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Woods Canyon Lake Day Hike
Mogollon Rim
July 14, 2018
by Chuck Parsons
  GPS Map 
Ten Arizona Trailblazers pose in front of Woods Canyon Lake. [photo by Joe]
Joe, Jeanne, Rudy, Debbie, Terry, Monika, Tarrise, Billie, Chuck, Rebecca

Showers and thunderstorms likely, mainly after 11am. Mostly cloudy, with a high near 77. West winds 3 to 8 mph. Chance of precipitation is 70%.

This was the NOAA weather forecast for the Woods Canyon Lake area that I pulled up late Thursday evening to send out with my usual Friday morning email containing last-minute updates and information to all hike participants. Thunderstorms likely after 11:00 AM. A 70% chance of rain. Dang! What to do now? GO or NO GO? This is always one of the worst dilemmas facing any hike leader. Trying to second-guess the weather and make a last-minute call on whether to go with the hike as planned or scrub it and reschedule for a later date.

But anyone who has lived in Arizona for more than a few years should know that you can’t simply take the weather forecast on blind faith, especially during Arizona’s notoriously fickle summer monsoon season. Despite the latest high-tech forecasting gear and a flotilla of multi-million dollar state-of-the-art weather satellites circling the globe, trying to accurately forecast Arizona’s weather is sometimes nothing short of a crap shoot. The weather here can and often does change in a heartbeat and can be as capricious as a a pair of loaded dice in a crooked game.

I’ve been on more than a few hikes, including the recent Clover Creek hike on the Rim, where the weather forecast sounded so ominous and foreboding that almost anyone, including the hike leader, had to seriously question the sanity of going through with the hike at all. But, despite the forecast, it turned out to be a great day after all, with no lightning, no thunder, no high winds, and no torrential downpours, but instead only a light mist or very light rain shower that doesn’t even warrant putting on raingear. And that turns out to be the case for today’s hike as well.

On the other hand, I’ve also been on hikes where the forecast called for only a 10-20% chance of rain and light winds, with no mention at all of thunderstorms or anything serious. But during the hike, that 10-20% chance of rain suddenly morphs into a 100% chance with torrential downpours, trails that turn into running creeks capable of washing away and drowning frogs, gale-force winds that could peel the paint off the side of a building and strip trees bare of their leaves, lightning far too close for comfort, and deafening thunder that literally shakes the ground.

View of Woods Canyon Lake from the trail. [photo by Rebecca]
Trailblazers carefully pick their way through the rocks by lakeshore. [photo by Joe]
View looking behind the dam. [photo by Rebecca]

Welcome to Arizona’s insane summer monsoon season. And remember to always take the weather forecast with a grain of salt, or even better an entire shaker of salt.

Trailblazers take a short break on the trail. [photo by Billie]
It’s a perfect day for hiking around Woods Canyon Lake. [photo by Billie]
Another view of Woods Canyon Lake from the trail. [photo by Joe]
Fungus, insect eggs, or something else? [photo by Monika]

Still, this hiking club has always emphasized safety first and certainly none of its hike leaders make careless decisions when it comes to the safety and welfare of our hikers or take a cavalier approach, throwing all caution to the wind. At the same time, though, if we always let questionable weather stop us from hiking, we would almost have to stop hiking altogether during the lengthy summer monsoon season because there’s a chance for rain and thunderstorms almost every weekend in the high country where we do all of our summer hiking.

So I tell everyone this is going to be a short and easy hike with very little elevation gain and we should complete the hike within three hours or less. The weather forecast is calling for likely showers and thunderstorms, mainly after 11 AM. But these storms typically don’t become very active until later in the afternoon. As long as we can hit the trail by 9:00 AM at the latest, we should be finished and back to the trailhead before noon.

We’ll simply monitor the situation and adjust accordingly. If we see or hear any thunderstorm activity before we’re halfway through the loop hike, we’ll turn back and maybe attempt the hike later in the day. But we’re certainly not going to take any unnecessary risks.

Going beyond this sign could have
serious consequences. [photo by Joe]
This little ground squirrel runs for cover.
[photo by Joe]
“Hi there!” says a friendly lichen.
[photo by Joe]
Rudy spots something of interest up the slope.
[photo by Billie]
Trailblazers continue to charge down the trail.
[photo by Monika]
It’s 9:00 AM on a gray and overcast Saturday morning in mid-July when ten brave Arizona Trailblazers gear up and put boots to the ground and strike out on the Woods Canyon Lake Loop Trail that circles the entire lake. The temperature is a cool and refreshing 64 degrees, with a light wind blowing out of the northeast, ideal hiking weather.

The ground is still damp and compacted from the previous night’s rain and just a bit slippery in places, so we need to be extra careful, especially on the slippery slopes we encounter from time to time.

But the air is clean and purified, washed clear of all the dust and pollens and various other pollutants that have plagued us on most of our earlier hikes this year, because of Arizona’s extremely dry conditions. The long-empty rain gauge at Phoenix’s official weather station at Sky Harbor International Airport had remained bone dry and dusty for a total of 119 days before finally seeing some moisture earlier this week.

Apparently today’s weather forecast didn’t scare away too many trout fisherman (and women), since the banks of Woods Canyon Lake are lined with dozens and dozens of diehard anglers flinging their bait and lures far out into the lake in hopes of attracting and pulling in that elusive big one.

Hopeful anglers line the shores of Woods Canyon Lake. [photo by Rebecca]

As we continue to work our way counter-clockwise around the lake, I keep a close eye on the skies overhead and a sharp ear out for any telltale signs of lightning or thunder.

So far so good, and from time to time the thick gray cloud cover actually opens up to reveal patches of blue sky, as the sun tries its best to break through. And so far not a drop of rain, not even a light mist. Are we going to luck out today and evade the weather once again? By now, we’re over halfway around the lake, and it looks like we’re not going to have to turn back after all.

Hundreds of trout concentrate in a tight circle on the lake. [photo by Monika]
We see boaters and kayakers out on the lake, some fishing and some just cruising around. But at one point we come across a sight you don’t see every day on the lake, as captured in this picture by Monika. A cluster of small trout, most 6 to 8 inches in length and numbering in the hundreds, keeps swimming around in a tight circle for the longest time, with one occasionally breaking the surface and leaping into the air. We speculate on whether they’re coming up for insects on the surface or taking refuge from a much larger fish below, figuring safety in numbers I suppose.

Nearby anglers cast their bait or lures right into the middle of the cluster, but we don’t see anyone catching anything. Who knows? Maybe the trout are just having fun.

Although most of the Woods Canyon Lake Loop Trail is pretty level, there are occasional short hills to climb, but nothing really serious. And, oddly enough, there are more anglers around the lake today than hikers. So we have most of the trail to ourselves. About ¾ of the way around the lake we come to a parking area with restrooms and decide to take a quick snack break here.

We gather for a short snack break near the restrooms. [photo by Billie]
Trailblazers reconnoiter at Meadow Trailhead. [photo by Monika]
One last group picture at one of the numerous lookout points along the Rim Vista Trail. [photo by Monika]
Another spectacular lookout point along the Rim Vista Trail. [photo by Joe]
Highway 260 winds a serpentine path below the Rim. [photo by Rebecca]
Debbie and Rebecca admire the view. [photo by Billie]
Terry and Monika on the Rim. [photo by Terry]
Joe takes a quick break on the trail. [photo by Terry]

We’ve managed to evade the rain so far, but a very light rain shower finally catches up with us during the last half mile or so back to the trailhead. But it’s not even heavy enough to bother with putting on our raingear. And for a change, it actually feels like a special treat hiking in a light rain shower, since rain is such a rarity in the desert and even more so over these past few months.

It’s certainly going to be tough returning to the heat of the Phoenix area. Anyone for staying the night and all day tomorrow? Do we really have to go back?

We all arrive safe and sound back at our vehicles at noon. A quick glance at my backpack thermometer shows a still cool and comfortable 70 degrees. The rains have quit for now, but will likely return later in the afternoon as the northeast winds continue to pump more monsoon moisture into the atmosphere.

Billie and I discuss hiking part of the Rim Vista Trail, especially for the benefit of some of our new hikers who have never seen it before, as well as to get in a little more hiking for the day. So we make the short drive down the road and pull into the first parking lot for the trail.

We hike about a half mile down the paved trail, taking in the breathtaking views of endless pine forests and multiple mountain ranges stretching into infinity and the far horizon. This is a view we desert dwellers never get tired of seeing. Another light sprinkle starts, so we head back to our waiting vehicles.

Hungry Trailblazers gather for lunch at the Pizza Factory in Payson. [photo by Monika]

Then we make the drive back to Payson and stop for a late lunch at the Pizza Factory. Despite the somewhat foreboding weather forecast, this has turned out to be a great day for hiking and especially for escaping the searing desert heat, if only for a few hours.

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updated July 21, 2018