Total Miles: 299.7
The morning discovered us in a state now quite familiar: strolling past a shallow depression full of dark brown water. Fine crystals of frost on nearby meadow grasses sparkled in the first rays of sunlight, while those that had been warmed for but a few minutes had already melted into droplets that now weighed heavily on the blades to which they clung.
Much like the day we arrived on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, we were careening towards something we could not see, the great ponderosa pine forest masking another surprise: the Mogollon Rim.
A quick word association game. If someone says Arizona, I think of cactus. Desert. Sun. Heat. But what about the very different land we’ve spent these first few hundred miles of the Arizona Trail ambling through? Mountains. Pine forests. Aspens in fall color. Two very different Arizonas, separated by a single geologic feature: the Mogollon Rim.
Running roughly east-west across the northern portion of Arizona clear to New Mexico, the Mogollon Rim rips the state in two. A giant escarpment delineating the edge of the Colorado Plateau, it forms a geographic line of demarcation between the Arizona we’ve come to know these past two weeks from the Arizona most people call to mind.
Back in 2019, we joined our friends Beardoh, Sweet Pea, and Mace as they became three of the very first people to hike the entirety of the Mogollon Rim Trail. A new route that could hardly be thought of as a formal trail, it follows the route of the Rim itself from outside Sedona to New Mexico, linking together portions of existing trail with dirt roads and large swaths of off-trail hiking.
Only a few days into that trip, we found ourselves following the “trail” by wading downstream waist deep in the waters of West Clear Creek. Not far from that very place as the crow flies, Ace and I now trudged downhill toward its sister drainage of East Clear Creek. A far cry from our experience of West Clear Creek considering the East branch was merely a trickle a few inches deep, but to focus on the outward comparison would be to bury the lede. After a string of stagnant cow tanks, this was no mirage, but a real live stream of actual flowing water. They do exist!
One flowing stream begat another, as East Clear Creek gave way to General Springs Creek which we followed for a mile or two as it snaked its way through a narrow canyon toward the spring that forms its headwaters. Light and shade danced a quiet choreography along the trail as it followed the banks of the creek beneath towering pines.
When we finally passed the springs that gave birth to the creek, we were not a half mile from reaching the edge of the Mogollon Rim. Up and over a small rise, for the first time we saw far into the distance over the rocky precipice of the Rim. At once both regal and rotten, rock strewn flanks of the plateau we’ve called home suddenly tumbled far below with only a carpet of pines brave enough to follow their descent.
Making our way down into the uncharted territory below the Colorado Plateau, we were suddenly throwing open the gates of an entirely new world. The East Verde River crashed downhill with cool water that would have made it right at home in a far away place like Vermont and gave life to a verdant patch of forest, complete with the yellows and oranges of autumn hardwoods turning color. Sandstone and limestone mixed together in the classic southwest tones of white, pink, and red. And downy tufts of bright white clouds kept watch over it all.
We’d been almost sad to wave goodbye to the Colorado Plateau, but the diversity of sights held in only the few miles between our descent of the Mogollon Rim and the end of our day more than made up for it. It was as if we’d stumbled into a Bermuda Triangle of climates, where the dry pines of the plateau, lush forests of New England, and brilliant red rock of the desert that lies ahead are inextricably entangled.
We watched the last rays of sun descend behind a shoulder of the Rim, casting upwards into the sky a color of light akin to the bright orange yolk of an egg. As the post-sunset light became soft and then faint, we pitched our tent on the banks of a small stream and set about our usual end-of-day routines before deciding to settle in to dinner beside one of the very rarest of trail novelties: a campfire.