Thursday, April 14, 2022

Red Creek, the Red Creek Backcountry Airstrip, and the Verde River...

The Verde River at the start of the Red Creek Rapids
Its starting to get hot in Arizona.  Paul and I haven't been camping since January when we did the Mohave Trail.  We both ended up sick part way through that trip, and we just haven't been camping since.  I mentioned to Paul earlier in the week that we should go camping - and that I didn't care where.  He suggested the Red Creek airstrip and I immediately agreed.  The Red Creek airstrip is a backcountry airstrip that is maintained solely by the pilots who periodically land there.  The airstrip itself is only 1200 feet long, and has a long history of causing small aircraft crashes (6 that I can find info on in the past 15-20 years) due to the unevenness of the terrain, as well as the potential downdrafts and crosswinds of the several canyons coming together.  The Forest Service does not encourage the use of this airstrip, but people use it regularly despite this.  The Forest Service has a brochure on the Red Creek airstrip due to the safety issues.  
Cooking breakfast at Camp 7 Springs - I'm freezing and Paul gave up his jacket!  
We decided to head out on Friday afternoon, not to get to the airstrip, but to get up to Camp 7 Springs in the Tonto National Forest for our first night of camping.  We stopped and grabbed some In-N-Out on the way out of town, and headed down the long FR24 (Camp 7 Springs) road.  We pulled into the dispersed camping area before the sun went down, and although neither of us are fond of dispersed camping areas, we decided to stay put and set up so we would be set up by dark.  We hurriedly set up the tent and got it all closed up because there were mosquitoes everywhere.  Because Friday is an early day for me as well as Paul, by the time the sun had gone down around 8 or so, we were ready to turn in for the night.  The camp area was not crowded, which surprised me.  A nice family with two younger kids and a 9 month old baby showed up shortly before we crawled into our tent, and their kids were thrilled to be camping, obviously!  
Red Creek - absolutely stunning views!
Paul and I watched the stars through the top of our awesome Marmot 6P tent and slowly drifted off to sleep - I vaguely recall asking Paul to turn off the moon because it was so incredibly bright...  Around 10:30 I woke up to the sound of something sniffing around outside our tent.  I assumed it was the family across the way's dog - but no - there was more than one animal, and I could hear their dog whining.  And whatever they were, they sounded BIG.  I tried to get Paul's attention, but he was sleeping the sleep of a man who had never slept, so I slowly put on my glasses and lifted my head to look out the back of the tent, worried we were going to have javelinas or some other large but unpleasant animal.  But there was a herd of horses just standing around, occasionally eating leaves or grass shoots around our tent.  They were avoiding the tent, but they were aware I was sitting there looking at them.  The horses hung around the campsite area most of the night.  Early in the morning when Paul and I first woke up, we were freezing cold (the temperature was 37 degrees outside) and the horses were still around.  We pulled the quilt over us both and we snuggled down and went back to sleep for another couple of hours.  
A grumpy little cow I named "No Face" after the Ghibli Spirited Away character - my kiddo loves Studio Ghibli
We woke up as the sun was just cresting over the ridge behind us - me insisting that I wasn't getting out of bed until the sun was up because I was freezing.  Paul got up, got a jacket, and made me my hot tea and I finally crawled myself out of the tent to make us some breakfast.  Paul bundled me up and he and I set up our camp kitchen so we could make our usual camp breakfast - eggs with onions, tomatoes, mushrooms and avocado (well, avocado on mine anyway - Paul isn't a fan - I know, he is weird) with a side of cherry wood smoked, thick-cut bacon.  By the time we were done with breakfast, the sun was warming us both up and we tore down camp, packed the truck, said goodbye to the family across the way, and headed out for Red Creek.  
More gorgeous views of Red Creek...I mean, you can't take a bad picture here!
The trip up FR24 to FR269 (aka Bloody Basin Road) was uneventful.  We then traversed Bloody Basin for a few miles before turning off onto FR18 towards Red Creek.  The road was easy and not at all difficult.  Until we dropped into Red Creek.  Then things got fun.  Lots of big rocks to crawl over, huge trees with root systems sticking out everywhere, more rocks to crawl on, and lots of sand and water.  Red Creek flows along a stunning green canyon and the road through it to the Verde is full of stunning views!  So much green in a red dirt canyon.  Absolutely gorgeous!
The rock obstacle on the way to the Verde
Another beautiful view - until you see the dead cow on the left and all the turkey vultures.  It smelled terrible...
As we came to the first obstacle (a big gnarly tree with a huge root system you had to maneuver around), we saw a young man with a canoe and a kayak.  He seemed to be by himself, and there were no vehicles around (there had been a few up at the top before we dropped into the creek).  We asked the young man if he was okay, and he indicated he was, so we proceeded on.  After the first obstacle, we then dropped into Middle Red Creek (which Red Creek flows in to).  At the confluence of the two creeks, we saw another man with a kayak.  He waved, so we stopped and rolled down the window and he asked if he was headed towards the Verde, and we said yes, but that it was 3.1 miles away.  He said okay and went back to walking...with the kayak.  
Getting ready to do some rock crawling to the right there...
On we went, over the obstacles, through some fun tippy spots, and then we finally came out of the creek at the Verde River - right at the Red Creek Rapids.  We were so excited to be the only ones there, and we were able to set up right by the river so we got the rustling of the cottonwoods, the sound of the rapids and the cool breeze that runs up the canyon.  We set up camp, then decided to drive up to the air strip.  The trail from the Verde to the airstrip up on top of the mesa is sketchy and has been washed out and repaired, but there are a few spots where we were dangerously close to the edge.  Like if I had opened the passenger door to step out I would have fallen 50+ feet straight down.  I held my breath and Paul, as he always does, navigated the Lewis & Clark right up and over everything safely.  
While this sign states that this is part of the Matazal Wilderness, that is actually across the Verde...
The fire pit, picnic tables and horseshoe pits.  Behind the bush to the right are the tools to maintain the airstrip.
Looking east down the airstrip.  All takeoffs happen this direction.  
The windsock, which I was shocked was up and flying.  Everything I've read stated it may or, more likely, may not, be flying.
We were surprised at the airstrip.  You cannot see it until you are right on it due to the brush being so tall out there.  On Google Earth, the mesa looks like a giant flat surface without much on it, but in reality, it is heavily covered in desert brush and the airstrip is even rougher than I expected - particularly at the east end where the planes touch down and take off.  Pilots have done an excellent job in keeping it fairly groomed, and there are tools out there to rake and groom the strip with.  There is also a picnic table and a set of horseshoes.  Paul even threw a ringer!  Other than that, this desolate little airstrip is just a red dirt strip in the middle of nowhere.  
Be sure to watch this one all the way through!
The Lewis & Clark at our campsite right next to the Red Creek Rapids on the Verde River.
One of the best campsites we've ever experienced!
We went back down to our camp site just as a group of ATVs and side by sides showed up.  They came down to enjoy the river and we took our chairs down and sat in the river and talked with them for a few hours.  They indicated they too had seen the kayakers/canoers/hikers and had spoken with them for a bit.  They were still headed this way, and were expected at the Verde around 2 or 3.  
The super-impressive group of canoe/kayakers!  These folks have some serious stamina!!!
I decided to take a short nap, and it was short...we had put the fly on the tent this time to help keep us warm, and it was working - a little too well - so out of the tent we went, and back down to the water.  Just as the kayakers and canoers had shown up.  We sat down and chatted with them for a bit.  They indicated that they had thought it was a 1/4 of a mile hike - not 4 miles - from their parked trucks.  I felt so bad for them - they had two full size canoes, and three or four kayaks.  They CARRIED THEM THE ENTIRE 4 MILES THROUGH THE CREEK.    But they were all such good sports about it, and were raring to get on the river.  I took a ton of pictures of their take off - they were heading down to Sheep's Bridge, which is roughly 7 miles as the crow flies from where we were, but is more than 20 "river miles" down the Verde.  They planned to set up camp somewhere along the Verde around 5 or so, then finish up on Sunday.  We wished them well, took pictures as they left, and then we had one last grouping of visitors - three Jeeps and a quad.  
Dragonflies were everywhere...and my new phone takes amazing up-close photos!
After they left (around 4 or so), it was just me and Paul for the rest of the evening.  It hasn't quite cooled down yet (and Saturday was a hot day!  It was in the 90's), so we sat in the truck for a bit having some coffee/tea and listening to the Sirius Radio 1940's old radio programming.  We listened to the Jack Benny show and to Tom Corbett's Space Cadet show - where I learned that for $0.25 and the box top to some Kellogg's Pep cereal I could get some space goggles too!  I made us some steak and stuffed mushrooms and we listened to another weird and creepy show called Lights Out - Sub-Basement.  Paul built a fire as the sun had gone down and the chill was setting in, and it was glorious - the rush of the river, the jostling of the cottonwood leaves, and the crackling of a fire.  
We took a bit of time to cool off in the river...
Apparently just sitting in a chair wasn't enough for Paul - he needed to play king of the the middle of the river.
We fell asleep warm and cozy in our tent - the fly on, but the two fly doors opened so we had some air flow and could hear the river.  We both slept incredibly well - I'm not sure I woke up at all.  Around 5:30 in the morning Paul was wide awake (and apparently had been for a bit), and as I rolled over, he decided it was time to get up.  I said sure, then promptly waited for him to exit the tent and I sprawled across our sleep mat and tried to get another 15 minutes in while he made tea and coffee and got the fire up and going.  
An extremely healthy and beautiful ocotillo 
Cactus blossoms everywhere - this is a Hedgehog Cactus blossom.
The rock obstacle on the way back from the Verde
I finally got up, and made our breakfast.  We packed up camp, said goodbye to one of the best camp sites we had ever had (and we both agreed on that) and headed back out Red Creek.  We didn't see a single soul coming out of Red Creek, and the drive out on FR269/Bloody Basin Road was uneventful until we were almost at the Horseshoe Ranch, where there were a number of vehicles/dirt bikes stopped and the people were looking over the edge of the road.  As we pulled up, we saw a Prius had gone off and was clinging for dear life to a tree - the only thing holding it from rolling all the way down into the canyon.  It had to have just happened because the windows and body panels were all still intact.  In Arizona, everyone and their brother feels a need to shoot up vehicles left on dirt we knew this was a recent "accident."  There was nobody inside, and the car was locked, so we left it.  
Someone took a Prius where it shouldn't have gone...
We aired up by I-17, and then went down to Chilleen's on I-17 for our usual bite to eat.  We were home before 3, cleaned out the truck, showered, and spent the rest of the day just relaxing some more.  
Traversing part of the Great Western Trail
It was an amazing weekend.  We saw deer, horses (up and close!), lots of cows, some fish and had a stunning campsite.  We met some people who were truly impressive (who carries canoes and kayaks 4+ miles?  Rich and his gang do...) and all in around just had a truly relaxing and beautiful time.  No phone service means the only thing I used my phone for was pictures - and the setting was so amazing, the pictures don't even do it justice!
Sunrise on the Verde River
Big thanks to Paul for letting the Lewis & Clark get totally AZ Pinstriped, and for having the confidence to crawl over some of the stuff we crawled over.  As always, he got us out safely!  One of the best 4X4 drivers I know.  My Dad, my brother, and my Paul - fearless but not stupidly so.  Just breathe baby, breathe...
Sunrise on the Verde River