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Thursday, February 21, 2013

GPS withdrawal at Skunk Tank

Tonto National Forest
Cave Creek Trail

New River Mesa as seen from Skunk Tank Trail
Except for an A minus I once achieved in a grad school statistics class, I've never been particularly gifted with numbers.  This might explain my befuddlement over the actual length of Tonto National Forest’s Skunk Tank-Cave Creek Loop hike.  Additionally, inconsistent signage and conflicting published reports didn't help rectify the numbers.    It's pretty common knowledge that forest service trail signs are rounded up or down to convenient fractions.  Trail segments that are actually 0.3 mile might well be posted as .25 mile and 0.6 mile as 0.5 mile.   Yup, that's me splitting hairs for no good reason, and yet, over 10 miles or more, with 5 trail junctions, the discrepancy can add up and escalate into a hot topic especially along that last mile which always feels longer than its advertised range.  A check of various hike books, maps and web sites declare this trail length at anywhere from 9.2 miles to 12 miles.   So, I geared up for a 12-miler, grabbed my GPS and stepped out to get my own read.  Now, I wasn't about to place too much trust in my GPS either.  That's because on past hikes, GPS-totting trekkers in my group have all come up with different mileage reads on their devises----BIG differences, like 2-3 miles.  But, since my devise is brand new and set up to acquire all those extra Russian satellites, I figured, why not give it a try.
But, I refuse to be a GPS junkie---checking moving speed and elevation profiles every half-mile and robotically announcing the results to bored travel companions as if it mattered.  Nope. Set up, hit track, waypoint when necessary and don't look again until trail's end.  We began the loop hiking counterclockwise to take on Skunk Tank Trail #246 (note: some trail signs mistakenly say Skunk "Creek").  This open-to-the-sky segment makes a steady climb over rolling desert hills dotted with cactus and the sprouts of what may be a good wildflower season .  At 1.4 mile from the 246 junction, run off from Quien Sabe (means: "who knows") Spring spills down a narrow gully.  The spring itself is 0.3 mile up the gully, but it's a bushwhack to get there, and frankly, not worth the effort.  Skunk Tank Trail tops out at a 4100' lookout point with dizzying views of New River Mesa, Humboldt Mountain and Quien Sabe Peak. 
From here, the route plunges downhill toward Skunk Tank on a slim path cut into sloping, exposed (not for acrophobics) hillsides.  The tank is a lovely willow-ringed oasis where swarms of birds and other local wildlife---like mountain lions and deer---gather to quench their thirsts and maybe score a meal. Pass through the tank's rustic barbed wire fence and soon the junction with Cave Creek Trail #4 comes into view signaling the final leg of the hike.  This is also the best part because trail #4 moves among the waters of Cave Creek, lofty canyon walls, a lush riparian ecosystem and two rare crested saguaros.  Back at the trailhead, my GPS read 10.385 miles.  I'm gonna call it 10.4-miles, and "who knows" if it's really 10.6 or 10.2. Who cares?
Cave Creek water: Feb. 16, 2013

LENGTH:  10.4 loop
RATING:  moderate
ELEVATION:  2980'-4100'
FEES: a Tonto Pass is NOT required at the hiker trailhead, but may be required if you park at other recreation sites in the area.
Cave Creek Trailhead (as described here): From the Loop 101 in Scottsdale, take the Pima/Princess Road exit 36 and go 13 miles north on Pima to Cave Creek Road.  Turn right (east) and go 12.5 miles on Cave Creek Road (a.k.a FR 24 and Seven Springs Road) past Seven Spring Recreation Area to Cave Creek trailhead on the left located between MCDOT mile markers 12 and 13.  Roads are a mixture pf pavement and good dirt passable by passenger cars when dry. Two minor creek crossings on cement are required—do not attempt after heavy rains.

From the trailhead, pick up Cave Creek Trail #4 and hike 0.6 mile south to the Cottonwood Trail #247 junction.  (NOTE: winter 2013 flooding has washed out much of this area.  Cairns and red trail tape have been placed have been placed as temporary navigation tools).  Follow #247 less than a mile to the Skunk Tank Trail #246.  Follow #246 to Cave Creek Trail #4, turn right and follow it back to the trailhead.
Cave Creek Ranger District, Tonto National Forest, 480-595-3300


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Snow! Snow!

Snow on the McDowell Mountains: Feb 20, 2013
Doesn't  this make you wanna ditch work and go hiking?  Here's the view from my office window in Scottsdale this afternoon.  Rare desert snow on a sunny afternoon. Oh to be on a McDowell Sonoran Preserve trail right  now!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Take your best shot at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve

McDowell Sonoran Preserve 2013 Photography Contest

If you've been reading this blog for more than 15 seconds, you already know I'm a huge fan of Scottsdale's McDowell Sonoran Conservancy. We hikers have them to thank for preserving irreplaceable desert land on the outskirts of our suburbs and also for building a stunning network of trails for our enjoyment. And, the work continues with plans to expand recreational opportunities in the Brown' Ranch area this year. Haven't been there yet? Now is the perfect time. Spring wildflower season is here and the McDowell Mountains area's rich biodiversity makes it a premier location for bloom spotting.  May I suggest the Bell Pass and Gateway Loop Trails.....
As an extra incentive to draw visitors to the preserve, the Conservancy has launched its 2013 Focus on Conservation photo contest. This year's categories are biodiversity, sustainability, families and fitness. So grab your camera and submit your best shot for a chance to be featured in an online gallery.
Whether you head out on your own or as part of one of the organization's guided hikes, it's a great way to get to know all about this North Valley jewel of a hiking destination.

DEADLINE: May 31, 2013


Sunday, February 17, 2013

Hike to Devil's Kitchen and the Seven Sacred Pools

Coconino National Forest, Sedona
Devil's Kitchen

Seven Sacred Pools
For a short trek, this little loop packs in plenty of variety.  First up, is Devil's Kitchen---Arizona's largest sinkhole. Formed by a series of catastrophic geological events, the hole will continue to grow over time and the AZ Geological Survey considers the area unstable and hazardous. Although it might look tempting, the sinkhole is just not safe to explore beyond the trail. A link below leads to an AZGS article about Devil's Kitchen and includes lots of interesting maps and data.   Beyond the slump, head left and hike less than a mile  to see the "seven sacred pools", a chain of shallow ponds scoured from red sandstone that reflect both blue sky and colorfully-layered canyon walls.  Once done exploring the pools, follow the trail through a calming landscape of cypress, juniper and yuccas to the sign for Red Rock Secret Canyon Wilderness.  Here, an unsigned, but obvious footpath heads right for a mildly steep quarter-mile side trip to the Soldier Pass Arches. Past the arches, the route makes its final ascent to the Brins Mesa Trail junction.  At just under 5,000' the views here are breathtaking and breath saving as it's all downhill trekking from here.  Continuing southeast on the Brins Mesa Trail, the route dives into a canyon land of Paleozoic-age sandstones singed by the 2006 Brins Fire.  A haunting landscape of blackened stubble mixed in with healthy high desert flora splatters the gorges in earthy shades of green.  A mid-segment lookout point provides unobstructed vistas of Sedona, and sometimes, graceful waterfalls can be seen washing over distant crags. 
From the trailhead, follow the access path 0.2 mile to the first junction and turn left to pick up the Soldier Pass Trail.  Hike roughly 0.7 mile to the wilderness sign where an optional side path leads to a series of natural arches.  This side trip will add 0.5 mile to the hike.  Continue another 1.0 mile on Soldier Pass to Brins Mesa Trail.  Turn right here and hike 2.0 miles to the Cibola Trail, turn right and go 0.6 mile to Jordan Trail, turn right again and hike 0.3 mile to the Soldier Pass junction, turn left and hike 0.2 mile back to the trailhead.

LENGTH:  5-mile loop (5.5 with arches detour)
RATING: moderate
ELEVATION:  4,450'- 4,930'
FEE: A Red Rock Pass is required.  $5 daily fee per vehicle.
HOURS: the Soldier Pass trailhead is gated and open only from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
There's alternate access off Jordan Road.
From Phoenix, go north on I17 to exit 298 for Sedona/Oak Creek. Turn left (west) onto SR179 and continue to the traffic circle intersection at SR89A.  Veer left through the circle heading toward Cottonwood on SR89A.  Between milepost 372 and 373, turn right onto Soldier Pass Road, drive 1.5 miles to Rim Shadows, turn right and continue 0.25 mile to the short drive to the trailhead on the left.
INFO: Coconino National Forest, Red Rock Ranger District ,928-203-2900