Added 18 December 2011
Arizona Trail Passage 26: Hardscrabble Mesa - Twin Buttes to Pine Trailhead
Jerry and Andrea picked me up at six o'clock this morning so we could hike Arizona Trail Passage 26 up near Payson today. We had originally planned on backpacking Passage 1 in the Huachuca Mountains this weekend, but the closure of Coronado National Forest forced us to find a Plan B. When we got to Payson we stopped at Mom and Dad's house, as they agreed to shuttle us from the end of the trail to the trailhead.
We dropped Jerry's truck off near Pine, then piled in to Mom and Dad's truck for the drive out to Hardscrabble Mesa to start the hike. Jerry and I rode in the truck bed. We both surmised that neither of us had ridden the back of a truck since college. I miss riding in the backs of trucks. It's fun, and brings back wonderful memories.
The first part of the passage was hiking over the same road we drove to get to the trailhead. My parents thought it was a little odd that we were going to hike more than a mile right back down the road they had just driven us on and asked if we wanted a ride to where the trail left the main dirt road, but we declined. It's the principle of thing to hike every mile of the AZT.
Once we left the gravel road, the trail condition was light years away from our first passage (Passage 8) though. Much of passage 26 consists of hiking over loose rock ranging in size from gravels to cobbles. I was thankful for strong ankles. It slowed our hiking pace down pretty considerably, and on more than one occasion I was appreciative that I wasn't hiking over all of those rocks with a fully loaded backpack. In some places the rocks were so prevalent that it wasn't really clear that there was a trail at all in amongst them. Fortunately, there were plenty of large cairns in these areas to keep us on course. We joked though that in some places it was hard to see the cairns because of all the other rocks around them.
We were all rather surprised by how green Hardscrabble Mesa was. Even the grasses and annuals were green, and there were a fair number of wildflowers in bloom. Furthermore, it felt cooler than I expected, aided by slightly breezy conditions. Even though we went to higher elevations to escape the desert heat, I still expected it to be quite warm, so it was a pleasant surprise. I never once felt like it was hot, or even terribly warm.
Another surprise for me was how much water there was in that 12 miles of trail. The first water we encountered was a stock tank which, while not crystal clear, was surprisingly clean looking for a cattle tank. Further on, Oak Spring was a beautiful little oasis. And finally, there was a pretty little man-made pond at the Bradshaw Meadow Restoration area near the eastern end of the trail. I started seeing more birds in this area and wanted to stop frequently to watch them, but I largely refrained from doing so since we would already be getting back to the truck later than planned. I also only had my monocular with me, which makes birding more difficult.
The hike was filled with great views from beginning to end, and we couldn't have asked for a nicer day to enjoy them on. The Bradshaw Meadow Watershed Project was an interesting and unexpected find on the trail. Until I went over and read the sign, we were kind of puzzled by the place, as it appeared to be an area that had been developed but had been abandoned.
We got back to the truck at around four o'clock and had our celebratory drink while we relaxed for a bit before heading back home. Despite all the rocks on the trail, Passage 26 was fantastic. It covers widely varied terrain, has wonderful views, and is altogether beautiful.