The beauty of it all

Cellphone towers atop summit of North Mountain.

Cellphone towers atop summit of North Mountain.

I believe you can find beauty in almost anything.  Even in the looping knots of the magnified Ebola virus.  And yesterday evening I found beauty in cellphone towers.

It was sunset when I started down from the summit of Shaw Butte, a relatively high peak in the middle of Phoenix.  It is one of the two tallest peaks in North Mountain Park.  The other, North Mountain, is just a shade smaller.  Both mountains are in the 2,000 foot range in elevation, yet 1,000 feet higher than nearby terrain.  And both are dotted with cellphone towers.

Metal amid nature.

Metal amid nature.

Standing tall on Shaw Butte.

Standing tall on Shaw Butte.

Heading down the rough road, I suddenly became struck by these metal trees.  I must have caught them just at the right moment.  The mix of man-made metal and Nature-made shadows compelled me to pull out by old Canon and shoot away.   Behind the towers, clouds of all colors amid an azure sky enhanced the scene.  Nature’s own cellphone tower, a giant Saguaro, rested nearby, the tops of its numerous arms swathed in sunlight. It would be hard to choose one tower over the other unless you intellectualized it:  Nature is best, cellphone towers on mountain tops are evil.

All of this reminded me to take longer looks at things that at first seem repulsive.

Unearthly constructions.

Unearthly constructions.

The Saguaro, Nature's tower.

The Saguaro, Nature’s tower.

The other night watching “Forensic Files” I could barely stand to look at a disfigured woman.  Her son had stabbed her three times in the head with a long knife.  She recovered but her face looked akin to a burn victim.  It took great courage for her to now walk in public, to see the stares, to see the quick-turns of faces looking away.  But I believe if you examined that face long enough, that courage would be reflected somewhere, in some aspect on that face  And that would be beautiful.

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A hiker’s diary: February 2013

Latest entry appears first.

A blooming Engelmann hedgehog cactus.

A blooming Engelmann hedgehog cactus.

March 28, Thursday:  North Mountain summit loop, North Mountain Park.   The best thing about hiking familiar Arizona trails this time of year is to note the many wonderful changes the desert is undergoing.  Wildflower season is past peak but still fairly strong, and the yellow-flowering brittlebush and creosote are in full bloom.  And cactus, like the Engelmann hedgehog and red-barrell compass, are also flowering.

I was shocked at the large number of these globe mallow.

I was shocked at the large number of these globe mallow.

The big surprise today was the abundant stands of orange globe mallow on the mountain’s northwest slope.  I had not seen globe mallow in such profusion before.  On the west end of the summit I ran into some scary-looking customers, carpenter bees.  The male carpenters are among the largest of bees, golden-brown and furry.  But they have no stinger, so are harmless.  At first I thought I had walked into a swarm of Africanized.  But these bees paid me no mind as I walked within a foot of the palo verde and brittlebush they inspected.

View to the southeast from the summit with ocotillo in foreground.

View to the southeast from the summit with ocotillo in foreground.

I stopped just east of the summit towers for a sandwich and headed back down toward the 7th Ave parking lot.  I figured I should’ve made it back before dark easy.  But at a point where the trails divides, no markers in sight, I went left when I should’ve went right.  I was well down the very steep and rocky National Trail when I realized my mistake but continued on, not wanting to struggle back up to the other trail.

Western patchnose along National Trail.

Western patchnose along National Trail.

Along this eastern slope just around sunset I found a beautiful Western patchnose snake, poking his head into holes, looking for supper.  The patchnoses are super-skinny and up to three and a half feet long with a beige stripe running down the back and two black stripes running down each side.  The detour cost me time, and it was dark when I finally reached the parking lot again.  I was startled to find a man and woman ambling my way, talking there on a moonless night with ony bright Sirius showing through a light cloud cover.  The trip covered almost 4 miles, compared to the 2 1/2 I had expected.  But no regrets.  Things happen like that for the best when you’re out on the trails.

What's on top of Shaw?  Rocks and ugly towers.

What’s on top of Shaw? Rocks and ugly towers.

Across from Shaw's summit at 2,149' rests North Mountain, 45 feet lower.

Across from Shaw’s summit at 2,149′ rests North Mountain, 45 feet lower.

March 1, Friday:  Shaw Butte summit loop, North Mountain Park.  My first time to the summit ascending on the steep southern route.  The trail, #306, rises 702 feet in a smidgen over a mile.

Going up to the first saddle, a glint of brightness struck my eyes from high above on the trail.  It was an Asian woman with a parasol.  When we finally passed, I told her:  “That’s a pretty sight, you coming down with a parasol and the sun shining through it like a beacon.”

Shaw Butte and towers captured at sunset.

Shaw Butte and towers captured at sunset.

Thought it would be a lonely trail but in fact it turned out to be one of the busiest segments I’d been on for a while.  I counted 33 humans and a few dogs by time I reached the top.  A group of nine, mostly hefty women, went ahead of me at a junction but soon turned around and went back down.  This time I don’t stop at the ruins of the old Cloud Nine restaurant, which looks out over downtown Phoenix from 750 feet above the desert floor.  From there, it appears you can reach out and touch the towers on the summit.  Not really.  Those towers are 313 feet above and almost another .6 miles of trail, the final segment being very steep.  Had a late lunch on the rocky summit beneath what are at least 8 ugly towers.  Great views on a beautiful afternoon. Returned on the northern route which is about the same elevation gain/loss as the south but 4/10 of a mile longer.

A hiker’s diary: February 2013

Latest entry first.

Recent rains led to a greener North Mountain and environs

Recent rains led to a greener North Mountain and environs.

February 22, Friday:  Inner basin, North Mountain Park.  The unusual storm of snow, sleet and rain on the 20th has left the desert floor verdant with plant life.  Even the spidery ocotillo was decked out in magnificent green.  In this continuing drought of ours, the colors are usually drab pastels predominately browns and grays.  Hope the wetness gives a boost to the coming wildflower season.   Maybe the wildlife out here is in weather shock for I heard nary a peep on the trails.  No howling of the coyotes, no jabbering of the Gambel’s quail.  But humans?  There were plenty of the species out and about.  Above average number of bikers and hikers walking dogs under a cool, sunny sky and a light westerly breeze.  Got a late start.  Shopped around, trying to get my Slik tripod fixed in time for photographing the wildflowers.  I’ve lost the quick-release plate and find a replacement strangely difficult.   A camera shop in Scottsdale was my latest excursion and the friendly clerk said she would order one for me.  Estimated cost $10 or so.  And I won’t have to pay shipping costs that I would online.   But the delay cost me time, and I arrived back at the VC after sunset with 2.31 miles under my belt.  At 5,348 steps, the average of 2,315 a mile was 34 steps more than on the 18th.  Surprising.   I had a bounce in my step today and motored along at a good pace, I thought, but apparently at a slightly shorter stride.

February 18, Monday:  Inner basin, North Mountain Park.    Did a figure-8 from west to east with Nebra.  We did not reach the Visitors Center near 7th Street before turning back, but managed to log 3.2 miles.  We might have tried a trail more challenging if not for Nebra’s knee injury.  She has a meniscus tear and will eventually need surgery or rehab.  She did fine on this hike because there is not much going downhill.  It was one of the last beautiful days before a big winter storm is predicted on Wednesday night or Thursday morning.   Used my pedometer and GPS to measure my average steps per mile on fairly flat ground.  Came to 2,281 steps per.  In the past I’ve estimated 2,200, and I think I’ll keep that as a standard.

February 16, Saturday:  North Mountain Summit.  An old Beatles song wafts down on a sunlit sky from the Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort up the road a quarter-mile,  “All you need is love, love . . . .”  No, thank you.  All I need today is my GPS, GPS.  I aim to measure the average elevation gain per mile [as opposed to AEG, or accumulated elevation gain] as I hike up the paved summit trail to the top of North Mountain.  Not only that but to measure average gain per segment.  Each of the five dramatic curves on the trail counts as a segment.  Why do I do this outside of being somewhat of a data freak?  Good question.  So up I go, stopping at these points to jot down distance and elevation, and finally reach my destination, the locked towers gate.  The gate is the end of the road for most hikers, aka exercisers.  They turn around here to go back down, although the true summit is above it another 45 feet on a rocky off-shoot trail.   I have a set of standards.  An elevation gain of 500 feet per mile is “moderate,” 750 feet is “steep” and anything 1,000 feet and more is “very steep.”  What I find surprises me.  This is not a “steep” hike, only a “moderate” one.  I have come up from the entrance gate 450 feet in .68 of a mile.  If my math is correct, that averages about 662 feet a mile, almost half of the “very steep” AEG I recorded for the “Baby Butte” trail I took yesterday.  My computations also show that as you hike up, each segment is steeper than the one before:  In order, AEGs of 540′, 650′, 668.4′, 691.6′ and 750.’   I don’t know what this data has to do with anything important.   But I like to believe it is preparing me for something.  Maybe the loony bin.

It ain't K-9 but it felt like it at this point on the trail.

It ain’t K-9 but it felt like it at this point on the trail.

February 15, Friday:  “Baby Butte,” North Mountain Park.   No one will know what the Baby Butte is.  It’s my name for the high hill just west of Shaw Butte.  It’s the hill with only one tower on it.  Shaw has three.  Few hikers come up to Shaw from the west.  I didn’t even know there was a trail there until lunch and a guy at the buffet told me about the one that goes up from busy 19th Avenue and Sweetwater, not far from the horse track.  It’s not much of a trail.  I could barely see its outline on the brushy hillside.  One thing I do know.  It’s steep.  Very steep.  No switchbacks here.  Just straight up past a corner of one hill, over the top of a second and finally the long pull up to the third which is Baby Butte.  And rocky, lots of loose rock, lots of injury potential. It’s only 2/3 of a mile up to the single tower, but I felt like I’d climbed K-9 when I reached the top, stopping several times to gasp for air.

From the Baby's summit, Shaw Butte in distance.

From the Baby’s summit, Shaw Butte in distance.

From there Shaw is probably 20 minutes away, down a dirt road to a saddle then steeply upward to the summit.   Not much to look at on top of the Baby except Shaw.  There’s the tower, a cruddy building cradled inside a fence with concertina wire, desert scrub and a few abandoned concrete slabs.  My GPS locked in the Baby Butte at 1,908′ elevation, about 240 feet lower than its papa to the east.  It was here, though, I decided to turn back, not wanting to flirt with nightfall and disaster.  The “west trail” is not one you want to negotiate in the dark, particularly coming down.  Not even with floodlights.  So I high-stepped it back to the parking lot and the Civic in 33 minutes, reaching there just at sunset.   Took 56 on the ascent.  Not much reason to use this trail unless you require supreme privacy and a whole lot of exercise.  Some hikers do, and I do, sometimes.

Sunlit saguaro along the inner basin.

Sunlit saguaro along the inner basin.

February 9, Saturday:  North Mountain Park, inner basin.  The coyotes were out early.  Maybe it was the big black dog traveling with an older man.  Howling and barking often like I hadn’t heard for a while.  Up there somewhere on the ridge near Shaw Butte.  The dog walked along unleashed.  The old man said he couldn’t hold him if the coyotes came down to the trail like they had twice before.  Once he counted five of them, keeping their distance, never attacking.

Dead tree under a threatening sky.

Dead tree under a threatening sky.

It was a weird kind of day.  Threatening to rain, then the sun would break through, schizo.  Cool, 55 F., then warm briefly in the sun.  One thing was clear.  It was a great evening for shooting photos.  Just doing the east end of the inner basin, I still racked up 2.43 miles.  Got back to the car in darkness.

See a "man" staring up at the plane?  I did.

See a “man” staring up at the plane? I did.

February 5, Tuesday:  Papago Buttes Park.   These red sandstone buttes on Phoenix’s eastern border with Scottsdale and Tempe provide excellent material for photographers.  I did a small loop of 1.23 miles around this small park with my Canon and a tripod.  But I settled for three hand-held photos:  Two isolated buttes north across busy McDowell Road and a group to the east where the pyramid tomb of Governor Hunt rests.  If you look closely at the latter one, you might see as I did the face of a man lying on his back and staring up at an airliner descending into Sky Harbor Airport.  It was a beautiful hike at the end of a beautiful afternoon, and as I unloaded my gear in the Civic’s trunk, two geese, both Canadas I think, flew past, honking loudly from about 15 feet above my head.  They appeared headed for the big pond at Phoenix zoon a quarter mile away.

Goat Hill from the west along National Trail.

Goat Hill from the west along National Trail.

February 4, Monday:  National Trail, South Mountain Park, Telegraph Pass to near Post 40.  Completed the fifth and final segment of the National about 4:30, but it wasn’t easy. I was trying to get back to the “halfway” point I’d hit two days ago, hiking up from the west.  Now hiking in from the east, it was longer at 3 1/2 miles than I thought, forcing me to return down a perilously steep and rocky part in darkness with no flashlight.  Lucky to get back to the car in one piece.

Scratches and bruises on my left arm from fall.

Scratches and bruises on my left arm from fall.

I’d fallen earlier, in broad daylight, bloodying my left arm.  Too big of a hurry and a loose rock make for a bad step.  It’s a lonesome land out here.  The segment from Telegraph Pass to San Juan Road is the least traversed in the park.  Today I passed only two humans in the 4 1/2 hours I was on the trail.  They were on horses, a man and a woman, traveling west into a glorious sunset.  They seemed alarmed by my injured arm, but I assured them it looked much worse than it was.  Just scratches and bruises.  I got back to the car just before 7, almost a full hour after sunset.  It marked the 26th hike I’d completed of the 60 Liu hikes around Phoenix that I started a year ago.

One of three old mine shafts within 240 paces along National Trail.

One of three old mine shafts within 240 paces along National Trail.

February 2, Saturday:  National Trail, South Mountain Park.  I’m trying to complete this 15.5-mile trail in the mountains south of downtown.  I’ve done this trail in five parts because unless you either shuttle with two cars or do the entire length of the park in one horrendous hike, you more or less have to hike out to a spot, then hike back, doubling the mileage.  I hoped this would be the last segment, starting at the second parking lot west on San Juan Road.  From there, I hoped to get up on top of the range, about 1,000 feet in elevation, and meet the end of another segment, a segment ill-defined in my mind.  I just know there’s an old mine shaft on the south side of the trail.  Nebra and I got out to at least that point last year.  This western segment is the least traveled of the National Trail.  I thought it would be very quiet, probably no one about.  But I immediately ran onto 10 hikers and a jogger.  All but three were women of varying ages.  That was about 2:45.  Saw no one else over the next 3 hours, until I got back to my car.  Injure yourself up here and good luck.  You may have to wait awhile for help.  After reaching a low-lying saddle, the trail drops down into a long valley about 300 yards wide, then up on the south side of a deepening ravine to the top of the range’s west end.  Except for one steep but short stretch, the trail is fairly easy-going.  But starting late, I’m racing with the clock again to get down before dark.  The west side of South Mountain is littered with abandoned mine shafts, and up on top I quickly ran into three in a row, all within 240 steps according to my pedometer.  Nothing looked familiar, and at 4:32, out about 3 miles, I turned around after lunching at a line of white quartz rocks, disappointed and knowing I’d have to give it another try soon, coming in from Telegraph Pass on the east.  I took notes of the spot as well as a photograph and, more important, I took down the coordinates from my GPS.  Oh, well.

Four coyotes

I missed a great photograph yesterday.

Hiking solo near sunset along the Shaw Butte Trail in North Mountain Park, literally in the middle of one of the largest cities on earth, I was greeted by a sudden chorus of howls and yips.  I looked to the right to a small butte.  About halfway up I saw something that didn’t match the brush.  That something was light brown.  And it moved.

I yanked the binoculars from my backpack and homed in on the spot.  To my amazement there were four coyotes in plain sight, bunched tightly together on a ledge.  Three were in that classic “howling at the moon” position, heads uplifted to the darkening sky.  The fourth seemed to be looking in my direction, though I can not swear to it.  It was brushy up there and I caught the hint of a small cave off to the right.  I jotted down the time.  It was 5:20, about 35 minutes before official sunset.

In the dying sun, their furry coats were outlined in a yellowish-green, and I dug deeper into my pack to pull out a camera.  I was sure the shot of a lifetime was only seconds away.  But . . . .

The problem was this.  I was inept.  I tried to zoom in on the four, but kept losing them on the digital screen.  I finally located a landmark, a saguaro near the ledge and then another saguaro nearby.  It took about a minute to do this and when finally I had the spot nailed, they were gone.  Only the tops of two small heads with pointy ears could be seen.  I assumed they were cubs lying on the ground.

I heard the pack again at 5:48 and again at 6:08 and 6:12 before leaving the park.  I can only hope there will be a next time.

A hiker’s diary: January 2013

Latest entry first.

Big pool along Christiansen Trail left by recent rains.

Big pool along Christiansen Trail left by recent rains.

January 29, Tuesday:  Shaw Butte Trail, North Mountain Park.  It was 55 degrees and breezy and I could see nothing but shade ahead as I trudged up the steep incline on the Shaw Butte summit trail.  So miserable that I turned around and headed back into sunshine.  Good thing that I did or I would’ve missed the coyotes on the other side.  It was about 20 minutes before sunset when I heard the howls and yips from a distance and found four coyotes with my binoculars.  What a thrill! [I’ll write a separate article about the coyotes later].

Is there a more beautiful color than Chuparosa red?

Is there a more beautiful color than Chuparosa red?

The trails were wet still from the recent big rain, but that didn’t stop hikers, bikers and joggers.  I even saw a young man on a scooter, first time ever in the park.  Disgusting.  Thought all motorized vehicles were illegal on these trails.  The rider putt-putted up the Christiansen Trail toward the Pointe Tapatio Cliffs resort.  Probably out-of-state.  But he had a little smile on his face that seemed to say, ha-ha, I’m getting away with something.  Saw a verdin, two Gambel’s quail and an unidentified bird I liken to a fat mockingbird.  No, it wasn’t a Curved-Bill Thrasher.

Sunnyslope Mountain on southern edge of North Mountain Park.

Sunnyslope Mountain on southern edge of North Mountain Park.

January 25, Friday: Sunnyslope Mountain, North Mountain Park.  I had driven along Dunlap many times and given only a cursory look to the hill with the large white-washed “S” on its southern slope.  Every year, I read, freshmen from nearby Sunnyslope High School are assigned to slop more paint on the small rocks.  For months now on the way to hike in North Mountain Park I’d eyed the contour trail that led up to the “S” from the west.

"S" Mountain is the hill on the right as seen here from northwest.

“S” Mountain is the hill on the right as seen here from northwest.

Today, wanting to hike a new trail, I decide to search for an access point that would provide a shortcut to the summit.  Rain is in the air.   While combing through the neighborhood on the south side of the hill, trouble occurs.  An angry middle-age man in a car confronts me.  He is yelling at me at the top of his lungs as he stops.  I roll down my car window.   “This is private property,” he screams.  “What are you doing here?  You’ve driven through once and now you’re driving through again.”  Obviously, he thinks I am a thief casing the area.  “I don’t owe you an explanation for anything,” I say trying to keep cool.  He threatens to call the police and even takes a photograph of my car before driving off with more admonitions.  “I’m tired of getting ripped off,”  he says, adding, “I work for a living.”  Finally, seeing no easy route up to the trail from here and not wanting to get my tires slashed while hiking, I drive up to the park’s 7th Avenue lot, don my backpack  and head out with no clear route to “S” Mountain.  At the southern retention dam, I survey the land below.  A faint trail contours around the hill.  I’m sure the “S” is on the far side of it out of sight.  And I’m right.

I come out at the bottom of the “S,” then scramble along the letter’s west side to the summit.  Nothing much to see here.  Some graffiti, several empty plastic bottles.  The top is fairly flat.  Small outcroppings of rock jot up here and there.  It is beginning to sprinkle when I start back.  Although there were no great sights, I feel a small sense of accomplishment.  I have solved a mystery.  I have found a route to “S” Mountain on my own, no map.

IMG_2254

A pastel eastern sky at sunset.

January 23, Wednesday:  North Mountain Summit.  It is about 20 minutes before the 5:52 sunset when I reach the summit of this small mountain that looks out to metro Phoenix in every direction.  I was up here just three days ago, on the 20th, with Nebra.  Today I’m traveling solo.  An uneven chunk of granite serves as a seat while I chew on a deli sandwich bought at a QT gas station.  It’s delicious.

A-Bomb cloud in west.

A-Bomb cloud?

I’m waiting on the sunset.  It should be nice.  Scattered clouds in the west and east, nice for photos.  I count about a dozen others up here, waiting.  Most have cameras.  I shoot photos and eat, then head down to the paved part of the trail that will take me back to the Visitors Center in about 50 minutes.  It is a wonderful evening.  Temps have risen to about 80 F. and the city’s bright lights of reds, oranges and yellows are starting to emerge along major streets.

Different Point of View restaurant with Shadow Mountain behind.

Different Pointe of View restaurant from North Mountain.

Across the way in the distance to the northeast, I zoom in and take a photo of the pricey hilltop restaurant called the Different Pointe of View, at the  Hilton Pointe Tapatio Cliffs Resort.   Nebra and I are thinking of going there to celebrate our 27th anniversary.  It is dark by the time I move off the pavement.  Now the trail is dirt and rock, undulating above busy 7th Street.  The way is lit nicely by a waxing gibbous moon, only two days from full.  Just past the saddle, a jogger comes by from behind, trying to negotiate the rockiest section of the trail, down to the Trupiano memorial bench.  Later I make way for a cycler, lights ablaze, coming up from the ravine behind me.  It is almost 7 when I get back to the parking lot, after about a 4-mile roundtrip.  I feel like I’m starting to get in shape again after a sparse period of winter hiking.

January 9, Wednesday:  North Mountain Park, inner basin.  Sometimes when I hike trails I know as well as the back of my hand, I think up crazy stuff to do.  Today, on my first hike of the new year, I set out to find the exact spot on the Christiansen Trail where I can no long see the transmitter towers atop Shaw Butte.  But it is an impossible task.  As the towers recede behind a buttress to the Butte I can not tell if I’m still looking at the tippy-top of one of the two towers I saw clearly from the Visitors Center or a saguaro. Which?  I chalk up the experiment as a work in progress.  Next time, if there is one, I’ll pull out the binoculars, find the spot precisely and send the results off to Science magazine.  One thing is for certain.  It is a flawless winter’s afternoon.  Sunny except for heavy cirrus building in the west, 70 degrees and so calm you can hear voices of hikers on the North Mountain summit trail a quarter mile away.  I sneeze loudly and wonder if I’ve startled someone a mile away.  As nice as it is, I count only 24 others on my two-mile jaunt.  Sixteen walking, five biking and three jogging.   It’s only as I near the end of my hike that I hear Gambel’s quail gabbling in the brush out of sight.  Big storm coming.  Rain and then the most frigid temperatures we’ve had in a couple of years.

A hiker’s diary: November 2012

Last entry first.

November 30, Friday:  Phoenix Mountains Preserve, Quartz Ridge Trail.  See “A quiet urban trail into a distant past,” December 3, 2012.

November 28, Wednesday:  North Mountain Park, inner basin.  It is easy to size your trail out here to the time you have allotted.  With so many trails that cross, you can do a medium hike of 45 minutes or two hours or more.  Today I traversed one of the longest hikes.  I went out from the Visitors Center to “Southwest Dam” and back via “North Dam.”  I ambled along playing hide-and-peek with coveys of Gambel’s quail, covering an estimated four miles in two hours.  Surprised to see so few out here in that time.  It was a warm afternoon, the sun veiled at times by scattered cirrus.  I counted 16 hikers, seven bikers and three joggers.

November 24, Saturday:  North Mountain Park, inner basin.  There are moments out here on the trail that you can almost forget you are in an urban park surrounded by a population of nearly 4.2 million.  Almost forget.  This is no wilderness area.  You are never really alone even when you don’t see a single soul.  You hear the sounds.  A human voice travels a long way here in the basin between the two highest points, Shaw Butte in the northwest and North Mountain on the southeast.  Just for kicks I tried today to see if I could tell whether voices were in front of behind me.  In two tries, I got only one right.  There are also the steady crunch of a bicycle and the staccato steps of the jogger.  Domestic dogs bark from homes on the perimeter and most of all there are the hums or airplanes patterning in for landings at Sky Harbor and the chop-chop of emergency and TV news helicopters.  That said, I find the hour or two I might spend in a day out here in the midst of suburbia well worth the effort.

November 22, Thursday:  Superstition Mountains, Hieroglyphic Trail.  Our annual Thanksgiving Day hike.  Nebra’s sister, Sue, came with us.  It is bright and warm and, after negotiating the maze of roads through rustic Goldfield, we reach the huge paved parking lot, surprised to see only a dozen other vehicles.  I hiked this trail for the first time on March 9.  It is a first for Nebra.  As for Sue, she hasn’t hiked at all for many years.  The trail leads out 1 1/2 miles to some boulders at the start of a long, high canyon where centuries-old petroglyphs appear above a waterfall area.   I was looking for an easy hike for Sue and a destination that might be interesting to her, and where we could spread out our Thanksgiving meal of sandwiches on one of the large, flat boulders.  We went out only a mile before turning back.  The trail has little shade and the air grew hot.  Later, we wended our way back by car to Old Dutchman State Park and had our Thanksgiving under a ramada but didn’t hike.

November 16, Friday:  Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Borrego Palm Canyon Trail.  Before leaving for the coast and Carlsbad, CA, we hiked up this trail.  But before we even got onto the trail, a surprise awaited.

Borrego Valley stretches out toward Indianhead Mountain.

November 15, Thursday:  Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Panorama Overlook Trail.  After driving 317 miles yesterday from Phoenix to this, California’s largest state park, Nebra and I finally climb up the half mile to this overlook trail to look at the flat Borrego Valley.  Make no mistake, this is a big park.  About 650,000 acres, equal to 50 miles by 20 miles.   And of course we can not begin to see it all from the Panorama Overlook.   The trail begins in a far corner of the southern part of the Palm Canyon Campground.  This will mark our second night camped out here in a small dome tent.  Last night we were the only campers in the 37 sites that dot the paved oval.  Today we were joined by an RV several sites to the south.  Suppose it didn’t arrive by itself but I’ve seen nary a human yet.   The park surrounds the little town of Borrego Springs, which is about 2 1/2 miles to the southeast.  It is nearly dusk when we start out cross-country for the first 100 yards or so, then begin a series of short switchbacks up and up and up.  At one of the turns we run into an older couple with a dog on a leash, a beautiful female Akita.  Everytime I see an Akita I think of the O.J. Simpson trial.  It was Simpson’s Akita, Kato, whose howling awakened neighbors to the murders of Simpson’s wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Goldman.  Anyway, leashed or not, the owners have committed a no-no.  Dogs are not allowed on the park’s dirt trails.

At the level top of the Outlook, I look out to a wide sea of gray dotted by green.  Sand and the almost white indigo and burro bushes supply the gray, and creosote the green.  Below, the eye follows the concrete sidewalk that crosses in .6 of a mile the desert from the campground to the park’s attractive and informative Visitors Center.  It is almost dark when we get back to our campsite to begin preparing supper under a mostly cloudy and cool sky.  Temps reached 80 F. today and a low of 55 is forecast for later tonight.  Tomorrow we plan to hike up Palm Canyon to look for the endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep.  A park ranger told us the canyon would offer our best chance.

November 13, Tuesday:  North Mountain Park, inner basin.  A beautiful day.  Lots of hikers, bikers and joggers.  And Gambel’s quail.  Don’t think I’ve seen a larger covey than the 18 birds that crossed in front of me near the Visitors Center.  Also saw another covey, this of 11 with at least two more making sounds in the bush, near the Trupiano bench.  Altogether 32 quail moving about.  Did over 2 miles in the eastern part via the north dam.

November 11, Sunday:  South Mountain Park, National Trail.  Did segments #2 and #3 of this 15.5 mile trail with Nebra on a sunny but cool afternoon.  We started with an 11-mile shuttle, leaving Nebra’s Prius at the Mormon Trail parking lot and taking my Civic west up to Telegraph Pass and parking along the paved Summit Road with three other cars.  At about 5 miles in length, this is the longest part of the National I’ll do at one time.  Leaving Telegraph Pass, the trail snakes above the highway for about a mile before rising gently up toward the park’s highest point, Mount Suppoa at 2,700 feet, with grand views of Phoenix about 1,500 feet below.   If you like solitude this is it.  We met only a biker and two hikers in the first 3 1/4 miles, until the small Buena Vista lookout, the end of what I call Segment #3.  The National climbs to within a 100 feet or so of elevation from Suppoa’s summit.  Beautiful it is not.  The mountain is covered with antennae.  Liu writes in “60 Hikes” that he has heard workers can not stay up here for more than a few hours at a time due to the transmission power.  Shortly after passing the curious Chinese Wall, a line of frozen lava, I stop for lunch, a Subway turkey and ham, just below the Buena Vista parking lot while Nebra walks out to a high point and a bench with even grander views of Phoenix and the Salt River Valley.  My Segment #2 starts here and ends an estimated 1.8 miles later at the west end of Hidden Valley.  I thought this rugged and hilly downward segment would traverse a no man’s land.  I was wrong.  This segment seems to be a mountain biker’s heaven.  In the short distance of rough terrain we passed no fewer than 16 bikers bouncing along, some at high speed.  Near Buena Vista the trail is so rocky and rough, one biker portaged his two-wheeler up for almost a quartermile of steep, boulder-strewn slope.  Not far from Hidden Valley, the trail drops down a rocky 10-12 feet that only some of the most daring and experienced bikers will try to negotiate.  A middle-age biker riding by himself told us this is the most dangerous biking area along this trail.  Not too scary but tantalyzing.   He once fell here and nearly broke his leg, he said, and has seen several bikers lying about , their faces bloodied.  The best technique, he said, is counter-intuitive.  Do it swiftly, not too slow.  Shadows are long by the time we veer off the National and head back to the Prius on the extremely rocky Mormon Trail.  No bikers here.  I’m glad to get this hike over with.  Only one more segment of six to go, #5 from west of Goat Hill down to the San Juan Road.  Overall, we did about 7 miles today, and I’m feeling it.

November 2, Friday:  South Mountain Park, National Trail.  It is evident now that I will not be able to do all of Charles Liu’s “60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Phoenix” in a year.  After waiting for summer’s heat to burn out, I have done only 25 with 8 weeks to go.  That is troubling math for all but the most dedicated hikers.   I could do it, I suppose, if I didn’t have so much other stuff I want to do.  Like an upcoming week-long trip to California.  Anyway I got back to knocking off a few more hikes with an afternoon jaunt up a segment of the long National Trail in the mountain chain that runs east and west along Phoenix’s south side.  The National at 15.5 miles covers the length of South Mountain Park, but I have chosen to do it in roughly six or seven segments.  I had already done the last and middle segments, and today I did the “first” segment hiking 2.6 miles coming up from the east at Pima Canyon to the sign post at Hidden Valley.  The trailhead rests amid heavy development.  The Pointe Resort golf course on one side, the massive “village” of Ahwatukee, with a population of almost 80,000, on the other.  After walking a rather flat jeep road for the first mile or so, you escape into a lightly traveled zone of scenic hills and a narrow trail.  Unless you fantasize over large boulders, there is nothing remarkable.  At the junction with the Hidden Valley Trail, I move ahead onto familiar ground.  Months ago I had done Hidden Valley and Fat Man’s Pass, hiking up on the Mormon Trail from the north.  At the top of a rise with a splendid view of  downtown Phoenix in the northwest, I turn off onto the Mormon Loop Trail which takes you back to the National Trail and the jeep road in Pima Canyon.  I stop several times along this loop to shoot photos and to jot down notes.  If there are desert plants that can’t be found along the Loop, I can’t think of many.  I noted bersage, small-leaf palo verde, brittlebush, ocotillo, saguaro, chain and teddy bear and buckhorn cholla, clumps of hedgehog cactus,  red compass barrell, creosote and a few bushes of what I thought were Mormon tea.  It was near dusk when I finished the Loop, and after back-tracking from the deep sand of Pima Wash, I reached the trailhead again shortly after 5:30.  The parking lots were still full and numerous young people, most of them traveling alone, were heading out on the jeep road to get their exercise in.   It was the end of another beautiful desert afternoon, clear sky and temps in the low 80s.  I may not reach the quantitative goal I set for myself but the quality of my hikes has been way up there.

A hiker’s journal: October 2012

Last entry first.

October 21, Sunday:  North Mountain Park, Inner Basin.  For almost as long as I’ve been hiking, and that’s many years now, I’ve named landmarks along my routes.  These anonymous landmarks help me find my way in strange territory and remain in use even in a park like this that I’ve hiked dozens of times.  As I hike this evening with Nebra, we cross a small ravine I call “Coyote Holler.”  It is here along the Shaw Butte Trail, in the absolute center of the park that I have often heard coyotes howling and yipping from perhaps 100 yards away, down in an even larger ravine where no trails go.  Coming back in the dark, I see the outline of “Calvary Hill.”  It is the big hill above the Visitors Center, and on top of it is a large saguaro with two arms both perpendicular to the ground and reminds me of a cross.  Approaching the parking lot, I hear the distant calls of what I think is an owl.  Possibly it comes from “Owl Hill,” at the other end of the park where I saw the silhouette of a hooter last spring.  Some of my names need more creativity.  Nebra chided me as we passed “Limp Cactus,”  a leaning red compass barrel that caring hikers have propped up with rocks.  I doubt I’ll have to worry about “Limp” much longer.  It is dying and about to break in two.

October 14, Sunday:  North Mountain Park, Inner Basin.  I’m suspicious now of that old saying, “I could do this or that with my eyes closed.”  Believing it more or less true, I tried hiking some of the way through the park on a moonless night. I had done these inner-basin trails dozens of times and thought I knew every turn.  Lights are few here in the middle of the city.  The yellow  light on North Mountain’s towers gate glows faintly, and residential lights in the distant west do nothing to help find the rocky Christiansen Trail.  I lower my eyes trying not to look more than three or four feet in front.  I notice right away as I drop into gullies that the sense of depth is tricky.  Glad I have a trekking pole with me.  As I near the 7th Ave trailhead, I veer off to the right.  It doesn’t look right.  I’m too far north of the cluster of small homes about 100 yards away.  I retrace my steps, get back on the main trail and eventually find the palo verde tree I mark for a turn off to the parking lot.  Sometimes you do need your eyes.

October 11, Thursday:  North Mountain Park, Inner Basin.  Walking west into a dying sun, I see from a distance “white flowers” at the branch-ends of the small-leaf Palo Verde.  I stop to take a look.  They are not flowers at all.  They are enclosed webs that appear white only because they are backlit by the sun.  These webs, I believe, are spun by Palo Verde fall webworms, aka Palo Verde webbers.  The webworms are actually little caterpillars feeding off those tiny leaves and sometimes the bark.  The Palo Verde, I’ve read, is resilient to this attack and so there is no need for alarm.  The webworms are on every Palo Verde I pass along the trail and play a role in the park’s ecology as food for birds and lizards.   It is a moody day with beautiful thunderclouds to the northeast holding a threat of rain.  All is part of our transition from summer into autumn here in the Sonoran Desert.

October 8, Monday:  North Mountain Park, Inner Basin.  Sunny, 89 F when I head out from the VC.  We’ve entered a cooler phase and the three-digit temps are behind us.  I hope.  Here at 5:30, mountain shadows cover the basin, a soothing west breeze stirs the creosote slightly.  I pass a stout young woman with a huge backpack, the largest I’ve seen in this park.  No bedroll, nothing else to indicate an overnight.  I want to ask her if she’s in training for Grand Canyon rim-to-rim or something.  But I don’t want to scare her and so say nothing.   American women are very touchy about strange men at dusk.  For the longest time it’s unusually quiet.  Not one peep from a Gambel’s quail.  Arizona is now into the fourth day of quail season, and although no hunting is allowed in the park, I wonder if over the years hunting season has became stamped in the Gambel’s DNA.  I’m more than half way into the 2-mile jaunt when I finally hear chirping and see a covey of quail running up out of a ravine.  I love those quail sounds.  They make me happy.  I’m a big note taker, and today I stop to jot down time and distances.  Like “Jct, amphi, 1810, 3,455”  I write to designate I’ve reached the old amphitheater and a connector trail at 6:10 p.m.  The last figure is the number of steps out from the VC according to my pedometer.  I allow 2,200 steps to a mile.  It’s 6:30 when I get back to the starting point.  The sky is still blue but getting black, and here on the ground it is already too dark to read my notebook.  The trail of little brown ants is gone, back to their nearby den for beddy-bye, and it’s now safe to sit on the curb and change shoes.  I roll down the windows of the Civic, dial the radio to a soul music station and take a relaxing drive to the house.  October.  This is my favorite time of year in the desert.