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 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.

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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 🙂

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

Posted in family life, hikes, information

hiking with littles: ellison creek

Before my husband and I were married, we hiked a lot, for most of our dates actually. It was one of our favorite ways to spend time together – we both love the outdoors, I liked having a way to be with someone I loved without the stress of normal small talk (since the activity determined the body language and visual focus), and it’s really just a lot nicer to do anything when you’re using your body and surrounded by beauty. (We even rented a remote cabin and just hiked around for a week for our honeymoon).

So, ever since we started having babies I’ve been waiting for them to be old enough to hike with us! And honestly, I’ve been waiting even more for them to be old enough to hike with just me – for them all to be able to hike well enough that I only have to carry one of them at any given time, and can even have some time without carrying any of them.

Now, at last, we’re finally there.

After giving them a taste of wildlife and the natural environment at Saguaro Lake, and realizing that they loved it, I began searching for easy or short hikes up in Payson that we could explore together while the weather is still too hot in the valley. Payson is less than two hours from our house, but the environment is very different: mountains, pine forests, narrow creek beds and rocky waterfalls, berry brambles and grapevines, etc. When it’s over 100F here, it’s in the 80s up there, with the shade from the trees, the breeze down the canyons, and the cool water to make it even nicer.

The first real hike I attempted was at Ellison Creek, at the Water Wheel crossing just north of Payson. The day use area is easy to find, with a fee of $9 (check the National Forest Service for up-to-date information, especially with regards to closures during fire season before the monsoons) and a vault toilet that it ridiculously clean.

When we arrived, I had trouble locating the trailhead, so we played in the creek for a while first, swimming in a little pool and climbing the rocks in the area (all three kids love climbing).

When we came up from the creek to have a snack, I found the trailhead. It is actually well-marked, with flash-flood warning signs and a memorial to people who have died in this creek from flash floods. This is not the most comforting way to begin a hike in monsoon season with a forecast of rain in the early afternoon, and because of the history of the location I would recommend hiking this creek at a different time of year or on a day without expected rain; if that isn’t possible, just be very aware of the weather at the moment and turn around to leave the creek area if you feel a cold breeze and see the thick clouds of a storm head rising over the mountains.

The trail begins relatively flat and smooth, and even Aubade was able to walk along here for a long time. We took some time to “stop and smell the roses” – Rondel was especially fascinated by the small insects living inside the huge white flowers of the sacred datura, and examined every blossom carefully. Just so you know, these plants are toxic and hallucinogenic, so make sure no one ingests them if you are hiking with small children. They are certainly stunning, however!

After a short while, the trail became harder to follow as it went through more rocky areas – over boulders and up ledges. I mostly decided upon our direction by guessing which path over the rocks would be easiest for small legs, and was rewarded whenever we happened upon a sandy area with footprints letting us know we were still on the trail.

We eventually stopped at a high point of the creek, where a rippling waterfall cascaded over the stones across from us and a little pool collected in a cup of the rock where we could play. The trail continues from here up to a larger waterfall that I believe has a staircase and a large swimming hole underneath, but at this point I saw rain clouds coming in and needed to turn around and get out of the ravine quickly.

Up there on the high rocks, surrounded by pine forest, with only the sound of wind, water, and birds, is fairly close to perfection in my opinion, and the kids thought so too: only showing them the rain clouds and explaining the potential risk to them convinced them to leave.

Obviously we made it out safely; the rain hit us at the parking lot while we were eating lunch, and we got to enjoy it for a few minutes before heading out for naps. All in all? A perfect introductory hike for my three adventurers, and an incredibly refreshing day for me out of the city and away from the noise and people and pressure of everyday life.

To reach the Water Wheel day area from the East Valley: Take the 87 through Payson; turn right on Houston Mesa road and continue for 7.5 miles. Water Wheel Crossing parking area will be on your right.

 

Posted in family life, musings

stepping outside of routine

Change is hard. Routines give life structure and reduce anxiety. This is probably especially true in a partially autistic household…

But sometimes, you have to swallow your fears and set out into the great wide somewhere, without knowing what might happen, even expecting that something may happen for which you are utterly unprepared.

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And then, sometimes – more often than your fears would lead you to believe – there is freedom, and there is joy.

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There are places and times when the beauty and the wonder overcomes the discomfort of uncertainty or freezing water, and happiness can reign uncontested.

There are moments when the lure of the next rock over proves greater than your apprehension about the deep pool that lies between you and it, and moments when crossing over through your fears ends up being one of the best parts of your day because that thing you were so worried about is actually something you love, that brings out the adventurer in your soul.

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It takes a lot of energy to step outside the normal and comfortable patterns of everyday life; I’ve discovered that I need to plan for a day of rest and recovery afterwards. But the thrill of living more fully, more expansively, less bound by our anxieties and routines, is very often worth it.

And for me, the scent of the clean air, the caress of the warm sun, the rhythm of the flowing water, the strength and grace in every line of plant and rock – those things are always worth the effort it takes to find them.

(Many thanks to the friends who made this possible by inviting us along and giving me a safety net to quiet my anxieties! I wouldn’t have gone without the assurance of helping adult hands, since my husband wasn’t able to come along, and now I know that I am capable of handling this kind of adventure on my own in the future. Your support was invaluable for the moment as well as for the moments that are still to come.)

Posted in family life

hiking South Mountain with littles

Winter is one of the best times of year for hiking here in the desert! The skies are deep and clear, the air is cool and crisp, and the plants are somewhat green (depending on rainfall… spring will be better for plant life if the flowers bloom, though).

When climbing a mountain, it is always logical to become animals more suited for the task; the boys decided to be ibex and spent a large portion of the trek on all fours:

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They also spent time as mountain lions, and we discussed what the city would do if a large predator such as a mountain lion or a bear were actually living on a mountain so closely surrounded by homes (probably – hopefully! – relocation. Rondel seemed to think it would be more exciting to have it stay on the mountain and randomly pop out to eat people.)

Aubade mostly stayed in the backpack, bopping my head and laughing, because she walks quite slowly still, but she did get down a few times to stretch her legs and enjoy the desert firsthand:

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The most wonderful thing about a hike is that simply being outside, in the wild, is so freeing and refreshing an experience that even a complete meltdown for the entire return leg of the trip isn’t enough to prevent the boys from wanting to go again! Rondel keeps asking me when we can climb another mountain… I just think, hmm, I need to rebuild my emotional reserves here, that was rather exhausting for me. I am so glad that it didn’t give him a bad taste for hiking in general, though. I will just need to be more aware of his limitations as he often fails to notice his own fatigue until he is at the point of emotional and physical collapse (it’s a sensory processing thing – difficulty with interoception).

And it was a great reminder for me of why I have always loved hiking! There is something unbeatable about the path dropping away behind you and the sky stretching out wide above you and the mountain rising up before you and the wind lifting your wings as you walk over the dusty and rugged desert miles. They say exercise is good treatment for depression but really I believe that outdoor exercise is key – it is for me, at any rate 🙂

(If you’re wondering, we hiked part of Telegraph Pass Trail on South Mountain! The first part is paved which makes for an easy start and, more importantly, an easy finish for tired little feet. If you have more stamina than my boys did, you can make it all the way up to the top of the mountain where the signal towers are!)

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.