Mon, Dec 22, 2008
For part of the Christmas break, Ryan and I had planned to do some county highpointing in Arizona while visiting family in San Diego. We researched the peaks and routes ahead of time, looking for ones Ryan could handle as a dayhike,coming up with half a dozen options. But recent cold storms that had blanketed the Southern California mountains had also dumped snow on Arizona's higher summits, eliminating a number of our choices. La Paz County's Harquahala Mtn was a bit over the 10 mile hiking limit we'd set, but since it was under 6,000ft in elevation there was less chance of snow.
Spending the night in Blythe, just across the Colorado River in California, we were up early and spent about an hour driving east on Interstate 10 and State Route 60. Along the way we passed through half a dozen small desert communities, most supporting the modest RV resorts where a number of Snow Birds come to pass the winter months. The town of Hope displayed a sense of humor despite its less-than-stellar grammar.
We reached the unsigned turnoff shortly after sunrise. The dirt road is located between mileage markes 70 and 71 along SR60, just west of a conspicuous lone palm tree found on the north side of the road (a higher palm tree is also located on the south side of the road about a half mile west of the turnoff). Ryan got out to open the gate while I drove the van through, we then closed the gate and started for the trailhead. We didn't get far, less than 100 yards before I decided it was going to be too rough for the van. I had been warned it was a 4WD affair, and so had prepared to hoof it from the highway. I backed the van up to the gate, parked it out of the way, and we started off.
The temperature at the start was in the low 40s and it didn't warm up significantly through the day. Though the sun had risen at 7am (PST), it didn't stay out long as clouds moved in to cover most of the sky throughout the day. It was raining heavily in San Diego and elsewhere in Southern California at the time and for a while it looked like we might see some of the precipitation ourselves. I nervously kept an eye on the advancing clouds from the west as the day progressed, but thankfully we never saw any rain.
We hiked along the road for the first two miles, wondering where all the saguaros were that the guidebook author boasted about. We could see exactly five in our wide field of vision in that first hour it took us to reach the trailhead. We thought we had been lied to until we neared the trailhead and found that the saguaro forest was pressed nicely against the north side of the range and we had just reached its northern limit. They were impressive specimens indeed, and being the first time either of us had hiked among them, they captivated us. From school Ryan had learned that they are slow growing, taking up to 100 years to grow their first arm, and so had a genuine awe for these aged giants, several times older than myself. We studied the impressive thorns, the ribbed patterns on the bulky stalks, and the inner support structure we discerned from one that had fallen over and started to rot. The round, inner shafts that support the cactus are about six to eight in number, about an inch in diameter, and made of what looked and felt like ordinary wood and rather strong. We pointed out the odd-shaped saguaros we saw along the way, keeping our eye out for that perfect saguaro you see in the media, with two symmetrical, upraised arms. They are surprisingly rare, as the bizzare-looking ones were far more numerous.
The kiosk had given us a list of desert creatures we might encounter, a number of them like the gila monster, poisonous. We laughed, guessing we'd see none of them on our hike. We saw very little wildlife this day, only one covey of about a dozen Gambel's Quail (closely related to the California Quail) that we startled from the brush on our descent. I don't recall seeing a single insect, on the ground or in the air, the whole day. It was not so quiet a day as one might imagine, however. A pair of fighter aircraft would appear overhead from time to time, doing mock dogfights and other manuevers over the surrounding desert. These were facinating to watch though somewhat disappointing to Ryan, as they never got very close to each other and never fired any missles. What fun is that?
From the trailhead kiosk we followed the well-ducked trail up through the saguaro on the northwest side of the mountain. The desert was surprisingly lush, at least compared to the desert ranges in California, and it was very fortuitous to have a trail leading us to the summit as we would never have been able to negotiate a cross-country route. We climbed more than 3,000ft over the 3.5 miles of trail from the kiosk to the summit, taking almost three hours, much longer than I would have guessed ahead of time. Though we weren't fast by any measure, I came to think the trail must have been more than the 3.5 miles advertised.
Along the way Ryan had to stop for a potty break, unusual for him. Usually his body shuts down such urges when out of range flush toilets, but he had to go badly and couldn't wait. I handed him my meager supply of TP and he found a place off the trail to do his business. I usually keep my own use to 3-4 sheets of paper per dump, but the 3-day supply I handed him was used up quickly. I thought Scouts were supposed to teach kids these important lessons in conservation. Ryan improvised, tearing up the cardboard tube and using that as well. He then called for me to find him some leaves. I laughed. "We're in a desert - use a saguaro!" I retorted. He found that amusing despite his vulnerability at the moment. I then helped out by pointing to a nearby bush that might serve the purpose and he finished up his business. "Don't touch me," I demanded when he handed back the empty plastic bag, adding, "No telling what diseases you vermin carry."
Not long before we reached the summit, as we started up from the saddle on the southwest ridgeline, the engine drone of a vehicle caught our attention. Soon we spied a lone rider on an ATV below us on the long, windy dirt road that reaches to the summit from the south (for the 4WD drive-up enthusiasts). He reached the summit and was already gone when we got there ourselves only fifteen minutes later. At the summit we found a large, locked shed, some solar-powered communications equipment, a benchmark, and even a picnic bench. It was cold and windy at the summit, and after tagging the highpoint we ducked down to some sheltered rocks on the east side to have a snack and take a break. The views were hampered by the weather and unimpressive. Before leaving we signed into the register found near the shed, then beat a hasty retreat to get back onto the northwest side of the range and out of the wind.
We managed to make the whole 5.5 mile return to the van in less than three hours, by which time Ryan looked like he'd had enough. It wasn't his longest hike to date, but with the cold, wintry conditions, it may have been the hardest. It probably didn't help that we'd had a long day previously as well, so I figured I better take it easier on him tomorrow before I had a mutiny on my hands. He was happy to hear that the hike was deemed "Frap-worthy", allowing him to share in a rare treat from the Starbucks found back in Blythe. Life was good once again...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Harquahala Mountain
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