same time; but after a few minutes, Katie decided not to climb up to the ledge after all. She got down, and Mary scrambled up to the ledge. A few minutes later, John joined us and followed Mary up inside of the crevice.
John and Mary discovered that there was a way to climb up even further inside of the crevice, to get to the upper ledge. That ledge was over twenty feet above them; there was a log propped up against the wall on which they could climb to get closer to the ledge, but it still required a five-foot scramble up a sheer rock wall with no good foot-holes. Mary tried to do it, but John called her back down, stating that he wanted to try it first to make sure it was safe.
I climbed up inside of the crevice just in time to watch John hoist himself up on top of the ledge. He did so with much difficulty; and once he was at the top, he told Mary that the climb was definitely too dangerous for her. In fact, John had absolutely no idea how he was going to get back down. Having heard that, Mary lost interest and decided to find someplace else to play, so she scrambled back down the crevice and went to find Katie. I followed to make sure that she got down okay.
John called out to me when he saw that I had disappeared. "Where'd you go?"
"I'm just looking to see where Mary went. Why?"
"I need your help to get down!" Seriously?
John wasn't kidding; he really did need my help to get down. He had me climb up the log, as far as I could get, so that I could guide his foot down from the ledge to the top of the log as he lowered himself over the side. Of course, this was just as dangerous for me as it was for him, because if he had fallen, he would have landed on me. After some careful maneuvering, John managed to get his foot safely onto the log, and with that, I climbed back down again so that he could lower himself down the rest of the way.
After that, John was done climbing. That one had taken it out of him. He said, "That's the most scared I've ever been without signing a waiver!"
Katie and Mary, however, were not done climbing; they were all over the place! While John and I rested, Suzanne took them exploring inside of the cauldron. Then, after they returned, they continued to run around and climb up on top of boulders and inside crevices. They nearly wore themselves out.
At 11:00 a.m., we reined the girls back in and announced that it was time to go, so that we could be back at camp by lunchtime. There was some moaning and groaning, of course, but finally we got them back on the trail.
Instead of taking the ladder to climb down from the dam, John decided to hike up and over the cinder hill, just as he had done over ten years ago when we first hiked Red Mountain. When he asked who wanted to come with him, he was surprised when Mary, Suzanne and Katie all joined him.
The climb up the side of the cinder hill was very steep, but they all made it to the top. Of course, what comes up must go down, and hiking down the cinder hill was even more difficult and took some careful stepping. John suggested that Suzanne and Katie start out by butt-sliding down the steepest section; then, they could get up and walk down the path; Katie liked butt-sliding so much that she did that halfway down the hill. While they did that, John showed Mary how to use both of her trekking poles to control her descent down the steepest section - skills that she needed to learn. Then, once they were on the path, John showed her the best way to get down the hill: by running! Once Suzanne and Katie saw them, Katie got up from butt-sliding, and they, too, ran down the hill after them, all four of them giggling all they way down.
And there I was at the bottom, waiting for them with the camera, to take the pictures! They were hilarious!
It took us about forty-five minutes to hike back to the trailhead. As soon as we arrived, we took another few minutes to look for that elusive geocache, but still we went away empty-handed. It wasn't until after we drove away that John realized that the cache we had been looking for was not a traditional, container cache. It was an "earth" cache, which meant that we would have to draw a picture or something like that in order to claim the cache as a "find". All that time wasted, looking for a container that wasn't even there!
We did find one more cache along US 180; this one was at a small chapel off the side of the road. It was another easy find, and while we were there, we dropped off another one of our new travel bugs to send it on its journey.
We could have looked for more caches along the way, but we were all tired and hungry; so, we returned to camp to make lunch.
After lunch, we started packing up our campsite, because the time had come for us to head home. We all worked together; and within a half an hour, we had everything packed up and stowed away for the ride home.
Since Suzanne had taken both of the girls with her on the trip to Flagstaff, John volunteered to taken both of them for the ride home. That said, I decided to ride with Suzanne, so that we could have some uninterrupted adult conversation. Imagine that: two hours of girl talk without interruption - what a concept!
And actually, it was more like two and a half hours, because, as usual, there was an accident on the I-17 southbound, just north of Black Canyon City. Traffic was backed up for miles...but for once, we didn't care; it just gave us more time to chat.
We met up with John and the girls again at Pioneer Road, at which time we exchanged passengers and said our good-byes to each other before going our separate ways. Another great Verley-Daggert adventure had come to an end, and I have a feeling that there will be many more in the years to come...
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