Even sleeping high above the tanks couldn’t shake the cold this morning. Tendrils of frost crept down and laced the entire area with white dust. It was crazy cold. We packed up quickly and decided we would eat after we had a few miles under our feet and the day had warmed up a bit. Climbing down the hill towards Maxie Tank, we ran into the two bikepackers who were also up and packing up their shelter. Turns out they were Australians who wanted to do the Great Divide but realized their time in America was too early in the season for a proper go. They had switched to the Arizona Trail which they described as “incredibly hard.” Janna and I parted from them, joking we would see them again shortly.
The trail was singletrack that crossed a large open meadow before switchbacking through a forest where we saw two separate herds of elk and a coyote. As the sun finally crept its way up in a thawing fashion, the Arizona Trail joined an old fenced road and deposited us near a parking lot where two old men sat in chairs next to the trail register. Turns out they were volunteering for the Arizona Trail Association and were setting up for the day. They asked us questions about the trail, and then Janna and I pushed into the woods ahead of us. Lake Mary Road suddenly appeared on our lefts as a few cars drove by. The Australian bikepackers passed us and we waved goodbye. They let us know that the AZT 750 race had started and that we could expect to see bikepacking racers any day now as the lead pack set pace from the south to the north.
Janna and I walked until we crossed Lake Mary Road and the trail began to trace a number of large marshes and lakes in the woods. A cacophony of bird cries indicative of a spread of species rose from the waters and shores. The trail joined a forest dirt road and paced back and forth next to several small lakes, marshes, and lakes all surrounded by tall ponderosas over the next several miles. By noon, after passing through miles of further ponderosa pines, we hit 10 miles and came to the trail junction for Navajo Spring Trail. We decided to take the 1 mile spur to Mormon Lake where the small general store and community lay. The trail followed the wash of the spring including a fenced off portion to prevent deer from grazing on baby aspens. A sign reported how the exploding ungulate population was leads to a decline of new aspens as trees were stripped of bark and leaves in youth. The USFS had placed fencing around sections of the forest to encourage vegetative growth.
Passing an old water trough filled with ice, the day began to heavily cloud over. a strong wind blew and the forest felt like the still of winter. Small snow banks lay alongside the trail. After a mile that felt like forever, we tumbled out in Mormon Lake Lodge. We passed from the back to the front and the community was nestled around us. Mormon Lake was mostly a collection of RV park, cabins, a few small restaurants, general store, and local campground set against large Mormon Lake (waterway proper). No one was out and all the restaurants were still closed in this early season. However, the General Store was open. We went in, secured a resupply box we had sent with dehydrated beans, and then plundered the store for microwave pizzas, Drumstick ice cream cones, sandwiches, and more. They allowed us a small table against the coffee area along a wall. We sat with our steaming microwave meals and ate a sinful number of calories. My leg muscles soaked them up; they didn’t even hit my stomach.
Electronics charging, we spent a solid two hours enjoying the warmth. We refilled on hand sanitizer for our backcountry bidet kits and secured some wifi. Both my double pairs of socks now had holes in them, leading to blister beneath a callus on the top of my toe. I got on Amazon and quickly sent a pair to our friends’ (Esther and Mike) house in Flagstaff. As early afternoon rolled in, we decided it was time to go as storm clouds built overhead. Donning rain jackets, we sat on the porch and disgorged our resupply boxes. Two thru-hikers (Mike and Noemi) walked up and we talked to them briefly before pushing on. As we left, a freezing drizzle started to fall. Walking back up Navajo Trail, the wind licked the trees sideways and sent a deep shiver within. It felt and looked like November.
Several miles of walking along the AZT brought us by old historic timber operations with detailed history signs provided by the USFS. The gray skies began spitting both hail and snow for a bit before stopping. We passed below Mormon Mountain lot and walked over a bridge into a forest with several gorgeous stream crossings and hand-built bridges. We passed through a forest service campground (also closed for the season) and found paw-prints of coyotes and a massive one of a mountain lion (see photo below). The trail went up a small ridge where we were afforded views of the swirling gray clouds overhead. We pushed ahead for miles and miles through sloped woods where we saw a second coyote trailside that took off and looked at us for a long time.
Eventually, the land began to level off as evening approached and we hit Mayflower Spring. The woods looked thick with pine-needles, the ground relatively flat, and the trees strong with no widowmakers. Given the wind and sputtering rain, this seemed a good place to camp for the night. We explored for a bit after filling up water and found the torn apart remains of an elk from a mountain lion kill. After eating dinner, we sat around while a thru-hiker came up. Turns out he had been hiking since 3 in the morning and had covered 40 miles today. He was a doctor who had a limited time off and was doing the whole AZT by hiking nearly 40 miles a day. We were mind-blown at the distances he was traveling daily, but he lamented the speed and said he would love to have more time to relax and sit as we were. He had miles to go tonight and wanted to get as close to Flagstaff as possible. We ate up a hill in the dark, the cold slowly wrapping around us. Filled with food from today (my muscles grateful), we climbed into the Triplex as rain spattered the shelter and a very cold night set in.