Exploring the Arizona desert along the Gila River and through the Alamo Canyon.
Passages 16 17, Oracle to Kelvin-Riverside Bridge, December 31, 2019 – January 3, 2020, 62 km.
As my kids get older it becomes more difficult to have time with them. Now that they are in university most of their breaks do not align with my high school schedule during the fall/winter/spring months. Christmas is one time when our holidays coincide. In 2018 we went to Death Valley NP as a family. I knew that this year not everyone would be available for a trip, so I put it out that I wanted to hike the Grand Canyon the second half of the December holidays. Micah said that they wanted to come on the trip. So I put in place plans to fly south and got permits for hiking the Tanner Beamer Trails in the Grand Canyon.
Even though it is only a four hour flight from Calgary to Las Vegas, being an international flight it seems to take all day. That is why I did not hesitate when friends invited me to stay the first night with them in Phoenix.
The plan was to fly Monday and spend the night in Phoenix. Drive to the Grand Canyon Tuesday and hike the Tanner Trail to Redwall Overlook, a distance of about 7 km and camp. Then hike to the Palisades Rapids as I had done on a previous trip. Day three would be a hike with light packs to the confluence of the Little Colorado and the Colorado and then all the way back to camp at Tanner Rapids. We would hike out of the canyon and drive to Las Vegas on Friday for a Saturday morning flight home.
I purposely broke up the decent into the Grand Canyon into two days to avoid burning out our legs on the first day.
The historical average temperatures make the Grand Canyon an attractive winter hiking destination. Near freezing temperatures at the rim makes for nice hiking temperatures at the river. I follow the Grand Canyon on social media and was quite aware that severe winter storms can blow in and turn nice hiking weather into a suffer fest. I began keeping track of the 14 day forecast for the first day of our trip. I know that the 14 day forecast is not very acculturate but what I saw gave me cause for concern. It was going to be at or below freezing at night at river level.
I asked my Phoenix friends for advice on where to hike in and around Phoenix. They suggested the Superstition Mts or hiking the Arizona Trail south of Picketpost Trailhead. After doing some research I was leaning towards doing the Arizona Trail. I emailed the Arizona Trail Association asking for suggestions on a 4 day hike and received a prompt reply. Micah and I researched the Arizona Trail. Reading trail descriptions and blogs. In the end we came back to the original suggestion from the Arizona Trail Association to do Passages 16 and 17 ending at Picketpost Trailhead. One of the additions I made to the itinerary was to actually hike up Picketpost Mt and camp on top.
With the hike being a point to point I planned to leave my rental car at the end of the hike and get a shuttle to take us to the beginning. The website run by the Arizona Trail Association, aztrail.org, has a wealth of information including shuttles. Before booking the shuttle I decided to ask my friends a big favour, that would they drive us to the start of our hike. I got a resounding yes on my request so the major details were taken care of.
Our physical preparations where hampered two fronts. First my knee swelled up at the beginning of December. This happens occasionally and I just have to wait until it settles down. When my knee swells up it means limited activity for about a week and a somewhat tender knee for about three weeks. The second thing that happened was that we received just under 1 m (about 3 feet) of snow in a two day period. Our plan had been to do numerous hikes up Mt Lady MacDonald a very steady and relentless hike to prepare ourselves for the big vertical we would encounter in the Grand Canyon. The snow made it impossible to hike for several days. We supplemented the hiking with hiking/jogging on our treadmill. The treadmill definitely helped but nothing replaces preparing for hiking like simply hiking. By the time we left Micah had only hiked Mt Lady MacDonald once (which was before the snowfall) and I had completed 5 hikes. This lack of physical preparation was another reason why we decided against hiking in the Grand Canyon.
Desert hiking is often about a search for water. We did not go at a hot time of year but water is still vital to a successful trip. Early on our major source of water would be the Gila River which has the colour of a good chocolate milk shake. I purchased an MSR Trailshot Microfilter to clean the water we collected from the river. The filter honked when pumped dry so we nicknamed it “the seal”. Other extra equipment we took with us included a collapsible 10 L bucket and a chain mesh Rat Sack for food storage (to protect the food from nibbling animals).
The Arizona Trail Association has produced GPS maps of the route available for mobile devices. The maps include important way points such as sources of water. I decided not to purchase the app but rely on my Viewranger app which displayed the route of the trail.
Since we would not be hiking in the Grand Canyon I sent the Rangers at the Grand Canyon an email letting them know of my change of plans. I did this as a courtesy so that no one would be thinking a couple of Canadians would be hiking in the remote part of the Eastern Grand Canyon. The park staff replied and thanked me for letting them know and informed me that I received a hiker credit for my permit. I was pretty pleased with the credit as it says on the permit no refunds. Well it is not a refund but a credit is the next best thing.
Our flight to Phoenix took us first to Edmonton before flying south to Phoenix. Everything went smoothly. We took the bus to the rental car depot. After picking up our car we headed to REI and picked up supplies. We needed fuel and matches since we cannot fly with those. Plus we picked up our dinners which would be freeze dried meals and a trowel for digging cat holes 🙁
We were stayed with friends overnight. We were treated to a authentic Southern American dinner of tacos and enchiladas. We then toured around Phoenix and visited a house with an amazing display of Christmas lights and figures. Apparently it takes 6 weeks to set up. The character figures are all home made and not store bought. We spent the evening chatting and trading stories before heading to bed for a good night sleep before heading to the trailhead in morning.
What we Learned
- the temperature in early January made for excellent hiking during the day but the nights were very cool, almost cold
- Replace hiking shoes when worn out. Squeezing one more hike out of worn footwear can lead to injured feet and poorer hiking experience.
- With the Las Vegas McCarren Rent-A-Care Center open 24 hrs, the cheapest and easiest way to return a car when returning from the east, would be to stay in Boulder City, then drive in the morning (quiet roads) return the car and take the shuttle to the airport. Cost almost $100CDN in tax to take a taxi from the Rental place to the hotel, then the hotel to the airport.
- Download and utilize the AZT Trail App. Displays water sources, which alone is a reason to have the app. Will track you offline if you download the maps.