Posted in hikes

hiking with littles – butte creek trail (and some explorations)

Since I’ve almost exclusively hiked the Payson area with my kids (they do have the best creek systems that I know of, after all), I wasn’t quite sure where to start in the Prescott area. Thinking that simplest would be best, I decided on the Butte Creek Trail, starting in the Stricklin Park preserve.

Trailhead sign for the Butte Creek Trail

This is very much a town trail, not a wilderness area at all – the trailhead is in a neighborhood, and part of the trail runs adjacent to a golf course and some backyards – but it is still wooded and beautiful. For a short hike with little kids for whom any forested and natural area is novel and exciting, it was fine, but I wouldn’t make a point of returning on my own unless I lived in Prescott (it’s a nice trail, but not worth a 2 hour drive all by itself).

The trail did have some bridges, which captivated all three of the kids, lots of rocks to turn over with cool bugs underneath, a little creek which probably has running water after heavy rains, and the aroma of ponderosas (all fresh and sharp with the after scent of rain when we were there, as a cloudburst caught the area five minutes before we found the trailhead and parked). Rondel came prepared with a backpack full of small containers to catch insects or to store small treasures – but he ended up disliking the way it felt on his back, so he carried it in his hand the whole hike.

We also happened upon a prickly pear flush with ripe red fruits, and recklessly harvested enough to fill the empty front pocket of my hiking bag – reckless, because we had no gloves and had to spend several minutes pulling prickles out of everyone’s fingers, Aubade excepted (and she was the only one who wanted to drink the juice afterwards!)

While Butte Creek Trail was fairly short – we spent only a couple hours on it – we stumbled upon Granite Creek Park and stayed there for another few hours, eating lunch, playing on the playground, and exploring the wooded areas around the playground (I didn’t get any pictures, unfortunately, but it was a beautiful park – it reminded me of upstate New York, in a lot of ways). Rondel found SO MANY gigantic cicada exoskeletons, and I could only drag them away, in the end, with a promise of ice cream.

And ice cream we had, at Frozen Frannie’s in downtown Prescott, followed by a walk around the courtyard square investigating all the art and curio shops – one of the art galleries captivated the kids so much that even though Limerick was exhausted to the point of barely feeling up to walking around, he still kept commenting on and trying to examine all the different sculptures and paintings. I think we only made it out of that one by sheer force of will on my part, powered by my desire to get home before bedtime…

Including our stop at Sunset Point on the way home (around sunset!), it was by far the longest day trip I’ve done with the kids – we got home almost exactly 12 hours after we’d left that morning. Prescott was so new and beautiful and varied that none of us felt ready to leave, other than because we were getting tired, and I am definitely planning on finding other hiking opportunities near there for the future!

Posted in hikes

hiking with littles: see canyon springs

I had the good fortune to stumble across the See Canyon Springs trailhead in time for a hike with Paul and both my parents (before my mom started teaching for the fall semester and while Paul had a week off between jobs). While I always do enjoy hiking with the kids, having all those extra adults makes it easier when little legs get tired or when one kid wants to explore ahead and linger behind to examine the bugs!

The trailhead sign! Several trails begin at the See Canyon Trailhead; while some are long and not safe during the monsoons, See Springs Trail is relatively short (2 miles round trip, approximately) and avoids canyons with flash flood risk.

And the bugs certainly were a highlight of the hike, from the very beginning when we came upon an Arizona Sister butterfly in the parking lot, through the handful of exoskeletons Rondel collected along the way, to the clouds of tiny periwinkle butterflies congregating along the trail on our way back.

The Arizona Sister butterfly is several inches across, velvety black with subtle navy patterning near the body, bold orange patches on the far end of the top wings, and white blotches creating a ‘V’ shape down towards the base of the body. In person, it is stunningly beautiful.

The trail crosses over the river only a few times, but follows close by its course the entire way up to the spring – there was only a short distance towards the middle of the hike where the murmur and rush of the waters was out of earshot. And at every turn there was some new beauty waiting for us. There were lush expanses of ferns, the rich odor of ponderosa in the air, sunlight reflecting off hidden pools through breaks in wooded shadow, mossy rocks with rivulets of clear water streaming around them, deep reddish brown trunks reaching into the sky, clear blue overhead with towering white clouds over the eastern heights.

I could have stayed there forever. (And I think Rondel could have as well. He’s already asked to go back, one of the first hikes he’s ever wanted to repeat.)

We did see a rattlesnake quite close to the trail, but it gave us its courteous warning rattle and we politely respected its space and watched it from a safe distance until it slithered back up into the woods. While there are certainly aggressive animals in the world, rattlesnakes are typically more like bees in that they only attack when they feel threatened, which is reassuring when your six year old is practically squirming to get closer to a venomous wild creature because he’s so fascinated by it…

The Arizona black rattlesnake we encountered – a mature individual, darkened to black on almost its whole body with only small tan stripes on the back. Apparently this species is capable of delivering large amounts of potent venom and should be avoided, as most bites happen when people attempt to handle the snake… not that I plan on trying to pick up any variety of wild rattlesnake, thank you very much.

In addition to being beautiful, the trail was easy enough for the boys to hike (Aubade ended up taking a nap in Paul’s arms – we should have brought the backpack for her), and they were captivated by the nature all around them. Limerick pushed on ahead with Grandma, excited to see what lay around each bend and to play in the water; Rondel meandered slowly with Grandpa, intrigued by each small detail and treasure along the way.

To get to the See Canyon Trailhead from the east valley: take the AZ-87 north to Payson. In Payson, turn right onto the AZ-260E and continue for 22 miles, until you reach the town of Christopher Creek, at which point you will turn left off the highway onto Christopher Creek Loop. Across from the Christopher Creek market, turn left onto FR-284 and follow the road until it ends at the trailhead. Once on the trail, follow the signs for See Springs instead of See Canyon for the shorter, kid-friendly hike – it is well marked. Parking at the trailhead is free and there is a bathroom available.

Posted in hikes

hiking with littles: picacho peak

Now, anyone who has made it to the top of Picacho Peak knows that it obviously isn’t a good hike for small children. The trail is steep and slippery, to the point that there are cables drilled into the rock as handholds to prevent hikers from falling – and it’s an amazing trail if you can do it, but there’s no way I’m going to recommend doing it with three kids five and under!

However, Picacho Peak is one of the most beautiful wildflower sites in the state, particularly during a magnificent spring bloom like the one we’re having this year, so we made the drive down to bask in the beauty along all the short interpretative trails around the base of the mountain.

There were so many poppies. The wild golden poppies that grow here are one of my favorite flowers – like a more glamorous version of the buttercups I loved as a child in the Northeast – and when they carpet the ground it seems to shimmer in the sunlight.

There were patches of lupine as well, their deep blues and purples providing the perfect foil to the golden poppies.

One of the shorter trails led up to a small cave overlooking the valley around the base of the peak, and the kids had a lot of fun clambering over the boulders above the cave, as well as stroking the velvet softness of the poppies and delighting in the presence of the wildflowers (as is only to be expected!).

I really couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to bask in the desert spring. I would definitely and without hesitation recommend Picacho Peak to anyone who is in the state in the month of March, especially if the preceding winter has been on the rainier side, no matter their hiking abilities – there is something for every level here, and beauty to make it worthwhile even without reaching the summit.

There is a $7.00 entrance fee since the peak is a state park, but there are also covered picnic tables, clean bathrooms, a very nice little gift store/information center (with some fun Southwest themed souvenirs and books), and even a small playground, and the trails are well-maintained – so the fees are apparently being used to good effect here šŸ™‚ My only regret is that I have waited so long to come back since the last time I hiked the peak (with my dad, as a teenager, to the top), and I won’t be making that mistake again.

How to get there from the East Valley: There are a few ways to get started, but whether you take the US-60 or the Loop 101 or the Loop 202, you’ll want to end up on the I-10 E headed toward Tuscon. From there it’s very straightforward – you just keep driving south until exit 219, and then follow the signs into the state park. I believe you can pay the entrance fee with a card if you go into the visitor’s center, but it is simplest to bring cash and pay as you drive by.

Posted in hikes

hiking with littles: superstition mountains – treasure loop trail

Now that our very wet winter has come to an end, the desert has burst into life with a wild spring bloom, and I’ve been trying to take the kids out to see the mountains turned green with wildflowers decorating the slopes. My mood always tends to improve as the colder and grayer season ends (can’t imagine what I’d be like if I lived elsewhere), so I’ve had the energy and motivation to hike again – and the prospect of flowers definitely adds to that motivation!

The day we chose to hike the Treasure Loop trail in the Superstition Mountains was unfortunately cloudy and rainy, so many of the flowers stayed hidden away, but it was still a beautiful hike.

Treasure Loop trail is almost 2.5 miles long and moderately difficult – the trail is broad and well-marked, but it can be steep and slippery in places. We took a few hours doing it… in out defense, we stopped to smell the flowers a time or two (and count their petals, in Limerick’s case):

We also took time to climb up some boulders near the path and pretend to be mountain lions:

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And of course we took breaks for snuggles and snacks (the bench at the overlook was really timed perfectly for the kids’ hunger):

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The cold and wind did make the hike considerably more challenging, as Aubade really dislikes being cold and getting wind in her face (we’ve had this issue on other hikes). Because the trail ended up being a lot colder than our home just 30 minutes away, Aubade wore my jacket for most of the hike, which helped and was adorable but left me rather cold as a result šŸ™‚ I guess it’s just a reminder to check the weather at the actual trailhead before deciding what to wear!

For others considering Treasure Loop, I’d say it would take much less time with just slightly older kids – we were mostly slowed down by Aubade (and our spirit of exploration!). Good footwear is important though as the trail can get quite slippery once you start coming back down the slope. This is a fairly popular trail from what I could tell, based on the number of other hikers we saw on a weekday, but it wasn’t overly crowded. It can be accessed from free parking spots by the First Water trailhead, or through the Lost Dutchman state park for a $7.00 entrance fee (as well as a shorter hike and good bathrooms, both of which were needed with my little hikers). We enjoyed it and I’m sure we’ll be back next spring šŸ™‚

How to get there from the East Valley: take the 60 to Apache Junction and exit on Idaho Road; turn right onto Apache Trail and continue until you reach the entrance to the Lost Dutchman State Park. The entrance fee is $7.00 and the ranger will give you a map of the trails and state park roads/parking lots.

Posted in hikes

hiking with littles: rim lake vista trail

In an attempt to catch some fall colors up north (I think they are delayed because of our warm, moist summer this year), we drove up to the Mogollon Rim this weekend, just northeast of Payson to the Rim Lake Vista trail specifically. I chose this trail because it was recommended for fall colors in October, because it should have gorgeous views off the edge of the rim even if we were too early for colors, and because it is mostly paved and there was rain in the forecast. In other words, I wanted something with no flash flood risk, where we wouldn’t be stepping in mud puddles and getting our feet soaked in the cold.

While we did end up being too early for fall colors, the trail was undeniably beautiful and – totally unexpectedly – we got caught in a snow flurry! There isn’t much else to say about this trail except that it is ideal for new walkers and could even be navigated by a stroller if necessary; likewise, it would be good for older out-of-state family who want to hike and sightsee but who aren’t up for something challenging.

Some views looking off the rim down towards Payson (approximately 7700ft up, looking down at mountains around 5000ft in elevation – Payson is not objectively low):

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The clouds were draped so low over the mountains – at some points on the trail we were walking through small wispy clouds, and the large heavy clouds looked ready to break open at any moment.

It wasn’t raining when we parked (it had been for most of the drive from Payson up to the rim!), so the kids were excited to get out of the car and start off down the trail.

While there weren’t many changing leaves yet, the small ground plants and flowers bearing their glassy beads of water were calling all of us to stop and pay attention to their subtle beauty:

Before the rain started up again, Aubade meandered along immersing herself in the wildflowers – she was so excited about every new plant, so eager to touch each new flower.

Towards the end of our hike, however, it started to sprinkle – and then it began to pour – and then I noticed that snowflakes were sticking to the fuzzy hood of Limerick’s jacket, and – and then suddenly the air was full of fat white flakes! It was the first time any of the kids have seen snow; Rondel was excited, Limerick was chill, and Aubade (who was already really bothered by the cold wind) completely lost it and cried the rest of the way to the car. So it ended up being a shorter hike than usual because we were just so cold!

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However, along the way we discovered a plant I’d never encountered before, with bright red stems and a sharp smell that remind me of mint and fir together. From a brief search online IĀ think it is a fetid goosefoot, which is quite an unpleasant name for a plant that I found both visually and aromatically attractive – do any of you know for sure?

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How to get there from the East Valley: take the 87 up to Payson; turn right at the McDonald’s on to the 260-E and continue for 30 miles until FR300. Turn left onto FR300 (the Rim Visitors Center is on the right) and park at the lot on the left between mile markers 39 and 40.

Posted in hikes

hiking with littles: horton creek

When I worked full-time, I would seasonally find myself walking back to my car at dusk past a row of orange trees in bloom. If you have never had the privilege of smelling orange blossoms, I feel sorry for you; sweet and sensual with a sharp almost spicy bite underneath, their perfume would flood the evening air, overshadowing the smells of asphalt and car fumes and cooking dinners in the nearby apartments. There aren’t many other plants whose scent is quite so powerful and intense (I believe lilacs are, though I haven’t lived in a place where they grow since I was very young).

Here in Arizona, one of the only other such plants that I can think of is the ponderosa pine. While there are many different species of pine, including several native to northern Arizona, the ponderosa has a very distinct scent: like honey and vanilla, with a whiff of hazelnut, sweet and heavy and warm, with only that faint nuttiness in the background in place of any other bitterness or spice. When the trees are healthy and hydrated, the sun’s warmth seems to pull the odors out into the air (or maybe keep them from blowing away), giving the whole forest a unique character. If orange blossoms make me think of a tower room with sunset-colored hangings, blowing in the breeze of an open window, where a couple is about to share in each other’s mysteries, then the smell of the ponderosa bark lingering in the air reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s description of Perelandra, where the outside air among the trees has a warmth and golden richness that our crisp cool world is lacking.

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image is of a ponderosa pine, looking up the trunk toward the sun-illuminated branches. They are very tall trees.

If my feeble attempts at describing their aroma have managed to convince you that you need to immerse yourself in the ponderosas at least once in your life, then Horton Creek Trailhead should be on your shortlist. Ponderosas are scattered all over northern Arizona, but they must be particularly concentrated here because their scent nearly overpowered me when I stepped out of the car, in contrast to Ellison Creek and Tonto Natural Bridge State ParkĀ (which have more of the typical clear, clean feeling in the air).

Parking for the trail is a short walk away from the actual trailhead, and two small creeks actually run near each other (and eventually join up, I believe) near the parking area, which led to some confusion on our part. So at first, instead of heading down the actual Horton Creek trailhead, we wandered up Tonto Creek along an elk trail and through the water. The grass was consistently up to Aubade’s chest and in some places was higher than Limerick; the creek meandered through level ground in places instead of the typical steep canyon; and blackberry bushes threatened to overtake the entire western side of the creek.

All that to say, it was wild and overgrown and absolutely beautiful.

A short ways up the creek (short by the road; long by way of elk trails with an 18 month old who won’t walk because the grass is too tall) there is a short waterfall with a small pool at the bottom; just to the west of the falls is a path up to the road, and at the base of the falls below that trail is one of the largest blackberry thickets I have ever seen. We were a bit late for blackberries – I found about 10 ripe ones within reach – but I’m thinking that sometime in early September the bushes should just be covered with berries.

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Being just a bit too late for the blackberries also meant that we were just a bit too early for the fall colors; only the sumac and a few other isolated leaves were beginning to deepen into red. Coming from the low desert, we still got quite excited about it, and we’ll probably be going up north more often over the next month or so to catch more of the changing autumn colors.

After we reached the waterfall, my mom hiked a bit further with the boys while Aubade nursed (teething plus the long grass had made her miserable – I was so glad to have another adult with me!), and we found an open area near the creek to play for a while.

After that, we went downstream to the waterfall again and up to the road and back to the parking area for lunch. At that point, my mom wanted to find out where an actual trail was; she had hiked here before and was confused as to why the creek seemed so different than she remembered. So she explored a bit further down the road and discovered that we had actually been on Tonto Creek and never made it to the Horton Creek trailhead – where there was a very well-kept and walkable trail.

Since the boys still had enough energy, we decided to check out the real trail as well! It turned out to be wide and sandy, leading up the high ground between Tonto Creek and Horton Creek. Horton Creek was mostly dry at the beginning of the hike, unlike Tonto, although other hikers told us there was running water a mile or so down the trail; it was still incredibly green and lush, however. Aubade had a much better time on this trail since she didn’t have to push her way through the grass šŸ™‚

If we go back to Horton Creek, I would try to do the designated trail first, while everyone has energy and the temperature is lower, and then play in Tonto Creek after lunch. And I do think this is a spot worth going back to – there is a lot left unexplored, and I have the feeling that things change a lot here seasonally, with berries, changing leaves, and fluctuating water levels. Without another adult I would be loathe to attempt more than the well-marked Horton Creek trail, however! It was a challenge getting everyone through the undergrowth around Tonto, though worth it for the hidden beauty.

To reach Horton Creek Trailhead from the East Valley: Take the 87 north to the center of Payson and turn right onto AZ-260 E at the McDonalds; about 16 miles later turn left on Nf-289. The parking area for the trail is on the left just after a one-lane bridge; it is marked and has a vault toilet and picnic tables. To get to the trail, walk back down the road across the bridge and up towards the Horton Creek Campground. The trailhead is at the base of the campground and is well marked.

When to go: For maximum water flow, go in spring after the snow melt or during the monsoons. For blackberries, go anytime from late August through mid-September. For fall colors, go in October. And I can’t speak from personal experience, but I’m guessing that April or May would be best for wildflowers šŸ™‚

 

Posted in family life, hikes

hiking with littles: tonto natural bridge state park

As part of the Maricopa County reading program this summer, we all received passes to the Arizona state park system, and I’d been looking for a chance to use them (we’re saving some for Boyce Thompson Arboretum in the fall). Then I was reminded about the Tonto Natural Bridge just outside of Payson – the largest travertine bridge in the world.

Travertine is a form of limestone, calcium carbonate deposited at the mouth of mineral springs; travertine bridges like the one at Tonto can be formed when a travertine dam across a canyon (in this case Pine Creek Canyon) is eroded by water over time. For a detailed and illustrated explanation, visit the Arizona State Parks page about it here!

I hadn’t been to Tonto in at least 15 years, so I didn’t remember how difficult the trails were, but I did remember how beautiful they were, and how breathtaking the natural bridge was, so I decided to try it. We drove up early one Monday morning, making the ascent into Payson and then the steep descent into the Tonto valley. It is like a hidden vibrant green gem surrounded by dark pine-covered slopes; with the clear startlingly blue sky overhead, it was beautiful beyond my ability to capture with a camera (at least with three little kids running every direction at once!).

We did the Waterfall Trail first. This is a short trail (300ft one way) down a series of steps to a small waterfall running down a moss-covered side of the canyon.

The steps are quite steep. This isn’t a good trail for someone with poor knees – and Aubade needed to be carried most of the way down because the steps were too tall for her short legs. She was able to clamber up, however! The trail also gets very slippery down by where the waterfall splashes over it; the railing will keep you from tumbling down the canyon wall, but good shoes and attention to footing are important also (or you can be barefoot like Limerick was for the majority of the time… he does a lot better when he can feel the ground directly).

After we came back up from the waterfall, and realized just how short of a trail it had been, we decided to try the Pine Creek Trail – a half mile loop down the creek bed to the natural bridge. Does that sound easy? It did to me as well, until I saw that 75% of the hike consisted of bouldering through the creek with occasional arrows for guidance. But hey, if bouldering proves too difficult there is always the creek to play in, so we went for it.

The first part of the trail is very easy – smooth paths and steps down to the creek. Aubade was able to handle most of this on her own, except for a few of the bigger steps. Several of the native trees are signed along the way, so we were able to identify and learn about the cypress tree, comparing its thin peeling bark to the thick checkered bark of the juniper tree, noticing how much larger its berries were, and feeling its sticky resin.

When the trail first reaches the creek, there is a shallow wading pool perfect for little kids to play in! We stayed here for quite a while before moving on, and again on our way back; I think there are only a few things in life that Aubade enjoys more than playing in running water, and she could have stayed here happily for hours. Limerick, however, was eager to climb, and Rondel wanted to see how far he could hike and try to reach the bridge. So onward we went!

It was on this hike that I realized how lucky I had been at Ellison Creek that Aubade had taken a nap on the drive up; here, she wasn’t as rested, and almost fell asleep during an emergency nursing break halfway down the creek. Fortunately she was able to recover and enjoy the rest of the hike, but I was seriously regretting not using the hiking child carrier backpack for a while there. (She dislikes it, and also likes to hike herself where possible, so it tends to mean I’m just carrying unnecessary weight, but she may have fallen asleep in it.)

I also was very grateful that I had remembered a backpack for the water bottles as there is no way I could have made it over the boulders carrying both Aubade and a water bottle in my hands. There were times when I had to lift her over a tricky spot and then climb up myself – and then, at least once, lift the boys up next! So this is definitely not an easy hike, despite the short overall distance, and I wouldn’t recommend it if your children don’t enjoy scrambling up and over boulders.

Mine do, fortunately, so we made it, in the end, to the bridge.

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It is stunning. Too high and wide to get a good shot of in its entirety, from where we were in the canyon (we didn’t go all the way under it as I remember those rocks being extremely slippery – I had to be coached down so I wouldn’t fall when I was quite a bit older than my kids are now – and we were already all worn out). But we stayed and admired it for a while, one of those wonders made by the joint efforts of hard rock and moving water, and then made out way back from whence we came.

This was a difficult hike (the ranger who gave us our parking pass emphasized that the trails were “strenuous”), and I was so proud of all three kids for pushing themselves up the final stretch back to the car, when they were just about exhausted. Limerick was especially tired, being smaller and younger than Rondel but hiking the whole trail independently unlike Aubade, but he kept going without complaining all the way back to the car, and rode home in a very well-earned glow of accomplishment (not to mention a much-needed nap). However, despite the difficulty, I would wholeheartedly recommend this hike, and the entire state park, for anyone with experienced or determined young hikers, or who has extra adults to help carry a tired child. It is a truly unique and beautiful place.

To reach Tonto State Park from the East Valley: Take the 87 north through Payson; turn left on Nf-583 (it is well-marked with a sign for the state park) and continue to the park entrance. The park is open beginning at 8am in the summer and 9am in the fall through spring.