Wilderness of Rocks Trail: Part I: A trip Report

2016-07-10

We planned an overnight trip to explore a new place. I have been looking into the area for a couple of years as one hike, but realized that it would be too much for one trip. During this trip, we will explore the Wilderness of Rock to Lemmon Pools. It is 1.2 miles up Marshall Gulch to a saddle and three or four miles downhill through scenic hoodoos, to some swimming holes. The following day, we will casually return, climbing the 1000 ft. elevation gain over the course of the day. Other than that, not knowing what we might find, our plan is flexible. We don’t know yet, but we are embarking onto a trail through a place that can suitably be called “magical.”

We drive up to Summerhaven, a small town in the Catalina Mountains on Sunday morning. The town has been a cozy get away for Tucsonans for many decades. There is a nearby ski complex. Our trailhead is found after passing through the town at the end of the main road.

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Be forewarned, there is difficulty giving justice to this magical place. Mere words are inadequate. It requires illustration and this report will be peppered with photos to attempt to accomplish this. Remember, when you click on the picture, it becomes larger, properly framed and better focused.

I had read an internet report when a writer told of visiting on the weekend after July 4th . He had found the parking lot full. It was just the same as this, the same weekend a year later. We have to park up the road at another parking area and walk back down. In consideration of this, I wonder just how much that our nude actives might be disrupted.

DF in her light summer dress and me wrapped in my camouflage kilt, we strap on our backpacks. The trail is confusing. There are several people at a kiosk discussing the correct route. We find one marked Marshall Gulch/Arizona Trail, around the hillside, which climbs up a slippery slope. Another wanders off to the left behind the concrete block public toilet. We surmise that that is Aspen Trail, although it isn’t marked as such. There are many people in this area, but I can see the reason why. It is gorgeous.

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It is thick, biodiverse and generally lush. There is a constant glitter littering the rocks. That will continuously present itself to us for the duration of the next two days. Mica can be found in large sheets, but everywhere every rock surface has the sprinkle, like galaxies of stars shinning back at us. This only adds to the magic.

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Every five minutes we pass, or are passed by, another pair, or group. I have resolved to be wearing a kilt during this leg. The original intention of gathering our ultralight backpacking set up was to get away from the crowds.  We could go to places that we could be freely nude in spectacular natural settings, and get exercise along the way. I had expected people during this first leg, which is up to the saddle. Most will turn back there.  From there, it converges on several other trails. With the 1000 ft. elevation gain coming back, I had heard that we might find even fewer hikers. There might be a cluster at the multiple pools, but the population in an actual “designated wilderness” should be fine with skinny dippers. Friends had told us about skinnydipping there. These were friends who don’t usually do such things with others around. They indicated the assurance of privacy.

When things start to quiet down, I try tucking in the front of the kilt into the pack belt, attempting to get more air and a sense of freedom. It seems that no sooner do I do that, than every time, I have to cover back up. The ferns, the flowers, the trees, the rock formations and running water keep me entranced, however.

Kilt up, better air flow

Kilt up, better air flow

How bad could this kilt in paradise situation be? However, lots of people and dogs on leashes challenging each other, all take away the sense of elbowroom. At one point, people are going up and down before us and behind us, fifteen are in sight in small groups, a freeway…well, to me.

We do stop to converse with another pair of backpackers. They had been to the pools. They confirm that there is plenty of water and some of it deep enough to engulf a six foot man.

The other mystery trail converges with the one we are on. We had mistaken it for Aspen Trail. After a few switchbacks, we find ourselves looking at a very tired looking group sitting strung along a log. There are several trail labeled markers. We take ours, but attached to the post is an ominous warning, “This trail has been impacted by severe overuse.”

We began our decent into the Wilderness of Rock.

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Within five minutes, the tuck job into my backpack belt has to be undone, again. We have come across a couple preparing to do some climbing and repelling on a large rock surface. We pass. Then, a friendly older couple decides to stop and move for us to pass, but we are already standing in the shade. They tell us that they reward themselves for accomplishments and pat each other on the back very frequently, “these days.” They are getting out and doing it, enjoying it and their comment makes great inspiration.

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We don’t see any more of these very friendly people for quite a while after that. We are home free and have entered into a distance away from the Mt. Lemmon crowds. We have been wandering through a wonderful landscape of wind and rain shaped granite shapes.

Wilderness of Rock Proper

Wilderness of Rock Proper

Balancing rocks of all sizes, massive cliffs of an unending diversity of forms and tall pine trees have entertained us with every step.

Biggest in the Glade

Biggest in the Glade

We decide that it is time for a break. About 100 ft. off the side of the trail is an outcrop of boulder forms. We find our perch on one of these, sit in the shade and enjoy some of the snacks that we have brought with us. We decide that there is no sense being too concerned about clothing out here and strip everything else with the packs. As we munch, another older couple with hiking poles comes by from downhill, meaning one less pair of “others” where we are going. One waves, the other doesn’t notice us. DF is concerned about my wide legged position flashing the woman. I have put a leg and two trees between that part of my body and the travelers. Sure we are obviously nude, but not flashing. We are still legal where there isn’t much law.

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When we return to the trek, I drape a triangle bandana through my backpack belt, creating a covering, just in case. I pack the kilt away. DF places a white dress shirt over her shoulders to cushion the rubbing on her shoulders and back. She will be able to close it around her, covering her nudity, if needed.

Naturist Club Bandana Arranged

Naturist Club Bandana Arranged

The one word for OLT had been “vistas”. The word here has to be “magical.” Everywhere, there is another amazing natural wonder, be it a rock formation, a difference in the ecosystem, a tree mightier than the others, or a plant along the trail.

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There is quite a bit of damage from the 2002 and 2003 fires, which destroyed 40% of the Catalina’s coniferous pine and furr. It is especially evident on the mountain tops. Summerhaven was decimated. The last 15 years have brought back plenty of growth. The old seared trees turned into sticks have mostly fallen.

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Fields of young pine and aspen, berry bushes and others are taking a verdant toe hold.

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The over use has left a trail littered with hundreds of thousands of sharp rocks to negotiate with, but all in all it works out well. The trail disappears when going over huge sheets of granite rock, but cairns (something created when people are carin’ for others) keep us on track.

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Sometimes we are only climbing up and down rock surfaces, before we again see the trodden path again.

Sometimes, the trail is just a rock to climb.

Sometimes, the trail is just a rock to climb.

We are treated to meadows, patches of deep forests, an occasional campsite, and always a gentile stream deep in a riparian bed.

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We always hear voices. People talk so much, it is a wonder that they ever see any nature. This time two women are marching up the incline. This time I stand behind a tree for a while and then face them as they are close. I don’t want to appear to be hiding. I’m covered by the kerchief. They take little notice, heads looking down, consumed with the foot placement in the contours of the path. One breaks in mid-sentence, smiles and says, “Hello,” looking up for a brief moment. She resumes the sentence and conversation. These are two young school teachers who work together planning lessons as they march on the trail.

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Near the last trail intersection, we find a pair of guys who have just done a loop using the more popular trail. We really haven’t expected to see anyone else, other than another backpacker on this Sunday afternoon. People have a couple of hours hiking and uphill to get home. We are in remote territory.

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After another half mile, or so, in wonderland, we come across a wonderful campsite, and decide to rest.  We know that we will soon find the way to begin the off trail scrambling to a suitable swimming pond and campsite. That slow rigorous climbing will take time and effort and we are tired. Stripping to our shoes, we decide to explore this gem on the side of the trail, first. There is a firepit with a nice square ring of logs to sit on. There is a construction of poles to place a tarp. We slide through the growth to the water source, Lemmon Creek, to find it with flat rocks, a bathtub in granite, golden waters, and magical.

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There on the other side, is an even more private and removed campsite. Within a few minutes, we are seduced by this place.

DF Finds the Perfect Rock for the Kitchen

DF Finds the Perfect Rock for the Kitchen

We are tired and it is 2:00pm. We decide to make camp here and rest. We can then wander down into the Lemmon Pools area, which we know to not be far away. We can explore, for an hour, or so. The scrambling will be much easier and safer with only shoes, camera and water bottle. After marking our territory, a snack and a dip in the creek to cool off, we are on our way. We go off trail, climbing through brush, stepping on solid and not so solid creek rocks.

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Carefully, we climb up hillsides where pine needles make it very slippery with the granite surfaces below them.

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We grasp rock and trees, pulling our bodies up. We squeeze through crags between boulders.

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We come upon a first pond. It is somewhat littered with floating debris, bark, branches and leaves.

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We don’t slide in, choosing instead to continue downstream to look for other pools.

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It is rugged, but fascinating.

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On top of a mountain we see vistas into the Wilderness of Rock further down the trail to the west.

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There is much more and the hoodoos are plentiful.

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To the south, blue sky on the horizon lets us know that the city is out there, far below.

Eating in the back of our minds is the notion that we have not hung our food in a tree. It is still laying there in DF’s backpack. I have already smelled somebody wild on the winds that have been flying over and slowly penetrating the canopy as a breeze. It is early enough to not be hurried with chores for once. We can come back in the morning, or even another trip.

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We have acquired our bearings and have a better idea what to expect and for today, that’s enough.

As we make our way, we see a lone teenager on top of a large rock, heading toward the trail, not having any idea what he has been up to. When we get to the camp, we find no sense that there are others. He must have been heading back at a youthful run.

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As we are tending to chores, DF is over by the trail. A couple comes over across the large slab of granite on the other side. They must have been down at the pools, making their way across the trail-less stream of boulders. They too will have a long dash back home. Something fun has probably kept them late.

I pitch the net tent, without a tarp cover.

Blowing up the Mattresses.

Blowing up the Mattresses.

It is monsoon season, but unusually high temperatures are not allowing the rains to be sucked up from Mexico. There have been nearly no clouds, just turquoise. It had rained just enough a couple of weeks back to fill the creeks and start the springtime like display of foliage, our second spring, our fifth season during the year.

Barefoot all over, we slowly make our way up the knee deep stream.

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We delight in the reflections and glistening light.

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Below, we sit and watch tadpoles, water bugs of all kinds, as we filter our water into our bottles. The water is refreshing, just right. There is a small bird that DF identifies as a bunting. It is cute with its yellow eyes. It is bouncing around the rocks in the stream very close to us. I can nearly reach out and touch it. The very busy, very brave little fellow. It keeps hiding in a pile of pine needles and debris. We suspect that it is nesting. IMG_3235_1

As we return toward camp, we hear voices. Through the trees, I spot two hikers, their backs are to us, as they sit on a log resting and discussing their situation. Another set of people with a long trek out on a Sunday night. I hope that they all have flashlights.

The wind continues to come by overhead.

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As we return toward camp, we hear voices. Through the trees, I spot two hikers, their backs are to us, as they sit on a log resting and discussing their situation. Another set of people with a long trek out on a Sunday night. I hope that they all have flashlights.

The wind continues to come by overhead. We hear it in the distance, and then see evidence of it in the flutter of aspen leaves as it is making its way across the mountain. When it reaches overhead, it sometimes makes tall pines sway, sometimes not. There is that roar. Sometimes it is one place and then sometimes it blows in another. There is often a light breeze down below, which crosses over our bare bodies. It has been warm all day and that continues.  Pleased with our comfort, we require no covering.

I create our bed and gather wood. DF rehydrates pasta made from vegetables, mixed with sauce, zucchini and parmesan. We have an exotic chocolate for a desert with a chia tea.

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The sun stays up until nearly 9:00pm. We wonder if the elevation has to do with the long daylight. As it dissipates, I light the fire, in the rearranged firepit. We still have no need to cover up. The night air is pleasant, the fire adds just enough warmth.

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We talk of our experiences camping, when we were growing up with family and friends. DF tells of a youth camp and terror, when young girls heard the sound of a raccoon stepping around outside of their tent.

Watching Jupiter, then Mars and a few other stars, the half-moon graces us with light and beauty through the tall tree canopy. A small bat flies about, a shadow darting against the backdrop of the sky and then it is gone.

Fires are fun, a communion.

Fire at Dusk

Fire at Dusk

We haven’t had one for a while. There are logs in a square for sitting around the firepit here also. We move as the smoke changes direction. I swear that the smoke is chasing me. DF laughs. I contend, “No, look. See. Watch, it IS following me!” Walking around the fire to escape smoke, or sitting on the hard logs, my body is sore from my workout. It is best to keep moving and stretching. We discuss how this is a training. We have a goal to climb the trails into the Huachuca Mountains from bottom to top.

I put on a t-shirt, DF her white dress shirt, and then we remove them. The sun is down, but we don’t need them. No clothes! This is great!

Eventually, we each take the large cups of water with the remnants of our spaghetti and head to the stream.  Three times, we collect water and drowse the fire. There is a trail of moon light shining like a wide path through the trees, as it loses elevation from the transit. It is shining under the canopy. Dark on either side of us, the beams shine directly across our camp, like a gift.

As we crawl into bed, we hear the hoot of an owl. The net opens our view to the sky in all directions, through the shadows of the trees. Our quilt is plenty. We won’t be cold. Glancing out to the west, we see the moon through the net. The synthetic material makes a black square, which is boxing in the moon. A series of rainbow bands emanate from there. We fall asleep.

Part 2 will post in a few days.

 

 

 

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