Photos galore follow as can only be expected when you hike through one of the most beautiful places you have ever seen. My respect to you, Alamo Canyon, one of the absolute highlights for scenery on the AZT out of all sections. If you wanted to do only one section of the Arizona Trail and see the Sonoran desert in its prime glory, this would be it.
After the rainy night, a cool morning dawned. Today was an undertaking day. The longest waterless stretch yet, we planned on no reliable sources to occur between our campsite on the Gila River and our pickup at Picketpost Mountain 22 miles away. We would also be covering completely exposed Sonoran desert mountainscape with little chance for shade, a canyon for heat concentration, and the sure temperatures of the previous two days. With that, we got up early, only to watch Rosey leave even before we did. He said goodbye and it would be the last time we would see him, although we maintained text contact throughout the rest of the trail. Time to beat the heat in the morning with a 2,000 ft. ascent. 4 L strapped to each of our backs and almost no food left, we had a timetable to catch a ride from Taylor (Harrison’s fiancée) who was picking us up.
We hiked up into Alamo Canyon at the same moment the retirees headed out. We all acknowledged our good luck with the cloudy morning and storm to cool everything temporarily. The AZT was a rutted jeep road at this point. The peaks rising in front of us rose above the valley like volcanic hearts - all neon green lichen on rich rosette-earthen-golden rock. The stuff of the Superstitions.
The sun began to break through the clouds, giving that splay of shadow and light bringing sharp relief in hue and tone to the world around us. The canyon was soon filled with spires, columns, buttes, hoodoos, and amazing mountains. One of the best sections of the trail. Janna and I stopped every 5 - 10 minutes to take photos. The play of light and shadow from sun and shade made everything even more visual. As the AZT continued up the canyon, tracing the contours of mountainside, the iconic butte notable in this section reared. Saguaros dotted the rises and an abundance of brittlebrush more vibrant from the gift of recent water, dashed their yellow thickly along the trail.
Although we used Guthook, the app played a secondary role most times to the use of topographic maps I had for the Arizona Trail. Ever since getting trained in off-trail orienteering on my NOLS course, I’ve really enjoyed and had far more trust in physical maps. The striking terrain here was great for predicting what lay ahead based on contour lines and matching them up to reality. Slowly, the AZT led us up switchbacks from the canyon floor towards the textured and hollowed rock outcroppings lining the top of the surrounding peaks. The heat was on, but very manageable given the generous cloud cover. The AZT reached a small saddle and we could see over the side of the natural amphitheater out towards Queen Valley and Highway 60 in the distance. Cholla dotted the trail. It snaked passed some tight rock outcropping and settled at a higher saddle. There, an INCREDIBLE view of a massive valley/chasm and tight desert walls lay before us. Uplifted stone and broken stratigraphy framed the view. Abundant bunched flowers completed it. My breath was taken. Freaking incredible.
We could see the trail tracing northwards along the contours of the advancing canyon sides. A singletrack blurred by lush vegetation. I felt like I was walking in another biome, not the Sonoran Desert. The wet winter and recent periodic rain had rushed forth from the Earth all forms of plant life. Green grass with fertile purple seed-heads packed densely down the hillsides, even growing over the trail. Every time the trail curved at a natural bend, the corresponding washes it crossed were draped with ivy and ferns. Pools of water pocked places where water rarely stood. We definitely had to be more alert because rattlesnakes were out in abundance. I kept my trekking poles ahead of me, elevated a few inches off the ground, knocked the sides of the grass. More than a few times we stopped by a sudden rattle elicited from a rattlesnake coiled trailside, disturbed by my pole tips. That’s what I wanted. Let me know where you are so I don’t get bit by you. One rattlesnake perched on a rock elevated next to the trail rattled loudly but let me pass only to decide “fuck it” and slither onto the trail, still rattling, cutting off a path for Janna. It took that one a bunch of time to decide to move on.
I knew we were getting closer to civilization again when a troop of mountain bikers came down the trail, all on day-rides out of Phoenix. They seemed equally impassioned with the views and extraordinary spring growing conditions. Janna and I passed by several rock outcrops, old volcanic veins that pimpled the trailside. The singletrack AZT crossed a gate and hit up some double track that spewed in several different directions, a bleached animal skull sitting on a rock. No water so far, we kept hiking and found a cattle shit-pond full of scum and turds. We still had 2 L each and decided to skip it. The double track moved down a valley where the Tonto National Forest showed mountain-upon-convoluted mountain into the distance. We were excited. Both of us kept looking at distant rock buttes thinking we were looking at the backside of Picketpost Mountain.
Picketpost Mountain is a giant peak iconically visible from the east side of Phoenix. We both had climbed it several times, and I used to (insanely) use it as a training run for elevation, even though the there is almost no trail for the last 1500 feet of gain and 1.5 miles to the top. But the top…man does it provide epic views into the sweeping studded hills below. The Tonto National Forest as a whole is like god took up the earth and smashed it together, letting the maze of canyons and ridges lay as they fell. Great for exploration, full of myths and legends of gold, drawing people into its maze each year (sometimes lost and never returning), and one of the largest national forests in the USFS system.
The day was getting hotter and the last 2 L in our packs began shrinking, the water getting as hot as the surrounding 90 degree F conditions. The AZT became singletrack again and entered rougher land as it sidled a wash for miles. The abundance of flowers also brought out bees. Ever since that swarm the other day, whenever I heard a swarm nearby, I took off. It’s the only thing to do, the only remedy. More washes, rising temps, and saguaro-pocked mountainsides led us to a completely unexpected trail angel water cache midday. Similar to the one at the Freeman TH just south of Tucson, this metal box was next to terrible jeep track someone had coaxed their car up. I opened it to find it completely restocked with probably 40 gallons of fresh water. Janna and I pulled two gallons out, crouched our bodies under the tiny shade of some shrubs, and drank to contentment. YES FOR WATER.
Rehydrated and refilled, Janna and I continued on, the anticipation of knowing we were going to be picked up driving us on. We stopped at a wash an hour later for a break in the shade of some overhanding mesquite. I walked down the wash, randomly exploring and found a Gila Monster! The third one in four days! What awesome luck! This one was a different color morph (as you can see in the pictures below). Unlike the hissing one, this one scurried away slowly. It turned and futilely attempted to climb the steep banks of the wash. Basically, it just climbed/ran in place. I stepped back and it turned to look at me before attempting to scamper again. This time, it got leverage on a rock and disappeared into some thick grass above.
Down the trail, Picketpost finally appeared in the early evening, a hulking and unmistakable mountain. Janna laughed, pointing out our ridiculous earlier guesses when this was so clearly it. A sketch moon clocked in above the peak as we passed to its western flank. With that, we officially passed mile 300. That, again, felt like a massive accomplishment. Evening brought a cool to the hot swell. We passed down the front of mountain and saw the split for the summit trail - we were close to the parking lot now. And then suddenly, Taylor and her friend Ashley were ahead of us, taking pictures of the desert. Both groups saw each other and ran to meet. I felt like I was passing through a time-warp. Somehow, nearly a month on the trail, and now we had walked from the US/Mexico border to Phoenix. Taylor was here to take us to our apartment, to return us quickly to civilization. How did we get here? Our feet of course, but the question was more a testament to the motion of time.
Ashley had us take a picture at the official AZT sign at the Picketpost trailhead parking lot. The iconic sign stood emblematic of this nearest proximity to the state’s capital. The sign is meant to inspire and inform. Back in November, when my parents had visited for Thanksgiving, my mom had me take a picture there. Now, I had returned. Time unending. Time is motion.
Taylor and Ashley had snacks, Gatorade, salty food, and more in the car. We climbed in and Ashley sped us back to the city for a few days of rest before returning to the trail. Numbers texted and said he was taking two days to cover the section we just finished. Rosey had finished before us and was already moving on. Taylor and Ashley had spent the morning catching the sunrise at the Grand Canyon and had basically driven straight here to pick us up. They had been staying at our place while we were gone. Now, we were all piled in the car and racing to the desert sprawl. Janna and I entered the apartment, grateful for some air conditioning, easy/clean water, copious amounts of Indian food, snacks on end, the caring generosity of Taylor and Ashley to come get us, and the epic feeling of accomplishment for walking here.