|And finally, the forests reopened!|
By the end of July, enough rain had fallen in Arizona for the national forests to reopen, giving us the opportunity to go hiking and camping again. So, on August 3, we tried to go camping on the Mogollon Rim, off of FR 95…and we got rained out before dinnertime! As we drove home that evening, John grumbled, "All summer long, we couldn't go camping because there wasn't enough rain. Now, we can't go camping because it's raining!"
It would be another two weeks before we could return to the forest, because the following weekend was reserved for Mary's second birthday party. On August 17, we went back to the Mogollon Rim to do a little day hiking. The trail that we selected was the Horton Creek Trail #285, which is one of the trails that connects to the infamous Highline Trail #31. The Horton Creek Trail begins in the Upper Tonto Creek Campground, off of Tonto Creek Road 289 (which is the road that you can take to the Tonto Fish Hatchery). John's parents had hiked this trail before, a few years ago, and they both enjoyed it, stating that it was a very pretty area. Now, it was time for us to go there, to see just how beautiful it really was.
On Saturday morning, August 17, we awoke at 4:00 a.m., in order to get an earlier start than normal. With our topo maps printed, our lunches packed and our little girl half-asleep, we left the house at 5:15 a.m. and began our long drive to the Mogollon Rim.
To get to the trailhead, we took SR 87 north to Payson then took SR 260 East towards Christopher Creek. There, we turned left onto Tonto Creek Road and parked at the day-use area, a mile up the road. (It was the same parking lot where we had left Erika's car during our trek on the Highline Trail #31, in October 1999.) It took us about two hours to drive there; we arrived just after 7:00 a.m., just as the sun was beginning to wake up the campers at the Upper Tonto Creek Campground across the road.
As soon as we parked the Jeep, we stepped out into the cool, crisp forest air and prepared for our hike. First of all, we had to dress Mary - she was still wearing her nightgown when we left the house that morning, so we had to put her hiking clothes on her. (She even got to wear her new hiking boots, which were a birthday present from "Auntie" Suzanne, my best friend.) Once she was ready to go - and all of our gear was packed - we put her into the baby carrier…
…And she began to wail! She did not want to be in the carrier; she wanted to get out and run around! So, much to the dismay of the campers in the campground, we walked over to the Horton Creek Trailhead, with our screaming child on John's back, and we began our hike. (Fortunately, she did stop crying as soon as we started hiking; I guess she had forgotten what it was all about after our long absence from hiking!)
The trail began with a short jaunt downhill and a dry creek-crossing towards a wide track that appeared to be an old jeep road. As we followed the old road, we began to meander through a lovely riparian area, filled with green grass, tall ponderosa pines, and oak and juniper trees. A half of a mile later, the trail forked; the old road kept going uphill to an old gate, but there was also a narrow spur trail that continued through the grass. That appeared to be the nicer of the two routes, so we took that one instead.
The spur trail lead us straight to Horton Creek, to an area that we all found to be absolutely beautiful, one in which we would love to backpack someday. There were several campsites already established, one of which was already occupied by a family of four. ("That will be us several years from now," I said to John.) There was also water aplenty, because Horton Creek was perennial.
"This would be a great place to backpack with Mary," John pointed out. "She could easily walk here, and we would have a water source. Plus, the campsites are great!" He kept it in mind as a possibility for the weekend of September 7-8, during which time I would be in San Francisco, visiting my best friend and her new baby (who, I should mention, was born on Mary's second birthday!). John had decided that he was going to take Mary backpacking, but until that point, he still had not decided where he wanted to go. Now, he had options.
The trail continued to traipse along the grassy creekside for another quarter of a mile; then, it rejoined the road. There, the pleasant stroll turned into a rocky climb uphill. It was short, but not steep, and it was very exposed, much like the Derrick Trail #33, another trail in that area. (Erika and I had hiked the Derrick Trail back to the Upper Tonto Creek Campground in October 1999 upon leaving Bill and John to continue their hike on the Highline Trail.) Unlike the Derrick Trail, though, the Horton Creek Trail became less rocky and exposed as it leveled out at the top of each climb. These areas made for a very nice hike.
We stopped for a break in a lovely shaded area next to Horton Creek around 9:00 a.m. Once Mary was free from the baby carrier, she became a wild child and immediately began to run around with a bag of Goldfish crackers in one hand and a sippy cup of water in the other. We brought her down to the creek, where she had a wonderful time throwing pebbles and sticks into the water. (It was like playing "Pooh-Sticks".)
Once our break was over and it was time to go, Mary refused to let us put her back into the carrier, nor did she want to be carried. Instead, she wanted to hike! So, for the next half-mile, Mary hiked the Horton Creek Trail on her own two legs, at her own little pace, with me in front of her and John behind her. When the trail became too difficult for her, John picked her up and carried her on his shoulders, then put her down again whenever the terrain allowed it. It was wonderfully exciting for her to be able to hike, and every so often, she would laugh out loud as she tried to run to catch up to me.
Soon, the trail began to climb uphill, and it was time to put Mary back into the baby carrier, despite her protests. The last mile of the Horton Creek Trail was a long, steady climb uphill, to the junction with the Highline Trail #31. Although it wasn't too terribly steep, it was certainly a groaner as it was a long climb along the rockiest, most exposed parts of the trail.
At 10:30, after a half an hour of climbing, we finally reached our destination: the Highline Trail #31. Nearby, we found Horton Creek again and sat down next to it to rest our tired legs. We also began to discuss what to do with the rest of our day.
We had several options for our return to the trailhead. For one, we could hike the Highline Trail to the Derrick Trail #33 and return to the trailhead that way. John had never seen the Derrick Trail, so he thought it would be a nice loop. Or, we could hike the Highline Trail to the Tonto Creek Trailhead and take the road back to the car. That was what John and his father had done when they abandoned their trek of the Highline Trail in October 1999. They were all good options, but in the end, we decided that we were going to return on the Horton Creek Trail, because we were done climbing for the day!
We spent a half an hour by Horton Creek, eating apples and playing "Pooh-Sticks" with Mary. We also took a family picture sitting on the gnarly roots of an old juniper tree. Then, just before 11:00 a.m., it was time for us to begin hiking back to the trailhead.
It was during our return hike that we first began to see other hikers on the trail. Upon leaving the trail junction, we encountered a group of boy scouts on their way to Horton Spring (which we had decided not to visit). "That's the problem with backpacking a trail like this one," John said. "It's too popular; you see too many other people." That may be true, but it was still a nice place to hike.
The long, steady climb now became a nice, quick jaunt downhill going the other way, and it wasn't long at all before we reached the bottom. By that time, Mary fell asleep in the carrier, to catch a short catnap before lunch. While she slept, we hiked steadily for a little less than an hour; then, once she was awake, we stopped to break for lunch.
We wanted to eat our lunch by the creek, so we looked for a spur trail to take us there. However, the spur trail that we had chosen soon dead-ended at an overgrown grassy overlook. Instead of moving on to another spot, though, we sat down in the grass and ate our sandwiches while enjoying the peaceful afternoon.
After lunch, it was time for Mary to hike again. We gave her a choice: she could either ride in the carrier or walk. "WALK!" she replied excitedly, raising her arms above her head as if cheering, so once again, we let her hike a half-mile. This time, she tried her best to hike the more difficult parts of the trail by side-stepping the larger rocks and holding our hands to step down from rock shelves. If her progress became too slow, John would immediately scoop her up and carry her on his shoulders, until we came to a spot that she could easily hike.
Our nice day hike ended around 1:20 p.m., when we reached the Horton Creek Trailhead. Having just successfully completed an eight-mile day hike - the longest hike we had done since hiking the twelve-mile Brittlebrush Trail in January 2002 - we were very elated. It was great to be back on the trail again!
And so, our day's adventure was over, and we drove back to Phoenix, listening to an exciting baseball game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Chicago Cubs on KTAR along the way.
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