Mile 124 to Mile 145.5 (21 miles)
I woke at 5:45, got ready, packed my bag and was out the hotel door at 6:50. Jimmies uncle Big Dog gave us a ride back to the trail and we started off hiking at 7:35. Our spirits were high with clear skies and sun in the forecast. We entered onto Saguaro National Park property oohing and aahing at all the cacti and beautiful views. We began our ascent up a 2 mile stretch and gaining around 1,500 feet in elevation. We took a quick break before the next 2.5 mile section that goes through Grass Shack campground (it only has 3 sites).
I could feel my ears begin to blister from the sun so I took my button down shirt off and wrapped it over my head and wore it like that for the next couple of hours. The climb was a shock to my lungs and legs and I had to take breaks every so often but it was a nice day and I felt good. I was the first one to arrive at the campground around 12:30 at 5283 feet with an ice cold stream flowing next to it. Soon the others arrived and we took a quick lunch break, filtered some water from the stream and did some stretching before the next grueling part of the day (or so I thought).
On the map the trail climbs from 5,283’ to Manning Camp at 7,937 in just 5 miles. Not bad, it’s doable! However, around mile 2 leading to the camp, snow began to appear on the ground. By mile 3, the snow was slush and the trail was a little river running downhill surrounded by snow on both sides. I tried to keep my feet dry but it was impossible and they were soaked through as were everyone else’s. The last mile to the camp became very cold and windy, making my feet even colder. By then we were all pretty tired from hiking up almost 5,000’. When Manning Camp finally came into view at 3:45, there wasn’t a soul around, only a lot of snow and wind. We took a 10 minute break to catch our breath but it was so cold we had to hurry back on the trail again. We still had another 1.5 miles to the summit before making our descent.
It was around this point that things began to shift. It was now 4:00 and the sun sets at 6:30. We were climbing to 8,594 and still had to get down below 6,000 and out of the park before dark. The higher we went the colder it was. I had in my hiking pants, altar trail runners, a rain cot over my two shirts and winter gloves I had purchased the day before. This was. It suitable for the weather we were walking in. The snow became 4-5 inches on the ground and was starting to freeze to my already soaked shoes. I started to worry about frostbite because my toes were SO cold and painful. Even Tik Tok looked at me several times and said, “we need to get the hell off this mountain”. I agree! We were not in a good spot at that moment.
Finally we reached the summit and I was in such a hurry to get down and out of the snow, I started following other peoples footprints I had been following all day. The suddenly it didn’t look right so I checked the app and sure enough the tracks were all going in the wrong direction. Grr! So we cut through the woods slipping and sliding through the snow and were soon able to locate the actual trail. Whew! We hiked as fast as we all could given the circumstances. When I checked the app again we were still at 7,000’. Why was this taking so long!? The sun was starting to set and we were still too far up! So I put my phone back in my pocket and focused only on the trail in front of me, stepping carefully, and getting down quickly!
By 6:00 we made it down to 6,000’ and were able to relax a little. We were all exhausted and my knees and ankles sent shock waves through my body every time I took a step down. I was able to locate a possible campsite at 5,500’ and at mile 145.5 right as the sky turned dark. There were two other campers tented up already- Joe Dirt and Tweety- who were supposed to have reservations at Manning Camp but were also forced to run down the mountain.
I set my tent up pretty quickly in the dark with my headlamp and then made a hot barley soup for dinner which I shared with Jimmie because he didn’t have a stove or hot food and I felt bad. I paired that with a 460 calorie vegan protein cookie. That hot the spot! By 8:00 I was in my sleeping quilt amazed at the days turn of events but proud that we all were able to conquer Saguaro N.P. in one day!
Mile 145.5 to Mile 164.2 (19 miles)
I finally got smart and last night I grabbed my clothes and put them in my quilt with me rather than wait until morning to do it. This way I didn’t have to get cold just trying to warm up my clothes. Ta-Da! When I woke in the morning it was 25 degrees outside and I’m so glad I put my wet shoes into my tent with me and wedged the toes between the sleeping pad and quilt because even though they were still damp, they weren’t frozen. I even took the insoles out and put them in one of the tent’s overhead compartments to air dry. So the morning wasn’t half bad!
We hiked down a mile to an ice cold pool of runoff water and filtered for a 5 mile hike to the next water source. While filtering, we ran into a handful of other hikers who were forced down from the cold mountain the day prior just as we had. From there, I found I was moving like molasses. In fact, everyone voiced they too were completely drained from yesterday and we still had a long day ahead of us. Luckily we were primarily hiking between two mountain ranges: the Saguaro N.P. and the Catalina Mountains so for the most part we were walking up and down small ridges.
We stopped and took several breaks (mainly from exhaustion) and made our way to mile 159 where we took yet another quick break before forcing ourselves up a 1,000’ climb that had amazing views all around. Too bad each step was up to my knees and in some parts I had to use my hands to leverage myself up. Oddly though we did have three bikers flying down that same hill passing us! How they managed to ride that trail amazes me. It took me an hour to climb that 1.5 miles and through an AZT gate before a mile descent into Molino Basin where I could suddenly see and hear the busy Catalina highway.
At the bottom of the hill we found a cache and filled up our water before crossing the highway and into the campground where we planned to eat dinner. When Wayback and I arrived I saw the other two already getting their dinners ready so I sat down at the picnic table and fished all my cookware out. It was chilly and windy in that spot but it felt good to sit and eat. I boiled a cup of water and made two refried bean (with hot sauce) and Mac n cheese with peas burritos. It probably sounds disgusting but it was so flavorful and warm in in the belly! We were all finished eating soon and took advantage of the campground trash cans and bathroom then took off once again for 2.5 miles into our campsite.
It only took another hour to get to our campsite at Gordon Hirabayashi Campground and at first we were all alone, set up in a group area near the horse stables. Supposedly the campground is closed September to May but several… interesting people decided to pull their vehicles in nearby and camp out. All I could hear were them coughing and coughing. But it was nice to slowly set up camp in the daylight and not have to rush around in the dark. Tomorrow is another BIG climb so more relaxing is better!
Mile 164.2 to Mile 171.1 (7 Miles)
Oh my…what a day. It seems as though this leg of the AZT has it out for us! When I went to bed last night it felt decently warm- at least compared to what it’s been- then sometime after midnight the wind kicked up and by 6am I was afraid of getting out of the tent for fear it would blow away. So I started to pack things up while inside the tent for a change.
By the time I was done the wind calmed down so I got out, stretched and looked around. The clouds were zooming by! The wind took three of my tent stakes out of the ground but fortunately I was able to find them all! Terry and I had just finished packing, and Tik Tok and Afterburner (previously known as Speedy Tuna) were just getting out of their tents when it started snowing. Wet snow. So we all made the decision to wait out the weather and see if it improved because we couldn’t imagine the weather at higher elevations if this was happening at 4,000’. So I quickly set my tent back up and crawled in, already shivering from the drop in temperature. According to my In-Reach it was 25 degrees and it sure felt like it! Terry said his gps was forecasting sun at 11:00 so we had a few hours to kill.
I mostly just laid in my quilt and tried to stop shivering. By 9:30 I was hungry so I made peanut butter and jelly on a tortilla and finished off my remaining Hippeas and pretzels. After I finished I laid back down and actually fell back to sleep. By the time I woke up the sun was in and out from the clouds so at 11:00 we all packed up slowly and took our time going to our new goal of Hutch’s Pool at mile 171. The 7 miles continued to be cold and windy and had breath taking views as we descended on switchbacks. With the snow on the peaks of other mountains I felt like I was in the Alps!
We arrived at our campsite at 3:00- my earliest day so far. It was next to the Sabino River and had plenty of room for several tents and was blocked from wind by enormous boulders. On any other day a campfire would have been amazing! We took our time getting set up and I filtered 2.5 liters of icy water so I didn’t have to do it in the morning. For dinner we all sat around the empty fire ring and talked while we ate. I was slightly embarrassed by eating an entire package of hot garlic mashed potato’s for dinner and then a snack bar for dessert but it was so warm and I had been so cold all day. Plus, I’ve noticed I have to tighten my belt just a little bit more so consuming more calories is okay with me!
After cleaning up I was getting ready to get into my tent to change for sleeping when a hiker walks into our site to grab water. He said he was only out for a few days but he was heading NOBO (northbound) on the AZT trail and camped out at Romero’s Pass (5 miles and 1,000’ up from us) the night prior. He was caught in the snow storm and his tent collapsed. Then today he ended up turning around due to snowfall. Great. Here I was thinking a warm place to sleep is only a day away and now this.
So after a lot of humming and hawing and checking weather conditions we all decided to continue NOBO and hope that the higher temperatures from this afternoon and tomorrow will help melt it all down. I really hope so. I don’t want a repeat of Saguaro N.P. I’m so sick of being constantly cold. Here’s to crossing my fingers to a decent night and a good day tomorrow!
Mile 171.1 to Summerhaven (13 miles)
It was chilly last night but better than it’s been an zero wind. I slept hard from 1am to 5am and so happy to have had that! The sun surprisingly hit us earlier than expected so it warmed up quite quickly. We took off at 7:18 and the trail zig zagged up through the canyon and through a lot of previous wildfire burn. Overall the trail was not difficult and after three miles we made it into a more forested area with oak trees and juniper- it smelled so fresh! We took a break an hour later to catch our breath and swig some water. Even though the trail was not difficult we were still climbing the entire time to get out of the canyon.
At 9:30 we came to a trail junction and took one more quick break before ascending almost 1,000’ in two miles. The views were unbelievable! I had to keep stopping to look around so I wouldn’t fall off the trail as it was very sketchy in areas. The ground was unstable following the wildfires and rain/snow and I was focusing so hard on where I was stepping my eyes began to dry out- or maybe it was from the wind! After 1.5 miles we made it up to Romero’s Pass. I was a little tired but ready to get out of the mountains so we pushed on- or rather up.
The next section after Romero’s Pass took me an hour and half to go 1.5 miles. Not only did it climb up to 8,000’, but the trail was hard to follow, there was scrambling over large boulders and avoiding fallen trees. Towards the top we hit snow, only a few inches, but because we were hitting it in the afternoon the sun had already turned it to slush. We were slipping everywhere so I put on my microspikes and they seemed to work for a while but then I noticed they were getting heavier and heavier. When I looked down I saw the slush was freezing and sticking to them so I decided to take them off so I wouldn’t run out of energy!
We were heading in towards the small town of Summerhaven where there was one restaurant open only until 4pm. We were still a few miles out and not going to make it before they closed so Afterburner volunteered to take off ahead and zoom into town to order food for everyone. We were all pretty tired of the slush at this point. Our shoes were sloshing around and every time we would cross a stream, one of us would end up with a foot in the icy water. Still not as bad as going up to Manning Camp!
When we finally reached the summit we were all feeling a little happier knowing we were close to a warm meal and a cabin to sleep in. Unfortunately the slush continued all the way down to the trail head. Wayback and I would slide every couple of steps- and of course every time this happened our feet would slide in a different direction. I slid into a little bit of mud but I didn’t care by then. At 3:30 we reached the trailhead then realized we still had a mile walk on the road UP into town. Cars were driving way too fast on the road and we had to keep stepping off to the side and playing frogger. Finally I saw Tik Tok and Afterburner at the restaurant waving at us and I felt such relief! I got to eat a nice spinach salad and half of Waybacks French fries.
Afterburner and I walked down to the general store after dinner and ran into two girls we’ve leap-frogged since Saguaro N.P. (Hammer and Beast) and they said they were going on a little further to find a campsite. We went in to buy a few supplies and I went back out to talk to them. By the time Afterburner came out he said he had the OK from the cabin owner to invite them to the cabin for the night. They were so excited when he asked they because apparently they have been sleeping in their tent the entire time since starting out at the border. It took us a while to find the cabin we were staying at but once we did.. oh my! I was able to finally sleep 8 hours and not once wake up even sleeping on a couch!
Summerhaven to Oracle
We had a lazy start this morning! We are so used to rushing to pack up camp that now when we are inside it seems we have so much time in the mornings. I had two cups of coffee and updated the blog and we all sat around and talked for a while, so nice! We left the cabin around 7:45 and headed towards the town of Oracle ~13-ish miles up the trail. Most of the trail was what was left from the wildfire but it still had amazing views. I felt great when we first started out full of energy, but as soon as we had a climb back up to 8,000’ I lost it all. I fell far behind the entire group! I’m not sure if it was the previous day, altitude or just the trail but I was so lethargic and lightheaded so it took it all out of me to make that first climb. And the second.
After the second climb, it was all downhill for 7 miles. By downhill, I mean extremely downhill! We were following a forest road that I’m surprised even existed because it was so steep. To top that off, it was full of sharp rocks and was a mixture of mud and slush/snow. My knees and ankles felt every step down. At times it felt like I was on a mud slip and slide! I would take a step, slide a foot, catch my balance and take another step only to slide down again! After two hours of that I decided enough was enough and I wanted a lunch break. So I found a nice shady spot since the lower we were getting the warmer it was. I took a half hour to dry out my socks and shoes and we took off again.
We didn’t have too much farther on the forest road before it turned into a real trail with a somewhat gentler downhill. We were able to pick up the pace a bit and as soon as we came out into a ridge (still in the wildfire burn area) I was able to see the valley and all the mountains around and I took a deep breath and relaxed. I didn’t realize how tense I had been for the last couple of days up in the snowy mountains!
The relaxation didn’t last too long though as there rocks appeared under my feet once again, making my knees and ankles hurt but I pushed on eager to make it to Oracle sooner than later. We ended up taking a side trail to get into town, another forest road that eventually came out into a paved town road. Right before then I happened to look up and saw a big javalina cross right in front of Tik Tok and Wayback, and then two smaller ones that looked like bear Cubs because they were so hairy. That made me smile and boosted my spirits! It seemed like most of my hike I have yet to see much wildlife like I thought I would so this certainly was a delight!
Once onto the paved road we walked .9 miles to the Post Office where I would get my resupply box. I miscalculated this leg of the hike up and wasn’t sure I would get it in time but thanks to Jen, I did! Also, I received a surprise motivational card from Sue! Thank you! While I was getting my box, the guys happened to talk to a woman standing there and she offered us a ride to El Rancho Robles. Heck yes a ride!?! Yikes… be careful what you wish for! We walked over to her van and surprise surprise she had just came from dumpster diving she said so her van was full but she would make room. No no no! And so I find myself sitting backwards in the back of her van next to Afterburner with Wayback behind me and this lady driving like she’s never driven before. We were thrown all over the place! BUT we didn’t have to walk the several miles so hurrah!
After checking in we all showered unpacked and threw our laundry in the free washers they had before waking a mile down the road to a pizzeria. Unfortunately it was to-go orders only but we made do! Wayback and Tik Tok walked across the street to Circle K, bought some snacks and beer and we sat outside the restaurant and ate and had a beer and just a great time! Tomorrow Tik Tok stays behind and the three of us will get a ride back to the trail to continue on to Kearny.