If You can't Stand the Heat, Get out the Kitchen--Saguaro National Park
Updated: Sep 8, 2018
My first exposure to Saguaro National Park came in 2011, as I planned a thru hike of the Arizona Trail which cuts directly through the east end of the park for about fifteen miles. Before that spring I’d never even heard of Saguaro National Park, and I’m ashamed to admit that for the six years that followed, I never once came back to visit.
Saguaro became a National Park in 1994, after several decades as a national monument. I’ll spare you the details on the process of how it became a park (largely because I only know the details superficially) but it involves petitioning and government and funding—stuff that I try not to obsess myself with too much. I like to learn the history of our parks, because I’ve found that it really does add depth to the experience of hiking their terrain, but usually I spend too much time hiking and not enough time with research. Perfect example—I’ve hiked the Grand Canyon more than 120 times since my last trip into the park’s visitor center. Granted I’ve parked my car in the visitor center lot at least twenty-five times, I tend to avoid the places that attract tourists. I prefer to have my time on trail alone to whatever extent it’s possible. Ultimately that’s what draws me to trail. I have too much social anxiety when I get around groups of people, but I love the canyon and I’ve learned that below the rim you only run into about 5 or 10% of the people who visit the National Park.
The fact that I hadn’t hiked Saguaro National Park in six years shouldn’t be taken to mean that the park was lacking. On the contrary, I found that portions of the park were among the most beautiful miles of trail that I found on the AZT. The Grand Canyon is obviously the highlight of the trail, but I’d seen Grand Canyon plenty of times. Saguaro was something new for me. The park starts off in low elevation, and is the only National Park in the United States with “sky islands.” So in a single day you can hike from 3,000 feet elevation where the park’s namesake is obviously derived up into high-country with Juniper, Oak, and Pine Trees.
I started my hike early Tuesday morning based on the advice of the Park Service. I had planned to start out a bit later, but when I spoke with a ranger about acquiring backcountry permits, I was told that it’d be way too hot to be hiking in the lower elevations, and if I wanted to make it into the cooler temperatures at high elevations, then I needed to start early. “Just call us when you get to the top,” they said. “We will give permits over the phone if you’re an Arizona Trail hiker.” I told him that I wasn’t going to be hiking the Arizona Trail, but he said that it didn’t matter. The weather was still too hot for most people to be in the park during this time of year, so there would be availabilities. And as a backup, I knew that I could always hike out the Italian Springs trail to the park boundary on the north side and be within regulation for camping.
So I hit the trail at 6:30. I would have started out earlier, but I had to drive about an hour and a half to get to the park from where I’d camped the night before. My plan was to hike up Tanque Verde Ridge to Manning Camp (16 miles), look at the map from there and decide my plan for the rest of the trip. Ideally I wanted to hike out the Fireline Trail to Rincon Peak (the second highest peak in the park), and then come down the south side of the park, back to the highway and hitchhike out. This would only take me two days, and I had three days to work with before needing to be back at work on Friday, so that way I could spend an extra day in the park and hike elsewhere or I could head back home for a day of rest, which I so rarely get anymore—but the fault of that is my own.
I have been living in Sedona, Arizona for the last nine months working as a tour guide, and I hear again and again when I take people out on tour that they’re surprised to see how much greenery is around this part of the state. People have an impression that Arizona is all desert and that there are giant Saguaro cactuses from Mexico up to Utah. This is a huge misconception though. In reality the Saguaro cactus, for which Arizona is so well known, only grows down in the low Sonoran Desert near Phoenix and Tucson, and doesn’t extend much beyond there. So even though I’ve been in Arizona for eleven years now, I rarely ever hike through Saguaro country, and I haven’t done so since leaving for the PCT back in 2015. I was overdue for a visit.
In those lower elevations, Saguaro National Park is a true desert. Close your eyes just for a moment and picture the stereotypical desert in your head. What you’re probably imagining is Saguaro National Park. Giant Saguaros are all around, along with Occotillo, Prickly Pear, Barrel Cactus, and a whole collection of bushes with thorns that are just as menacing as a cactus needle.
It took me ten years to learn that most of the rattle snake danger in the state exists in a fairly narrow temperature range. At this point I’ve become accustomed to hiking in high heat (over 100 degrees), so I haven’t seen many of them during my desert hikes. That said, I knew that starting early would put me in a window where the wildlife of the National Park would be out and about, and this prediction came to fruition quickly.
Within the first three miles of trail I encountered a Gila monster (the first that I’d ever seen in the wild), an Arizona Blacktail rattlesnake (definitely not my first) and one lonesome mule deer. It tickled me to no end to have the opportunity to see the Gila monster. He was lounging on a rock beside the trail when I noticed him, and after I’d taken a couple of quick pictures, he (is it presumptive of me to assume the sex of a lizard when I really have no idea whether it was male or female?) scurried off under some rocks.
It was barely fifteen minutes later that I heard the sharp rattle of the blacktail that proceeded to rattle at me with consistency as I stood there for a few minutes taking pictures and video. There was a time in my earlier years hiking the desert when a rattlesnake would have scared me to no end, but at these days I rather enjoy seeing them so long as I notice them before entering striking distance. For a long time now I’ve operated under the belief that fear is a result of ignorance. The more that we understand something the less we fear it, and as I’ve learned about the rattlesnake as a guide in Sedona (let’s be honest, everyone wants to hear about rattlesnakes when they book a guided tour through Sedona) the more I’ve come to respect and appreciate them as fear has more or less dissipated.
My favorite facts: 1/3 of rattlesnake bites are dry bites; in the 105 years that Arizona has been a state only 2 documented deaths have been recorded from rattlesnake bite; there are 19 species of rattlesnake in Arizona and none of them are poisonous—but they’re all venomous (yes there’s a difference and that difference matters tremendously).
As the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail continued up towards the mountains of Saguaro National Park there were sticker plants, cactuses, cat claw acacia, and countless varieties of thorny grasses that slowed my progression, but the sun was beginning to break the horizon, and I needed to get into higher elevation before the temperatures became intolerable. I knew that at the high elevations the trail would be comfortable, but that in the coming hours the desert floor would exceed 105 degrees and hiking would be less and less fun in the heat. As such I didn’t stop much except in the few opportunities where shade was plentiful.
It had been six years since I’d hiked this trail during my northward progression along the Arizona Trail, and when I walked it in 2011 I had been with Stephan, with whom I walked the entire AZT from Mexico to Utah. We developed a strong friendship during our miles together and the 54 days that it took to reach Arizona’s northern border. Then, after finishing the trail, we haven’t seen one another again. He lives nearly a thousand miles away, so visiting isn’t much of an option, but we’ve spoken over the phone a few times. He taught me more about long distance hiking than any other person ever has. I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to him. Were it not for him I doubt that I ever would have completed the AZT. Were it not for him I never would have gone on to hike the PCT. Were it not for him I would be a different person today.
I am overdue to call and talk with him and thank him for all he taught me, but to this day there are backpacking practices that I use very regularly that remind me of him. Someday we’ll hike together again, I hope, but in the meantime I walk alone.
Being on that ridge trail again reminded me of Stephan and our time together, and I was grateful for the remembrance. We camped together at Juniper Basin during at the conclusion of our first day in Saguaro National Park. When I arrived there on this hike however, there was no sign of anyone. I knew that it would be abandoned though. It was so hot that nobody would be on these trails. Within a month temperatures will be much more tolerable, and then there may be people, but for now it was just me, a rattlesnake, a gila monster, a deer, and a lot of bees that thankfully left me alone as I did the same for them in return.
Water flowed from a spring just short of Juniper Basin—a sign that I’d likely find water at the other sources along the way. The park service had indicated that there was a “99% chance” that I’d find water in the springs at the top of Mica Mountain, and this was a good sign. Still, I was carrying enough water that in there was no water up top, I’d have enough to turn around and make it back to my car. With the heat, I wouldn’t have a surplus should I end up dry on top of the mountain, but I could make it out alive at least.
From Juniper Basin upwards, the park is very different. The desert environment only existed for that first few hours of trail before reaching 4,000 feet elevation (the desert floor in this area is around 3,000 feet above sea level). From above Juniper Basin the trail became more and more of a forest, first with a scattering of juniper trees and manzanita bushes, and later on giant pine and oak trees surround the trail. It’s a magical experience to hike from the desert floor up into those high elevations in a single day. The life zones literally change by the mile, and it’s an experience that I suspect most people will never appreciate unless they experience it first hand.
I summited Tanque Peak, added my name to a trail log up there, and noted that I was the first person to sign in there for the last three months. Others had undoubtedly covered those miles in the meantime, but no one had signed in during that time.
From Tanque Peak the trail drops a little bit down to Cow Saddle, then climbs up towards Mica Mountain and Manning Camp where it becomes true forest. Up there the elevation was above 8,000 feet—higher than the Ponderosa Pine forest of Flagstaff where I spent the last ten or eleven years residing. It’s at this point where hikers will really appreciate the meaning of a “sky island.” Up there you can look down at the desert floor 5,000 feet below and it’s reminiscent of flying in an airplane.
I reached Manning Camp at 4pm—much later than I had planned. But I had an abundance of time and supplies, especially considering that I found water on my way up. It was also flowing abundantly from a spring up there. From there I ate lunch (or maybe I can call it dinner), called into the Backcountry office of the park, and paid for an overnight permit. I had wanted to hike up to Mica Mountain that day (8,666 feet elevation), but with the permit that I acquired I wouldn’t have time. That would have added 3 miles to my hike for the day, and I was already going to be hiking into the dark.
Instead of heading north to Mica Mountain (which I’d summited in 2011) I turned south along the Fireline Trail with the plan of reaching Happy Valley not long after dark.
As I walked along the Fireline trail the sun sank deep, shadows grew long, and eventually the sky lit up with a beautiful sunset over the city of Tucson. I walked into the dark for a couple of miles, stopped to drink some water, and started along what I thought would be my final stretch before reaching camp. But sometimes things don’t go according to plan.
Instead of finding Happy Valley I accidentally took the wrong trail down the north side of the mountain for two miles before realizing my error, having to turn around, and climbing back up to the ridge of the Fireline Trail. Ultimately I never found Happy Valley. I had to have been close, but I couldn’t figure out where the trail split was. It was growing very late. I was growing very tired. My water supply was running shorter with every step, and considering the extra miles that I’d added by taking the wrong trail in the dark, I had to turn back along the Fireline Trail and head back up towards Manning Camp where I’d been five hours prior.
As soon as I found two trees sturdy enough to support my hammock, I strung it up, laid down, and fell asleep at a rate that most people will never experience unless they’ve hiked twenty-five miles with 6,000 feet of collective elevation gain in a single day. I wanted for the stars to be brighter, but being so close to the city, it reminded me how lucky I am to be residing in a place like Sedona where the population is small and light pollution is tightly regulated.
It’s good to get lost from time to time, and if I were to pretend that I was anything but lost that night on trail, I’d be lying to you. It’s too easy to feel overconfident after too many miles of comfort. The trail for me is mostly a comfort at this point in my life. I go there because it’s where I feel at peace. When I’m lost or anxious or confused or sad, the trail is what can always heal me. Going to the trail is like going home to me. It’s recharging and it’s comforting like no other place that I know in the world. I know that it isn’t that for most people, but that’s what the trail is for me, and I’m grateful to have found such a comfort in life. But being lost reminds me that why the trail can be scary too.
I wandered around in the dark for the better part of three hours between sunset and when I finally fell asleep. I watched eyes that glowed in the distance, unsure whether they were mountain lion or fox until I got up close enough to see that it was harmless and was about as curious about me as I was towards it. I ran into snakes too, and that once would have scared me, but this evening it was just a companion in the night.
I didn’t like having to surrender that evening. I wanted to be able to make it to Happy Valley, but as I wandered around trying to find my way I was working my way through too much of my water supply. I still had more than enough to get back to Manning Camp, but I wanted to head in the opposite direction. My hope for the trip was to wake up at Happy Valley, climb up to Rincon Peak in the morning, and continue down to lower elevations on trails that I’d never walked before, but that night I had to give up and turn back.
In all likelihood I could have camped that night, continued back towards Happy Valley in the morning under sunlight and figured out where the trail split was. From there I probably could have climbed up to Rincon Peak, back down, and towards the desert floor where I again, probably would have found water. But it would have literally meant risking my life. If I ended up on that desert hike out in lower elevations without adequate water, I may have died of dehydration in temperatures that were forecast to break 105 degrees. Had it been a different day maybe I would have taken the risk, but considering the fiasco from two weeks prior on the Tanner Trail where I very nearly did die of dehydration, I wasn’t willing to take the risk. Instead, I woke up to a beautiful sunrise near Happy Valley Lookout (an old fire watch tower that overlooked much of the mountain and the deserts below), took another long look over my maps, and headed back up towards Manning Camp.
I didn’t want to have to backtrack the same miles that I’d walked the day before, but I saw that there was another option. I could instead connect to the Devil’s Bathtub trail, follow that for three or four miles to a source where I expected to find water, connect to the official Arizona Trail just beyond there, and hike the AZT down Mica Mountain to the desert below which would eventually bring me back to the highway where I could hitchhike back to my car. It wasn’t as many miles as I had original planned, but after becoming lost the night before, I needed safety in my miles. I didn’t want to be risking dehydration in a wilderness area where I knew nobody would find me until I was expired. And so that’s what I did.
Water was flowing steadily in the Devil’s Bathtub, and I took some time to rehydrate there. It was strange to look down at the desert thousands of feet below and know how much of an inferno it would be down there later in the day as compared to these high elevation temperatures, but I was grateful to have experience and acclamation hiking in the heat at this point. I’d need it for the miles ahead.
An hour after Devil’s Bathtub I arrived at Grass Shack, another camping area that was as abandoned as everywhere else I’d found on trail. Water flowed here too, and it’s a place that I hope to go back and visit someday. It’s not nearly as high in elevation as Manning Camp, but it’s also not low enough to be called the desert. I ate a small snack there, drank from the stream that was steadily flowing, and continued south along the Arizona Trail route to the desert floor below.
I knew when I made the plan that it was going to be a hot afternoon. My adjusted route was going to put me in the desert right around 11am as the temperatures would be approaching 100 degrees. From there it would be several hours of hiking through triple digit temperatures, but at least i wouldn’t have to worry about rattlesnakes. It would be too hot for them.
It worried me when the temperatures exceeded 95. I knew from there I still had ten degrees to go. I had enough water, but for anyone who has never hiked through those extreme temperatures, it’s something that you’ll have to trust me on—it’s rough. Nobody had seen those miles in months. I could tell this from the condition of the trail. It was partly overgrown and grasses had overtaken parts of the path. The trail itself—known as the “Quilter Trail”—was easy enough to follow, but it needed to be maintained. But I couldn’t blame trail crews for letting it be overtaken by nature in the summer months. I doubt if anyone had even considered walking those miles in at least three months. Even as I walked them the temperatures were at 105 degrees, but in the month or two before they had nearly reached 120. I thought to myself what it might be like to be the first person to do a summer the hike of the Arizona Trail, but that thought only lasted a moment. It was 105 degrees and I was barely able to make it through the miles. Another fifteen degrees would literally kill you. Maybe someone will do it someday, but I don’t care to be that person. I was pleased enough to be the one who was just hiking this section in the early part of the fall or late part of the summer.
At the last trail junction before reaching the highway where I hitched back to my car there’s a plaque commemorating John “Jake” Quilter for whom that section of the Arizona Trail is named. It’s a beautiful memorial, and I hope that after my passing I can be commemorated in such a way. Later in the day when I reached the visitor center and spoke with a park ranger (they had requested that I stop in to give them a water report since I was the first person to see those miles in so many months) they told me that Quilter had been a trail crew member who died while constructing that section of trail because of a heart defect. I wish that I could have met him and thanked him for the work that he did for the park. I can’t do that though, and instead I write about him here and hope that anyone who’s reading this and happens to find themselves within a few hours’ drive of Saguaro National Park will consider hiking in to where the AZT intersects the Quilter Trail just to see his memorial. If the temperatures are more reasonable, hopefully you’ll also walk the miles that he built. Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll see a rattlesnake or a gila monster even.
I finished my day with a hitch back to the park entrance, stopped at the visitor center, and then walked back to my car from there. I would have liked to spend more miles in the park, but I was exhausted from the heat and emotionally drained after wandering around in the dark the night before. I needed to call it a day and head back home. It would be a five hour drive from there back to Sedona.
I look forward to going back to Saguaro, and I suspect that it won’t be as long a gap of time this time around. I may even see the park again before the new year.
During my miles in the park I thought a lot about whether or not I want to pursue a long distance trail next year. Even in the midst of wandering around in the dark and hiking through the heat in my second day, I felt like a long trail was going to be in my future soon. I want to call it set in stone after Saguaro, but man plans and god laughs, so I just don’t know. It’s my plan all the same though. In the meantime I’m going to keep taking these shorter trips and falling in love more and more with the national parks and forests that the west has to offer.