Great Western Loop: Days 1-4: Flagstaff to Pine
Day 1: Ready, steady, go! (32miles)
It's 5:34 in the morning and it's cold. I have spent the last two weeks quarantining in Mexico and I'm not used to temperatures below freezing.
Anyways, after all these months of preparation I just want to get started and I need to build a habit of starting early. It's about discipline.
I'm not as well trained as last year, when I hiked New Zealands Te Araroa as a preparation for the Great Western Loop. I therefore have to make sure to spend as many hours as possible on trail, to get enough miles in.
The first few miles of the day are easy and familiar. I've been here before and know the trail quite well, yet I'm struggling with the altitude. I'm at ~7500 feet and i have a hard time catching my breath.
The trail is in a pretty good condition and the weather is awesome. Last year I faced 4 days of constant rain between Flagstaff and Pine and had a really miserable time.
This year it's really nice. Temperatures are about ~15°C and I make good progress, even through the dreaded Anderson Mesa where endless amounts of mud slowed me down last year. There's a bit of snow here and there, but it just adds to the beauty of the scenery instead of causing any problems.
There's an abundance of wildlife. Elks, deer, a Skunk, squirrels and rabbits. Most of the time I'm just too slow to capture it.
Throughout the day I meet some 6-8 other hikers. All the people are going northbound (nobo) and are quite suprised seeing someone going the other direction(sobo). I spent some time chatting with "Not a chance" and "China Rock", exchanging general trail information, before moving on.
At 4:30pm I'm passing my last year's campsite next to the old railroad up to Mormon Lake that was abandoned in the late 1910's. One hour later and about 32 miles into this adventure I call it the day at Double Springs Canyon, just to realise that my water filter isn't working properly anymore. Great start...
Day 2: Boiling water (34.7m)
The night was cold.
All my water is frozen, but I was very warm and comfortable in my new 10°F (-12,°C) quilt. Definitely a good investment; never been that warm in any of my sleeping bags.
I'm leaving camp at 6:48am, that's quite late, but due to my broken water filter, I spent some more time collecting water at a reliable and clear stream, just next to the campsite.
The terrain remains rather flat and I'm moving fast. The trail is clearly marked and covered in pine needles, that allows for a pace of more than 3mph.
I pass a lot of places that I remember from last year, when all of this area was completely flooded.
I even encountered the first signs of trailmagic (usually water or food provided by strangers, aka "Trailangels" to hikers). A small cache of water, right next to a trailhead. With my broken filter, I'm really grateful for it. After taking a liter, I move on.
At 6pm I'm at the "Foot in Tree" tank". I initially planned to camp next to the tank, but the water looks really filthy and smells badly. Wherever I look, I see cowshit, even in the water. I therefore decide to push on and hike another 3 miles to "Homestead" tank. This one looks much better, but I still decide to boil the water, before drinking it.
Day 3: Getting close to Pine (32.9m)
I start falling into a rhythm of getting up around 5:30am and starting to hike just after 6am.
The night was again quite cold, but my combination of quilt and sleeping pad really starts paying off. On most of my previous hikes, I had some back problems from sleeping on uneven surfaces. Not this time.
I enjoy hiking through one of the world's largest pine tree forests, while getting more and more excited as i'm getting closer to the East Verde River crossing.
Last year, this was a stream that caused major concerns, as it was up to waist-deep. This year, it was almost a dry crossing, that even allowed to spend some time on a sandbank in the middle of the stream.
(Last year, the sandbank I'm sitting on, was completely flooded)
I enjoy a snack and drink straight from the river without filtering my water. It's one of the best sources that I've seen for hours. It's 10:30 am and I have already hiked 15miles that day.
While relaxing here, I meet several other hikers and bikers. The usual question is "are you doing the whole thing?" (Arizona Trail), which causes me to explain my slightly more complicated itinerary.
I get a lot of encouragement from two elderly hikers and a warning about snow on the upcoming miles to General Springs Canyon.
It's incredible how rapidly the trail can change here between just two different canyons.
Quite exactly 1 mile before General Springs Campground I have a lot of snow and I start postholing for a few minutes. Just after General Springs Campground the snow is entirely gone and I'm starting my hike towards the small town of Pine.
The scenery is constantly changing and diverse, it never gets boring.
(Just after taking this picture, a bee stung me behind my left ear...thanks!)
There's some rumours about Trailmagic several miles ahead, but it's getting late already and I'm sure that I'd miss it even with running the next few miles. I therefore decide to take it easy and to pitch my tent at a really nice, but quite exposed ridge.
(View back to the "rim", where I came from)
Day 4: Into Pine (22.5m)
It's just 10-12 miles from my campsite to Pine.
(Two elks giving me a strange look)
The trail into Pine provides more of a challenge than the last few days. There's a lot of up's and down's, some bushwacking and a lot of rocks.
I make it to Pine's Trailhead by ~10am and directly try to get a hitch to Payson. Payson is much bigger than Pine and I'm hoping to get a new water filter there.
It takes just 10-15min. until a car finally stops. Gary, a die-hard republican and Vietnam Veteran with his 9mm pistol right next to his right leg, picks me up and starts grumbling over "californians invading Arizona", because of their democratic govenor. It's an interesting ride with an accomplished bow-hunter who promised himself to never pick up a rifle again after his experiences in the Marine Corps.
I spent an hour in Payson. Resupplied, got some water purification tablets and a "lifestraw", which will be sufficient for the next stretch.
Anne, a trail angel offers me a ride back to Pine which I happily accept. Just minutes later I'm starting to regret my decision as she seems to be quite drunk. Luckily it seems to be her allergies, not alcohol that make her look a bit distressed and confused.
For some additional two hours I decide to rest in Pine. I first had a late breakfast at a small restaurant - that offered me a free brownie - and immediately after that I went over to the cafe for lunch. Calories are a hiker's best friend...and when you burn it, you earn it :-)
Between 2-3pm I decided to hike on.
The climb out of Pine wasn't easy, but I was well fueled by all the food I just had.
In the evening I had climbed up to Telegraph Road and enjoyed quite a nice sunset. I hiked until 8pm and pitched my tent in the dark.
This first section was really lovely. My body is holding up to the challenge and is feeling better than I expected.
In fact I'm faster than last year, with less problems in my feet or legs. Looks like strengthening my feet with a specific training was actually beneficial.