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Friday, May 4, 2012

Six stock tanks and a herd of elk near Happy Jack

Happy Jack, AZ
Where there’s water, there’s wildlife and because of its numerous stock tanks, natural pools and soggy drainages, animals tend to congregate on the Happy Jack passage of the Arizona Trail.  Running 31.2 miles from AZ87 near the Blue Ridge ranger station to Lake Mary Road near Allan Lake, this mild section of trail is a beautiful mix of pine-oak forests and wide-open meadows.  Hoping to spot roaming elk and deer, we made an easy “stock tank” themed out-and-back day hike on the northern part of this passage.  Beginning at the Gooseberry Spring trailhead (head southeast--right when facing the sign), the trail passes by six watering holes.  All but two will likely vaporize by summer, but the two big ones should survive the season.  The first water appears to the left of the trail in under a mile of hiking and is little more than a natural shallow bog cluttered with water buttercups.  Tank number two is a bulldozed depression dug out where the trail briefly follows a dirt road.  Third water shows up as a tiny grass-choked pond shortly before the trail encounters Maxie Tank---one of the big ones.  Less than a mile farther, we met a local woman sitting near a deer blind on the far side of tank number four.  She is an avid wildlife watcher and says that the best time to spot animals at the tanks is between 7 a.m and 9 a.m. As it was nearly 10 a.m. when we arrived at tank four, we wrote off seeing any elk on this trip.  At the 4-mile point is Shuffs Tank.  Ringed by fragrant Ponderosa pines, wet meadows full of wildflowers, and hundreds of animal footprints, this was by far the biggest of the six tanks on our hike.  Here, thousands of Rocky Mountain irises are popping through the mucky swamplands south of the tank---they should start blooming in next few weeks. We decided to take a lunch break on the northwest shore, still hoping to spot animals.  Up until then, our only sightings had been the back end of a coyote, a mountain bluebird and thousands of gopher burrows. (Do butterflies and ants count?) Then, on the way back, about 2 miles from the trailhead, we hit pay dirt---a herd of 5 elk roughly 100 yards ahead of us.  By some miracle, Shortie the hiking dog had not spotted them and his handler was able to leash him while I camera stalked.  Click on the “more photos” link below to see the beasts (and Shortie) in action.
First water hole

LENGTH: 8 miles out-and-back
RATING: easy
ELEVATION: 7,500’- 7,555’
KID FRIENDLY: yes, excellent choice
DOGS: water, wildlife--chasing!
Gooseberry Spring trailhead:
From Phoenix, travel north on I17 to Camp Verde.  Connect to SR260 east (Payson) and go 33.6 miles to SR87 (Beeline Hwy).  Turn north (left) and drive 10 miles to Lake Mary Road (FR3) which is just past Clint’s Well.  Turn northwest (left) and follow Lake Mary Road 21.1 miles to FR 935 (signed Gooseberry Spring), turn right and drive 0.2 mile to the signed AZT trailhead.  Paved up to the last 0.2 mile. Passenger cars okay.   For alternative directions, see "Four Gates" hike below.
INFO: Arizona Trail Association

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