Here is the rest of the Mount Wrightson story…
Water was the first surprise. With Arizona in a dry cycle and one small storm since September, we filled two Platypus (folding plastic) water bags and other bottles for two-gallon capacity in case of dry camp. But every spring was running except for frozen ones on northslope (see Trip Details).
Next were stunning views. AZT followed an old ditch made to bring water from Bear Spring to a tunnel into Gardner Canyon for mining; winding around a canyon across from limestone towers of golden green. After crossing Bear Spring rivulet in oak woods, the trail climbed steeply to a ridge with views of soaring Mount Wrightson and Josephine Peak above. Descent out of Walker Basin mining area was unpleasant slide on steep road slippery from ATVs on dry soil. Copious cow pies on the roadside and in Temporal Gulch indicated cattle overuse. Lower gulch was a gold and red rock canyon. We took rough trail half a mile upstream, climbed a side canyon to a piney ridge and kicked away a few dozen cow pies for camp. Nice sunset, rowdy morning wind. The route through narrows became needle carpet trail through pines. Leaving the gulch, it contoured along oak-brush slopes of Mount Wrightson, crossing many side canyons. This well-designed old trail had not been cleared in years; hand clippers helped. We filled up at lovely McBeth Spring in a ponderosa nook and rounded on to Josephine Saddle.
Old Baldy and the Super Trail from Madera Canyon intersect here. Mount Baldy was renamed Wrightson for a miner killed by Apaches in 1865. Old Baldy Trail, built in 1928, climbs 4,345 feet in 5.4 miles. The Forest Service later built the 8.1-mile Super Trail with long switchbacks and a contour around Wrightson. We would camp at Josephine, visit Agua Caliente saddle on west side of wilderness and descend to Madera on Vault Mine Trail. I did the Baldy-Super Trail loop in my UA days.
It was only 4 p.m. I suggested a hike to Mount Wrightson since no time in the morning. Foolish plan. Old Baldy was a nice surprise as it traversed unburned west slope. But slow, steep ascent got us to moonscape Baldy Saddle just before sundown, where gale winds and encroaching darkness made a peak ascent unthinkable. We headed down the Super Trail for a gentle contour to camp.
It was no longer “super.” Burned in Florida Fire, the formerly oak and pine-carpeted trail was treeless, rocky and washed out, barren on top and brushy below. North slope portion was coated by snow, tramped into ice by hikers. Wind blew cruelly. The only joys on this death march were visual: sunset colors and a few lights of Patagonia below, bright blaze of Nogales and more-distant towns. We rejoined our packs four miles and two hours later. After dinner, David passed by, tripped on my foot, caught and broke the stove cable. Last hot meal.
Voices at 7 a.m.: the first day hikers. We heard another pair and met a third as we turned off on Agua Caliente Trail to round Jack Mountain, pass by a route to Mount Hopkins (site of Fred Whipple Observatory), turn back at the saddle and drop two miles into upper Madera Canyon. Trail mostly wooded and mercifully not too slippery. Pools in the canyon. Probably 40 vehicles at Madera Canyon trailhead-maybe 70 percent out-of-state. Seniors and young families. October-April use is mix of out-of-state visitors and snowbird retirees from Green Valley (reports Nogales Ranger District). Even on a weekday, Wrightson drew crowds.
We hiked down the road and David got water at Madera Creek. A turnoff towards Kent Springs Cabin (for rent to the public, see links) restored solitude. Graded road to the modest cabin, then steep ‘spring road’ for pipe from head of canyon. We crossed a stream fed by a spring just off the Super Trail above us, and the brimming Sylvester Spring box. Ironically, the Kent Springs box located on shady north slope was frozen, but David found water in the creek bed. The road ended on Bog Springs trail which continued up the mountain. Lightly clad hiker up from springs with dog faced a steep drop down cold canyon to finish late day loop. We continued up to ponderosa grove on the edge of Florida Fire moonscape. A few survivor pines roared in gusty ridge winds above our tent. A spectacular fiery red sunset outlined lights of the Mount Hopkins observatory and golden glow of Green Valley. Cold dinner of cliff bars.
Next morning, the trail was decent after a few big downed logs to circumvent, contouring through grassy slopes and a few remnant pines in cold morning shade to a sunny saddle. A cold descent through burned basin to Armour Spring, a frozen drainage. We soon rejoined the Crest Trail, with new downed logs, icy stretches and no trail work since the fire. (However, district trail crew was scheduled to work on Crest Trail in March 2018 so may be improved now). From Florida Saddle, Sawmill Trail climbed a peak then dropped down into more burn. Once gentle broad switchbacks were cloaked in sharp needle-graythorn and new growth pine, both post-fire.
Last drop to Sawmill Spring was better trail but steep and tough on knees. David filled up at spring box. We climbed onto a sunny ridge for a late cold breakfast of oatmeal, coffee and chocolate. Cold cereal not bad with dry peanut butter, blueberries and nuts-maybe stove not essential. Trail down was pretty good; we soon met two exuberant day-hikers with two small dogs who had “jeeped” up to the trailhead. After a beautiful descent amidst pine and oak in Sawmill Canyon, our trail left the drainage and wandered down a dry hillside to Aliso Spring in shady forest. The day hikers each drove a jeep from Tucson; apparently part of the adventure. We observed the challenge as their vehicles passed us to claw up steep grade out of Aliso drainage. Unlike the jeepers, my knees found no joy in the rocky roller coaster track. We finally crossed Cave Creek and reached an oak forested flat where our vehicle awaited. Only 9.8-mile day but my sore knees attested to elevation change: 1250 feet up and 3,950 feet down.
Would we do it again? Maybe out Agua Caliente to see the western end of the wilderness or perhaps try climb up Cave Creek. But I hope to avoid any jeep roads!