The heart of the Gila River Canyon is an epic showcase of Sonoran desert botany. Less canyon than its name conjures, the topography of the place is a great riparian valley/floodplain with mountains rising off the side. Coursing its way through the middle of this floodplain is the great muddy beast, swollen with snowmelt and recent rain.
We woke up late to enjoy the cool morning, knowing that despite a hot day in the canyon ahead of us, that we would be tracing the river and have some opportunities to cool in it. We ate a late breakfast with Numbers. Soon after everyone had left, we packed up our gear, crossed an AZT gate, and officially entered the Gila River Canyon.
Within a few miles we ran into a thru-hiker heading southbound. But instead of doing the AZT, he was actually heading east on the Grand Enchantment Trail. It was cool to meet someone overlapping on this section in their trek. Saying goodbye, the AZT rose above the rushing silt river below, curving in and out of bends in the hillside. At this point in the spring, I was a bit sad because I thought I had missed the peak time for brittlebush blooms. What few brittlebush we had seen featured flowers past their peak brightness, all somewhat wilted. This fear was destroyed by the crazy abundance of absolutely brilliant blooms all along this section of the AZT (in addition to tons of flowering cacti). Janna and I crushed 10 miles by noon, arriving a bit inland at a wash running perpendicular to the trail. Taking a look at the maps, we high-tailed it down the wash for 0.25 miles and found a cool bank of the Gila River.
Not the only ones thinking this, a group of ATVs was parked in the thick shade of mesquite. Janna and I talked to the riders for a while, most apparently locals who frequented the old doubletrack, jeep roads, and sandy washes with ORVs. With great generosity, one guy offered us some homemade cured jerky and a bunch of fresh apple/orange slices. We definitely ate all that. The early afternoon heat now in full swing (again in the mid-upper 90s F), we walked down to the beach where the Gila River flowed. Looking to our right, we saw that group of thru-hikers/dog from the previous night downstream on a sandy beach beneath a stand of mesquite. Janna and I walked over, and introduced ourselves again. By 1 pm, Rosey (we happened to catch up to him again!) and Numbers had turned up, making us a total crowd of 12 AZTers all escaping the worst of the heat by taking to the shade and water.
The water was very hard to filter, the silt clogging up the Sawyer Squeeze per every quarter liter filled. This required using precious clear water to backflow through the filter. The hard work paid off and we all ate snacks, smelled of sunscreen, and sweated in the sand. The heat was so bad at one point that I stood up to go poop and Rosey looked at me, scoffingly saying, “Dude, are you serious? You CAN’T be serious,” when he thought I was going to continue hiking –> No man, just taking a poop in the heat of the midday sun –> also a sweaty mess.
By 3 pm, I began getting a massive headache from the heat that eventually led to nausea. I ended up battling it the rest of the day straight into evening. Around 3:30, I thought the heat was not going to get better, so we might as well move on. Janna, Rosey, and I headed out from the beach and began the last stretch of the river with Numbers close behind. Rosey stopped and ran into the desert to poop - also feeling the heat.
But damn, those last 6 miles of the day were just spectacular. The AZT rose above the river again, giving a direct view of the floodplain filled with thickets of cottonwood, Arizona oak, sycamore, maple, palo verde, saguaro, mesquite, and more. The hills in the distance cast shade as evening approached, just lighting up in that perfect gold color. The four of us would hike for 10 minutes, then just stop and stare at the vast beauty around us. Every scene was iconic and breathtaking.
Eventually, we hit the end of the AZT section of the Gila River, right where it peels off and heads north up Alamo Canyon. We all decided to camp where the AZT splits, taking the evening to have one last opportunity for plentiful water from the Gila before the long, potentially 22 mile dry section tomorrow. Rosey and Numbers setup to cowboy camp while Janna headed to the river. After setting up camp, the three of us went down to join Janna, only to find her enjoying some Fireball and wine with a bunch of recent retirees camping on the bank. After retiring this past week, they decided to do a big section-hike of the AZT and brought all the caloric goodies to enjoy - all of which they now shared. Eating dinner together, the light faded fast, and cows gathered on the opposite bank to drink for the evening.
The four of us hit up our shelters just as an unexpected storm moved in and began to rain. Numbers and Rosey got soaked as they were cowboy camping. I heard them tear open their packs in the dark to drape Tyvek and tarps over their bodies. Meanwhile, a cow on the opposite bank had a big Swiss bell on its neck, which it just clanged back and forth literally ALL night long, keeping everyone awake. But given the noise and the wetness, we all laughed and enjoyed the beauty combined with the momentary hiker-community around us.