Well, the hike continues to move at what would appear to be a snail’s pace. Such is the nature of the beast in my case, hiking the route in addition to whatever additional effort I can muster on behalf of the trail corridor. Lucky for the route, my efforts have been greatly surpassed in this section by trail crews who are currently reconstructing the Old Safford-Morenci Trail. Their efforts have been ongoing for several seasons, and it’s now really coming together. The stretch of trail in South Smith Canyon, on the east end, appears finished now and is a joy to hike. This is in addition to new construction and maintenance on other portions of the 15 mile trail. Apparently the final piece will be a realignment of the route in Johnny Creek Canyon, sending it north of the canyon itself, eliminating the rugged cross-country walk in the drainage. In the meantime this remains the most rugged portion of the S-M-T, and is currently a flowing creek due to recent rains.
Backtracking for a moment… I was able to walk the newly proposed GET route out of Safford, which now bypasses downtown in favor of a quieter walk on the rural fringes. It looks possible to shortcut across Freeman Flat to Discovery Park Blvd, although most hikers will probably walk a variation on the Safford Loop idea depicted on the map set. The town is currently working on building a system of bike routes and lanes, some of which may one day be an option for GET hikers while heading into and out of town. In any case, the current route from Discovery Park Blvd onto Solomon Rd is pleasant enough (for a paved road walk). For hikers who tend to drink a lot of water, Solomon Rd offers one good option for dealing with the after-effects – where the road crosses the San Simon River (dry), a concealing riparian area is at hiker’s left.
The town of Solomon was a pleasant surprise. This is a small community that feels a world apart from more modern Safford. Services in town are bypassed by Highway 70, so to visit Solomon is to comingle with the locals. In addition to the post office, the town has a small convenience store – C.D.’s Quick Stop – on Bowie Ave, one block south of Hwy 70, offering drinking water, snacks, and microwave foods. Open 7 days. A Mexican-American restaurant, La Paloma, is nearby, open for lunch and dinner, closed Sundays. The town also has a bar with menu, currently closed pending new ownership.
The route north from Solomon also works fairly well. The stretch from Tidwell Wash north to Solomon Pass Road is straightforward and mostly silent. Solomon Pass Rd carries some vehicle traffic, mostly recreational in nature. Here I found water at Rattlesnake Tank corral (trough with float valve), as well several good pools in the drainage containing Boo Tank. Bear Spring, just before the Safford-Morenci Trailhead, also had plenty of water.
Plenty of water here too, including the drainages crossed within the first mile. Johnny Creek was flowing, and will certainly have pools well into the spring months. The creek added to the ruggedness of the rocky drainage walk here, but it’s no big deal for trail-hardened hikers. Bonita Creek was an easy ford as usual, although it’s probably not an ideal water source for drinking, due to much beaver activity in the area – including a dam right where the route crosses, and a lodge just upstream. (I heard tails territorially slapping the water as I approached after nightfall.) There’s also water just beyond in Midnight Canyon, and then again in South Smith Canyon. Smith Spring was its usual fine-tasting self.
From Bellmeyer Saddle, the Safford-Morenci Trail offers far-ranging views to the west, and also a glimpse of the Morenci Mine to the east. Beyond the mine, I noticed for the first time the Mogollon Mountains looming in the distance, highlighted as they were with snow on their summits. Mogollon Baldy appeared to be snow-covered even on its west-facing slopes, perhaps down to an elevation of 10,000. North-facing slopes likely still hold snow down to 9k, although I’ll find out for sure not until the middle of next week.
Eagle Creek also shows beaver activity and is thigh-deep at one ford, otherwise shallow and riffley. I followed the main GET route up Gold Gulch, passable via an old burro route up the south wall, as described in the guidebook. The portion of the wall traversed here is low-angle, so exposure is only moderate and is probably not an issue for those who’ve hiked, say, the PCT in So Cal with its side-cut tread in steep terrain. The slot portion of Gold Gulch has water. Beyond the slot, and beyond the corral and 4WD shown on the map set, a side canyon joins Gold Gulch from the right. I explored this option, which avoids about a mile of the Lower Eagle Creek Road. Early on, the side canyon has one modest pour-off, which can be negotiated on its right side via footholds in the polished bedrock. Otherwise it’s a fairly easy wash walk, with some water, and utter solitude. I also found it interesting how the canyon deposited me on Eagle Creek Rd right below the Morenci mine and its enormous tailings pile – talk about startling contrasts!
In other news, the Conoco gas station/mart in Morenci (junction of US 191 and Markeen Rd) sells HEET. I bought their last bottle, but received assurances that they would stock more in the short term. The auto parts store in town no longer sells HEET, so Conoco is about the only option, save for rubbing alcohol (isopropyl) available at Basha’s supermarket.
I’m currently waylaid in Clifton awaiting some fresh gear. Meanwhile I checked out the San Francisco River north of town. Fording conditions are currently very marginal, due to continuing runoff from last week’s rains. The flow is slow where deep (waist high) and quick and turbulent where shallow (shin), with no obvious good lines of travel from bank to bank. Admittedly I don’t yet have enough experience with this river to know how conditions in this area correlate with conditions along the route in Segment 16. I intend to increase experience within the next few days. The good news is that the river is currently subsiding at a rate of about 100 cfs per day (current flow is ~450 cfs). By way of reference, the flow was around 350 cfs when I successfully (though with some difficulty) forded in spring of 2005. Barring any more substantial rain, I imagine the flow will be manageable for hikers coming along a week or two from now.
This will likely be the last entry until I finish at Monticello. I may, however, be able to convey a message or two by phone, maybe to someone who could then post word to the list.
Best of luck to anyone heading out, and stay safe,