Friends Hiking Club (www.friendshiking.com) did the Safford-Morenci seg 13. See the
hike description at HikeArizona (www.hikearizona.com/decoder.php?ZTN=10243).
Many thanks to simblissity for for the best available info for this trail!
(Please note – A free HikeAZ membership is required to view the above link, which includes a trip report with photos. The text portion of this entry only appears below.)
Historic trail rises again……
by hikeazFirst, a little background on the origins of this trail….
Farmers and merchants in the mid-1870s pieced together the Safford-Morenci Trail to pack their goods to the mining country. The ragtag route faded from memory once automobiles came on the scene. Consequently, the trail never made modern maps. Generally, the original route of the Safford-Morenci Trail headed northward from Safford into the Gila Mountains, writhed through Johnny Creek Canyon, waded Bonita Creek, climbed up colorful cliffs in Midnight Canyon, stood upon 6,800-foot-high Bellmeyer Saddle, dropped into South Smith Canyon, crossed Eagle Creek, then followed Gold Gulch into Morenci. Though this journey takes hikers through some extraordinarily scenic country rich in natural and human history, the unmapped trail also demands good-to-excellent hiking and route-finding skills as it picks through challenging terrain with few trail signs and fewer water sources. The Safford-Morenci Trail follows a combination of foot trail, 4WD tracks, and cross-county drainages, and features occasional brown and (older) green metal signs marked “TRAIL.” You may also encounter flagging tape along the way, such as in South Smith Canyon where a finalized route in the drainage has been scouted.
“Crack!” went the GPS on the ground as we were making our final preparations to leave the east trailhead of the Safford-Morenci Trail. Not a good omen on a trail that has little to no trail markers. Luckily, only a portion of the screen remained black, so we could at least establish our position and compare it to our topographic maps when necessary.
After a missed turn when locating the trailhead on the drive in (don’t be deceived; just past the Eagle Creek Pump Station you want to make the turn to the right that appears to lead into private property), we were a bit behind schedule, and were ready to hit the trail. We had decided to hike this trail east to west, and, in retrospect, were glad that we did.
(Mile 0) The trail starts out up an abandoned 4×4/wagon road in making its way gradually uphill to Smith Spring, which is on the site of an old homestead, best we could tell. The spring (mile .7 +/-) was flowing quite well with sweet water bubbling forth from the small tank. From there the “road” walking continues uphill on a gradual slope, all the time in the wash. The fist to small football-sized rocks made for a bit of tedious hiking, but the abundant tree cover made it a beautiful hike nonetheless. Eventually, the “road” peters out and a trail forms. Through this area you should encounter some small signs with “trail” marked on them, as well as occasional orange flagging tape. This trail, wonderfully earthy and mossy smelling, follows next to the wash, crossing it numerous times. After about three miles, the trail will begin to steepen, and it is sometimes VERY steep. Not to worry, though, as this signals your approach to Bellmeyer Saddle. In this steep section (remember this is March) we found a flowing spring about 10 minutes below the saddle. As you reach the saddle (Mile 4+/-) and catch your breath, prepare to have it taken away as you take in the views of lower Midnight Canyon, upper Bonita Creek, the Gila Mountains, and beyond, floating like a mirage on the horizon, the high crest of the Pinaleno Range. As we made our way off the saddle, we descended into Midnight Canyon, starting on a tight zigzag down brittle volcanic cliffs. We decided to make a detour to Toppy’s Spring, which is shown on the topographic map. The spring pours over a cliff, allowing us a well-earned shower. The area near the falls is lush, with almost tropical-looking plants. Back on the trail after our side-trip, it is mostly road walking now, and although the views are outstanding, the road walking was less than. The road switchbacks on two separate occasions and after the second, the trail will veer into the wash and the road climbs up and out of the wash to the left. This, for us, was a great spot for a rest, as there is a gigantic juniper at this point (Mile 7.2+/-). As we resumed hiking, now in the creek-bed, we noticed chalk-like bands of soft rock within the normal sediment, and we commented that we had not seen that before. The hike continues down Midnight Canyon through a series of slot narrows that are awe-inspiring. With the creek running under-foot and the serpentine narrows, it was as if we were on another planet. Red walls reaching skyward were close enough on each side that by straddling the creek you could touch both walls. Look up and watch for the single boulder that lies precariously across the canyon. After about a mile from where we diverged from the road, the canyon widens, signaling Midnight’s junction with Bonita Creek. We had arranged to meet a few friends at Bonita who had hiked in from the west trailhead and spotted them straight-away. After a round of “hey, guess what we saw…..”, we proceeded with our sundry chores.
After a night of campfire tales and s’mores, carried in by one of our group, we had a fitful night’s sleep. The weather, overcast and cool in the morning, had heated up throughout the day to about 78, but still remained at about 60 at 9PM.. You may want to make the side trip up Bonita Creek to the Old Lady Gay Cabin, about a mile upstream. At the Midnight-Bonita confluence, there is also a granary high up on the south-facing cliff.
Well, dawn brought a bright, sunny day for our remaining hike west. After a morning of coffee and cards we set out, briefly bidding adieu to our friends. We crossed Bonita Creek (following orange flagging tape) at the beaver dam. Safely across the creek after filling our bottles, we headed up Johnny Creek, our early morning feet objecting slightly to the cobbles. After about 7/10 of a mile, there will be a trail that climbs steeply out of the drainage to your right (creek left). This trail climbs up to bypass a series of pour-offs and boulder jams. If you miss this trail turn-off you will be turned back by the boulder jam and can re-trace your steps about ¼ mile to the trail. While on this “high-trail”, take a moment to edge over and check out the canyon that you are bypassing. When we were here the creek was running quite well and was showing off its series of falls….nice.
After bypassing these impediments, the trail drops back in the creek-bed and it is cobble hiking again. If it is running like when WE were there, do not bother trying to keep your shoes dry. You’ll save time and energy by just admitting defeat and stepping into the creek. To a degree, this hiking is tedious, but this canyon holds many awesome sights; it gets prettier by the mile. The cobbles are often broken up by roads of bedrock. The hike leaves the creek-bed after about 3 miles, switch-backing up an old road to the left (creek right). The road climbs up out of the creek and makes its way over undulating hills for about two miles where it intersects a gulch. As you climb up this gulch you will crisscross it numerous times. As you check your back-trail, remember to look out over what you have just hiked… this is beautiful, wild country. You will begin to see that the trail is rock-lined at this point, and you will continue to see this, intermittently, all the way to the west trailhead. As you reach the head of this gulch you will have reached the last high spot, and it’s all downhill from here all the way to the west trailhead.
– Apr 03 2007 hikeaz & Moovyoaz