Another below-freezing morning greeted us so we again got moving right away to keep warm before stopping to eat breakfast. The Arizona Trail through this section continued to be predominately flat. It essentially follows the path of the old rail line that timber companies used in the early 20th century. Here and there, old timber-cut pieces of rail ties would surface in the trail or sit alongside it, outlining the former line. Old rail gravel and chunked out volcanic rock formed borders on either side of the slightly raised path cut straight through the woods. After several miles (and some interesting historic signage from the USFS), it was warm enough to stop and eat on some boulders. For the past several weeks, I had switched to eating straight-up Frosted Mini-Wheats for breakfast. Oatmeal, despite years of trust, had become sick to my palate. Mini-Wheats were golden. Tons of fiber and sweet, they filled me up and got me going. I usually chased them with a peanut butter packet I stored in my crotch for warm keeping in the morning chill.
We began to cross a series of grasslands meadows interspersed in the woods. Entering one, we got our first long-view of the San Francisco Peaks and notable, Humphrey’s Peak in the distance. The old supervolcanic crater rim stood caked in a deep winter snow. Stretching to 12,600 feet, these mountains are the highest points in Arizona. I’ve summited them several dozen times from multiple approaches. But to see them now, to know that we had hiked to them, that we would be going up them on the AZT, filled us with awe. They were another reminder of the distance we had traveled. More-so, the peaks were stunning with their snow-capped framing on the horizon.
As we crossed the field, we got reception and checked in with our families. I checked on Instagram to see if Legend had set the AZT record. He just had, the day before: 15 days, 13 hours, and 10 minutes. An insane unsupported record. He reported doing crazy miles through deep snow on the Kaibab plateau/north rim still ahead of us.
By now, the blue skies of early morning were quickly being replaced by the gray skies of rain and storms. A few miles more, and we plopped out on Lake Mary Road near Flagstaff. As we did, a road cyclist came biking up the shoulder dressed in neon yellow. We paused to let him pass but he rode right over to us and excitedly introduced himself. His name was Gil Gillenwater and it turns that he was the first person to ever thru-hike the AZT, back in 1982 before the trail was completed or established (according to the AZTA website). In the 80s, he and his brother decided that they could walk across Arizona using trails and forest roads they were both familiar with. Over a series of months they were successful; and when the AZT was completed, they reached out to the Arizona Trail Association with a documentation of their route (which roughly hewed the current trail) and were recognized as the first people to be “Trail Completers.” Gil was excited to meet us as AZT thru-hikers, and fellow lovers of cycling. We spoke for quite awhile about our experiences, thoughts, and reflections on the trail. Serendipity to walk across the state and pop out on a highway in front of one of the first people to complete the route you walked.
Gil gave us his contact info and cycled away while we crossed the highway and headed back into the woods. Fired up on that meeting, we crisscrossed up a hill. As we hit the top, we came upon some trail magic. There were several cans of Coca-Cola, bottled water, and some Powerade. Janna was more than enthused. She was like, “YESSSSSSSSSS” for the pop. I decided to join her in taking in the rare drinking of soda that I do. We placed them in our packs and decided to save them for lunch. We got walked and the hill eventually came out on a high plateau covered with juniper and pine. The sky overhead looked like imminent train with clouds rolling over each other in a gray soup. The wind picked up on top and we donned rain jackets for a combo of warmth and wet protection. After another mile or so of hiking, we came upon a large lake next to some rutted double track the AZT had joined. Humphrey’s Peak loomed large and ice-capped in the distance. It was beautiful so we definitely had to eat here. We sat in the gray gloom enjoying the mountain views and chugged back some Coke. I immediately regretted it. That shit never makes me feel good afterwards, and I wished I had taken the Powerade instead. Janna on the other end…pumped. She loved that stuff.
We ate until it began raining and got moving. The trial remained flat but rutted in the clay. We passed by a second lake fenced to keep cows from ruining the shores, but a cow skull lay there regardless. Now, the trail kept to the wide and high plateau and turned directly towards the peaks. A bikepacker same riding by, his bike the same as my own - a Surly Karate Monkey. We talked to the guy who turned out to have been racing the AZT 750, but quit due to a mechanical failure that put him so far behind he decided it wasn’t worth it to continue. Now, he had driven ahead here to take a few days to bikepack the area and take in the sites.
The wind was still kicking as we walked across the grassy plain interspersed with low-hung clouds. To our left and down below the plateau, Lake Mary stretched elongated with the winding road paralleling. We were high above the road and lake but with excellent views. The trail took us near an observatory on the lone mesa before spilling us out towards another series of lakes with old wood fencing to keep cows out. The trail then moved into the woods over several miles slowly descending to a large plain. Near the bottom, we came upon a large jug of water left for AZT thru-hikers as the water in the lakes was noted as “contaminated” according to the Flagstaff District. We filled up, ate a bunch of food, and crossed over a dirt road past a field and into the pines again. Torn deer and elk legs law strewn about - evidence of some predator in the area.
After miles more of walking through rocky volcanic hillsides, evening began to approach. I REALLY wanted to get to Walnut Canyon before it was dark. We had visited Walnut Canyon National Monument a few years before and loved the preserved cliff dwellings. Although the AZT doesn’t go into the National Monument proper, it does enter the lower Walnut Canyon with its legendary rose-colored sandstone walls. Our food was pre-soaked and around 5:00, we decided to have dinner trailside before pushing on. Eating quickly, I pushed for us to keep going lest the dark ruin the opportunity to see the canyon. The trail began a long descent into the canyon. As evening’s darkness brushed the light aside, the pastel walls rose up beside us. It was stunning. Literally in the bottom of the canyon, the setting sun was providing even better lighting to take it all in. We took a ton of pictures as a beautiful sunset with sun unseen left the clouds overhead red, orange, and pink with the dying light. We walked up the canyon floor, me stopping to take picture after picture of the sky colors and the soft colored rock walls. You know that moment when life unfolds in a way that catches your adrenaline so well that there is no where else you’d rather be? That was me. A sunset in a northern AZ canyon. Colored earth and ceiling. Blending as twilight erased the horizon.
We stood in the canyon even as full darkness settled to suck up the last hues. Now fully in the darkness, we had to climb out of Walnut Canyon as no camping is allowed down in there. Donning lights, we started switchbacking up the AZT for another mile or two until, looking for a good spot to setup camp away from wind and with some weather protection in case it stormed tonight. We found a thicket of pine on a knoll back on the opposing plateau. Pushing through the trees, we found a great site flat and protected by vegetation. Setting up camp, we walked back out to the trail to eat some snacks in the dark before setting up our Ursacks. The wind picked up and we got back to the Triplex, getting inside just moments before it began to rain in earnest.