|For John's birthday this year, I decided to do something
special, something different, something memorable, something we had been
wanting to do for a long time: I brought us back to the Chiricahua Mountains,
for the first time since our first wedding anniversary.|
The idea came to me in July, when I received an e-mail from Jackie Lewis, who runs the George Walker House in Paradise, AZ - a cozy little ghost town about six miles from Portal, tucked away in the Chiricahuas. She said that she "really enjoyed your article dated July 15-16, 2000 - 'Marital Bliss' (in celebration of our first year of marriage) found on [your] web site." She went on to say that "the Chiricahuas are fascinating, and have been home to my family for five generations! We currently own and operate the George Walker House in Paradise Arizona."
I checked out her web site and learned what I could about the George Walker House. It was built in 1902 by George and Lulu Walker when they came to Paradise at the turn of the 20th century. Paradise was once a mining town that, during its heyday, had hotels, bars, a jail, and even brothels. Today, Paradise has about twelve residents. Most of the old buildings are gone, but George Walker's house is still there. It is now a guesthouse for birders and hikers and other visitors to the Chiricahua Mountains and is available by reservation.
Needless to say, I was fascinated. It sounded to me like a wonderful idea for a romantic getaway…and a great excuse to return to the Chiricahuas. We wanted so much to return to the Chiricahuas and do all the exploring that we couldn't do before (because I was nine months pregnant back then), and this was our chance to do so.
But when should we go, I wondered. Glancing through the calendar, I noticed that John's birthday fell on a Monday this year, and I thought, "We could make it a three-day weekend! How perfect!" I even decided to surprise John with the trip…
…but it didn't work out that way. John was not allowed to take any vacation time between now and December, when he would be gone for two weeks to participate in the 300-Way World Record Skydiving Attempt. (His boss was already incensed about it, but knowing that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for him, she granted him the two weeks of vacation, with the stipulation that he could not take anymore time that year.) On top of that, when I asked John what he wanted to do for his birthday, he offered me a list of possible backpacking trips. At that point, I told him that I had something else in mind and gave him the details.
"That's a great idea!" he said. The following week, he begged and pleaded with his boss for his birthday off - and she gave it to him! We also begged and pleaded with John's parents to take care of Mary for the weekend…but it wasn't as though we had to twist their arms! They were so excited about having her for the weekend that Erika began to make a list of activities to do with her.
With all of that settled, I sent an e-mail to Jackie and reserved the George Walker House for the weekend of September 28-30. She penciled us in for the weekend and sent us a confirmation letter with directions to the house and a list of the amenities available to us. I sent her a deposit for one night's stay, and with that, our reservations were set: we were finally going back to the Chiricahuas!
On Saturday morning, September 28, John and I awoke at 4:00 in the morning to get ready to leave. Instead of waking Mary up to take her to Bill and Erika's house, Erika came by the house at 5:00 to take care of her until she woke up. Soon after she arrived, we kissed our little girl good-bye while she continued to sleep, and then we embarked on our adventure.
Our journey to the Chiricahuas took us about four hours - a trip that Mary would not have enjoyed, as she doesn't do so well on long road trips. We took I-10 south to Tucson then east to Benson, where we made our first stop for a bathroom break. From there, we continued east on I-10 towards the town on San Simon, which, as Jackie had indicated in her letter, was our last chance to fill up the Jeep with gas, as there wasn't another gas station around for many, many miles. (There was a gas station in Rodeo, NM, which was fifteen miles from Paradise, but they didn't always have gas.) With our gas tank full, we continued on I-10 for another five miles, until we reached the Portal Road exit.
John and I were already familiar with Portal Road, having taken it two years ago while exploring the Chiricahua Mountains in our van. We had gone up and over the mountains via Pinery Canyon Road in our van, and after passing over Onion Saddle, we descended into the little town of Portal. We visited the ranger station there then continued on Portal Road for about thirty miles, most of which was on good dirt road, except for the last eight miles, and we eventually found ourselves back on I-10.
To get to Paradise, though, we had to take a slightly different route. We started out on Portal Road, but instead of turning onto Foothills Road, about 19 miles in, we continued on the same road. At the junction, the road narrowed a bit, slowing our travel to about forty miles an hour. We soon entered into private land as we passed through the town of Galeyville, an old ghost town that was established in 1881 but died around 1882. A few old homes remain there today.
A few miles later, at 9:30 a.m., we arrived in Paradise, AZ. A small brown sign with the words "Entering Paradise" greeted us as we entered the quiet little town. On either side of the road, there were houses old and new, and there was a side road with lots for sale off to the right as we entered the town. About halfway through town, just past the old adobe building on the right side of the road, we came to George Walker Lane, where we caught our first glimpse of the house where we would be staying. It was one of two red buildings up on a hill, half-hidden in the trees, at the top of a dirt road. At the bottom of the road, facing the main thoroughfare, there was a sign for the George Walker House.
It was still much too early for us to check in, so we continued along the road on our way towards Rustler's Park, on top of the mountain. As we left Paradise, we crossed over Turkey Creek a couple of times then entered into the Coronado National Forest, where we rejoined Portal Road and started up the flanks of the Chiricahua Mountains.
The plan for the day was to hike the Crest Trail #270 until about 3:00 p.m., at which time we would return to Paradise and check into the George Walker House. The Crest Trail begins at the Rustler's Park Day Use Area, located near the campground high up in the Chiricahua Mountains (at an elevation of 8,500 feet). Not to be mistaken with the Crest Trail in the Huachucas, this Crest Trail, as John described it to me, is mostly flat and follows along the crest of the mountains. It would be a good start to a long weekend of day hiking.
We arrived at the trailhead around 10:00 a.m. As we parked the Jeep at the trailhead parking lot, we noticed that it was only sixty-three degrees outside. There was a very cold breeze blowing through the trees, giving us a good chill as we prepared for our hike. Needless to say, we didn't waste any time hitting the trail, because the sooner we got moving, the sooner we warmed up!
Gearing up for the hike was much different, since we didn't have Mary with us. Instead of the diaper bag and the baby backpack, John and I used our old Hydrapaks for the first time in years, and they were much lighter than our usual load. That, and having lost thirty-five pounds each since May, we were in for a good day of hiking.
We began hiking at 10:30 a.m., after sharing a new trail kiss. From the trailhead, the Crest Trail immediately began to climb, gaining about two hundred feet over the first half-mile. (I was not prepared for it, and I found myself huffing and puffing up the hill.) A quarter of a mile from the trailhead, we came to a gate, through which we had to pass to continue along the trail. From there, it was another two miles to the wilderness boundary, three miles to Fly's Peak, and five miles to the top of Chiricahua Peak. John stated that he really wanted to get to the top of Chiricahua Peak, but after getting such a late start, he said that he would be happy to get to the top of Fly's Peak. That would be our destination for the day.
After a half of a mile, the trail began to flatten out a bit as it followed the ridgeline above FR 42D, which, as we found, was directly below us. From the trail, we had some stunning views of the entire mountain range, giving us an idea of how vast they were. We could also see the Peloncillo Mountains, at the Arizona/New Mexico border.
Hiking at an elevation of about 8800 feet, we found ourselves in tall pines, spruces, and other conifer trees, some of which were bare and charred, having been burned in the Rattlesnake Fire of 1994, in which 30,000 acres of the Chiricahua Mountains had been burned. The area had already begun to regrow, but many of the blackened stumps still remained standing as a solemn reminder of the fire. ("No wonder you wanted to hike this trail!" I exclaimed to John. "It's all burnt!")
Among the charred trees, there were wildflowers aplenty. Despite the long drought, the Chiricahuas had received a lot of rainfall during the summer monsoons, and as a result, everything was in bloom. We came to one vista in which we found a small field of yellow daisies, and John took my picture in the middle of them.
After 1.5 miles, we came to Bootlegger Saddle, where we found a very nice campsite with an incredible view. As we crossed over the saddle, the winds began to howl mercilessly, and even as we hiked, we were very cold. (Dressed in shorts and T-shirts and without our jackets, we were not prepared for cold weather!) However, we kept hiking anyway, in hopes of making it to our destination.
A half-mile later, we came to the wilderness boundary: our thirtieth wilderness area! (We have now hiked one-third of Arizona's wilderness areas.) There, we entered into a barren forest of charred trees. Some of them were still standing, swaying and creaking in the wind, but others were strewn about, littering the landscape. Just beyond the wilderness sign, we came to trail junction, where the Long Park Trail #42D and the Fly's Peak Trail intersected with the Crest Trail. From the trail junction, we could see that the Fly's Peak Trail was completed covered with fallen logs and debris from the fire. Hiking up to the peak looked to be very difficult from there. Fortunately, the Fly's Peak Trail would intersect with the Crest Trail again in Round Park; we could hike up to Fly's Peak on the way back.
The Crest Trail continued along the contour just below Fly's Peak, allowing us more beautiful views. Fifteen minutes later, it took us into Round Park, at which we found a beautiful meadow lined with a cluster of tall pine trees. Since it was already 11:45, we decided to stop there to eat lunch, and after that, we would decide where to go next.
We ate lunch in the cluster of pine trees, which gave us a little bit of protection from the cold wind. While we ate, we looked at the map and tried to determine what our destination should be. It was obvious that we were not going to make it to the top of Chiricahua Peak, but we did still have time to make it to Cima Park, which was about a mile away. On the map, there was a icon indicating that we would find either a ranger station or a cabin. That would be a good destination point for us, so as soon as we were finished with our lunch, we continued our hike.
After crossing through Round Park to the other side of the mountain, the winds died down, much to our relief. From the park to Cima Saddle, the trail descended at a slight grade towards the junction with the Greenhouse Trail. We then took the Greenhouse Trail, which descended sharply for a quarter of a mile until it reached Cima Park. That was where we found three buildings, one of which was a backcountry ranger station. There was also tool shed and an outhouse, all of which were locked up tight, with "No Trespassing: Property of US Forest Service" signs posted all around. Another sign on the ranger station indicated that the buildings were used during fire season to house forest rangers and fire personnel; it now appeared to be closed for the winter. From what we could see through the windows, all of the equipment inside was covered with tarps and blankets.
We lingered in Cima Park for a while, taking pictures of the buildings and doing things that we had not done in a long time (tee hee). Then, once we were ready, we began our short climb back to the Crest Trail.
After stopping briefly at the trail junction to take a picture on the timer, John and I began our long hike back to Rustler's Park. It was 1:00 p.m., and it was going to take us another two hours to hike back to the Jeep - that would put us back in Paradise at 3:30 p.m., which was perfect.
We decided to do something a little different for our return hike. As soon as we arrived in Round Park, I suggested to John that we have a race. I would continue on the Crest Trail, and he would have the chance to go up and over Fly's Peak; we would meet up again at the wilderness boundary. He had very much wanted to "bag a peak" on this trip, and even though I wasn't up to it, I didn't want to deprive him of his goal. That was why I chose to do it as a challenge instead.
At Round Park, before we split up, we met up with a family - a mother, a father, and two children between seven and nine years old - and we stopped a moment to chat with them. They were camped at the campground and thought that we were, too, so as we left them they said to us, "See you back at Rustler's Park!"
At that point, I told John, "See you at the trail junction!" then continued along the Crest Trail, while John started out on the Fly's Peak Trail. I hiked at a very quick pace and found myself back at the wilderness boundary at 1:55 p.m. - a half of a mile in only ten minutes!
Upon my arrival at the trail junction, I was certain that I would find John there, waiting for me - he had a knack for doing things like that - so I was a bit surprised when I didn't see him there. In fact, I waited almost another fifteen minutes for him! To make the best of it, I sat down on a fallen log and enjoyed the silence, the solitude. Every now and then, the silence was broken by the sound of the wind howling through the few trees that were still standing or by the buzzing of bees whizzing by me as the wind carried them away. It was very serene.
John, on the other hand, decided to take his time on Fly's Peak, much to my surprise. Upon reaching the peak, he found several deer grazing among the trees. They did not run away when they saw him, so he was able to photograph them to show me later.
He was a little disappointed that he did not get the view that he was hoping for. The top of Fly's Peak was full of trees and did not allow him to get the same view that he would have gotten on top of any other peak. However, he did find excellent campsites up there and said that it would be a great place to spend the night on a backpacking trip.
We met up again just before 2:15 then continued on together. Instead of returning via the Crest Trail, though, we decided to take the Long Park Trail #42D, which would take us back to FR 42D. (FR 42D went through the campground and would take us back to the parking lot at the trailhead.) Taking that trail would give us a chance to see something different.
From the trail junction, the Long Park Trail began to descend as it left the wilderness area. After a half of a mile, after passing through a gate, we came to Long Park, where we found a large, beautiful meadow surrounded by tall pine trees. From there, our footpath became a jeep road, over which someone had laid down about fifty pine trees that had recently been chopped down. Hiking over them was annoying, and we were glad to be past them.
A quarter of a mile after that, we came to a roadblock: a very large log in the road. We had to climb up the embankment to get around it, because there was no way that we could have climbed over it. Just past the log, we found a Honda SUV parked there, probably belonging to the family we had met along the way. They had indicated to us that trail 42D was closed, so I think that was what they meant!
From the roadblock, it was another mile or so, along a windy-twisty dirt road that descended at a steep grade all the way back to the trailhead. En route, we passed by the campground, which was set in a very large, beautiful meadow that was empty except for a group of tents in the distance. The hillsides were dotted with picnic tables, all of which contained bear lockers, in which people could store their food to keep the bears away. John and I both agreed that it would be a great place to camp…in June (before the monsoons, and after the cold weather).
We arrived at the trailhead at 3:00 p.m. After throwing our gear into the Jeep, we left Rustler's Park and drove back to Paradise, to check into the George Walker House.
Jackie Lewis and her two dogs met us at the top of the driveway when we arrived that afternoon. She emerged from her little red house as soon as we drove up, and after introducing herself, she took us on a tour of the George Walker House.
And what a house it was! The George Walker House is a quaint little red cottage with a fenced in yard with many trees, in which there were hummingbird feeders. Just past the gate, there were about six wooden steps leading up to the screened porch, through which we had to pass to enter the house. On the porch were a picnic table and various lawn chairs; we might also chance to find a very large lizard, too, Jackie said, because there is a lizard who lives there.
The interior of the house was very cozy and reminded me a lot of Aunt Lotte and Uncle Richard's cabin in North Carolina, except that the George Walker House did not have a fireplace. Instead, in one corner of the living room, there was a wood-burning stove that we could light if it got too cold. The living room contained a recliner, a leather sofa, a couple of tables, a television and VCR, and two gigantic bookshelves filled with books and videos. Off to the left, as we entered the house, there was one bedroom, in which there were two beds - a full and a twin - and several pieces of antique furniture. Next to the living room, there was a dining room with a china hutch, an antique stove, and a large wooden table with four chairs, in the center of which was a vase with fresh-cut flowers. Beyond that was the kitchen, with modern appliances including a microwave, a stove, and a refrigerator. Inside of the metal cabinets, there were all sorts of staples, such as cereal, pasta, rice, sugar and spices, canned meats and vegetables, and sauces. The refrigerator was stocked as well with butter, jellies, bread, milk, and orange juice, as well as condiments of every kind. Everything was well stocked, just as they had promised.
Next to the kitchen, there was a bathroom, complete with towels and washclothes, as well as a first aid kit and a few medications. To the left of the bathroom, there was another bedroom with a soft, spring bed, as well as some antique furnishings. From the bedroom, we could go into the laundry room, where there was a washer and dryer as well as various cleaning supplies.
After giving us the grand tour, Jackie left us alone and returned to her house, wishing us a good stay as she did so. Once the Jeep was unloaded, John and I sat down to rest our tired feet from the long, nine-mile hike. What a day!
That evening, we got cleaned up and went to dinner in Rodeo, NM, on Jackie's recommendation. To get there, we took Portal Road through the town of Portal and on towards Rodeo…almost. Instead of going straight into town, we decided to take a scenic route along State Line Road - an all-weather dirt road along the Arizona-New Mexico border. Along either side of the road were ranches with free-range cattle grazing in the grass. (Jackie warned us to go slow on those roads, to avoid hitting a cow.) A few miles later, the road ended at SR 80, in between the two signs that said "Welcome to Arizona" and "Welcome to New Mexico".
We turned left onto SR 80 and drove north into Rodeo, NM - a desolate town with a few homes, an RV park, a handful of galleries, and the Rodeo Tavern, where we ate dinner that night. (We even had a beer, for the first time in months, to celebrate our weekend away.) Then, we returned to Paradise and retired for the evening…specifically, we fell asleep at 8:00!
The next morning, John and I awoke at the crack of dawn (which is easy to do when you fall asleep so early the night before) and slowly crawled out of bed to start the day. After breakfast and a shower, we began to pull ourselves together to get ready for our hike of the day: the South Fork Trail #243.
The South Fork Trail #243 is a more difficult trail, located along the South Fork of Cave Creek, near Portal. To get to the trailhead, John and I drove into Portal and took Portal Road to the Cave Creek ranger station, where we planned to stop to purchase topo maps for the hike. (We weren't able to print topo maps this time, because we ran out of toner in the printer. However, we did have a map of the Chiricahuas that worked for us in a pinch.) The ranger station, however, was closed for the winter, which was very disappointing.
Just beyond the ranger station was the South Fork day use area and trailhead, where we stopped to pay our day use fee before parking the Jeep in the shade at the picnic area. It was quite cold that morning, so we didn't linger long at the car. Once we were geared up, at 9:00 a.m., we began hiking immediately, so that we could get moving to warm up.
From the trailhead, we followed a wide footpath to the first trail sign, which was a few hundred feet from the parking area. Less than a quarter of a mile after that, we entered the Chiricahua Wilderness area (again!). The South Fork Trail then took us through the cool, humid riparian area surrounding the south fork of Cave Creek. We traipsed along a narrow footpath that was lined with wildflowers and tall grasses, mixed with poison ivy and ferns. Closer to the creek, there were many different types of trees, including oak, Arizona sycamore, cypress, and maple trees - a landscape that was much different than Saturday's high-elevation hike near Fly's Peak.
At 1.5 miles, we came to Maple Camp, where we found a trail junction. The South Fork Trail continued on the right, and to the left was the Burro Trail #240, which went to Horseshoe Pass and eventually to Sentinel Peak (six miles away). We stayed on the South Fork Trail and decided that our destination would be Snowshed Ridge, which was only 3.0 miles from the junction. (If we felt really good, John indicated that he wanted to go all the way to the junction with the Crest Trail, about five miles and 3,000 feet in elevation away.)
After Maple Camp, the trail changed somewhat. As we made our way upstream and deeper into the canyon, the trail began to climb more steeply - and descend just as steeply - as we entered into the grasslands, mixed with catclaw mimosas (my favorite!) and conifers. At each descent, there was a creek crossing; most of them were easy, even though I did get one of my boots slightly wet when I slipped off of a loose rock! After each crossing, we would immediately ascend again into the grasslands.
From high up on the trail, we had some wonderful views of the canyon walls, which were dark red and orange under the overcast skies. Beneath the sheer walls were acres upon acres of pine and fir trees, in thick groves, cascading down the flanks of the canyon.
The landscape continued to change the further we went on the trail. We left the grasslands behind us and entered into a thick, damp forest filled with wildflowers and greenery all around. Poison ivy and poison oak lined the trail, interspersed with wild daisies, blue bells, and short grasses. The temperature was much colder there as the overcast skies threatened to dump rain on us at any moment (we were prepared for that), and the air was very damp.
After hiking for two hours straight, mostly uphill, I soon announced that I needed a break to rest my tired legs. During the last half-hour, I felt myself slowing down considerably at each climb, and I was getting to the point where my legs wanted to quit on me.
John and I sat down on a large, flat boulder, where we studied the map and enjoyed the silence and solitude within the forest. So far, we had only seen one other couple (a pair of birders) on the trail - and they were leaving as we were starting our hike that morning. That made it a total of two groups - six people total - for the whole weekend. Not bad!
Once we were rested, we started hiking again, and for the next half-mile, the trail continued to climb - this time more steeply - higher and higher into the forest. Soon, I reached my limit and announced to John that I needed to take another break, because my legs were ready to quit on me. That was when he decided that we should stop for lunch and make that our turn-around point. It was 11:30 a.m.
Although we weren't going to make Snowshed Ridge or to the Crest Trail, we did at least make it four miles - not bad for being as out of shape as we were! And after lunch, at a quarter to noon, we started our return hike to the trailhead, to complete the eight-mile day.
The return trip took us under two hours to complete, including breaks. Of course, the trail was mostly downhill from there, and after having lunch, I was much more energized and ready to hike at a quicker pace. As we drew closer to the wilderness boundary, we made it a challenge to see if we could get back to the car by 1:30. We made it back at 1:35 instead, completing the four miles in just one hour and fifty minutes.
Upon arriving at the trailhead, we piled our gear into the Jeep and climbed inside. Before driving away, though, we looked at the map and tried to figure out what to do next. We didn't want to return to the house just yet - not that early in the day - so we decided to do a little bit of exploring instead.
But first, we wanted to top off the gas tank, just to be on the safe side. And the only gas station around for miles was in Rodeo, NM.
The gas station was located at the RV park and store. John ran inside and handed the cashier a ten dollar bill and asked her to start up the pump, which, we discovered, was one of those old-fashioned gas pumps with a spinning dial, rather than an LCD display. The thing was rusted and old, and at every quarter-gallon, it would stop pumping for about a minute then start back up again. John was so amused by it that he videotaped it for posterity.
Finally, after it had pumped about $2.00 or so worth of gas, it stopped pumping altogether, and John realized that it had run out of gas. He returned to the store and informed the cashier that the pump was out of gas, and she yelled back, "Hey, Mom, we're out of gas! Are we getting any more in soon?"
"Not until next week!" her mother replied.
"I hope you're not out of gas!" the girl said to John. He indicated that we were okay, so she gave him his change and sent us on our way.
Driving south on SR 80, we soon entered Arizona again. Twenty miles from there, we came to the town of Apache, AZ, which made Rodeo look like a metropolis. There, we briefly visited the monument of Geronimo's surrender; then, we turned left onto Skeleton Canyon Road to go to the actual site of the surrender.
Formerly known as Guadalupe Canyon, Skeleton Canyon once provided passage from Mexico into the United States, and Mexican cattle ranchers used the route to bring their cattle into the US. It is rumored that the Clantons, as well as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, ambushed these Mexicans to steal their cattle and gold - and later, Mexican "rurales" retaliated against the Clanton patriarch, ambushing and killing him for his misdeeds. Guadalupe Canyon was later renamed "Skeleton Canyon" because of the human skeletons found there. Some historians claim that over one hundred people lost their lives there and that the canyon is now haunted. (From Ghosttowns.com)
Skeleton Canyon Road started out as "super slab" - it was a wide dirt road that passed by a number of farms - and even an elementary school - in Apache. It eventually took us up to someone's farm; from there, we had to pass through a metal gate. Beyond the gate, the road crossed over a wash and continued on the other side. From that point on, the Skeleton Canyon road became a light duty road that required high clearance in some places.
After passing through yet another gate, we came to the site of Geronimo's surrender, which was marked with a large wooden forest service sign. Arrows on the sign indicated that we should continue going straight to go to the New Mexico border (one and a quarter miles away), the Devil's Kitchen, an old ranger station (four miles away), and The Animas Valley (seven miles).
We continued straight on that narrow, winding road, crossing through dry, rocky creeks and sandy washes along the way. Along either side of the road, the high-desert landscape was choked with foliage, including mesquite, catclaw mimosas, and manzanitas, all gnarled together. Sometimes, though, when the foliage was sparser, we could see the rocky canyon walls, looming high over us, glowing red in the late afternoon sunlight.
The road eventually took us out of Arizona and into New Mexico, where we found the Devil's Kitchen. Marked with a rusted metal sign, the Devil's Kitchen is rumored to be the spot where "Old Man" Clanton was ambushed and killed. To the left of the road, there are several gigantic monoliths arranged in a semi-circle, and in the middle of them there is a campsite.
As we kept going, we soon found an old crumbling building on the side of the canyon, next to the wash. We are not sure of its origins, but it was interesting nonetheless.
We never made it all the way to the old ranger station, because it was starting to get late. Soon, John decided that we had gone far enough, and he turned the Jeep around in order to return to Paradise. However, he did indicate that he would love to explore the area a little bit more someday - perhaps even camp there. "I bet you don't get many neighbors camping here," he said.
It was 4:00 p.m. when we arrived in Paradise, at which point we decided to stay put for the night. We spent the evening watching selections from the video library and reading some of the books that were available to us. I also cooked a birthday dinner for John that included steak, potatoes, and a bottle of wine.
Needless to say, a combination of the wine, the hiking, and the exploring did us in, and once again, we were in bed - sound asleep - at 8:00 that night.
The next morning - John's birthday - we awoke before dawn. As we ate breakfast, I gave John his birthday presents: a new wallet, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail on a special edition DVD. (He had given me a DVD player for my birthday, so we were now trying to build our DVD collection, one gift-giving event at a time.)
After breakfast and a shower, John and I began to pack up to leave. We had decided not to linger very long at the George Walker House that morning, because there were still many, many things to do, not to mention a four-hour drive back to Phoenix on top of that. We had told Jackie that we would probably sneak out early and leave her a check on the table, but that was okay with her because she had another guest checking in that afternoon anyway.
At 7:00 a.m., as we began to load our bags into the Jeep, Jackie came out of her house to say good-bye to us and wish us a safe journey back to Phoenix. Shortly thereafter, we left Paradise…
And, soon enough, we went straight to Hell…
Actually, we descended into Pine Canyon, but it might as well have been Hell.
The plan for the day was to go to the Chiricahua National Monument, because I just couldn't see going all the way there without visiting the monument and hiking at least one trail there. To get there, we would take Portal Road (FR 42) up to Onion Saddle, then down to the monument via Pinery Canyon Road. We had seen all of that before and knew that the road was in very good condition.
But John decided to make it more interesting. After studying the map, he found a primitive road that started at a picnic area near Rustler's Park and ended at Pinery Canyon road, about seven miles from the monument. It wasn't exactly a shortcut, but it would probably be a lot of fun.
At the very beginning of the road, as it began to descend into Pine Canyon, we found a sign that said, "Caution: 4X4 Vehicles Only". And for the first few miles, we really couldn't understand how that road could possible be a 4WD road only. The road was rocky and rough in some places and descended at a steep grade, but for the most part, it was passable in a high clearance vehicle.
Then, we reached the bottom of the canyon.
And there were creek crossings. Many, many creek crossings.
The road we were on made Aravaipa Road (to the east trailhead) look like a Sunday drive. Each of the creek crossings posed a different challenge for us. At some points, we actually had to drive in the creek to avoid fallen logs - and yes, we even had to pass under one fallen log to get back to the road.
After the first creek crossing, John thought that we had blown a tire, so we both jumped out of the Jeep to check. "It gets worse," he said, before I had a chance to see the Jeep's tires, and I thought for sure that we had blown more than one tire. However, he wasn't referring to the Jeep at all - in fact, all four tires were still round and inflated. What he was talking about was the next creek crossing…and the one after that…and the one after that…eep!
There were two other creek crossings that were just as scary as the first. One of them required us to drop off of ten inch tall boulders. As we did so, we heard a sickening scrape on the underside of the Jeep, so John got out to investigate. "Oops, that was the tranny," he exclaimed; the rock was scraping against the transmission and could have damaged it had we gone any further. So, John backed the Jeep up and tried again; this time, the scraping sound we heard was less severe, so we were able to pass through without doing serious damage to the Jeep.
The next one was the scariest, as we had to drive the Jeep at an angle to get through it. All we could do was think over and over again, "Please don't tip over, please don't tip over…" until we were through the obstacle. As soon as the Jeep was level again, there was a huge sigh of relief from both of us.
The other creek crossings were less scary than those mentioned here, but they were not without their obstacles. One crossing required us to climb a "wall" that was probably a good five feet tall. There was another crossing that was a tight squeeze between a log and a boulder; it was nearly impossible to avoid the boulder without scraping against the log, but John managed to maneuver his way through there without any damage to the Jeep at all.
Soon, the creek crossings became easier and easier as we drew closer to the United Methodist Camp - an entire community set up for the purpose of holding summer bible camps. I don't think we have ever been so happy to see a church, being the heathens we are; John joked that he almost converted after his experience on that road! (While relating the story of our journey later on that day, he joked that the Methodists probably get a lot of converts from people traveling on that road!)
We were even happier to see Pinery Canyon road - and happier yet to see pavement as we approached the Chiricahua National Monument. After paying our $10 entry fee ($5 per person), the guard at the fee station asked us to hand-deliver the weather report to the visitor's center, because their computers were down. We were headed there anyway, so we gladly did that for her.
We didn't spend much time at the visitor's center. In fact, we stayed long enough to check out the merchandise, sign the guest book, and purchase a map of the hiking trails in the monument. Then, we drove up to the Echo Canyon Trailhead, where we would hike the Echo Canyon Loop.
The Echo Canyon Loop is a 3.3 mile-long trail that is composed of three different trails: the Echo Canyon Trail, the Hailstone Trail, and the Ed Riggs Trail. The three trails form a loop that takes hikers through the various rock formations for which the monument is famous.
We began hiking the Echo Canyon Trail at 9:00 a.m. exactly. From the get-go, the trail began to descend at a slight grade as it took us through gigantic monoliths and hoodoos, long ago shaped and carved by millennia of erosion from rain, snow and wind. The trail also passed through the famous Wall Street, where we found ourselves surrounded by gigantic stone walls. Some of them had little niches carved in them, while others boasted holes large enough for us to pass through.
As we left Wall Street, we began to switchback down to Echo Park, which is one of the most pleasant parts of the hike. The tree-lined "park" is very shaded and follows along a babbling creek before it begins to climb towards the Hailstone Trail, at 1.6 miles.
At the trail junction, at 1.6 miles, we came to the Hailstone Trail and the Upper Rhyolite Trail, which John had taken during our visit there two years ago. (He had gotten lost on his way back to the visitor's center, but found his way again when he heard a bunch of giggling girl scouts above him. To this day, he still claims that he was rescued by girl scouts.) The Hailstone Trail is a 0.8 mile long trail that follows the contour along the south side of the mountain and connects the Echo Canyon Trail with the Ed Riggs Trail. The trail is mostly flat and very exposed, because there are not many trees and foliage to provide any shade.
But, it wasn't a bad trail at all. In fact, it had some incredible views of the canyon below us and of the various rock formations on the mountains around us. It was a very nice way to experience the Chiricahua National Monument, and I was glad that I finally had the chance to hike there.
Twenty minutes later, we arrived at the last leg of our hike: the Ed Riggs Trail, which was 0.9 miles long and would take us back to the trailhead. The Ed Riggs Trail climbed 300 feet over that distance, but we were feeling so good that we covered that distance in about twenty minutes, thus completing the entire loop in only one hour and twenty minutes!
Having finished our day hike at 10:20 a.m., John and I decided that it was time to go home. We still had a four-hour drive ahead of us, and we were aching to see our little girl again.
Upon leaving the Chiricahua National Monument, we took SR 186 northwest towards Willcox, where we stopped to get Subway for lunch - and to get gas, too. We also bought a little gift for Mary: a stuffed ringtail cat toy. From Willcox, we merged onto I-10 and headed home.
On the way back to Phoenix, John thanked me for making that weekend one of the best birthdays he had ever had. He had truly enjoyed being back in the Chiricahuas and doing all of the exploring and hiking that we weren't able to do before. I had tried very hard to make his birthday memorable, and I was glad to hear that I had succeeded.
I, too, had enjoyed the weekend. Not only did we have a chance to explore the Chiricahua Mountains, but we also had the chance to take a weekend off of parenting and spend time together as a couple. I don't need to tell you that it is difficult to enjoy "John and Heather time" (as we call it) with a two-year-old around - and it is even harder to be "naked in the woods" at that. Every now and then, it is important for parents to get away, even if it is just for one weekend every six months or so, to regroup.
But, having come to the end of our romantic getaway weekend, it was time to be parents again, and the first thing we did as soon as we got back into Phoenix was pick Mary up from day care. She had just spent a wonderful, fun-filled weekend with her grandparents, during which time she had been on her best behavior. However, she missed us a lot and was very excited to see us again.
That evening, the three of us went to Bill and Erika's house to celebrate John's birthday with the rest of the family - a nice way to end a great birthday weekend.
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