Sunday Mar 21st, 2021, 0700-1800
Picketpost trailhead to Gila River, mm 72
MJ was up at 5 am getting coffee and omelets made for several of us hikers. Then she had us to the trailhead by 7 am. She really is amazing. After more reluctant goodbyes, we began the winding trail in the cool of the morning…a far cry from our afternoon start in 2019. The tall mass of Picketpost provided shade well into the morning, making for an easy climb into the canyon. This stretch heads into the White Canyon Wilderness area, which gives the Superstitions a run for their money in terms of scenery. This was perhaps my favorite stretch last time on the AZT…besides the Grand Canyon.
We had a slightly different route in store for us this day. Many years ago, the new AZT was moved farther west to avoid the wilderness area, allowing for uninterrupted mountain bike travel through the section. The old AZT was left in tact and is still officially the route of the GET. Since we had already enjoyed the new trail, we wanted to try the old trail. It’s 5 miles shorter after all, and routes through a canyon where a natural water source is usually flowing. The new AZT trail now has a rain collector but it sits 1 mile past the intersection, so we didn’t get to utilize it. We came to the turn off about 10 miles from the Picketpost Trailhead. The old trail was essentially indiscernible at this point…which we knew it would be from the GET notes and blogs. We followed some scant cairns for a mile, where the outline of the old trail eventually became more apparent. It was actually pretty fun route-finding. And also nice to be in a setting which we assumed we would have to ourselves most of the day.
After a few miles with minor bushwhacking, we came to a saddle that led into White Canyon. This is where the “wows” really started flowing. We made our way down this wide canyon, stumbling from one cairn to the other as we tried to lift our eyes off our feet to take in the surroundings. It was a wild ride trying to avoid the many cactus and rocks. Eventually the trail turned into an old jeep trail, making for easier travel and better view-gawking. I felt quite pleased with our prowess at route finding through this first test of scant trail GET routing. We were rewarded with some truly spectacular and wild country.
Finally we left the wilderness area and reached a well-traveled jeep road, just in time to see some side-by-sides go by. To avoid some private property due to a mining claim, we left the old AZT and proceeded over a saddle around Battle Axe Butte, a prominent shark-tooth of a mountain. It was a long hot slog up and down this saddle but I enjoyed the ever-changing face of the Butte as I went along. What dramatic features this landscape bears!
We arrived at Walnut Canyon just in time to see a girl hike by, rather oblivious to our presence. I was confused by her appearance from the wash, finally putting together that she was a NOBO AZT hiker. Someone had put a note in Guthooks about this alternate trail and so now quite a few are attempting it. But word about the private property issue apparently had not spread, so she was heading all the way up the canyon to where it reconnects to Battle Axe Road. We followed her about 100 yards up the wash, which our notes indicated had good pools of water. Indeed, there was a flowing spring…the only water we had come across since Picketpost. I tried to mention something about the water to the AZT hiker but she was completely uninterested in learning about where we had come from or what we knew about the water situation ahead of her. I think she assumed we were just more AZT hikers and hiked on without a word. Ignorance is bliss.
As we collected water, 6 more AZT hikers appeared from the wash. They were more friendly and sat down with us to inquire about the route. A few had at least downloaded the track onto a common app called Gaia. But none had the detailed notes that we are carrying…which help a lot in terms of locating water sources and pointing out other notable features. I gave them a heads up about the lack of water ahead. They were in for a rough 6 miles heading up through the dry and exposed canyon in the afternoon. I didn’t envy their position. But they enthusiastically carried on. Sometimes I wonder if GPS emboldens people a little too much. Cairn to cairn and landmark orientation are skills that should be leaned in combination with GPS. The AZT is so well trodden now, it’s like a highway. But this alternate was certainly quite a departure from the familiar. I hope they had some prior experience with advanced navigation.
We collected enough water so as to avoid needing to collect from the Gila river…it’s pretty polluted from agriculture and mining activities. We proceeded down the canyon through a glorious box area, which was sadly all too short. Cries of the canyon wren echoed as we marveled at the walls. The wash opened wide for the last mile, where numerous ATV and cow trails made for a maze of pathways. We both took different routes, enjoying the freedom of travel the wash afforded. Here I encountered my first rattlesnake, it’s buzzing easily heard over the noise of my music and already in position to strike while I was still yards away. Easy buddy, I’m happy to go around. Shortly after this I ran into 2 more AZT hikers taking the alt, giving them pointers on the route.
We popped back onto the main trail and started heading east along the Gila valley. At another wash, I noticed 3 hikers taking a break. I had a feeling about them and asking if they were doing the AZT. Nope, these 3 were GET hikers! And suddenly we were in a GET bubble. I knew I had seen very fresh footprints heading down the wash….the same that I had seen back in the Superstitions. I couldn’t believe we had caught up to them since they had left 3 days ahead of us. They had taken a zero in Superior and I gathered that they were a little newer to the route finding aspects of this long distance adventure. In fact, this was one of the guy’s first thru-hike! I couldn’t even imagine doing this route without having at least first experienced a desert hike like the PCT, AZT, or CDT. I have all 3 under my belt and even still I constantly wonder if I’m ready for this. Today gave me some confidence at least.
We chatted for a bit but it was getting late. We were all heading for the next river access area to make camp, so we assumed we’d be able to chat with them more. As it turned out, we were all really tired from the challenging day and stayed confined to our tents. The Gila river lulled us to sleep, as we lay tucked under the mesquite. It was a very lovely campsite and a great finish to a fantastic day.