It was with relief that we moved to the cool, clear air of Payson AZ from the yellowish smog of the Picacho Peak area. Being at a much higher elevation (about 6000′), it seemed obvious that we should spend our time exploring the many hikes in the area. So, we did.

Our base for four nights was the Houston Mesa Campground in the Tonto National Forest. Other than the Camp Host, we were the only campers in this 100 site campground. What a change from the packed Picacho Peak State Park! This campground is a gem.

Day One: The first hike we selected was a bust. Called the Monument View hike, we hoped for something with sweeping vistas of the Mogollon (Muggy On) Plateau. Nope. What we got was a walk through a hard-packed ravine where trail motorbikes must often race around. 20180305_1221191162682630.jpgIt was quite a disappointment. The best thing was this huge boulder alongside the road. It was impressive, just sitting there all by itself.20180305_133210117398971.jpgThe rest of the hike? Meh…

Day Two: It seemed like a good idea to take a hike with a bit of elevation involved, since our legs had finally recovered from hiking at Picacho. So, the Military Sinkhole Trail seemed like an obvious choice.20180306_1248171357081767.jpg We started at the bottom, and hiked a rocky trail up and up. 20180306_1206231361577040.jpgThe number of downed trees in the forest was amazing – I understand now how all this brush can fuel a forest fire – some of these trees had obviously been down for years, if not decades.20180307_124845119157993.jpg Thick carpets of pine needles and leaves made the path soft underfoot. When we finally arrived at the top, we were puzzled as to where the sinkhole actually was. John consulted Google, and we located it across the street from our scenic lunch spot. 20180306_121912369153406.jpg20180306_1218501013557682.jpgSadly, the sinkhole itself wasn’t photogenic in the least – there really was nothing there to see. But, what a gorgeous hike.

Day Three: The most popular hike in the Payson area is the Horton Spring Trail, according to Alltrails.com. Why not? This was totally different than the other two, as it followed Horton Creek up to its source. For four miles we followed along the rushing, cool creek – past small waterfalls and rocky outcroppings in the creek. 20180307_1148421088939701.jpg20180307_122622357031273.jpgAt one point, we passed two large wooden teepees. This photo doesn’t do them justice – somebody had to work hard to erect them – the logs in the big one were huge! I’m hoping it was a Scout project of some type – I really wanted to wade across the creek to examine them more closely, but there just wasn’t a spot where I felt I could cross without likely falling and filling up my boots!20180312_121604922202610.jpg Horton Spring is at the end of the hike – the water pours out of a rock from an artisan spring. Amazing. Most of my photos were a bust, so just take my word for it that it’s a gorgeous area, and a cool walk in the woods was the perfect activity for the day.

We were really sad to leave the Payson area after four nights. There’s a lot to explore here, and the cool air was much to our liking. But, we had a return date at Lost Dutchman State Park for a few nights. We took in a Cubs spring-training baseball game (Cubs beat the LA Angels 6-1). In case I don’t get to see the Detroit Tigers this year, this may have to satisfy my baseball game watching urge. We had pretty mediocre seats, but it was still fun.

Lost Dutchman has a trail that has intrigued us since the first time we saw it. It reaches from the campground up to the Flatiron – a peak at about nearly 3000′ above. 20180308_14364265722636.jpgIn a distance of about 3 miles, that’s a lot of elevation! It truly was the hardest hike I’ve ever done – the Trail was crowded with adventurers on a Saturday morning. There were even some paragliders out early on that Saturday morning. You can barely see one of them in this photo.20180310_084531-1144373445.jpg The crowds made things easier and harder at the same time. It was beneficial to have others around to point out the best handhold or route up an uncertain path, but it also led to a few logjams where we had to wait for our turn to haul ourselves up a particularly rough area. It took us exactly three hours to get to the top, and my legs were like jelly! Wow – what views! But, I never want to hike that one again. Once and done!20180310_0957441415430516.jpg20180310_1231401012063050.jpg20180310_112648-1939817177.jpg20180310_1133121389221668.jpgNow we’re holed up at Indian Cove Campground in Joshua Tree National Park. It would be tough to find a more beautiful campsite.20180311_155250-12087199245.jpg20180312_094446-11588087552.jpg We’ve got five days to explore the area – revisit a few of our favorite spots, and find a few hidden gems.



Flatiron Failures

First of all, let me be clear about something.  After some disparaging remarks from some “friends” about snowbirds, we have decided that we are NOT snowbirds.  We are SnowAngels.  Sent from the Midwest to the Southwest/Southeast to spend money, boost the economy, and generally spread our cheerful midwestern selves.  So, get over it, ok?

Let’s move on……we’ve spent the most delightful six days at Lost Dutchman State Park, about 25 miles east of Phoenix.   Map here.20150123_131302 This park has it all – big campsites, pristine bathrooms, mountain bike trails, and fabulous hiking.  Not to mention the Superstition Mountains, which glow magnificently over the campground.  Sunsets are golden, sunrises glow with desert colors. 20150123_172444 Not only is it a spectacular natural setting, it is meticulously maintained by the Rangers and Camp Hosts.  Even the gravel roadbeds got a daily raking.20150123_102945We were joined for the weekend by Ilene and Vern Baker, fellow Fireballers from Tucson.  We met two years ago at a T@B/T@DA rally, and have maintained a conversation since then.  This was our first opportunity to camp together, and we made the most of it.  They rolled in long after sunset on Friday and expertly backed their camper into the slot across from ours.  Ten minutes later, we were huddled around our campfire in the chilly wind. (Funny moment?  Ilene is fairly short – we were chatting while she was heading toward the restroom to brush her teeth – Jezzy was licking her toothbrush, while oblivious Ilene chatted on…..)  It was that kind of weekend.  Like comfy best friends.

We spent a good part of Saturday morning comparing campers.  Although the Bakers’ T@DA looks identical to ours on the outside, they are very dissimilar. 20150124_093101 They have a huge dinette, which breaks into a queen bed.  A 3-way (propane) refrigerator.  Their storage setup is completely different than ours.  Since they are primarily weekend campers, they haven’t yet made many of the little modifications that add storage and utility.  It was fun peering into cubbyholes and finding hidden spaces which can be converted into something useful.

The bonus?  It’s Vern’s birthday!   That meant lunch at his favorite Cajun seafood restaurant. Gumbo, etouffee, or Creole, cooked to your heat level preference.  (I chose level 6.  Everyone else had 1 or 2).  Fabulous food, and we took the leftover crawfish etouffee left over to add to breakfast burritos the next morning.  Sounds awful, but I guess you had to be there.  Our two days flew by, but we’ve made plans for a beer/Girl Scout Cookie pairing event at a Tucson taproom.  Sounds like a great idea.

Sunday afternoon was spent creating green chile/pork stew in the Dutch oven for Grand Rapids SnowAngels, Sis and Blaine.  Food, fire, friends…..it’s a wonderful way to spend time.

Inbetween all of this socializing, we hiked the all of the trails in the Park, with the exception of the Flatiron Trail – saving the best for last.  There are lots of birds here – Gambel Quail are everywhere.  The coyotes in this Park seem to be working overtime, we didn’t see any, but some seemed startingly close at night. 20150126_10134220150126_10103220150126_10045820150126_103531Monday is exploration day.  Visited the Apache Junction Tourist Center and Apachetown Center. 20150126_143447 We loved the Elvis Chapel. It had been moved from an old movie set (remember the old Elvis movie Charro?  Neither do I.), reassembled, and painted inside to remember the King.  Available for weddings.  Sadly, there’s not much at Apachetown to hold our interest.  Ditto for Goldfield – a re-enactment of a goldmining town that might be the worst tourist trap ever.  Ugh.20150123_145043Saw this photo in the bar there – couldn’t get a good photo because of the glare.  I liked the hatlike effect of the lamp on W’s head.20150123_145618One last spot we need to explore is Tortilla Flats, which involves a torturous 12 mile drive down the Apache Trail.  It was a pretty hairy drive.  The National Forest campground there has been permanently closed, due to budget cuts. It’s a shame – such a gorgeous spot  near Canyon Lake.  We wander around for a bit, and reward ourselves by saddling up at the bar in Tortilla Flats for a beer.20150126_154344 Getting on the saddle was easy – but I’m so glad there’s no video of me trying to figure out how to gracefully remove my ass from the saddle to leave!

Finally, it’s Tuesday – our last day at Dutchman.  All week long, we had been eyeing our big challenge – the assault on the Flatiron Trail.  We’ve hiked all the other trails over the few days we’ve been here, and are now ready for the big ascent.  The Flatiron, in this photo, is the peak slightly in the background, smack in the center.20150127_175330 I’ve been staring at it all week, in anticipation of standing on the top, looking out over the Valley of the Sun.The problem is that it rained all Monday night, and Tuesday morning as well.  Not only did it delay our start, it also caused interesting complications.  But, we set our on foot from the Fireball, ready for a challenge.

Holy shit!  With the clay and sandstone surface slickened by rain, the hike was much tougher than it would ordinarily (probably) have been.  Hiking reports put the distance at around 6 miles (3 miles upward, then back).  The first two miles are a steady uphill trek, over a rocky, but very walkable trail.  We amble past Siphon Rock.20150127_110746 All was okay, until we hit the Basin, the valley beneath the mountain, where the maintained trail ends, and the wilderness trail begins. Altitude at the Basin is 3100′.20150127_114319All at once, the difficulty factor escalated.  The rain made the sheer, smooth slope out of the Basin impossible to stand up and walk.  It was discouraging.  Water was pouring down the surface.  We stared up at the Flatiron – the last mile of the trail had an altitude gain of nearly 1800′.  We sat, an had a heart to heart discussion about our ability to go the distance.  We would try to scramble up a few feet, only to slide back a foot.  What saved us?  Two hikers coming down, who assured us that it we could get over this tough section, it would get better.  So, we loaded our pockets with Cliffbars, and ditched our backpack with extra water, lunch, and hiking sticks.  Monkey-style, we clambered up the slick surface, heading up the big, steep unknown with a liter of water and high hopes

It was difficult.  Perhaps the most difficult hike we have attempted.  The water-slickened rocks required all our strength to haul ourselves forward.  It was steep!.  Handholds were few, and pitfalls were plenty. 20150127_121258 To complicate matters, trail markers were few and far between, and several years old.  Faded, and hard to spot.  A father/son hiking team came upon us.  We decided to stick together – four sets of eyes being better than two to spot trail markers.  We plodded on for the next hour, but it was very hard going. My shoulders and fingers ached from pulling myself up boulder after boulder.  There came a Moment of Truth – the realization that we were exhausted, the descent would be treacherous, and that the last hour to get up to the Flatiron summit would compromise our safe trip back to camp. 20150127_133051 So, we regretfully (and nearly tearfully) bid our hiking pals goodbye, and turned back.  I’m disappointed beyond reason.

So, what’s the real kick in the ass here?  I’ve been wearing this Garmin Vivofit step tracker.  It’s my motivator to keep moving.  After several hours of pushing and pulling myself over humongous boulders up the Flatiron Trail, I glanced at my bracelet.  Unbelievable!  20150127_133238The long red bar on the top left shows that I haven’t moved significantly in an hour, and the four short red bars to the right of that are additional 15 minute increments with no activity.  I’ve been killing myself, and my Vivofit thinks I’ve been napping!  Have to laugh, but really…………?  Were we moving that slowly?  Plus, after hours of walking, it shows that I’ve only gone 6000 steps.

Hotdogs over the fire tonight.  We’re barely moving.  Hot showers help, and we’re hoping that a good night’s sleep will revive us.  (Realtime Update…..it’s two days later, and we’re still stiff and sore.)

Onward to Catalina State Park, near Tucson.  I’ll have to extract my revenge on the Flatiron another day.