Total Miles: 21.0
There's very little that the Pacific Northwest and the desert Southwest have in common, except for one important detail: they're both landscapes defined by water. So much of the lush green Pacific Northwest and it's snow-capped peaks is owed to its surplus while the arid desert and mesa of the Southwest have a character shaped by its near-complete absence, and it's that contrast that makes this next hike so fascinating.
Neither Ace nor I have spent any time visiting the Southwest, and it has become somewhat of a perennial curiosity as a result. So when the opportunity arose to join our friends Beardoh and Sweet Pea for a portion of their thru-hike on a nearly unknown new route in Arizona, we couldn't help but jump on board. We'd also have the chance to meet their long-time friend Mace, who has known Beardoh and Sweet Pea since their Appalachian Trail thru-hike in 2011.
The route in question is the Mogollon Rim Trail, an invention of Brett “Blisterfree” Tucker, that connects existing trails, forest service roads, and x-country travel to follow the geological feature of the Mogollon Rim for approximately 500 miles from outside Cottonwood, AZ all the way to the border with New Mexico. Go ahead and Google it—I'll wait. It's hardly spoiling the surprise to say that you may not have found much content, which isn't necessarily surprising considering that, to date, only 3 people have completed the route in its entirety. Assuming all going well, Beardoh, Sweet Pea, and Mace will be thru-hikers #4, #5, and #6, and although we’re only able to join them for a single week we’re really happy to share a part of what will surely be a unique adventure.
The Mogollon Rim itself is a grand escarpment that separates the Colorado Plateau above from the hills that tumble down into the vast and torrid desert valley below, running here and there like a great ragged tear in the landscape, as if the bedrock had been rent in two with one half being altogether discarded. Seeing it for the first time as we neared Sedona in our shuttle from the Phoenix airport was quite a sight.
After pulling into the red rock country of Sedona in the evening, we were thrilled to see our friends again and to meet Mace for the first time, but as we got ready to head out onto the trail we were met with out first small wrinkle—none of the stores that were still open had any fuel for our stove, so off we went with thoughts of cold coffee and cold dinners.
When the Uber driver pulled away and the faint red glow of taillights had disappeared around the bend all that was left was the five of us surrounded by a very still desert darkness. That was around 7:30 last night when Beardoh, Sweet Pea, Mace, Ace and I had left behind the town of Sedona and set down the MRT to find a reasonable place to hang our hammocks for the night.
Today was our introduction to the unique character of the MRT and hiking in the Southwest, beginning with the early morning sun backlighting a landscape of maroon colored rock with blue sky. We'd first seen that contrast on a trip thru Arches National Park many years ago, and the effect was equally striking today—two primary colors competing for attention and dominating a land otherwise largely washed of its color.
Pleasantly meandering along the groomed trails outside of Sedona, we crossed under a beautiful historic trestle bridge on our way down to a first creek crossing.
But when the trail briefly gave way to pavement, it was hard to pass a sign like this without pausing for a second look...
The blissful Oak Creek eased along in the cool shade of the small valley below, and despite being only a couple of feet deep, there was no series of rocks positioned to hop across so it became a short ford and an early opportunity for us all to embrace wet feet that would soon be a distant memory.
Once across, we began our first long climb up to the top of the Rim, where an entirely different landscape of grassy open mesa dotted with small junipers awaited. Far below, the red rock wilderness outside of Sedona stretched out into the distance.
There’s an almost enchanted quality to the desert that I'd first learned while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. It hides so many unexpected surprises—water and color perhaps the most prominent punctuation points that often arise seemingly from nowhere at all. Case in point, not long after a flat stroll across the mesa and followed promptly by a brutal bushwhack through all manner of sharp, pointed vegetation on a trail that threatened to disappear altogether, there awaited a brilliantly colored cactus in bloom.
We'd raced against gathering and darkening clouds all day, and while the late afternoon descent off the rim wore on, I could feel those very first trailblazing drops land on my hands and face. That put some speed into all of our feet to get down to a flatter area and scout out possible hammock hangs as quickly as possible. With the rain increasing, what we settled on was a less than ideal and very challenging hang made more challenging by the tired legs and feet that had carried us here. The freeze dried dinner that had been rehydrating with cold water all afternoon as we walked was the proverbial cherry on top, being about as appealing as you might expect. The quiet patter of raindrops on the tarp above is our lullaby for an evening that should hopefully be our only rain of the trip.