As far as yesterday’s beauty, let me rephrase what I originally said. Yesterday and today were by far the two most beautifully joined days on the trail. If yesterday was sauna and dry rain forest, then today was all alpine and granite domes.
The morning started simple and warm, a welcome change from the sub-freezing nights experienced so far. The sun lit the floor of the relatively narrow canyon we were camped in. The sand beneath our tent had equated to comfortable and soft night’s sleep. The thornscrub subtropical plants surrounding us seemed unreal in first golden hour light. As packed up and took one more look at Hutch’s pool, we realized that today we would need to ascend from the bottom of Sabino Canyon to up well over 8000 ft.
The trail started with slow slinging switchbacks that meandered slowly upwards. Grasses frequently bent over the trail, obscuring sections. The botany began changing with elevation, becoming less tropical and more arid, and then high grassland. Boxing the canyon on all sides were massive white granite peaks, domes, and spires, the alabaster igneous contrasting with the dark green firs, spruces, aspen, and ponderosa pines that dotted their upper surfaces.
As we climbed, we ran into a hiker coming the opposite direction. We talked to him for a bit (while I kept thinking he looked familiar). He said his name was Legend, and I realize this is the only second person to have ever thru-hiked the Great Western Loop this past year. I’m pretty stoked we ran into him. We continue on with awesome backwards views in the canyons we came from. A sudden urge for a bowel movement hits me so I scamper off trail into chaparral where a nice humus layer makes for perfect cat-hole digging. Great views. A nice 5/5 for this poop scenery.
I jump back on the AZT and race to catch up with Janna and Chris. I find them up farther up, waiting at an overlook into a sweet riparian corridor where thick oak in autumn hues line the stream. Oak in the Sonoran Desert go through a spring “autumnal” phase where they lose and shed their leaves, all rustic oranges and yellows, in the spring instead of the fall, right before putting on new buds for the season. The trail skirts under their foliage and yucca spikes abound. I’m absolutely loving this contrast in scenery and rich plant life. The stream is in full flow mode, fresh with snowmelt. Several stream crossings later, we exit the deciduous overgrowth (plus find an old mining pick purposely protruding from a rock pile) and start up a 5,000 ft. climb.
The AZT here turns into a narrow thread that leaves the valley bottom to ascend up the now white granite mountainside. The stream and oaks stay below, a sharp drop-off to our lefts as we motion up. I freaking love white granite studded with dark green pines (reminiscent of the Sierra Nevada in many ways), so I’m jaw-dropped by the scenery. It’s tough going and we level out a bit past noon at a saddle with a full spread view of northern Tucson/Marana stretching into the distance. A massive lunch of salty peanut butter pretzels and cheese-filled tortillas, plus loads of water ensues. Filled with salt and calories, the three us begin an even steeper climb up the white granite dust now lining the AZT. My knees and soles of my feet are now burning from the day’s vertical climb. I take some rests to enjoy the views while Janna and Chris make it a goal to conquer the top quickly.
The granite walls fill in with more and more conifers until I’m on top of a granite dome splinted with pines. Before us lay the Wilderness of Rocks - a sweet alpine zone area that resembles a cross between Sierra Nevada and Joshua Tree. Large igneous orbs, slabs, spires, and balancing rocks are strewn about the landscape, all bisected by the tannin-filled golden snowmelt streams flowing all over the place. What a freaking perfect time of year to hit this portion. I decide that I MUST return here in the near future for more backpacking. Plus, I’m loving the conversations we’re having with Chris - tons of talk on life, careers, dreams, etc. I am alive and in the world - something I say when I’m flush life.
We stop to drink water often now, enjoying the quality sources. Afternoon breaks quickly as evening rolls in and temperatures drop. We pass some weekend backpackers enjoying the distant views while the AZT gets densely surrounded by pines. Golden hour hits as the forest dims but the peaks surrounding us light up. We find a nice area with tons of camping and tons of thermally efficient pine needles. I love camping on thick beds of pine needles for their relative warmth as opposed to bare earth. I slip off my shoes at camp and see some bruises on the arches of my feet - never a good sign. I’m good though; we made it to the top of the Santa Catalinas. Dinner is eaten quickly as cold wind begins raking the mountain in the twilight, plummeting temperatures to below freezing in the night. Tomorrow, we’ll hit up Summerhaven and then make our way to Oracle.