Great Western Loop: Day 21-25 (Mammoth to Safford)
Day 21: Mammoth to Aravaipa Road (28m)
I had tried several times to get a permit for the Aravaipa Canyon, including the local Ranger, but wasn't successful. My plan was therefore to head southeast and bypass the canyon.
Even though I had had a tough day with 36miles the day before, I felt great and left Mammoth at 10am.
I followed a dirt road through the desert, that steadily climbed to a higher elevation. For this section I didn't have much reliable information on water-sources and so I used every opportunity to camel-up and keep my supplies well stocked.
(Most of these tanks have a floating pressure valve under that metal guard, that releases clearer water)
(View back on Mammoth)
Hiking that road wasn't spectacular, but the open terrain allowed cell-service and so I texted while hiking until the first rattlesnake of the season started rattling at me. Unfortunately I couldn't really see the snake, that was hiding under some bushes.
After 4 hours on that road, I followed a little stream cross-country.
It was a rugged, but beautiful section with a bit of rock-climbing and the fear of stepping on a rattlesnake. Luckily the one from the road, remained the only one to bother me
The only other animal I found that day was a lovely Gila monster.
When the trail started climbing from 3,000 to 5,300ft my left knee started to hurt badly. It felt like my muscles were swollen and hiking got pretty difficult and painful. I considered taking painkillers, but was too lazy to drop my backpack. The pain remained for the rest of the day.
After reaching the initial peak, the trail went up and down through several canyons.
I made it down into a non-restricted part of the Aravaipa Canyon and pitched my tent just before nightfall and spent some extra time massaging my legs, to reduce the pain.
Day 22: Aravaipa Canyon road to Cottonwood Mountain Trail (25m)
The day started easy. After a lot of elevation change and pain on the previous day, I felt quite good again. Within the last weeks I had regularly used my cooking pot to massage my legs and it seemed to work perfectly. It really helped to step up my recovery game and greatly reduced the pain and stiffness on the next day. And so it did this time again.
I followed the Aravaipa Canyon road and than the Klondyke-Aravaipa road for several hours. Along the way I passed some creepy old and run-down houses, where still people seemed to live.
(Well...nobody lived there anymore)
Hiking in the morning was fast and river crossings easy. At 10am I came to the junction of the Klondyke-Aravaipa and Forest Road 6630. Here I would leave the wide dirt road to head into the Santa Teresa Mountains, but I hesitated. The Forest Road was blocked by a gate with several "private" and "no trespassing" signs. This doesnt necessarily mean, that hikers cant pass, as there are sometimes special agreements, but I wasn't sure and considered hiking south towards Klondyke. After a short break however, I jumped the fence on that cloudy day. I had heard great things about that next stretch and wasn't willing to bypass it.
After not more than 2 miles I would be on public land again and so I just went for it.
I quickly finished the roadwalk and went onto a small trail towards the Holdout Canyon.
In the beginning the trail was easy to follow. Small cairns marked the way and guided me through the canyon until I hit the Holdout creek. The trail was now gone and very difficult to follow. Numerous smaller canyons lead to a lot of confusion and getting off trail oftentimes meant suddenly being in the wrong canyon, with limited options to get out, except for turning around. Close to the creek a lot of debris made it the terrain challenging and hiking 2 miles cost me about 1.5 hours (I usually hike ~3miles per hour)
The terrain opened up, when I reached the Black Rock Trail. Here I followed the river for a few miles and was happy not to get constantly stuck in thick thorn bushes.
After just 1-2 hours on this section, I once again had to climb out of a canyon for a 3 mile cross-country stretch through several smaller canyons.
It wasn't too bad, as I basically just had to go east and once I had my bearings I kept looking for the best route.
Just before nightfall the skies cleared up and provided 10minutes of sunshine and an spectacular sunset.
Day 23: Cottonwood Mountain Trail to Government Spring (31m)
I was happy to be on a solid trail again, when I continued hiking the next day. I had pitched my tent at roughly 5,300ft and would follow the mountain for another 2,500ft uphill.
After 2 hours of hiking the weather turned on me. It once again got cold and started snowing heavily. Fortunately I wasn't high enough, for the snow to remain on the ground.
It was a bit disappointing as this weather denied any views on the upcoming mountain range. The Grahams. These mountains would be higher and surely be covered in snow, which I was about to find out that same day.
Around midday I had finished my descent and would now traverse the desert floor for 9.8 miles until climbing again from 3,000ft up to 9,000ft.
(Most of these street signs have been shot at...God bless the 2nd Ammendment...)
Crossing the desert floor was easy and fast, followed by an 1-2 mile cross-country section into the Grahams. Here I decided to stay on a road instead of following a difficult trail.
I was flying up that road, as I was light. Due to the temperatures I hadn't needed much water and I didn't fill up before that big climb as I wasn't willing to carry unnecessary weight. Given the weather conditions and the snow, I was sure to find water on the mountain. Well...I would learn the hard way that I was wrong.
At 5:30pm I had reached 8,500 ft and the road was more and more covered in snow, but unfortunately there were no streams of melted water. I continued uphill, trying to make it to Government Spring, an unreliable water-source some 5miles away.
From the top of the mountain I got some stunning views on the desert floor I had just crossed that day.
Just before nightfall I got to Government Spring. The spring had a faucet which was probably frozen and so I tried to get some water out of the little well, but upon climbing that little stone wall i smelled a disgusting stench and saw a lot of floaters in the water. Even though I was quite desperate for water, I decided not to take what was available here.
Unfortunately by now I had already slightly descended the mountain top again and so the amount of snow was also limited. I grabbed as much snow as I could and looked for a place to camp. I found a very small and narrow place and started to melt the snow I had gathered. It was enough for cooking and a cup of hot chocolate, but given the many hours I had hiked without water, I would have needed another 1.5 liters to properly hydrate again.
It was a rough night and every now and than I tried to suck on my water-fiter for just a single drop of water.
Day 24: Government Spring to Noon Creek Campground (29m)
The forecast had promised great weather for today, but my only concern was water. I had to get water and I had to get it soon.
I broke camp at 6:30am and started hiking towards Riggs Lake, a certain water source some 2-3 hours away.
To get there I had to ascent to Taylor's Pass, which lead back into more snow.
Knowing the risk of eating snow, I just ate a little bit to get at least some water.
It was a beautiful stretch on an awesome day and despite my thirst I regularly stopped for photos.
At 9:15am I finally found a small stream of clear water close to Riggs Lake and instantly dropped my pack. I quickly drank half a litre, while boiling another litre for a hot chocolate.
I rested and rehydrated for some 30minutes, before I moved on.
The old road I stayed on was now completely covered in snow and it was overall a nice winter-wonderland.
On that road, I passed several campgrounds, which were of course all closed, but had an open bathroom. Hell yeah! What a nice sight, after shitting in the woods for days. I wasnt even bothered by the stench of a dead and rotten squirrel, right next to the toilet.
The road dropped below 9,000ft and the snow decreased. I was slightly hoping of being out of the snow, which made hiking just more strenuous, but than I had to leave the road for the Arcadia Trail. Within minutes I was back in deep snow.
Fortunately, the snow pack was pretty consolidated and I didn't sink in too much. Hiking through the snow was fun and still quite fast. There were no footprints at all, but I still managed to follow the trail without using GPS too much. After just a mile, the trail followed quite a steep slope, which looked scary, but the snow provided enough traction to safely traverse it.
It's remarkable how fast the trail changes. From 30 degrees Celsius on a desert floor to freezing temperatures on a snow covered mountain within the same day. That's what keeps hiking so diverse and interesting.
This section lasted for maybe an hour until the trail dropped into a burned area.
Here I tried to join the Noon Creek Trail and risked my life finding it.
The trail I was supposed to take was nowhere to be found. I searched for 30minutes and scrambled over some way too steep slopes on lose gravel trying to find it. Slipping here could have probably killed me, and I got way too close to falling. I decided it was too risky to continue here and so I backtracked to the last trail junction and took the safe and easy way to the next road.
(You can see Safford in the background)
Reaching that road was harder than expected. The trail was pretty overgrown with thorn bushes and once I got to Noon creek, the trail was washed away. I followed some cairns down the river bed, but than missed the point where I had to leave the wash. I had expected the river going all the way to the Arcadia campground as main water source, but I was wrong and had to turn around. I quickly found the right trail and the road again and followed that road for another 4.5 miles, reaching Noon Creek Campground by 7pm.
Day 25: Noon Creek Campground to Safford (15m)
From Noon Creek Campground it was an easy 15mile hike along the road to Safford. The hike was quite boring and so I tried to get it done fast. By 5:45am I was already on the road and in town just before 10am.
It was a sunday and the town was pretty dead. All restaurants were empty and only offering takeaway food, most other shops had closed.
I checked in to a local motel and decided to stay the night in town, to assess the current situation. With more and more Covid-19 cases and more and more states issuing "stay at home" orders, the success of this adventure seemed more questionable than ever before.