AZT Day 14: The Yellow Grove

Today’s miles: 22.6

Total miles: 197.5

There’s periodic wind through the night, but no more rain. I sleep a bit restlessly because the wind gusts, when they do come through, are powerful. Morning brings another beautiful sunrise, and the air is not quite as cold as I’d anticipated. I’m back on trail around 6:45am, hiking another rutted out dirt road, my path for most of the morning.

The wind is still gusting, but it’s nothing compared to yesterday, for which I’m grateful. A look at my elevation charts shows that this gradual uphill will continue through most of today. I slowly make my way up into the San Francisco Peaks, along the western side of Mt Humphreys. The climb through here is mostly not too bad, though a few of the steeper sections are made more challenging by even more deeply rutted road, forcing me to walk with my feet at a sideways angle while still moving uphill.

Beautiful morning, still heading toward those mountains.

Just as I’m getting really sick of the wind, larger pine trees appear to provide a little cover from it. It’s 9am and time for second breakfast, about 6.5 miles into my day, but I can’t find a good place to sit down. My presence on trail frightens some cows, three adults and two little ones, and they hustle along the trail ahead of me, the lead cow looking back at me anxiously. Under a pine tree just on the side of a small rise, I finally find a snack spot. I’m spreading my Tyvek out like a picnic blanket when another hiker strides up. Whoa! Her name is Fancy Feast, and she’s the first southbound thru-hiker I’ve seen since leaving the Grand Canyon.

After my second breakfast, not two tenths down the trail, I find Fancy Feast again next to several large cow troughs full of water. She’s chatting with two section hikers, Luna and Buzz, who tell us they’ve stashed public water at a trailhead a mile ahead. I do a quick inventory check and see that I’m fine on water for the next four miles to Kelly Tank bear box, where Cyn cached a gallon just for me, on their drive back to Flagstaff. So I hike on past this trailhead cache, finally leaving the road and utterly delighted to walk on well-maintained single-track trail through pine forest. It feels like such a treat that I fly through the miles and reach Kelly Tank before 11am. I see another tarantula on the way.

My gallon is there, clean water marked just for me. All of this water caching just makes me think about Border Patrol agents removing and destroying water jugs that humanitarian aid groups leave for migrants further south in Arizona. I recently published an article about this disparity (among other things), and plan to write more about it. Personally experiencing the water caches that are organized for hikers really brings it home, though.

View of the San Francisco peaks shortly after Kelly Tank — look at that beautiful stripe of aspen colors cutting across the mountains!

I take a full hour for lunch here before finally setting off for the next seven miles of climbing. The trail winds gradually uphill through pines. After an hour, I see I’ve gone 3.25 miles. Whoa. I don’t even feel like I’m trying to hike fast! Further along, I begin to encounter mountain bikers. Many, many, many mountain bikers. I know this is uncharitable of me, and trails should be for everyone, but it’s pretty tedious to have to stop on the side of the trail again and again to let them go through. I feel grumpy about it because the trail etiquette signs through here clearly show that bikers should yield to hikers. (And everyone must yield to horses, but I haven’t seen any horses today.) Plus, I’m traveling uphill, so I doubly have right-of-way! But the bikers clearly expect me to let them through, dinging their bells and refusing to slow down. I’m irritable. But I also don’t want to get mowed down, so I keep yielding.

Midday sun, hiking a gradual uphill behind Fancy Feast.

Near the end of the climb, I find Fancy Feast again. She hikes faster than me but takes more frequent breaks, so we keep leapfrogging today. She’s chatting with two mountain bikers who are amazed to learn that we’re hiking the entire Arizona Trail. One of them offers to take my photo, and asks if I want any extra snacks, and my grumpiness about all the yielding temporarily subsides. There’s some flat trail at the top here, and I run into Deuce heading northbound. He remembers me from yesterday and gives me a fist bump. “In about two miles you’re gonna go through an incredible yellow forest!” he tells me animatedly as he zips downhill.

I emerge from the trees to find sweeping mountain views to my right, made all the more spectacular by the vivid autumn colors in the aspen groves dotting the distant landscape. Soon, I approach the “yellow forest” Deuce mentioned. It’s unmistakable, this aspen grove that I’ve reached at the absolute perfect time of year. All the trees are a bright golden yellow, with fallen yellow leaves blanketing the trail. It’s truly magical in here. If I lived in Flagstaff I would come here every autumn. A few people have strung up hammocks in the trees and I’m envious. This walk through the aspens goes by much too quickly.

Perfect timing for these colors.
Trail carpeted with yellow aspen leaves. One of my favorite pictures from the AZT’s northern sections.

There are tons of day hikers around here, and mountain bikers, too, and I try to navigate downhill speedily to get away from the crowds. It’s getting late in the day, and I need a campsite. My odds don’t look good: the terrain is steep, but worse, the forest floor around me is littered with blowdowns and other forest debris. No place to put a tent. A small group of bikers has stopped for a repair and they chat with me, astounded when I say I’m hiking 800 miles across the state. I ask them about camping possibilities ahead, but they can’t give me any definitive information. Fancy Feast passes me. She night-hikes, so she’s not concerned with finding a campsite yet.

Finally, I see some likely flat spots down off the trail, and settle on an area under some young healthy pines. It’s supposed to be very cold tonight, so I do all my tricks: camp under trees, eat a lot of calories and fats for dinner, put on all my layers, strap down my quilt and tuck my phone and water filter into the footbox. I stay up late listening to the end of my audiobook (Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House) and thinking about town food tomorrow.

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