Saturday, February 1, 2014

Montana Mountain Trail - February 1, 2014

Panoramic view from the Saddle

What a BEAUTIFUL day!!!  A beautiful day for an off-road adventure, a picnic, a few harrowing clothespin turns, and a great deal of excitement over what my truck can REALLY do!

The AZFJ forums have been ablaze with tons of great rides to do over the next few months while the weather in Arizona is gorgeous.  Problem for me is, I'm not an experienced driver, and I don't have off-road or even all-terrain tires.  I have to be super-picky about the trails I choose.

Then one day, Montana Mountain run pops up.  This was one of the first trails I wanted to go on, but was unsure, and didn't want to go by myself...glad now I didn't, but wow - what a day!

There were three FJ's - Bailey and I in the Purple Submarine, a silver FJ driven by a gentlemen, his friend, a dog and his daughter - we'll call them "Red," and the leader of the run in a black FJ - his handle is technically AYC, but we'll call him "Choy" as that is what the girls were calling him by the end of the day.  We met up at the Shell station in Gold Canyon Ranch, and started out!  AYC was voted in to head us up, and I offered to be in the back.  We are all equipped with working CB radios, and off we go...

Choy and Red head down the trail

As we first turn onto the "trail" - it is paved for quite awhile, and we miss the turn off, but quickly turn around and get back on trail.  Nobody has done this trail, with the exception of myself, some almost 20 years ago, and only half way up to Roger's Trough - a trail head that leads into the Superstition Mountains and to some very awesome Native American Ruins.  So - we're essentially the blind leading the blind.  Yay us!

We keep heading down Hewitt Canyon Road, and blow past the sign pointing to the turn off to Roger's Trough.  I slow down, radio the other two, and we turn around and head back down towards the sign again.  And we're off.  Again.  LOL

Bailey and Serenity at our first Geocache
First stop - a geocache!  It was a lovely little hike down a dry river bed, which had clearly had a number of flash floods over the last year or two...and we stop by a huge tree.  We're certain the geocache is in the trunk - but no!  A little more hiking, and Red's daughter, Serenity, finds the geocache.  We sign the log, convince Choy to sign (and tell him to later sign up at as Choy), and go back to the tree to take a picture of the girls - the tree really was awesome.  So we get ready to leave, and Red's daughter asks if she can ride with us, and we happily comply and Red offers to take to the back of the convoy - which I later sincerely appreciated!

The road up to this point is pretty much a graded dirt road with a few bumps here and there.  We're cruising along at a pretty quick pace, and then we start heading up.  Again, the road isn't bad - I'm not even nervous or being overly cautious.  The FJ is going like a champ - and I'm super-proud of my driving abilities - I'm not even in 4L (the truck is always in 4wd).  We stop about 1/2 a mile below the "summit" - the Roger's Trough trail head - for a lunch break.  We pull out the chairs, we all eat some lunch, and Bailey pulls out the Thin Mints.  We polish off a sleeve amongst the 4 adults and two children, and watch some other trucks heading up the mountain.  As we are getting ready to leave, a Sequoia comes crawling up, and stops to ask how far to the top.  We tell him it's maybe a mile at most, and he gets visibly excited and says "great - then we get to head down off of this."  We all kind of look at each other, and I tell him that the road down the back side is even worse than the road headed up the front.  The Sequoia turns around and heads back down.

Ominous snow clouds
And then it snowed.  For maybe five minutes, it snowed.  The clouds were ominous, and there were snowflakes sticking to our jackets.  And then it cleared up.  Immediately.  Like nothing had happened.


The girls sit in the back chattering away, and we bump up the hill to the Roger's Trough turnoff, where we begin the "backside" of the Montana Mountain trail.

Immediately, the trail gets much rougher, and for the first time in 20+ years, I smell clutch.  Gotta stop riding it - I get that sorted out, I calm down, and I hear the girls are still chattering away, eating the second sleeve of Thin Mints, and chowing on a large Tupperware of goldfish.  They clearly don't think we're doing anything crazy.  In fact, they are acting as though we are on a highway cruise.  I decide to use their reactions as a gauge to how well I'm doing.  

As we get over the top of the first rough hill, we are now in gorgeous pine trees, and pass a number of campsites full of wonderful people who are all smiling and waving.  We wave back, and cruise along on a slightly rougher-than-graded road with some heavy ruts here and there, but all in around, a lovely drive in absolutely beautiful back country.  I forgot that the Superstitions, at the top, are a pretty high elevation.  It was about 50 degrees outside, and gorgeous. 

Best off-road vehicles in the world!

We stop in a saddle area to take some pictures (the panoramic shot above was taken there), and decide to walk back to a geocache that is about 250 feet behind us.  So we walk.  Around the bend in the road.  And we walk further, then off onto a trail.  It was WAY more than 250 feet, but who was gorgeous, we were having fun, and the geocache was genius!  

We get back in the trucks and head out again - all the while I'm still awaiting the "steep drop offs and harrowing switchbacks" which I've read so much about.  

As we round the bend, we come upon an old burnt section of the trail - and this is where the steep drop-offs start to bother my sensibilities.  The girls are still chattering in the back like little jaybirds, but the chatter has turned to "what would happen if we rolled off the mountain?"  Sigh - thanks.  They're SO imaginative!  We had everything from plumes of flames and smoke, to magical animals that would swoop down and rescue us (Bailey has been watching WAY too much Hobbit).  They are just chat chat chatting about it, while I'm attempting not to hyperventilate, nor to show the girls I'm panicking.  
Arizona pinstripes
We come to a tight turn, a fairly easy one, but the inside of the turn (the "down the cliff" side) has eroded, and the "up" side of the road is a big rock.  I just stop. I stop dead in my tracks.  I'm breathing heavily - panicked.  Afraid to "slide" off the rock and "roll down the mountain."  And I'm certain there won't be any giant eagles saving us.  Red radios to ask if I'm okay.  I shakily reply no...and I climb out of the truck for air and perspective.  Both he and Choy come to the truck, and they keep telling me I can do it.  I'm going to be uncomfortable because I'm not going to be level for a little bit, but I can do it.  I told myself that I must be able, and there can't be much danger, or Red wouldn't let me have his daughter in my truck.  They were right.  I did it.  I didn't slide.  I was fine.  

I've done worse than that in my old Honda CRV and on quads - I had already done worse THAT DAY.  I don't know what happened there - it was the least terrifying "obstacle" of the day.  Looking back on it now, the only thing I can figure out was that if that rock had had ice or snow on it, it would have been a very dangerous turn.  But dry?  It's fine.  Build up my confidence...keep going.  Still don't like the drop offs, and I'm getting TONS of Arizona Pin-stripes on the "mountain" side of my truck...but we're good. 

So - I think we're done with the switchbacks and the harrowing pin-turns.  WRONG!  

As we come around the mountain from that burnt out area, I can look down, and see the road switch backing all the way down.  Way down.  WAYYYYYYY down.  Okay - I can do this.  I'm awesome, everyone says my truck can handle all of it.  Still not in 4L.  I can do it!

We do the first few switchbacks, and then I watch Choy do one where there is no room to really back up much, and the "inside" of the switch back has a huge, HUGE rut in it (I'm sure if Red and Choy read this, they are going to think that I'm exaggerating - but it was HUGE).  And I HAVE to go in the rut.  There isn't enough room on the trail for me to take my truck level down this portion.  And I can't turn around.  No room to go back up.  For the first time, I see an FJ articulate like nothing I've ever seen.  Choy edges forward (not very slowly either), his front driver-side tire is not even on the road, and his truck just tilts into the rut.  Back passenger tire off the road.  And he goes.  Like nothing.  I glance back at Red - I'm sure with a look of sheer terror on my face.  They both radio that I'm fine, and my truck will be perfectly fine.  Two things are keeping me calm.  The girls chattering away about the movie Frozen, and the fact that even if I do roll, I'll just tilt into the mountain.  Unfortunately, there isn't much room for recovery.  

I inch forward.  I feel my front tire leave the safety of the road.  I start worrying, but I keep inching forward.  The truck tilts into the rut.  The girls get silent.  Dead silent.  (In my head "please keep chattering girls...please").  I let out a squeak as we tilt more, back tire leaves the ground, and we slide a bit into the rut, we catch hold, and keep going.  The chattering starts.  Then I realize that Serenity is talking to me.  She says the sweetest thing - I almost started crying from a mixture of terror, relief, and overwhelming emotion.  She says "I think you're probably the second or third safest driver I know.  My dad is the safest, but you are very safe."  And on the two girls chatter about safety on the road.  If I could have reached back and hugged her, I would have.

After this, I have full confidence.  I'm STILL not in 4L, and I did all of that.  I know that for technical off-roaders, this trail is a piece of cake, but for a newbie, it isn't.   (And what the heck kind of trails are those technical folks on?  Not sure how technical I'm willing to get...)

We keep bopping down the rest of the switchbacks.  They are mostly easy - a few where I have to get a little close to the edge, but I'm okay.  Hey - I drove on three tires for like 1.4 seconds.  I can do anything!  I KNOW how cool the articulation on my truck is now.  I can do anything!!!

We get off the mountain and start the long, mostly flat trek out.  We pass a Jeep sitting in a creek bottom.  I have to rev it up to get the truck up the other side - my push bar grinds on the rocks - but the truck pushes through, we bound up the other side, and keep going.

Choy in front, AZBackroadsGirl behind
The scenery is still lovely - we drove through the river bottom for awhile (crediting Red for the photo - glad to have a picture of my truck in action).  We climbed out of the river bottom, and we drove down a dusty, well-graded road until we came out the other side.  We girls are all singing at the top of our lungs to the Frozen sound track, with interspersed conversation from the backseat about their favorite parts of the movie.  It was an uneventful last couple of miles.  

Again, my lack of confidence was won over by my truck's ability, the "can do" attitude of my trail companions for the day, and by two little girls who are experienced off-road riders, and who kept me calm through much of my day!  Thank you to Choy and Red for your help, but first and foremost, thank you to Bailey and Serenity for just being you and acting as though nothing is happening, even if I felt my life was hanging on the line! 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Sheep's Bridge - Upper Verde River - January 4, 2014

Red Point - Sheep Bridge, Verde River
Been a long time since I've posted a new blog got busy, but I'm back...and with a new vehicle!  I have an awesome Black Cherry Pearl FJ Cruiser - she's my baby, and affectionately called the "Purple Submarine."  Man, Bailey and I are set to go anywhere in this thing...

So this is technically our third off-road experience in the FJ.  The first was our yearly trek to Humbug, and our second was a trip down the Maggie Mine trail - enjoyed both, but this trip was awesome!

We decided to go to Sheep's Bridge via Camp 7 Springs, or FR 24.  It's a long road - 30 miles from pavement to the turn off on FR269, then another 12 miles down what was referred to as a "rough road."  I was told by everyone that my stock FJ could make it no problem, but not to attempt to cross the river (like I would do that without help anyway...).  We also wanted to drive out via Bloody Basin Road, which I had heard was easier than the Camp 7 Springs road.  We wanted Cabot to go, but unfortunately, his pick-up was in the shop, and the "Goes Anywhere Scout" wasn't able to go...We went with a friend in a Jeep so we weren't alone. 

7:30 a.m. sharp we leave for Cave Creek/Carefree - the start of our journey.  I've been down this road many, many times, and always in a 2wd vehicle.  It's always been fairly smooth and easy - and I've been up the road all the way to the County Line.  We had some geocaching to do, so we had some stops planned...

First stop - bathrooms at the Bronco trailhead.  Bailey was playing games in the back seat and got a little car sick because she wasn't looking quick stop to let her stand up for a few, use the last real facilities, and then off we go.

We blow through Camp 7 Springs without stopping - the camp itself is, sadly, still closed.  We went up the road a bit further to our first Geocache - right at the juncture of Table Mesa Road and FR24.  Took a few minutes of bushwhacking to find it, but we did.  Then on to the next stop - a quick find at the County Line.

Refurbished stage coach stop
Now we're on a trail I've never been on.  But it's still graded.  And beautiful.    We stop to look at a refurbished stagecoach stop along the road, but it's on private property and gated off, so we just look and move on. 

Again, several stops for geocaches - having fun, trading items, picked up a travel bug that had been sitting for over 6 months.  And it's still early.  Road is still graded - completely smooth going!

Great Western Trail sign at the Junction
between FR24 and FR269
As we get up to the T-intersection between FR24 and the FR269 (road to Sheep's Bridge - also known as Bloody Basin Road), we stop momentarily to make sure we're all ready to go.  There is a sign there about the Great Western Trail - the 3000+ mile trail from Canada to Mexico.  In Arizona, the trail travels over 800 miles of back roads and trails, and we've just traversed a section of it.  I've been out in the middle of nowhere and come across the trail don't hear much about it anymore, but I find it fascinating (of course, history...).

Now, I've heard the road to the river is decent for the first three miles, but the remaining 9 are supposed to get really bumpy.  There is a brief discussion about airing down our tires, but I'm against it, our Jeep friend is for it.  Ultimately, another pickup says don't do we don't.  On we go into some of the most beautiful country - we hit Tangle Creek and the camping areas are lovely - the smell of pine, and the cool air makes for a delightful drive.  Then we hit the 3-4 mile point.

And...well, I don't think much of it.  It isn't anything more than a well minded Jeep trail.  Plenty of people on it, a bit rocky occasionally, but all in all, fun.  I never even put it in 4 wheel drive. 

And then...we pull off to take a peek at the overlook...and we see it.  The bridge...I can barely contain my excitement.  I've been reading about this bridge for 15+ years...the history, the remote location, the beauty - and it is all of those things!

Red Point Sheep Bridge
The original Red Point Sheep's Bridge was a cable suspension bridge built in 1943 by, I believe, the Flagstaff Sheep Company (I've read differing stories on this) to allow for safe crossing of the sheep that are run from lower Arizona to the Rim each year.  This area was teaming with sheep ranchers, and many sheep were lost each year trying to cross the Verde River, which, until about 5 miles further down river, is one of the last fully uncontrolled rivers left in the state of Arizona.  The original bridge structure was built mainly from salvaged materials, starting with wood and cables, and later reinforced with concrete, and was made entirely by hand - no heavy machinery was used.  The total cost to build the bridge in 1943 was $7,277.  The cabling was more than 1 inch in diameter, and was salvaged from the old Blue Bell mine. 

Concrete buttresses from original bridge

In 1978, the bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the last of its kind in the southwestern United States.  Unfortunately, in 1988, the old bridge had to be dismantled due to its being weakened from years of service and flooding, and a new bridge, of similar design, which you see in my pictures above, was built.  The only thing left of the original bridge is one of the concrete and wood buttresses.  It's a very imposing structure, and tells of a time when lots of foot traffic was seen on this bridge. 

The current bridge is 598 feet between towers, and 691 feet between anchorages.  The walkway itself is 476 feet long and approximately 3 foot wide.  It crosses high above the Verde River.  High enough that I was unwilling to travel very far out onto the bridge.  My daring daughter and my boyfriend and shotgun rider, Jon, and his girls, went all the way across.

Bailey, Gia and Jon on the bridge
Sheep ranching is no longer carried out in the area, but the bridge is used by hikers, horseback riders and hunters to gain access to the Mazatzal Wilderness. 

After thorough exploration of the bridge and buttress, the girls were anxious to look for the other key point in the area - the Sheeps Bridge Hot Spring.  Down the side of the embankment, and across a short meadow and into the reeds, is a concrete tub which people have built, guiding hot springs water down into the tub, and then it flows out the other side.  The Verde river has many hot springs along it, and in fact, this is just down the river from the famous Verde River Hot springs site, which used to have an old resort at it.  But that is for another trip...
Hot Springs "Tub"

Down to the hot springs we went, slipping and sliding through the mud.  While muddy, it was not "dirty" - it was very nicely kept, and the water was clear and beautiful.  We let the girls get in up to mid-thigh for about 10 minutes, but we still had a long drive out, so we made them get out and head back up.  It would be a lovely site to spend a quite evening if camping, and I understand that frequently one finds people bathing au natural - so if you plan this trip, send an adult in to check the tub first! 

As we left the Verde River, there were several other side trips I wanted to make, but due to time, and lack of experience, I decided to leave those for another time when I have my brother with me.  We had had fun, but still had a 50+ mile drive out via Bloody Basin Road...and we didn't know what was ahead of us. 

Three miles into our trip back towards the T intersection, I get a CB transmission telling me we have a big problem.  I stop, get out, and walk back to the Jeep.  The Jeep owner tells me his clutch just gave out.  My heart sinks a bit, as I'm not sure I can pull a Jeep all the way back to civilization.  The Bloody Basin Road is the shorter route, but we don't know anything about it.  The Camp 7 Springs/FR24 route is longer, but easy...what do we do?  We are all crawling around looking under the Jeep, in the engine compartment, etc.  I ask one of the girls to move the clutch pedal around.  Nothing.  I don't see anything...and then it occurs to me if we're not seeing any movement...maybe the pedal has something wrong.  I get in the truck, and it is clear that the issue is in the pedal itself.  It's just flopping all over the place, with no resistance whatsoever.  I follow the pedal stem up, and find that it has become detached from the master cylinder rod. are we going to fix this?  I can put it back on, but it keeps popping off. 

I explain our dilemma to the guys, and explain that it would be nice if we had one of those pins - you know, that looks like a bobby pin, but bigger (I'm referencing a cotter pin, but couldn't remember the words) - you know, the kind you use on your trailer receiver piece - which of course, I don't have with me.  I'm thinking I'll zip tie the stupid thing on there, when the owner of the Jeep says "well, I have one.  He pulls his cotter pin off, I pop it on the clutch pin that went through the master cylinder rod, and voila, we are on our way! 

I'm feeling very full of myself and glad I could fix the Jeep and not tow it out.  Little did I know how glad I was we didn't have to tow it out - on Bloody Basin Road. 

The sun setting on Bloody Basin Road
What a beautiful drive while the sun was setting...stunning views, meadows, mountains, hair pin turns everywhere (again, thanking the Lord above we didn't have to tow the Jeep - we wouldn't have made those turns). 

As we make it off the Tonto National Forest land and onto the BLM land, I realize we have about 12 more miles to go, but I think it will go quickly - the Tonto National Forest land was well graded and a beautiful drive.  Well, let me tell you, the BLM apparently doesn't have the money, nor does it care to grade the road.  Clearly, all the recent rain had made for lots of mudding fun for trucks - there were wheel ruts that were, in some places, a foot deep - lots of rocks and bumpy dried dirt.  Four miles of the roughest road we had been on all day.  I was having a blast, but everyone else on the trip was about done.  Well, except Bailey who was, of course, expecting a much rougher ride all day. 

We cleared out of the BLM property, stopped at the facilities at the Horseshoe Ranch, and drove the rest of the way out to the I-17, then high-tailed it home.

It was a sunrise to sunset drive.  Beautiful back country - the beauty of the desert was never more apparent than today.  A little off-roading, a lot of history, and some hot springs fun...a great day for all!

And let's see - I always like to end with a bit of a moral.  Hmm...always check the pedal first.  It might be an easy fix.  LOL