A few years ago, in February of 1999, John and I went to Flagstaff on a camping trip; we went with John's parents in their motor home and camped off of FR 171B. The main purpose of our trip was to meet with the caterer for our wedding; he lived in Parks, AZ and ran not only the Elk's Lodge but the general store in Parks, too. Once we had taken care of business, though, we had time to do some hiking.
We did two trails during that trip, both of which were fun trails to hike. They were trails that I wanted to do again someday...and in June of 2004, over five years later, we would finally have the chance to do them again.
We had decided that it was time to do a repeat of that camping trip. That included doing both of those trails again: the Lava River Tube and Red Mountain. Both of these trails were listed as "kid friendly" trails in a book that Mary had bought for me for Mother's Day - Best Hikes with Children in Arizona, by Lawrence Letham - so we thought it would be a fun idea to take Mary hiking on them.
As an added bonus, we invited Grandma Erika to come camping with us - this would be John's Mother's Day present for her. And, if that wasn't enough, John had invited his good friends John Coffman and Jan Banka to join us on our hike in the Lava River Tube. Mary adored both John and Jan, so we knew that she would be excited to have them come along.
John (or "Uncle Evil", as Mary called him) owned a condo in Flagstaff, close to the NAU campus. During the school year, he rented out that condo to college students, but during the summer months, when the weather was right in Flagstaff, he would fly there with Jan on the weekend (when he wasn't skydiving, of course) so that they could go hiking, bicycling, whatever. They had both done the Lava River Tube themselves and had really enjoyed it, so they were glad to come along with us on our adventure.
So, on Saturday morning, June 26, at 6:30 a.m., we left the house to begin our road trip. First of all, we stopped to get gas at the AM/PM down the road; then, John drove straight towards the SR 51 freeway and started driving north.
"Um," I spoke up, before he could get very far, "weren't we supposed to pick up your mother?"
When we finally remembered to pick up Erika at her house, she was waiting for us out in front of the garage, with her backpack - yes, her backpack! - propped up against her car. I guess that we had had a miscommunication while we were planning our weekend, and she thought that we were backpacking. It was just as well, though, because that meant that all of her camping equipment was stuffed into one compact space, and we could load and unload it without a problem.
Once we had Erika's backpack loaded, we made our way over to I-17 and headed north towards Flagstaff. En route, we made one stop - our usual stop in Camp Verde to use the restrooms. Aside from that, our trip north was uneventful, and we arrived in Flagstaff around 9:00 a.m.
Immediately after we arrived, John called "Uncle Evil" on his cell phone to let him know that we were in town. He gave us directions to his condo and told us to meet him there - he would even send Jan out to the parking lot to look for us. Imagine Mary's surprise when we pulled into the parking lot and saw "Aunt Jan" standing there - she couldn't wait to get out of that car seat! She jumped straight into Jan's arms and gave her a hug.
Jan led us to John's condo, where he was still getting their gear together for the hike: Camelbaks, jackets, gloves, hats, and, of course, lots of flashlights with fresh batteries. After a few minutes, they were ready to go.
To get to the Lava River Tube, we took two vehicles; John and Jan rode together in his truck, and we were in the Jeep. We followed them along US 180 until we entered the Coconino National Forest; then, we turned left onto FR 245.
Now, I know that it had been a long time since we had driven on FR 245 without snow, but I remember it being a very good road. It was obvious that the years had not been kind to FR 245, for it was now rutted and rough, making it quite the bumpy ride to the trailhead. FR 171 was only slightly better...and FR 171B? That road had never been good. In fact, there was still a gigantic mud puddle there, in the same spot where we had put the Oldsmobile through the ice in November 1998!
We arrived at the Lava River Tube Trailhead around 10:00 a.m. It took us a few minutes to get geared up for the hike; although John and Jan were organized, we were not. Mary was not properly dressed for the 34º cave, and we didn't even have our flashlights ready! We soon had it together, though, and by 10:15, we were ready to go.
Our group left the trailhead and hiked the short trail to the entrance of the Lava River Tube, which was about a tenth of a mile away. The entrance to the cave is a large circle of rocks, in which there are "steps" leading into the mouth of the cave. The entrance is very small and requires a lot of boulder-hopping to get inside. One by one, we climbed over the massive boulders and slipped inside the cave, John Coffman and Jan up front, followed by Erika, then John, who had to help Mary down the boulders, and finally, me.
We completed the thirty foot descent into the cave and began to hike along the rocky floor. Here, all of us - except for Mary - had to hike carefully, because the ceiling was very low.
I had been interested to see how Mary would react to being in that dark cave. When she was two years old, we had taken her to Kartchner Caverns State Park, where we did that guided tour through the beautiful cave. As we checked in for our tour, we had been warned that, if she freaked out, we would be asked to leave. Much to our surprise and delight, she did not freak out - in fact, she was fascinated by the caverns, even when it was dark inside.
Once again, Mary found herself very comfortable being in a dark cave. Perhaps it was due to the fact that she had her little battery-operated lantern in her hands, or perhaps it was because Grandma and Aunt Jan were there with her. Or perhaps she just enjoyed being in the cavern. Whatever the reason was, we were glad to see that Mary was having such a good time on our hike.
After a quarter of a mile, the cave opened up into the first of many large rooms. While we hiked in these large rooms, Mary was able to get piggy-back rides in order to help her across the the rocky floor of the cave. John gave her rides at first, but then, later on, "Uncle Evil" took over (though he would never admit to giving a child a piggy-back ride).
It took us about an hour to reach the end of the cave, and that was when we stopped to take a group photo in the dark. Although the picture turned out fuzzy, it does show just how dark it really is in there!
As soon as we took our group picture, we started hiking back towards the entrance of the cave. Although our return hike was uneventful for the most part, it was starting to get very crowded in there. We passed by many groups of people, young and old, some with children and some without. I knew that the cave was a popular destination, but during our first two hikes into the cave, we had not seen that many people. (Of course, we had done both of our hikes in the wintertime, when the entrance to the cave was icy and cold.)
We left the cave at just the right time, too, for just as we made our way up the boulders, we could see that a rather large group of children were making their way to the entrance. It was about to get very loud in there.
It took some time for John to help Mary out of the cave. Climbing down the boulders with a four year-old in tow was one thing; climbing up was another story. We all waited for them at the mouth of the cave until at last they emerged; then we hiked back to the cars.
John and Jan insisted that we meet them for dinner that night. He had made reservations for all of us at Charley's, at the Weatherford Hotel in downtown Flagstaff. Coffman then asked John if he knew the phone number for their fellow teammate, Don Mann, and his wife, the Reverend Melissa, so that he could invite them to dinner as well. John found the number on his cell phone and gave it to Coffman, so he promised to give them a call once he had cell signal again.
And with that, John and Jan left us, telling us to be at Charley's at 6:00 p.m. We waved good-bye to them; then, the four of us got into the Jeep and drove away to go look for a place to camp for the night.
We drove around on FR 171 for sometime, looking for a nice place to camp. It didn't take us very long to find a great site on a side road that connected to FR 171; although the pull-out was very dusty, the campsite itself was large enough for our three tents, and it had enough shade, too. Across the road, there was a large meadow, where we were sure to see wildlife in the morning. We were immediately sold on that site, so we parked there and proceeded to set up our campsite.
As soon as we had everything set up, we discovered that we did not have enough ice in the ice chest to keep our food cold. Also, we had brought along a partially used box of Franzia, only to discover that it was almost empty. John volunteered to make a run to the general store in town to get our supplies; Erika and I remained behind to keep watch over Mary while she slept...and to polish off the rest of the Franzia, too! By the time John returned, an hour later, the wine was gone. When we saw him coming towards camp, we stood next to the pull-out and brandished our wine glasses...and do you know what he did to us? He drove into camp so fast that he stirred up the dust! We both ran for cover just in time, but now there was dust on everything we owned!
John did bring back more wine, but after drinking another glass each, we decided that we just couldn't sit around camp drinking all afternoon. After Mary woke up from her nap, John suggested that we all go on a short hike. He pointed out that Kendrick Mountain was nearby - why not do a short hike on the Kendrick Mountain Trail #22?
So that is what we did; we drove over to the Kendrick Mountain Trailhead, and we hiked about two miles (roundtrip) on the Kendrick Mountain Trail.
It had been a good five years since we had last hiked Kendrick Mountain; we had done that trail in Mary 1999, just after a late spring snowstorm had dumped snow all over the mountains near Flagstaff. Back then, the forest was thick and wild; then, in 2002, the Pumpkin Fire devastated over 10,000 acres of the Kendrick Mountain Wilderness Area. This was the first time that we had been back since the fire, and I couldn't help but feel a bit sad to see the damage that had been done to the once-beautiful forest.
(On a side note, I did learn that the old Forest Service cabin at the top of the mountain had been spared from the fire damage; I told John that I would love to hike there again someday to revisit it.)
We hiked through the burnt remains of the forest until we finally came to the Kendrick Mountain Wilderness sign. This was a new wilderness area for both Mary and Erika, so we made them pose for a picture next to the wilderness sign for proof that they had been there. We then continued for another tenth of a mile past the wilderness sign then stopped to take a short breather. By that time, it was already 3:30 p.m., which meant that it was time to head back to camp so that we could get ready for dinner.
We met up with John and Jan, as well as Don and Melissa Mann, in front of Charley's Restaurant, at the Weatherford Hotel in downtown Flagstaff. It took them a while to get us all seated, so while we waited, the skydivers in the group (there were five of them) began telling their skydiving stories!
We had a wonderful dinner that night; true, the food was good, but it was the company that made the meal so great. For one, we don't see Melissa very often anymore, now that she doesn't jump that often, so it is always a pleasure to get caught up with her again. (Mary had not seen Melissa in a very long time and decided that she was now her new best friend. She sat in her lap for part of the meal and cuddled up with her.) Also, like the rest of us, Don and Melissa are both avid hikers, so we all got caught up in a conversation about our favorite hikes and the adventures we have had on those trails.
It was a shame that the evening had to end - we were having so much fun with our friends - but eventually, it was time for us to head back to camp. Mary was falling asleep in Melissa's lap, and we had a long way to drive. As we left the restaurant, we all said our good-byes to each other; then, we all went our separate ways.
It was nearly 8:30 p.m. when we arrived back at camp. Mary went to bed right away, and Erika followed a few minutes later. John and I tried to stay up for a little while longer, but I don't think that we made it to 9:00 p.m. before we, too, fell asleep.
Although we were the first to bed that night, we were the first ones awake the next morning. While the others slept, John and I went on an early morning walk, so see if we could find some wildlife. We could hear the elk trumpeting through the trees and they sounded as though they were nearby; if we were quiet enough, we might just see them grazing in the meadow.
We hiked in the direction of the elks' calls, and at one point, we thought that we had pinpointed their location to the top of a little knoll about a quarter of a mile from our campsite. When we reached the top, though, we did not see the elk, even though their trumpets were still loud and clear. They were probably hiding in the trees nearby, we thought; and with that, we turned around and returned to camp.
By that time, Erika was finally awake, but Mary continued to sleep soundly in her little tent. We decided to cook breakfast in hopes that the smells would wake her up...nothing! We opened up her tent door to let in the cool morning breeze...nothing! Finally, around 7:30 or 8:00 that morning - after she had been asleep for nearly twelve hours! - we went into her tent and woke her up. It took some work - Mary is not an easy one to wake up - but we soon succeeded.
After Mary had eaten breakfast and gotten dressed for the day, the four of us piled into the Jeep to drive to our next hiking destination: Red Mountain.
Located about 20 miles north of us along US 180, the Red Mountain Trail is another kid-friendly hike that we had done before. It is 2.2 miles in length (roundtrip) and ends at the remains of an ancient volcano that had exploded many centuries ago. All that is left behind is a cauldron into which you can climb to see all of the beautiful rock formations caused by the volcanic explosion.
We arrived at the trailhead and started hiking around 9:00 a.m. Mary was very excited to be hiking with Grandma again, and she insisted on holding her hand the whole time. Doing so kept her hiking at a good pace, because having Grandma there motivated her to keep going.
Then, about a quarter of a mile from the trailhead, Erika had to leave us. Looking through her Camelbak, she suddenly realized that she had lost her cell phone and was afraid that she had dropped it out of her pack. She decided to go back to the Jeep to see if she could find it along the way. Mary tried to follow her, but we insisted that she stay behind...and she did not like that one bit! She suddenly became whiny and cranky...and John and I knew that it would only be a matter of time before she threw a full-on temper tantrum. We recognized the symptoms.
The temper tantrum was averted when Erika returned, and after that Mary's mood mellowed for the next half-mile. She held Grandma's hand again as she hiked, and that made her happy.
But then, the inevitable happened: the temper tantrum came after all.
About a quarter of a mile from the end of the trail, as soon as we reached the wash, the whininess returned, and Mary started complaining that she was tired. "Carry me, Daddy!" she called out. The complaints soon turned to tears. Somehow, we managed to make her continue hiking, promising her that she would get to climb the ladder soon (she had been looking forward to that). Despite her obvious distress, she made it all the way to the ladder, where her temper tantrum subsided.
Now, when we had done that trail five years ago, there had been an old wooden ladder there at the dam; since then, it had been replaced by a set of stairs, permanently bolted to the wall of the dam. "Now where's the adventure in that?" John complained, knocking on the handrails. Instead of taking the stairs, he decided instead to hike up the cinder hill next to the dam, as that was much more fun.
At the top of the stairs was the cauldron of Red Mountain, where we found a plethora of beautiful rock formations that had been carved by centuries of snow and ice and rain and wind. And just as we had done five years ago, we spent the next half-hour rock climbing. Even Mary wanted to climb up the red rocks of the cauldron, and with Grandma watching her closely, she managed to climb a good ten feet on her own! Not bad for a three-foot tall kid.
John and I, on the other hand, looked for the alcove that we had found the last time we were there. We were planning to climb into it again. Unfortunately, we discovered that it was fly-infested and gross, so we decided to go someplace else to explore.
At the end of the half-hour, we announced that it was time to go. With that, we regrouped and started hiking back towards the trailhead.
We had not even gone five minutes before Mary threw another temper tantrum - she did not want to hike at all! At that point, John cut a deal with her: she had to hike half of the trail on her own, and if she was good, he would carry her the rest of the way. That way, it wouldn't take us two hours to hike 1.2 miles!
With Mary on John's shoulders for most of the hike, it didn't take us long to get back to the trailhead. As soon as we finished hiking, we all piled into the Jeep and returned to our campsite to tear down camp, for it was time to go home.
It was nearly lunch time when we pulled out of our campsite, so we stopped for a nice, relaxing lunch at Chili's in Flagstaff. Then, it was time for us to head back home to Phoenix, as another weekend adventure drew to a close...
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