Ground Control to Major Trip Planning in Arizona

snechemias Member, Moderator Posts: 22
edited March 25 in EXPERT ADVICE

SPOILER!!! This is how the trip went in video form. It's a bit like skipping to the last page of a book if you watch this first, but I won't judge:

The ship is waiting

I was listening to Peter Schilling’s Major Tom while planning my next trip, and despite the fact that Bowie’s original song character is a junkie, not an astronaut (as a casual literal reading of the lyrics might imply) it occurred to me a more than birds eye view of an exercise in Type 2 trip planning would be helpful to folks trying to get a little more adventure into their veins. Here i’ve freely smashed both songs together to frame the planning process.

Take your protein pills and put your helmet on:

Because I’ve had this time frame in mind for a while, I’ve had fare watchers set up for the Phoenix Sky Harbor and Mesa airports. As a result, I’m flying roundtrip from Portland to Phoenix for less than a $100. This frees up a little trip budget for maybe an extra hotel room along the way, a more expensive shuttle, or whatever seems like it might aid the trip. As we’ll see, since we’re hiking point to point and somewhere rather remote, the car shuttle money is going to come in handy. 

Earth below us, drifting falling:

This is the moment in trip planning where I’m staring at a map, just letting it wash over me, seeing what draws my eye. What I see is a triangle: 

  1. On the west side is the routing of the Arizona Trail, running north / south through the Superstitions, Four Peaks, and Mazatzal Mountains. 
  2. To the north the dominant landform is the Mogollon Rim, running roughly east / west.
  3. To the east, the canyon of Cherry Creek running south towards the intersection with the Salt river.

I look at this spot on the map for a while, pondering. I’ve hiked by it from the west on the AZT. I’ve hiked by it from the north on the MRT (Mogollon Rim Trail). I have, I’m sure, many times looked at big vistas covering this area without any deeper understanding of what I was actually looking at. This triangle is littered with dramatic terrain. Slope angle shading is the cartography equivalent of “ball don’t lie”, and here it is calling out clear as day that interesting walking is to be had south of the Mogollon Rim. 

There are dramatically deep, narrow canyons stretching across three wilderness areas in this part of Tonto Forest: The Salome, Sierra Ancha, and Hellsgate. Elevations seem to lie mostly between 3000 and 7000 feet. There should be a wide range of biomes to keep things interesting. Private inholdings are minimal. 

But so is civilization, and access. Not a lot of civilization on this map:

By far the easiest places, and best access points from Phoenix Metro are northeast of Roosevelt Lake and Payson. In this case I’ll get a car service to take me near Roosevelt, and one to take me from my end point, Payson, back to the airport. Now I’ve got a rough plan of travel, drawn in the map above. Start in the southern end of the Sierra Ancha, follow the crest north, exploring the canyons along the way, resupply in Young, and hike through the Hellsgate Wilderness to Payson.

Starting to collect requested data

The season looks to be a smidge on the early side, looking back at 7 years of satellite images it seems likely I’ll have some snow travel at the highest elevations and shady spots. There are years with extremes of both high and low snow pack, the highest levels of snow I’m seeing in the images are telling me I should probably have a backup plan of sticking to lower elevations or even a completely different hike planned out of Phoenix as a backup. There are no snotel or water collection data sites in this area, so sat images are as good as it will get for data.

Seven years of satellite pics for the highest part of the Sierra Ancha in the first week of March

The closest historical weather I can get is for Pleasant Valley, with wonderful average high temps of 65 and lows of 35 for my hiking window, but much of the trip will likely be colder adjusting for elevation and being in forested areas and canyons versus the nearby, but undoubtedly warmer Pleasant Valley area. The monthly averages for rain (1 inch) and number of dry days (29) are likely close enough from which to draw conclusions.

The Hellsgate and Salome wilderness dominate the west side of my area of interest. They feature deep canyons and lots of water. Trip reports here on the hikearizona website feature 1 mile an hour travel, scrambling, wading, and sometimes swims of 50 yards! Both of these wilderness areas seem most popular as a respite from May and June Arizona heat, even then the water remains chilly. Travel following the course of these canyons would not be pleasant early March.  Since it seems certain I’d want to cross at least the Hellsgate Wilderness, the routing challenge is how to get the best out of an area with a limited trail system when cross country canyon travel is out of season. 

The Hellsgate received it’s wilderness designation in 1984 and it sits in the middle of cattle / ATV country, so it’s a safe bet a satellite image will reveal old jeep roads to help facilitate a more interesting route than the trail system offers. Step one is to draw in all those defunct jeep routes. Here is a picture of the trail "system" without those jeep roads:

And now with the jeep roads drawn in. Voila! Many more options:

It cannot be overstated how helpful this can be. Let’s say I’ve got a day planned that’s around 16 miles. The surface breakdown is 6 miles on trail, 10 miles off, and the off trail travel is likely to occur at 1.5 miles an hour. This makes for a long hiking day without any breaks or accounting for errors in route finding, or a route that simply doesn’t go. A jeep road near my intended route will almost always be better than one that is a direct heading, speed will make up for extra distance, as well as give me a chance to move without thinking and watching every step. Mixing in 4ish miles of jeep road into the above makes hiking faster, easier, more pleasant, and increases my margin for error. 

Now its time to leave the capsule if you dare

Now that I’ve got my jeep roads added in, I’ll think about where I want to go and maybe just leave a few waypoints here and there to give me a sense of what I’d like to ideally connect. I’m looking for the following, not necessarily in order of priority:

  1. Places to walk along the canyon rims for nice views
  2. Places where crossing the canyons and drainages involves lower slope angles and less dense foliage
  3. Places with more prominence and therefore more vistas

After some fiddling around and an extra set of eyes from my fiancee, I’ve got something that looks like this: 

The black line gives direction of travel. The blue and purple lines are the actual routing, purple is cross country travel and blue is jeep road or on trail.

This is roughly a figure 8 to hike in a 3 day segment after our resupply in Young. This comes out to around 34 miles with 7500 feet of gain, a seemingly not very aggressive itinerary, but it is worth bearing in mind 10 of those miles are off trail and include some uncertainty. Not pushing the itinerary also gives us time to wander if we want to explore the canyons a little up or downstream of where we cross them. 

The starting two thirds of the trip, the Sierra Ancha, are much easier to route. We’re going to climb one canyon, traverse the rim to the next canyon and descend, doing this twice. There is a fair amount of this wilderness to the west of our routing that we’ll miss, but the Cliff Dwellings and spectacular dramatic canyon scenery are really the draws here. Additionally, the western interior of the wilderness is higher and will have denser snowpack to contend with.

Travel here is northbound, starting on the purple line.

Your circuits dead, there’s something wrong:

Leaving aside the vagaries of gear talk, I’ve now got a trip planned. A promising route, a resupply, research into the expected conditions on trail and off, logistics of getting there and back.

This is a pretty good time to consider the factors that might wreck this trip, and what I might do when things go sideways. Unlike some high routes, this trip doesn’t have an uncertain crux upon which a significant part of the routing depends. It does, however, have a few spots that could be highly problematic depending on conditions.

The most troublesome of these potential problems is entering and exiting the highest elevations of the Sierra Ancha Canyons where the exact routing is uncertain off trail travel. It is possible we could encounter ice covering slick rock in places where we need to make short class 3 moves, which would almost certainly necessitate turning tail. In this scenario we’d have to do out and back hikes, but our low elevation general line of travel north to the town of Young would remain undisturbed.

A storm of enough severity to cause flash floods would also severely hamper our designs, but particularly bad timing would prevent us from crossing Tonto Creek in the Hellsgate Wilderness. This is no small consideration, as it is near the end of the trip and from a timing standpoint a delay could mean missing our arrangements to return to Phoenix. A close eye on the forecast is a must here. Bailing out of our intended route would mean hiking to the town of Gisela, trying to get a hitch, or more walking to the highway from there. The walking would be less exciting, though not without merit in this direction. 

Ground cover on the cross country sections is also a consideration, this being Arizona where most of the things posing as vegetation are actually medieval torture devices. Satellite images, photos from nearby trips, and ground cover statistics available in Caltopo lead me to believe that overall a minimal amount of blood will be shed as I have things routed. Still, it's best to mentally be prepared for some catclaw to the face, and be pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t happen.

Across the stratosphere, a final message

If you investigate the Sierra Ancha and want to see it’s cliff dwellings, the internet would tell you to get a 4x4 and drive 3 hours from Phoenix for a short dayhike, and maybe a few not very adventurous backpacking itineraries. You’d get mostly similar kinds of information about the Hellsgate and Salome Wilderness, or that these are places just for a day hike to a swimming hole in June. It's unlikely you'd plan a vacation backpacking trip with this framing.

However, with a combination of planning skills and experience in cross country travel you can create a 9 day destination hike of your own, and the world is full of places with this potential. With the requisite skill set you don’t have to hike a section of a long trail like the AZT, or buy “famous hiker X’s high route” for your next vacation.

Hopefully this inspires you, in a measured way that matches your level of comfort and ability, to branch out to a kind of backpacking that is a little less paint by numbers!


    MARK SIREK Administrator Posts: 317

    @snechemias This is RAD! Great to see the combos of thoroughfares in the mix - top shelf creativity! Wondering if you've planned any trips around the song, "A Horse With No Name" - might be something there

  • snechemias
    snechemias Member, Moderator Posts: 22

    Mark is clearly a casual fan of the band America. A true devotee of their catalog would choose their magnum opus "Muskrat Love".