We slept in until mid-morning, enjoying one last day in the cabin. There was a certain sense of safety. Gone were the imminent feelings of needing to move before the Sun got high in the sky and cooked us in the desert. We were at the base of the Mogollon Rim. We were at the cusp of northern Arizona. Water should be more plentiful - the trees would be thick and protective. Saddling that idea in our heads drove home a desire to start the day slow.
The Early Bird Cafe called to us for breakfast so we walked there. I ordered probably the largest spread of breakfast I had ever had in my life. I couldn’t even eat it all that’s how much this place made. As we sat there, another man a booth over kept looking at us. He came over, introduced himself as Carl, and told us he was a thru-hiker with an ankle injury. Carl was staying in town to heal up for a week or two and wanted to know if he could treat us to a car ride back to the trailhead. We happily obliged.
He picked us up with our gear and dropped us down at the Pine Trailhead outside of town. On trail by 9:30 am, the day was indeed hot. We weren’t yet ascending the Mogollon Rim. Instead, Janna and I would be tracing the bottom of the rim eastward on the Highline Trail. We’ve hiked pretty far on the eastern portion of the Highline Trail outside of Payson, but this would be the first time we were this far westward. The Highline passes through some gorgeous spaces, a blend interface between Colorado Plateau and central Arizona highlands.
As we started out from the parking lot, making sure to sign the trail register, we plunged into the red dirt. It was amazing how hospitable the trail was now - large ponderosa pines, abundant springs, and easy/flat terrain. We moved to cover quick miles. The views were spectacular. It honestly reminded me of Sedona where rim buttes thick with sanguine dust clashed with evergreen colors. The trail wound in and out of curves in the rim wall. Midway through the morning, we ran into two backpackers finishing up the Highline westwardly. They were on their “Refirement” instead of “retirement” because they wanted to burn their lives bright.
Inspired by their perspective, we pushed on, sometimes on exposed bushy slopes and often in ponderosa forests. We crossed several streams and saw a large Scout troop out camping/backpacking. The trail took us deeper in the woods, slowly ascending. It then exited onto a high red dirt plateau with juniper and agave growing starkly. Truly Sedona-esque. We wound back into the woods and passed a past burn area. Mile markers noted our continued distance from both Mexico and Utah.
The sun passed in the sky and the evening rolled in. The views of the Mazatzals in the distance complimented the green expanse of pine forests stretching before us. We arrived at Washington Park trailhead near dusk. The rushing waters of the East Verde river flowed nearby. We setup our Triplex in the darkness and sat back to relax. An old chained forest road nearby served as an excellent place to eat dinner and watch the stars overhead. This was the first day I KNEW I could finish the trail, that my knee wouldn’t hold me back. I went to bed looking forward to the climb tomorrow into the largest continuous stand of ponderosa pine forest in the world.