Posted in hikes

horton springs take 2

Since we enjoyed Horton Springs last year (even though we didn’t really find the actual trail in time to hike it), I took the kids back up on my own this summer.

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The trailhead is across the road from the parking site (which has a bathroom and is free!), up towards the Horton Campground. To get all the way up to the spring itself is a 4 mile hike, so I knew in advance we wouldn’t be doing the whole thing, but the trail follows along roughly beside the creek with multiple opportunities to drop down to the water so it is still good for little kids.

The kids all found walking sticks by the trailhead, and held on to them devotedly for the whole hike (well, the boys did – Aubade traded hers out every ten minutes or so for a new model). IMG_3027IMG_3041 crop

We found a huge old tree reaching across the creek from the trail – Rondel went part of the way across, and Limerick went all the way across the creek until the tree starting sloping more steeply uphill on the other side.

Not too far after the second gate, since the kids were starting to get tired of just walking, we detoured down to the creek and trekked upstream a while. The water seemed to give the kids a new burst of energy, and they watched sticks and leaves float downstream, clambered over rocks, and waded through shallow pools.

Just a short ways upstream, however, we stumbled upon a pool about 3-4 feet deep at the base of a small waterfall, and decided to stay there – swimming in the pool, throwing rocks in to make a splash, and observing the local insects šŸ™‚

After we were done at the pool we hiked back to the trailhead and had a picnic lunch at the parking area – there are a few tables tucked away by a small trail that I believe leads back down to another section of the creek.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to make our way up the road to the patch of blackberries we’d found last year – the kids were worn out and I wasn’t completely sure I could recall the way from the road without a bit of scouting. So I can’t update my prediction as to when they are actually ripe! I suppose we can just try again next year, when all the littles have longer legs and more stamina šŸ™‚

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

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.