Three days aren't nearly enough to explore Mazatzal Wilderness Park's 250,000 acres
There are four basic reasons to strap on a heavy backpack and wander into the wilderness: 1. To take a step or two away from civilization to gain perspective; 2. to aim for a sense of accomplishment by overcoming physical challenges; 3. to play with new gear; and 4. to find a quiet place to chill your urban-battered nerves.
A three-day trip around Mazatzal Peak in the Mazatzal Wilderness Area near Mesa, Ariz., serves up nearly all four reasons to grunt and pack. Air traffic overhead was the only reason this trip didn't score a perfect four. Be warned: Three days allows only a small sample of the area's 250,000 rocky and tangled acres.
The combination of rough trails, a few thousand feet of elevation change and the need to carry a gallon of water each per day plus food and gear, scores high on the physical challenge scale. Since you know that you are starting off with 25-plus pounds of water, you must choose your gear wisely and pack it well. Assume the freeze-dried, lightweight, minimalist, Do I really need that extra pair of underwear? attitude.
Once in the park, start this hike by taking Highway 87 to the well-marked Barnhardt Trailhead sign and turning left on FR 419 just south of Rye. The slightly washboard road is about 5.5 miles to the parking lot. As you drive the road up the tilting tabletop of Barnhardt Mesa, rejoice that you gain about 1,000 feet that you won't have to hike.
On a recent trip, I met two intrepid senior hikers who confirmed what I suspected and what the helpful Payson Ranger District office had told me over the phone: There was no water. We did see water signs at the bottom of Barnhardt Canyon far below the trail a few damp seeps and a tiny, muddy, fetid puddle that might have been Windsor Spring. On the bright side, the trail crosses dozens of what in the spring could be cascading torrents of melt water after a snow-rich winter.
For packing the H20, my outdoor bud Thomas McMillan prefers plastic bag water carriers that weigh in at around 2 ounces empty. They are lighter and easier to pack than bottles. I, however, have a vivid imagination that serves up images of a pack full of squishy water bags popping against a cactus. So, my water was in 2-liter bottles, along with one squishy bag that straps on the outside of my pack.
After listening to some senior hikers tips on prime camping spots, we shouldered our packs, and we headed up Barnhardt Canyon, trail 43.
The trail winds up through the canyon with a few switchbacks. It crosses several dry streambeds. Venturing off-trail isnt an option unless you have climbing gear. And, you could quickly end up looking like much of the geological strata youll see in the canyon walls: twisted, bent and crushed with thorny plants sticking out at odd angles.
Hiking the uphill section from the parking lot to our first campsite, with a total elevation gain of 2,350 feet in 3.6 miles, felt somewhere between house o' pain and "not so bad." This segment is a good yardstick for the rest of the hike. If you hate it, turn around and go back to the car because the coming Shaketree section will eat you alive. If you find it relatively easy or if you find some masochistic enjoyment in overcoming the pain, then hike on.
We chose a campsite so we could tent beneath pine trees with the sound of the wind, the scent in the air and soft needles for a bed.
After our camp dinner, we enjoyed a cup of hot chocolate in the serenity of the pine forest. A cool wind blew through the trees and the sky was clear with a million stars. As we were reflecting that this peace more than made up for the labor of the hike, a passenger jet flew overhead. A few minutes later, another droned by. Then another. I later consulted an aeronautical chart and found that airway Victor 95 passes directly over Mazatzal Peak, coming down from Winslow on a heading of 197. A military training route (VR 239) also uses the peak as a turning point.
The Federal Wilderness Act forbids mechanical transport within the area and also states one of its objectives is to protect the primitive recreation experiences." But as anyone who has spent time in the Grand Canyon knows, loopholes and grandfather clauses make a mockery of this language of "solitude and primitive recreation experience" when it comes to aircraft.
The second day, we hiked to the junction with the Divide trail, then to the junction with the Y Bar trail, 6,320 feet below the high point of the hike). We finally reached our second campsite near Shaketree Canyon. There is a short section of the Arizona Trail in here. This leg of the trail is like a backward roller coaster. First, it is fairly level to the 1.6-mile mark just beyond the Barnhardt-Divide junction. Then it drops about 600 feet in a mile to where the trail comes in from Chilson Camp. Up again for 1.7 miles with a total elevation gain of 1,400 feet to the high point of the hike, which is just below Mazatzal Peak. Then it is down a mile to the Y Bar tank and back up a 500-foot gain in 0.6 miles to our second campsite.
The first down and up over the high point was a pleasure with spectacular views and few switchbacks. Unpleasant was the hike up out of Y Bar tanks, which demonstrated that 500 feet can be tougher than 1,400. From Y Bar to the end, the trail throws in a few more challenges such as entangling brush and fallen trees, steeper grades and fist-sized rocks.
Check out the awesome views all around as you hike up and over the 6,000-foot ridge above Brody Seep, particularly to the west where it looks as though you can see all the way to Sheep Bridge on the Verde River. We lingered among the manzanita long enough for a bee to fly up my shirt and sting my back.
Our final camp was below the imposing southeast face of Mazatzal Peak and the southern end of Suicide Ridge. The next morning, we hiked 3.5 downhill miles over baseball-size rocks. The elevation loss is 2,500 feet, so take time for a morning stretch and warm up to give the knees and ankles a chance to prepare.
Even though rocky, this is a fun, fast section with a variety of cover and scenery. Suicide Ridge is on the left and Cactus Ridge rises precipitously on the right. In between, the trail winds from pine forest, where you have to negotiate fallen trees, through transitional scrub and then out onto the mesa.
We arrived back at the car and washed ibuprofen down with the Gatorade that we had stashed under the seat. We pondered the trail and reflected on how different it looked from a distance than when it was under our boots. We knew it was worth every step we took.