Total Miles: 75.8
The 5:30am alarm came as early as ever, this time with the added realization of just how cold a night it had been. Each bundled in our warm layers, we broke camp as quickly as we could to start moving and even then still kept on down jackets and wind shirts longer than usual. It’s the easily forgotten dichotomy of the desert—sweltering days matched by equally chilling nights.
The good news of the morning was that Ace’s ankle swelling appeared to be somewhat better than it had been the day before, and if the trail continued its easy going nature from yesterday afternoon it should hopefully be manageable for the next two days. Helping matters further was that the hiking on open dirt tracks that had been a mainstay for much of the last 50 miles was now under the pleasantly dappled sunlight provided courtesy of stand upon stand of Ponderosa pine. Open understory with a bed of soft needles underfoot and the smell of dry pine in the air is truly one of my favorite things.
Strolling through forests of pine you can lose yourself and be blissfully unaware of the broader features of the landscape that may be shifting just outside the reach of your gaze, so it came as quite a surprise when the trail emerged into a small opening among the trees perched on a cliff high above a deep canyon. The promise of a lunch next to an actual water source was a gravitational pull too great to resist, so down we went on an incredibly steep and little used trail.
Steep or not, it was an impressive descent that I imagine very few feet have walked…
The shady lunch was everything it promised to be, with shockingly cold water that seemed as though it belonged more in the snowy springtime mountains of the Pacific Northwest than the warming oven of the desert Southwest. No sooner did I wade in to ankle deep with every intention of diving in then the signal reached my brain strongly suggesting that I reconsider. Sweet Pea and Ace, sitting on the nearby bank, had a good chuckle at how quickly my plans for a swim had fizzled.
The nature of the trail changed abruptly the moment we set away from our perfect lunch spot, as the “trail” was now simply a matter of “follow the river.” Hemmed in by cliffs and with no consistent banks to speak of on either side, the seemingly obvious choice was to abandon dry feet and wade downstream directly through the lazy water of West Clear Creek.
And on it went for the next 1.3 miles, alternating between hiking in the creek and bushwhacking through blowdown on whatever dry land we could find whenever we reached a bend in its course and the water became too deep to continue. Truth be told, it was an awesome way to spend an afternoon under the sun, even if it took us an hour and forty minutes to cover a distance that typically would have taken thirty. Call it “canyoneering lite.”
Our cue for exiting the creek was to look for a weakness in the cliffs that had been described as “memorably steep” and would provide the route for our return back up to the top of the Mogollon Rim. Given that the creek was largely sandwiched between vertical cliffs, it wasn’t too difficult to spot our exit ramp, and up we went on a trail that would have been perfectly at home in the rugged old trails of the Northeast, climbing at a 1500 feet-per-mile clip over boulders and bedrock that made sure we hit our quota of lunges for the day.
Comfortably back atop the Rim, it was like it had never happened. Stretching out before us was the welcoming flatlands of the same Ponderosa pine forest we’d left behind hours before. The pleasant walking continued all the way through the evening until we picked out a spot on a small swale for our last night on trail. With forest like this, everyday is Valentine’s Day…