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.

IMG_0665
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 Park (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.

IMG_0657

IMG_0658

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 🙂

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 🙂

 

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.

IMG_0503

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.

 

 

 

 

Posted in family life

a review of Falcon Hill Park

While the weather was still fairly cool, I tried to take the boys hiking a couple times as a different way of challenging them physically and getting them out in nature. On the first occasion I was rather too ambitious and took all three of them to Papago West on my own. While the hike up was enjoyable for everyone, I ended up carrying both Aubade (obviously) and a screaming Limerick all the way back down to the car… he had fallen and hurt his leg, and was crying because he wanted to hike back but was too hurt and too scared of falling again to actually do so. Poor kid. Rondel surprised me with his independence and bravery, though! It was quite slippery coming back down with all the loose gravel, and although he was afraid and also fell, he summoned up his courage and managed to hike all the way back down on his own (it helped that he was willing to scoot on his bottom over the steepest parts… Limerick refused to try that).

Anyway, for our next hike I took full advantage of the adults in our life and convinced both my parents and my husband to try out Falcon Hill Park with us – because, as challenging as it can be to hike with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, I believe it is worthwhile to accustom them to hiking and hopefully help instill in them a love for getting out into the wild outdoors (at the very least, it is worthwhile for me with my children because hiking is one of my favorite activities! So there may be some ulterior motives here… 😉 )

This is really a neat little park – there is a playground with three different playscapes, large grassy fields, and this small mountain tucked away in the back, still in its native desert form. We played at the playground for a while, waiting for my parents:

This time, Limerick decided to be the intrepid hiker while Rondel was intimidated by the steepness of the trailhead, and ended up playing at the playground with my mom the whole time instead. And honestly, while the mountain is low enough that the hike isn’t too taxing for a small child, the trail is not well-marked, is often steep and gravelly, and often involves climbing over boulders and around bushes. It was doable because we had at least one adult for each kid, so that my husband could carry Limerick down while my dad carried everyone’s water. (Never hike without water in the desert!) I wouldn’t attempt it on my own for another few years though!

In short, we had a great time at the park but I’d advise other moms with young kids to be prepared with extra helping hands if attempting the hike, and make sure your kids (and you) are wearing good shoes.