I’d only found out there was backcountry camping in Petrified Forest National Park one month prior to our excursion. I instantly began looking up any bits of information I could find. Are dogs allowed? What trails are available? When is the best time to go? What is the permit situation?
National Parks aren’t known for being dog friendly, but PFNP is the most dog friendly national park I’ve come across. Pups are welcome (on leash) on all of the trails along the 20-mile drive through the park as well as anywhere in the backcountry wilderness.
And by anywhere, I truly mean anywhere. In this backcountry, there are no trails. No trails as in you can go anywhere you want to go as long as you camp at least one mile from the trailhead.
The catch? No access to water. I'd have to pack in all that I needed. Not horrible, but not awesome, considering I’d be packing water for myself and two 70-lb dogs. With no access to water and no landscape features to offer shade, I definitely had to be extra cautious of the weather for the hounds.
I was running out of time for the cooler temps of spring, so I thought I’d have to wait until late fall when the highs would dip back under 80. But wait! What is this little gem in the forecast?! 78 degrees on Saturday?! Gasp! That’s in three days! Oh boy, a last minute adventure! This has my name written all over it. I checked the weather in disbelief three times a day until I arrived at the park Saturday morning. The only thing that changed was the addition of an extreme wind warning. Oh joy.
Backcountry permits are free, but visitors have to register at one of the visitor centers so the park is aware of your general location. There are five zones available in the backcountry: four in the northern end of the park and one in the southern end. I acquired a permit and was assigned Zone 2, which is where the Onyx Bridge is located and the location of the route I’d found from Backpacker magazine.
To hike in the northern zones, most backpackers park at the Painted Desert Inn, which is on the edge of a cliff overlooking the painted desert. The trail starts just to the left of the Inn, easy to miss if you’re not paying attention.
The hounds and I cruised down the trail, switchbacking to the valley floor, a route I knew I’d enjoy slightly less on the way back up. Before us was an immense spread of reds, oranges, grays, and browns, colors I would not have appreciated earlier in my life. But here and now I was in awe, even with the bold sunlight bleaching out the view.
CW and Herc were antsy to explore, so off we went. We hustled across a somewhat grassy expanse to Lithodendron Wash, a broad, meandering path of sand, silt, and debris that could be tricky (sticky!) to cross after a good bit of rain. The hounds sniffed and snorted up, down, and around the various hills and mesas while I sought out a refuge from the wind for our home base. Even though it didn’t feel overly hot, I wanted to set up the tent in order to provide shade for the remainder of the afternoon.
After 4 miles of exploring, I found a secluded nook tucked in the hills. The hounds napped and I read. Closer to sunset we emerged for more adventures. I set a GPS point for the tent to ensure I could find it again, then we explored until the sun disappeared. The world was silent. No coyotes yipping, no birds calling out. But the colors from the setting sun made the land seem alive.
Petrified Forest National Park
Entrance fee: $20
Dog friendly: On leash, all trails
Backcountry access: Free permit, no trails, camp 1 mile from trailhead, no water access
Now that we've established I'm a weenie when it comes to worrying about bears... ;)
Back to the list of things to be sure of:
#2 of 2 – Know that your dogs are comfortable sleeping in your new tent.
Seems obvious, right? Right.
I thought I knew this. Or at least kind of sort of maybe. :P They loved the tent we’d used up in Canada and had seemed cool with this one when I tried the initial setup in the backyard. Apparently all of that goes out the window in a new location.
We reached Horton Springs Trailhead with plenty of time left to hike and set up camp. We hiked and then set up camp across the creek where there are two wooden “tepees” in a clearing and several fancy “couches” made from stones circling the fire ring. I'd missed seeing this on a group hike I'd done here a few weeks prior (even though we'd been on the lookout for it), so it seemed like the perfect spot to set up camp this time around.
While exploring the site I noticed banana peels left in the fire ring and a half eaten banana on one of the stone seats. Who leaves food sitting out in the woods?! Are you trying to draw in pesky wildlife?! (Just to be clear, I love seeing wildlife, but I don’t want it lured into camp.) I planned to burn it in the campfire later or move it outside the immediate campsite area. We continued exploring the area and eventually set up the tent along the edge of the clearing.
Returning to the fire ring later, I noticed the banana on the seat was gone. I’d made a point to keep the dogs away so they wouldn’t eat it, so what did eat it?! Eek! Ummmm….okay.... time for a distraction! More exploring and playing in the creek!
As the pups started to slow down I decided it was time to hang out in the tent a bit. <insert sound of everything coming to a screeching halt> The dogs weren’t having it. And not because they weren’t tired or ready to relax – they were definitely worn out. Herc was trying to push through the tent walls and Cool Whip was trying to pry open the doors that I couldn’t close fast enough – it was mayhem.
Options? Hope that if I try again later they won’t completely destroy the tent or pack up and head home for the night? I really wanted to spend the night and I really wanted to try again with the tent, but it was nearing dusk and the day had already been weird enough that I figured better safe than sorry (“sorry” being a second round of mayhem at bedtime, a torn tent, and hiking back in the dark).
I packed in a hustle and we set out for the car. Back home I decided to set up the tent in the backyard (in the dark :P) to see if the pups would do okay with it in a familiar setting. Cool Whip claimed the top, widest portion (of course, such a princess). Herc got the middle, half on the blanket and half on my sleeping pad (always the sneaky fella). And me? I curled up in a fetal position in the lower, skinnier half of the tent. Not ideal, but doable. ;)
I’ll try this another time or two to ensure they’re comfortable in here, but I’ll still keep an eye out for a proper 2-person (aka 1 human and 2 large dogs) backpacking tent just in case. Because all bets are off when Herc decides to stretch out and roll onto your head in the middle of the night…
Talking again about how life isn’t always 100% sunshine and rainbows.
Most of the time it is, but not always.
We tried to do an overnight backpacking adventure. It did not go as planned.
Two things to be sure of next time:
#1 – Know what bear scat looks like. Or that of any predatory animal in the area I suppose. Know what is out there that could kill or seriously harm you. Know how to identify if it is nearby.
I thought I knew this. Or at least kind of sort of maybe. Until we ran across scat on the trail that resembled what I thought bear scat looked like. Uuggghhh. It was dried though, so we kept hiking.
A few minutes later we came across a second pile. Then a third. This was starting to get out of hand.
Upon finding a fourth pile which was somewhat fresh – not steaming, but definitely from that morning – I decided to assess the situation. Was my fear of bears taking over or was this something I should actually consider?
Regardless, if the farther we went and the higher we climbed equaled increasingly fresh bear(?) scat, then it seemed like a good indication we should head the opposite direction.
Eventually we returned to the trailhead, explored a little more, then headed to a backup destination. Knowing what type of scat that was would have either solidified my decision to turn back or given me confidence to move forward. I felt like I'd let my fear win, but was happy that at least it wasn't an overwhelming win since we were going to fit in more explorations. With a second trail in the plans for the remainder of the day, we could still log about 10 miles of hiking. AND we're enjoying an excellent day outside, which is most important.
This area was quite amazing. Completely different from the eastern side of the Superstition Mountains that I usually see. So many trees and the stream was flowing much more than I expected!
This loading chute is at the trailhead, along with several pens to hold livestock and a house. Elsewhere in the area are other old remnants of people living out here such as building foundations and walls, and even an old bed spring out in the woods. Wild! ;)
I love the Superstition Wilderness for its history and its beauty!
#2 in the next post.
While my pictures and smiling face may imply otherwise, I don’t actually jump onto the trail with a carefree attitude, confident in my abilities, feeling sure-footed every step of the way.
I usually step out cautiously from my vehicle, peer around, second guess myself and my abilities, and question the safety of the situation.
I imagine all possible things that could go wrong as I get the dogs set up and hoist up my pack. I face the trailhead, peering through the dim pre-dawn light.
Well, really, no one is around, so I could just go back home and crawl into bed and no one would be the wiser. I take a step.
What time it would be when I’d actually arrive back in my bed? Another step.
Those initial emotions and thoughts pop up again, but maybe with a few less worst-case-scenario disasters running through my brain. I take a few more steps.
**Loud noise** Oh heck, was that a bear?!* Panic!* Kristen, bears don’t live in this area… Crap, it was a mountain lion! Oh man, it’s going to stalk me and kill me! *scan surrounding area searching for the slightest movement indicating the location of a stalker mountain lion* *hear sound again* Eek! *glance at one of the dogs just in time to see it sneeze a third time* Aye caramaba, Kristen! Calm the heck down! *deep breath*
I start walking and try to focus on the beauty around me. Soon I forget about returning to the safety of my bed. The first rays of sunshine peek over the mountain tops.
I hope I’ll have the courage to finish the whole loop.
More steps. Still keeping an eye out for slow creeping movements of the mountain lion that isn’t stalking me, while also admiring the last bits of spring blooms.
Without realizing it, I’m an hour into my hike and oblivious to my list of worries. The beauty of the mountains has taken priority.
Heading down into a valley I’m suddenly catapulted forward, flailing about awkwardly as I try to gain my balance so I can fight off the mountain lion that took me down!
I see the dogs just staring at me, waiting for me to get up. What, that wasn’t a mountain lion? I see a rock jutting up from the trail. Oh, it was you.
I dust myself off and return to my hike – this time balancing the wonder and joy with a healthy respect (not fear!) for my surroundings.
It’s not like a switch has been flipped and I’m suddenly unafraid and without worry, but once I get over that initial step into the unknown I remember it's really not all that unknown.
I’ve been here before – maybe not on this trail exactly, but in this situation of taking those first steps into an unknown.
It gets easier. The more I do it, the more I can apply from what I’ve learned previously -- do my research to understand what I legitimately need to know to be prepared (trail conditions, local wildlife, presence of water, weather, etc.); tell people where I’ll be and when to expect to hear that I’ve returned; etc.
There is still that first hurdle to jump, that first step to take, but it is always worth it.
Garden Valley Loop
First Water Trailhead
We finally made it to a trailhead at exactly the right time to catch sunrise during our hike!!
We stepped onto the trail with a purple cloud-covered sky. It seemed like an endless expanse of clouds but somehow they parted in tune with the rising sun. Sun rays started poking out and soon we were treated to a wonderful display that slowly lit up the landscape.
Second Water was not my original intention. Where I end up never seems to be my original intention. And yet, it always ends of being a wonderful experience. <insert thankful vibes here>
There are several parking areas along First Water Road for many great looking hikes into the Supes. Once I was on there, I just wanted to explore it to the end to see what all of the lots were like. Some were simple side pull-offs for a few cars, and some have guide rails ups with information stations and maps of the trails. First Water Trailhead was where we landed, at the very end. Time to seize the moment!
The wide and well-maintained trail left me feeling spoiled! So open through much of it that two of us could walk side-by-side fairly often without feeling like I was being pushed off the edge of a cliff. Sometimes when we’re on South Mountain, the dog between me and the mountain decides to walk thisclose to me when we get to an area with particularly sharp drop off. Not when they’re the ones on the outer edge, just when I am. Shenanigans!
At the intersection with Black Mesa Trail #241, the land leveled out and there were an extraordinary amount of bird tracks covering the trail. So much so that I no longer saw any human tracks (which I had seen along much of the trail thus far).
The morning was peaceful and we didn’t run into any other hikers until the last mile of our hike. There were two large groups and one solo gal. The pups received quite a few compliments by the time we made it to the car.
Water Wheel Falls
Trails: Water Wheel Falls
Distance: 2 miles
Difficulty: Easy (a little scrambling over rocks)
Trailhead: Water Wheel Day Parking
The morning started with me driving right by the entrance to the Water Wheel parking lot. I thought I could scoot in through the driveway at the other end of the lot but there was a Do Not Enter sign. Wellllll then I guess I’ll just keep driving and see what else is on this road before I turn around.
This is how we came to be at Second Crossing – a little parking lot, a bathroom, and a campsite right next to the East Verde River. The park bulletin board reminded me that we’re in bear country (black bears) and that there may be mountain lions lounging around. Uhhhh… Yeah, totally forgot those existed out here. Super. Luckily we create a medium amount of ruckus without even trying, so we should be giving enough of a warning to the wilderness that we’re out and about and won’t be startling anyone from their morning nap. But I’m always on the lookout nonetheless.
We meandered along the river until we came to an overlook at a bend in the river. I could hear what sounded like some rapids or a waterfall, so we explored as much as we could. After going up and over and around we found the rapids and saw a giant boulder wedged between the cliff sides that flanked the river. Rad! This is exactly why I love roaming!
Circling back to Water Wheel Falls (via AllTrails), I made in the correct driveway. The trail was pretty well worn where is ventures into the trees and along the river – I imagine there are quite a few people out here in the heat of the summer. We had to climb up and over a few large rocks and rock piles but basically a pretty easy hike. The hounds are getting much better at listening to me to slow down and wait for their turn to hop from rock to rock.
After a short bit the trail opens up to a large canyon type area – large rock surfaces, minimal plants beyond the cliff sides, and the river/waterfalls winding along. We had the place to ourselves. We peered down from overlooks, wandered to the water’s edge, hopped across boulders, and just generally soaked up the sunshine. By the time any other hikers came along we were ready head back.
I wanted to check out one other area for potential hiking opportunities before we officially started back home. The trail was open to hikers, horses, and dirt bikes/ATVs, and just after we stepped onto the trail several dirt bikes flew by. They were very respectful of our space but I decided that running into more of them was more than I wanted to deal with at the moment. So I let the hounds dawdle in the little creek for a bit, which Herc loved, before returning to the car. Just as I turned to start back I dropped my phone in the creek!! YIKES!! AHHH!! I snatched it out of the water and tried to shake it off, hoping with all hope available for its survival. How did I manage to drop it?! Why was I even fumbling with it over the water?! I’m always so cautious around water!! Ugh, definitely a sign to just go home. Somehow, beyond any of my understanding, it hasn’t shown a single sign of damage! Whew (knock on wood!)! But I am taking that incident as a sign to figure out some better options for carrying my phone, what I use for navigation, and what I use for taking pictures. Time to research!
Trails: Bursera > Gila > Lost Ranch Mine > Pyramid
Miles: 5.7 miles
Difficulty: Medium (some hills, but nothing rigorous)
Trailhead: South Mountain Park Trailhead Parking Lot, 15498 S 19th Ave, Phoenix, AZ 85045
A sort of sunrise hike… Sort of, as in I tried to make it to the mountain to be hiking during sunrise but life happened and I wound up watching it in my rearview mirror. Whoops! Nonetheless, still beautiful and still an excellent morning!
We began our hike from the South Mountain Park Trailhead Parking Lot off Chandler Blvd where you launch from the Pyramid Trail. Bursera starts at the first fork to the left – there is a post noting such. The trail wraps up the hill with plenty of lookout points that offer great views to the east, south, and beyond (aka great spots to catch sunrise – if you’re timelier that I was!).
I decided to cut across Gila Trail (5.7 miles RT) rather than National Trail (7.1 miles RT - this is the original route I found via AllTrails) due to the warmer than normal temps. Skipping the first little trail I saw that forked to the right – a super-short shortcut back (connects partway down Gila) – we continued on Bursera until we hiked down to a wash and back up. Just past the wash was the start of Gila Trail heading off to the right. From there we just kept to the right at any fork in the trail and made our way back to the parking lot (Lost Ranch Mine Trail to Pyramid Trail).
Despite a full parking lot, we saw very few people along most of our hike. When it comes to hiking with these two yahoos, a hike that gives us plenty of space and very few trail interactions earns an enthusiastic double thumbs-up from me!!
My best guess was that everyone chose the other trail option (continuing on Pyramid Trail) or we were all traveling in the same direction (counter-clockwise). It wasn’t until we hit Lost Ranch Mine Trail that we really came upon any significant number of folk – and normally I’d just insert a <shrug> here as I don’t mind meeting people on trails, and in fact it is often enjoyable – but we also suddenly encountered quite a few dogs!! Apparently everyone takes their dogs hiking at 9am!
We parked at the Blue Point Recreation area (Tonto Pass required) – same place we parked for the Goldfield Ovens, just hiking in the opposite direction. The hounds and I set out on the trail just as the first hint of light was starting to shimmer up from the horizon.
The grass and spider webs were covered in dew, the sunrise was golden, and we didn’t run into any other hikers the entire morning!
The trail meandered through the grass, past a few “campsites” along the edge of the hillsides, and then mostly through desert terrain until it arrived at the road and picked up on the other side. On the south side of the road the terrain had a bit more brush and trees the closer we got to the river.
Herc of course waded into the water – I swear he’d live in water if I let him! As we hiked along the river we found a few outcroppings of rocks that made perfect pit stops for watching the sun rise and enjoying snacks.
You can follow the trail all the way around the hills back to the Goldfield Ovens, but we just headed back the way we came. It was so lovely that I didn’t mind seeing it all again.
3.5 hours northeast of Phoenix is a section of land I could easily see myself driving right through without a thought of stopping to look around – from the car it looks fairly flat and somewhat monochromatic.
I would, however, be missing out. In a big way.
Thankfully the National Park Service has set aside this chunk of land as the Petrified Forest National Park. And SUPER thankfully they welcome dogs on all of the trails! <3
The petrified wood was fascinating to see up close -- so many colors appears from the minerals in the water way-back-when. And the rest of the landscape was equally as unique, though these pictures do not do it justice!!
There were several short hikes (about one mile each) and quite a few points of interest/scenic overlooks. We spent much more time exploring than I expected (in a good way!) and had to hustle through the last few points of interest, which was a bummer. However, I will definitely return!
The day didn't start with plans to explore, but sometimes you just gotta jump on a good idea!
Lately I've been perusing the adventures on The Outbound and looking up hikes on AllTrails. Early in the morning I ran across a write up about the Goldfield Ovens, limestone ovens built into the cliffsides dating back to to the pioneer days. The location was close by and it seemed like there wouldn't be too many other hikers on the trail -- perfecto!
The hike started out as a single-width trail hugging the cliffside just above the Salt River. After a short bit, it descended to a beach type area along the river and we hooked to the right to follow a sandy wash north.
With the lovely "winter" weather, there was quite a bit of greenery and even a few wildflowers.
The white limestones scattered on the ground were the first sign that we'd reached the oven. It looked like a little cave at first, until you notice the neatly stacked bricks above it.
Cool Whip: Mom, this is so neat! Perfect for cooking up some kitty snacks!
Me: By kitty snack, I assume you mean snack for kitties?!
CW: Uh, yeah... sure...snacks FOR kitties. Definitely not snacks made out of kitties... :P
Great place to spend a chill day!