B y K e v i n F r a n k l i n
WHILE THE BEST laid plans often fail, that doesn't justify going about depending on half-baked plans.
For instance, it never hurts to call the U.S. Forest Service and inquire about things like access, water availability and, the subject of this column, trail conditions before you head out onto their territory. Taking a few minutes can save a lot of trouble down the line. Of course, if you do that you might pass over the kind of adventure the Out There bushwhack team encountered in the Chiricahuas recently.
This time last year a fire had just raged through the Chiricahua Mountain range 100 miles east of Tucson. Burning along Chiricahua Peak and Rattlesnake Canyon, this fire scorched 27,500 acres and, according to Forest Service documents, cost $6 million (and a little rain) to suppress. Always a big fan of the destructive forces of nature, I'd had an inclination to go poke around that territory ever since the fire.
And, besides, rising nearly 9,800 feet into the sky, the Chiricahuas provide an excellent escape for desert dwelling drudges.
As my friend Michelle Thibault, wonder dog Shelby and I drive up Pinery Canyon Road, the rolling grasslands of Sulphur Springs Valley shift into scrub oak and then into ponderosa pine. At Onion Saddle we take the right fork (Forest Service Road 42D) and head toward Rustler Park Campground. About two miles in we turn right again (F.S. Road 357) toward Buena Vista Park Campground. Along this road we find a suitable campsite and plan our adventure for tomorrow into the heart of the fire-ravaged area.
A counterclockwise loop is formed by connecting the old Methodist Camp Road, (a continuation of F.S. Road 357, leading downhill from Buena Vista Park), Rattlesnake Canyon Trail, Bootlegger Trail and Crest Trail. The Chiricahua Recreation Topographical Map shows this route pretty clearly. As we soon discover, however, maps are often clearer than reality.
The first leg of the trip is remarkably pleasant. Easy to follow and wide enough for two hikers to walk side-by-side, the old road makes conversation easier and more enjoyable. Shortly after passing through the Barefoot Park meadow, where we indeed run around bare-footed, we see the Ida Peak Trail heading off to the northwest. It looks like an old jeep trail at first and may cause some confusion. Stay left and all will be right with the world, for a little while at least.
The road drops steeply and crosses a small stream, which I'm very surprised to find running before much in the way of rain has hit the area. (With the recent storm activity following our trip, I'm certain this creek will be running still.)A mile past this first stream we encounter Rattlesnake Canyon Creek. The Methodist Camp Road continues off to the right and downhill while our route heads left and uphill.
Throughout this entire area the signs of a tremendous flood become apparent. Giant thickets of uprooted trees, branches and mud are stacked up behind virtually every standing tree. Some of these piles are eight feet higher than the creek bottom and, from the scarring on the banks, I can tell the little rivulet of water at our feet was once 30 feet across. From the look of a giant branch twisted around a tree trunk high above my head, I'm just as glad I wasn't standing here when this torrent of mud, rocks and burnt trees came hurtling through.
A few feet into the canyon and every sign of the trail is wiped out. Rattlesnake Canyon Trail followed along the riverbed, so I figure we can do the same and hook up with Bootlegger Trail up ahead. Unfortunately, I fail to hear the trail gremlins rolling on their bellies with laughter at this idea.
Hiking up the creek bed is rough going. Football-sized cobbles fill the bed and move treacherously underfoot. Before long we come to entire groves and hillsides charred to a crisp. Most of the trees are still standing, but no green leaves sprout from their branches and their black trunks look like so many shattered street lamps. Tremendous erosion continues here. In some places all the pine needles and top soil are stripped away, leaving vast tracts of a semi-dried mud slurry. Welcome to acid rain's version of paradise.
Any evidence of Bootlegger Trail was washed away with the rest of this hillside sometime last year. I look up a drainage I think could have been the trailhead, but no indication of any kind waits there. We continue hiking, but it soon becomes clear any trails going through here were completely erased and we will have to depend on large topography to navigate. We should probably turn back, but I strike on the swell idea of bushwhacking up a drainage and over the eastern flank of Rattlesnake Peak.
We're standing at the peak's southern foot and the Methodist Camp Road runs along its northern slope. The proposed route would thereby take us full-circle around Rattlesnake Peak. The plan consists of climbing up the drainage, down the other side of the mountain and into the hollow of that first little creek we passed earlier in day. A short jaunt along the creek ought to pop us right onto the road.
Several hours later, caked in mud, covered in scratches and stumbling along in near darkness, we emerge on the road. We limp into camp, happy to be alive.
A few days later, I ask Joan Vasey, the Douglas Ranger District information assistant, to fax over the handy lists of trail conditions the rangers there compiled. I find Rattlesnake Trail under the heading "DANGEROUS, ROUGH TRAILS--SHOULD BE AVOIDED."
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