Today ended up being one of the most beautiful areas of the entire AZT.
Janna and I slept in until 6:15 am today, bidding adieu to both Chris and Peanut. 6:15 sounds early, but at this point in the hike, with no electronics or constant external nighttime light sources to mess with my circadian rhythm, I had settled into a comfortable natural rhythm: Get sleeping and fall asleep as soon as it’s dark (~7:30ish pm), and wake up entirely awake at the crack of dawn (~5:45 am). Plus, wake up around 2 am after First Sleep is accomplished, be fully awake for an hour, and then fall back asleep for Second Sleep.
As the four of us were packing up this morning, a pickup truck came rolling down the nearly abandoned forest road we were camped next to. The pack of the pickup was packed with multiple Bassett hounds. He pulled up the road a bit beyond us. Everyone was super curious to see why he had 6 Bassett hounds in the back of the pickup, but then it hit me: he was out mountain lion hunting. No sooner had a realized this then the entire pack (now set loose) swarmed our site out of curiosity, running up to us all. Each dog had a GPS attached to its collar with long wired antennae pointing up. Hunters will use dogs to track and corner a lion. Once treed or cornered, its the opportunity to shoot. But instead of heading off on the sent, the dogs were much much more interested in running down the road to our camp and sniffing everything we owned. The mountain lion hunting was confirmed when we passed his parked truck with large bear and lion AZ hunting stickers covering the back.
The AZT picked up from there, heading directly for the Santa Catalinas down a two track with lots of greenery continuing to sprout from the wet winter. We got to a large concrete and steel wildlife tank were we treated water from the trough. The AZ Fish and Game will put these wildlife tanks out across the tank to support game animals (or threatened species) during times of heat, water scarcity, and drought. They proved to be invaluable repeat water sources all along the trail –> concrete pits or troughs where we drank the same as the bears, deer, and everything else.
From the tank, the AZT turned to singletrack and went straight up a fortress-like foothill. The trail was steep but the constant hum of pollinating insects hitting every blooming flower was incredible. Some Arizona sage even grew alongside trail, giving off their own scents. I was more excited about the fact that we would be entering Molino Basin today and hitting up the Catalina Highway. This is a paved road that snakes from the bottom of Tucson at 2,500 ft. in elevation to the top of Mt. Lemmon at 9,000 ft. For cyclists, it is a physically demanding measure rewarded with incredibly views and an insane descent; Janna and I have done it many times. Being here on the AZT though felt like another milestone, another place we’ve seen a million times in Arizona but feeling so much more monumental now that we were walking to it.
Pumping out sweat, we hit a saddle and stared down into Molino Basin Campground, the highway stretching below. Day hikers were in abundance now, passing us in both directions on the trail. Arriving at the campground felt surreal for the sudden feeling of hitting civilization and for this campground’s prominence as a pitstop on rides up Mt. Lemmon. Weaving through the campground (and dropping some piles of trash in the dumpster), we make our way up Molino Canyon, the AZT on a hill distant from, but parallel to the Catalina Highway. We eventually made our way to Gordon Hirabayashi Campground - named commemorating a Japanese Internment prisoner from WWII who was placed in a Japanese Interment Camp up here.
At this point in the climb, my Achilles tendon was roaring with pain. We stopped in the parking lot of the campground to eat lunch, rest our ankles, and sit in the shade of the increasingly hot day. A trail angel (Happy Ending) came over and gave us some fresh bananas (read: FRESH FRUIT) and Clif Bars. I’ll say that right tendon was in so much pain that I almost asked the guy if he would take us down to Tucson for me to get it looked at. I didn’t, the moment passed, and eventually my Achilles chilled.
This seemed to be a constant theme for me: knee or some other body part flaring up, a surge of fear about accomplishing the hike, followed by a long talk with Janna who patiently reaffirmed that any distance on this hike was worthy. And then my body would chill out and we’d continue on. Needless to say, as we continued hiking up a creek after lunch, the same talk ensued. But more-so, Janna and I took the time to really lay out our goals for this thru-hike attempt. The antecedent to this hike brought certain goals and expectations discussed, but some changed as the hike progressed. Conservations like these with her made me further realize how much I love and value Janna as my partner and adventuring friend in the outdoors.
By early afternoon, the heat had built to what felt like the 90s F. Suddenly, the trail crested out at a saddle and a breathtaking view of Sabino Canyon lay out before us. The picture on top of this day’s post is a washed out shitty attempt by a phone camera to capture the light and colors of what it looked like - needless to say, poorly. In reality, the upper hills flanking the valley were filled with golden tall grasses while massive saguaros filled in the valley ravines while ponderosa and juniper stands capped the ridge lines. Sabino Creek roared as a river cutting through the valley with a large riparian zone thick with cottonwoods, some firs, sycamores, and deciduous hardwoods filled the dense bottom. Other day hikers had come to this stop, all of us gaping at the gorgeous scene of Arizona botany biodiversity throbbing with life in the springtime.
The AZT became a narrow, steep, and cliff-hugging thin singletrack that budged its ways down the steep walls. Much of the trail was overgrown with renewed plant life, making descending a work in concentration. The trail led down to Sabino Creek where Janna and I explored down a spur trail that led to a massive abandoned dam filled to the top with silt where the creek/river roared over the top and tumbled as a waterfall onto the golden rock below. The yellow and golden hues of the rocks let the water take on a similar appearance. The snowmelt on top had turned what was already a questionable description of “creek” into a formidable river with rapids in many sections. The trail approached the creek and then paralleled it, using the natural topography carved from the flow to etch a path upstream. Now, a convergence of plant life teamed with life: javelina tracks, bees, hummingbirds, yucca, agave, ivy, ferns, saguaro, prickly pear, dozens of different blooming wildflower species, and lots of fountain grass.
As evening approached, we knew the campsite we needed could only be reached by crossing Sabino Creek. Everything in the area was too close to water, too steep to pitch on, and filled with thorny plant life. We approached the AZT crossing and found the river in full force, a day’s worth of warmed melt having caused a significant rise in cubic water flow. I scouted up and down, seeking a shallow and suitable crossing, only to return to the AZT as the best place. Using the tripod method, I went first across the pulsing water that rapidly rose to my belly button. Janna went next, and now soaked in the descending cool of evening in the canyon, we found a series of suitable spots to camp where we ran into Chris again!
Laughing, we traded stories about the views from the day. After setting up the Triplex, he led us down to the trail to Hutch’s Pool, a still, incredibly, deep, and amazing rare swimming spot in Sabino Canyon. We sat on a gorgeous sandbar on a driftwood cottonwood trunk, with the navy blue deep water in front of us, and a completely vertical orange-hued granite face rising from the water opposite. The rock all went straight up, its various nooks and crannies bulging with cacti and succulents. Vines hung across the trees covering us. The temperatures were warm and perfect. It felt like we were sitting in a rainforest canyon, life coursing on every surface.