Monday, March 17, 2014

Skull Mesa/Cottonwood Loop

Skull Mesa
 There I was, back in action in a familiar place. The 4th time I've backpacked into the Cave Creek region of Tonto National Forest. I planned a route that would take me to the most remote sections, on trails completely unfamiliar to me. A good way to keep things fresh when you consistently return to the same place. All in all I connected 5 trails for a 27 mile long loop. This plan was a little ambitious for me, but I wanted to challenge myself. Plus I wanted to see what kind of difference my newly lightened load would make. In fact, my pack only had a 10-pound base-weight. At 16 pounds with food and water it was by far the lightest load I've ever carried backpacking.

 Friday was mostly spent on Cottonwood Trail #247 as it wound east along Cottonwood Creek then north on Bronco Creek going the long way around Skull Mesa. This trail is aptly listed as a "primitive trail" by the forest service, and I had a tough time following it, especially when it dropped down onto the creek-bed itself, where I kept losing it minus any trail markers or obvious trail. That's one of the challenges of desert hiking is that the dirt trail you're following doesn't contrast well with more dirt, so trail finding can be tricky. Multiple times I found myself erroneously hiking up a wash, or seeking out a high point to look down and spot the trail. Needless to say, I did a lot of backtracking. 

At one point while walking along a creek-bed I wandered into a narrow canyon that I suspected was not the route I should be following, but the natural beauty of the place drew me on. Amid high granite walls I ran into a huge bee swarm. Now, if there is any desert critter that I am nervous about running into it's bees, mainly because Arizona is home to Africanized Honey Bees (aka Killer Bees), and I for one can't tell the difference between a regular honey bee and a killer bee. I passed within a foot of that swarm. The buzzing of so many bees was so powerful I could almost feel it in my body. I moved as quickly and as passively as I possibly could by them, and luckily wasn't stung despite the close proximity. I would be lying if I told you I wasn't nervous walking by that swarm. Especially being in such a narrow canyon, I would have had literally nowhere to run if they would have attacked me.

Cottonwood Creek narrows, right before I encounter bee swarm.
 Eventually I made it out of the canyon and back on some high-ground. I was relieved to see some dark clouds creeping over the desert foothills toward me. Any reprieve from the heat is welcome in the desert, and believe it or not, it actually rained! I busted out my new Outdoor Research Helium hard-shell, and actually wore it for a half-an-hour while I got dumped on. It was refreshing to say the least. After nearly 14 miles of hiking (not counting the backtracking) it was getting late and I was exhausted. I pitched my shelter relatively near Cave Creek about 20 feet from the fence-line of a private ranch. It was the only flat spot I could find that was both elevated and relatively separated from the creek itself, which I didn't want to camp by because of all the animal sign I saw. In fact I was awoken multiple times in the night by snorting javelina coming from the direction of the creek. I knew I had made a smart choice by staying away. When they got too close I would loudly clear my throat or yawn, just to let them know I was there. Of course they left me alone. 

Rain is coming
After a restless night of sleep I broke camp at 7am and hit Skunk Tank Trail #246 headed west. It was pleasant hiking in the cool morning air under a still rising sun. Eventually though it got hot, and by the time I connected with Quien Sabe Trail #250 the heat was bothering me, and my feet were getting brutalized on the especially rough trail. By the time I made the ascent of Skull Mesa my feet were killing me, but a heavy wind had appeared and the 20 mph gusts were keeping me cool. It's the nature of the desert, and hiking in general. You have to take the good with the bad. Even when you're tired and hurting and miserable, you have to hang on to the positive. I had no luck finding the Hohokam ruins I had heard were on top of Skull Mesa, but the view of the surrounding desert made the hard climb worth it. 

I was exhausted and feeling like hell by the time I returned to my Jeep after a near 14 mile day with tons of ups and downs and elevation changes. Honestly, it wouldn't have been as bad if it wasn't so damn hot, and the terrain so rocky. It made me miss the Pacific Northwest. Overall, I can confidently say that this route is by far the best in this area. Sure it's challenging, but its remote ( I saw zero people on Friday, and 1 group on Saturday), there are plenty of views, and a good smattering of high-and-low desert ecosystems. The only drawbacks are that water is very scarce, trails generally suck and are hard to follow, and there isn't any good place to camp when you reach Cave Creek near Seven Springs on day 1. Other than that, I had a blast.

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