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Big Lake Car Camping
White Mountains
September 4-7, 2020
by Carl Lunde and Lin Chao

Arizona’s White Mountains are one of my favorite places. I love the meadows, creeks, lush green hills, winding roads, lakes, high peaks, wild animals, dark sky, cool temperatures in the summer and snow-covered ski resort in the winter, and not mention so many wonderful hiking trails. Did I miss any? Yes, the wildflowers in July and fall color in the October. What an awesome place in Arizona!


Thursday, September 3, 2020, by Lin

Carl and I leave the hot valley behind and drive ahead to the White Mountains. The traffic is pretty good, and we arrive at Rainbow Campground around 2 PM.

Rainbow Campground is at Big Lake. From a travel website: Big Lake is located about 25 miles south of Springerville, Arizona. It’s at an elevation of about 9,000 feet. The temperatures are cool and refreshing during late spring, summer, and early fall. Big Lake is considered by many as the best fishing lake in the White Mountains.

road
Winding roads. [photo by Lin]
trees
Aspen trees at the campground. [photo by Lin]
camp
Rainbow Campground. [photo by Lin]
yellow
Yellow flower. [photo by Lin]
white
White flower. [photo by Lin]
sign
Indian Spring Trail Map. [photo by Carl]
tree
Aspen tree by our campsite. [photo by Lin]

It’s our first time camping at Rainbow Campground; therefore, after we arrived, my first thing was to check the group campsite. It was huge, with two metal tables, a campfire ring in the middle of the open space, a long curved paved parking lot, enough for 6-7 cars. There are many tall trees surrounding the site. A restroom is located on the left. A perfect camping site for our trip! I was happy.

Carl and I took a quick trip to the Lake. It was quiet and did we not see too many people there. But deep in my heart, I know it will be a zoo here tomorrow. While we were at the lake, Barry and Joe arrived at the campsite. They were surprised at how big their campsite was. The temperature was cool, the sun was slowly setting. We just sit and relax for the rest of the day. The night was very quiet, and cold.

view
Wildflower and Lake. [photo by Lin]
lake
Big Lake. [photo by Lin]

Friday, September 4, 2020, by Lin

The night was cold. I had two blankets. What a change from the long and hot summer we had in Phoenix. After a quick breakfast, Carl and I were ready to scout a trail that we were planning to hike this afternoon. We invited Barry and Joe, but both just want to take it easy and enjoy the cool temperatures at the campsite.

“So, where is the Indian Spring Trailhead?” I asked.

“Walk south, and turn left at Loop D junction. The trail is located behind the first restroom on the right,” the Ranger answered.

Yes, we found the trail right behind the restroom, and it was just less than 0.2 miles from our campsite. Awesome. Carl and I took a quick picture of the sign next to the restroom and started our very first hike for this car camping trip.

It was still early in the forest. The trail was empty. We did not see anyone, but a deer scared me and jumped away. It was my first time on this trip, so I was paying attention to each junction, and took pictures. The Indian Spring Trailhead is about ¼ mile from Rainbow CG. It is located south of FR 249E. The Loop is about 7.5 miles. Today we decided to hike clockwise, went to the Lookout, and hiked as far as time allowed. The trail was well maintained, and it was very pretty. We did 7 miles.

sign
Sign next to the restroom. [photo by Lin]
sign
First junction. [photo by Lin]
sign
Sign at Indian Spring Trailhead. [photo by Lin]
sign
Big Lake Lookout, this way. [photo by Lin]
tent
Chris’s tent. [photo by Lin]
tent
Rudy’s tent. [photo by Lin]
tents
Ann, John, Gary & Ginger, Michael, Carol’s tents. [photo by Lin]

Around 2 PM, people finally showed up. Randall with his trailer was the beginning of the wave of the Friday arrivals. Chris and Bettye rode with Rudy. Mohammed and Carol were riding with Michael. Ann and John rode together. Gary and Ginger were the last ones to arrive at the group campsite. Ralph, Diva, Chuck, Mimi, Karen, Rich, and Victoria were booked at various nearby campsites. They all safely arrived at the campsite before dark.

Choosing the spot for your tent is tricky. Some want to be away from everyone. Some want to be next to each other. Some like to camp near the restroom. Some want to be closer to the campfire. We had a huge group campsite, and I’m sure everyone was able to pick their favorite spot.

Our first hike of today is 4 PM, campsite to Big Lake Lookout. It is about a 4.2-mile round trip. Everyone was almost settled in, but a few of them just want to be relaxing. But some cannot wait to hit the trail, because it was a long day of driving and sitting in a car.

trailer
Randall’s trailer. [photo by Lin]
group
Bettye, Chris, Carl, Rich, Victoria, Ann, Randall, Rudy and Lin (behind the camera). [photo by Lin]

They can’t wait to stretch their legs and enjoy the cooler weather. After a quick group picture, we were on the road.

This hike began at the CG and headed south into a mixed forest of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, Engelmann spruce, Colorado blue spruce, and Aspen. The trail is very nice, wide, and graveled. After about a half mile, the trails reach a short side trail to Big Lake Lookout. This route climbs a few hundred feet, but the view from the top is worth the heart-pumping steps.

wood
Can you see the eye, tongue, and smiling face? [photo by Lin]
tree
Aspen tree.
wood
Tree trunk. [photo by Lin]
Carl
Carl is having too much fun. [photo by Lin]
group
At the top: Chris, Ann, Victoria, Rudy, Randall, Rich. [photo by Lin]
hikers
Hello, Bettye and Carl. [photo by Lin]
picture
GEO Survey Marker at the top of the Lookout. [Lin]
hikers
Is it time to go down already? [photo by Lin]
group
Group picture at the top. [photo by Lin]
Chris, Randall, Rich, Rudy, Victoria, Bettye, Ann, Carl, and Lin (behind the camera)
hikers
Old cattle guard. [photo by Lin]
view
Back to our campsite. [photo by Lin]
fire
Gary, Randall, and Carol are relaxing at campfire ring. [photo by Lin]
fire
Rudy provides entertainment with his guitar. [photo by Lin]

Our goal was get back to the campsite before sunset, which we did. It was very nice, short and sweet hike after a long day of driving. The campfire is always a fun part of a camping trip. This trip Chris is taking over our campfire master Rudy’s job. He is going to in charge of our campfire for new few days. He did a great job. Thanks, Chris.


Saturday, September 5, 2020, by Lin

Today we only had one hike, the Escudilla Nation Recreation Trail #308, a 3.5-mile hike (6.9-mile round trip) to the top of Arizona’s third highest mountain.

7:30 AM was our initial meet time for the hike. We did pretty good. We left the campground about 7:40 AM. There are 7 cars in the caravan: John B., Michael, Randall, Chuck, Mimi, Rich, Gary. Oh, yes, one more car: Eileen and Becky joined us from Pine Top. They came in time to follow Michael, who was the last driver to leave the campground.

From our campground to the Escudilla Trailhead is about 27 miles, 52 minutes driving time. Since there was no cell phone service at the Campground, to use Google Maps was a bit of a challenge. After made our first wrong turn, we were able to follow the printed map and made a right turn. So we arrived safely at the trailhead.

But we missed one car and three hikers. Where are they? The three missing hikers were Gary, Ginger and Bettye. I radioed them a few times, but no one answered. By then everyone was ready to move on to the hike. Should we wait? Should we send someone to search for them? Should we start hiking?

Knowing Bettye has been camping in this area before, she knows it well. Maybe she did not know this trailhead, but we felt comfortable that they would go back to the campsite to do another hike near the lake. (Lesson learned for the leader: print out a map and give each driver a copy before departure from CG).

Our decision was that we would start hiking without Gary, Ginger and Bettye. We took group pictures before our hike, as is our club’s tradition. Who does not like clean, smiling face picture before the dirty, sweating face?

Taking a group picture is easy. Keeping eyes on everyone on the trail is harder than just pushing the button. For safety purposes, I divided the party into two groups. Fast hikers will go fast, and Chris will keep an eye on each of them. Slower hikers will stay with me, and we will take group pictures at the Lookout.

To have walkie-talkies on the trail is a plus to the leader, especially if the trail has many junctions. Today’s trail does not have many junctions; however, with the difficulty of this trail, having walkie-talkies will help me to contact each small group of people.

Escudilla Mountain is third highest in Arizona. The trail starts at 9600 feet and climbs 1312 feet to the 10,912-foot summit in a little over 3 miles. The trail condition is pretty good, but the trail seems a tad longer than the 3 miles cited by the Forest Service. From personal experience, you need to add 1+ miles to any sign posted by the Forest Service.

For the first mile, this trail climbs gently through dog-hair stands of aspen. Among these aspen trees you see the charred stumps of giant Douglas firs. This area was scorched by a 23,000-acre fire in 1951. In addition, this area was severely affected by the Wallow Fire of June, 2011. The Escudilla Lookout was severely damaged by the fire. For safety concerns, it has been fenced off and closed to public entry.

Hiking through an area affected by the wildfire can be prone to hazards, such as falling trees, flooding, and burned out stump holes. Therefore, any time you enter the forest affected by a wildfire, you should be aware of your environment and changing weather conditions. Today’s weather was sunshine and blue sky, with a 20% chance of thunderstorms.

After about a mile, the trail begins to steepen as it enters a large meadow. This is a very impressive area. In summer of 2016, when we hiked this trail, the wildflowers were everywhere. It was just beautiful.

group
Group picture. [photo by Lin]
front:  Lin, Victoria, Ann, Randall, Rudy, Eileen, Carol
back: Karen, Rich, Mimi, Carl, John, Mohammed, Chuck, Barry, Diva, Becky, Joe, Michael
hikers
Aspen trees and happy hikers. [photo by Lin]
hikers
It’s so green here! [photo by Lin]
hikers
Rudy is stepping over a log. [photo by Lin]
Karen
Happy Karen. [photo by Lin]
burn
After 2011 Willow wildfire. [photo by Lin]
view
Beautiful wildflowers! [photo by Lin]
Ann
Happy Ann! [photo by Lin]
purple
Wildflowers. [photo by Lin]
tower
We’re almost there. [photo by Lin]
view
What a beautiful view! [photo by Ralph]
hikers
Ann, Victoria, Rich, Rudy and Lin take a break.
[photo by Eileen]
view
Marching through the meadow.
[photo by Eileen]
log
Charred stumps, down, but the Spirit still lives. [photo by Lin]

After another 0.5 miles, the trail tops forested Profanity Ridge, then drops slightly through stands of Engelmann spruce and fir. By then our group had been spread out a mile apart. One hiker radios me that he’d had enough and was ready to turn around. I radio the others. Everyone is doing well, and they want to continue hiking. For a long period of time I hiked with Eileen, who is strong hiker and did many trails in this area. It was so nice to see and talk to her.

hikers
Victoria, Rich and Lin are marching into
the Down & Dead forest. [photo by Ann]
Lin
Lin enters a large meadow that slopes across
Toolbox Draw to the left. [photo by Ann]
view
In the meadow before we go uphill again. [photo by Ann]
view
Wildflowers and a dead tree. [photo by Ralph]
Diva
Diva is enjoying the moment. [photo by Ralph]

Continuing north across a meadow, we re-entered the forest and continued for another mile before reaching the Escudilla Lookout.

When I arrived at the top, many of our hikers were already there. Randall told me he had been there about 10 minutes. Some of us found a quiet place to meditate. Some of us enjoyed lunch. Some of us were just walking around and took as many pictures as we could. The view was beautiful. The cool breeze was welcome to every one of us at the top.

tower
Fenced and closed Lookout tower.
[photo by Lin]
hikers
Mohammed, Lin, Victoria and Rich are relaxing.
[photo by Eileen]
hikers
Happy hikers. [photo by Lin]
group
Say Cheese everyone: Lin, Victoria, Carol, Chris, Rich, Diva, Rudy, Ralph, Eileen, Randall, Mohammed.
[photo by Lin]
group
Group picture at the tower. [photo by Lin]
group
Ann, Rudy, Eileen, Randall, Victoria, Muhammad, Rich, Lin, Ralph and Diva
(Chris , Mohammed, and Carol already left). [photo by Lin]
view
The Blue sky and White cloud. [photo by Lin]
Rudy
Stop, Rudy, the Lookout is closed. [photo by Eileen]
Lin
Happy Lin. [photo by Ann]
Mohammed
Three cheers for Mohammed! [photo by Lin]

Going down from top is the easy part, but you still need to keep eyes on the road. About ¼ mile from the lookout, we met Mimi.

“Mimi, you are here, awesome,” I said.

“How far is the lookout?” Mimi asked.

“Just around the corner. Go. I will go with you.”

For next few minutes, I walked back to the Lookout with Mimi. She was happy and tired. After I took few pictures of Mimi, she told me “You go ahead to your group. I am hungry, and I’m going eat a banana and enjoy the view.”

“Are you sure you will be OK?”

“Yes, I’ll be fine.”

I left the Lookout for the second time. But Chuck radioed that he was looking for Joe.

“Joe, where are you? Contact me when you hear this.”

“Joe, where are you?”

After a few seconds I did not hear anything from anyone. I radioed Chuck, told him that I just left the summit. Mimi was the only person at the top. I will keep eyes on the road when I hike down. At same time, Chuck, Barry, Michael, Karen, and Becky told me they were not going to go to the top. They were ready to turn around and go back to the trailhead.

Mimi
Mimi at Escudilla Tower. [photo by Lin]

About 15 minutes after I left the summit, here came Joe.

“Joe, wow, you are here! I am so happy to see you! Are you OK?” I asked.

“I’m fine. How far is the Lookout?”

“About 15 minutes.”

“15 minutes? That was what Carol and Chris told me about half hour ago!”

“Don’t worry. I will go with you to the Lookout”

“That sounds good, let’s do it.”

So, for the next 20 minutes, Joe and I worked hard to finish the last uphill to reach the summit, and yes, we did.

Yes, Joe did. He was very satisfied, and I was very happy for him. At the summit I radioed to everyone, “Congratulations to Joe! He is at the top of the summit!”

This is not an easy 3.5-mile hike. Yes, it is only 3.5 miles up, but at high elevation, oxygen is low, you heart is pumping faster and harder, your legs are heavier. Each step needs more energy. So proud of Joe!

Mimi
Mimi at the top of Ecudilla. [photo by Lin]
Joe
Happy Joe. [photo by Lin]
Joe
Proud Joe at the top of Escudilla. [photo by Lin]

After a quick celebration, Joe and I left the summit and started going downhill. By then, we noticed there were dark clouds forming on the left side.

Knowing there is a big open meadow ahead of us, I really do not like to hike in thunderstorms in an open field, so I was starting to hike at a fast pace. The clouds were moving fast, and we heard thunder rolling.

view
Dark clouds are foaming. [photo by Lin]
view
The view is beautiful, but the clouds are getting darker. [photo by Lin]
view
Look back, the Lookout is far away. [photo by Lin]
clouds
Beautiful clouds. [photo by Lin]
hill
Hill with burned trees. [photo by Lin]

On other side of meadow I caught up with Chuck, Ann, Barry, and John. They were so nice to wait there for Joe, Mimi and me. Thanks! The thunder was closer, but I felt much better because we were out of the open field and into the forest trees. For the past half hour or so I kept radioing Joe, to make sure he and Mimi were OK, and each time Joe told “I’m fine, Lin. Mimi is just ahead of me.”

Not long after we left the meadow, I felt few drops of rain.

“Joe, it’s starting raining here. We will wait for you on other side of the meadow, at the forested area.”

“I am fine, Lin. You guys keeping going, don’t wait for me and Mimi.”

“Are you sure? We will hike slow, and hope you can catch up.”

“Lin, this is Carl. You need to hike fast, not slow. The storms are coming.”

“Lin, I’m fine, you guys keep going. Mimi and I will be fine. We just had few drops rain now.”

“Are you sure you will be OK?”

“Yes.”

So Ann, Barry, Chuck, John and I keep marching on, and hope the storms would miss us.

John
John is calmly marching on the trail. [photo by Lin]

It was big relief when we got back to the trailhead. We did not get much rain. The air was much cooler. By then, most of fast hikers already left the trailhead for the campground. The only cars still at parking lot were John B, Chuck, Rich, and Mimi. Since Chuck, Barry and Joe were carpooling together, Barry and Chuck volunteered to stay at the trailhead waiting for Joe and Mimi. Karen was carpooling with Mimi, but she left early with another fast group. In the meantime, Ann, John, Carl, Rich, and Victoria were heading to Alpine to get some gasoline for their cars.

The drive to Alpine is only 2 miles from the junction. It is a very small town, but it was very busy. While Rich and Victoria were buying gasoline, I saw some very interesting animals next to the gas station.

donkey
What is this animal? [photo by Lin]
animal
Rolling storms and lonely animal. [photo by Lin]
picture
Yes, you are cute, very cute. [photo by Lin]
clouds
A storms is coming, for sure. [photo by Lin]

When we arrive to campground around 3 PM, everyone is relaxing and enjoying the cool temperature. Tonight is our potluck night. Bettye, Carol, Ann, Ginger were busy setting up, warming and preparing the dinner. At 5:30 PM, the food was ready. Everyone was hungry and couldn’t wait to jump in to start feeding the face. The food was good, very very good.

fire
Chris is in charge of our campfire,
and he did great job. [photo by Lin]
I did not take any pictures of the food. I was hungry. But trust me, it was very yummy. Bettye made pot roast with potato. I had two plates. Ann and John made teriyaki pineapple meatballs and Zucchini bread, Joe brought fried chicken, Ralph’s pork tenderloin was so good, and it was gone before I can get any.

Victoria and Rich brought chicken salad and broccoli madness salad, Carol’s quinoa salad was delicious, not to mention the mango salsa with chips, pistachio almond cake. Chris brought chips and vegetables, Chuck and Michael brought the famous marinated 4-bean salad and homemade cookies. Gary and Ginger brought fresh fruit and Tennessee fire whiskey, Karen’s watermelon so big, we needed a truck to carry it.

Dessert? We had Randall’s home-made brownies, Mimi’s sweet cookies. Yes, Carl brought wine and beer too. Do I need to keep going over the rest of the menu?

Good hike, good workout, good food and good music. Thanks, Rudy! Good campfire. What an awesome day in the White Mountains!

potluck
Yes, it is our potluck night. [photo by Ann]
hikers
The sun is setting, the belly is happy, what a wonderful day! [photo by Lin]
Rudy
Our Rudy has a beautiful voice. [photo by Ann]
fire
Rich, John, Ann and Victoria are enjoy the campfire and Rudy’s music. [photo by Lin]

Sunday, September 6, 2020, by Lin and Carl

Today we had two hikes: Mt. Badly, and the Thompson Trail.

Ralph, Diva and Chris, they were hiking Mt. Badly, 15 miles total. Please read Chris’s supplemental report.

Thompson Trail is one of most the popular trails in the White Mountains. Every time our club has a trip there, this is a must-hike trail. Meadow, creek, wildflowers, shade, fish, mostly level grade. What else do you want when you are hiking? You’ve got it all.

group
Group picture. [photo by Lin]
Carol, Victoria, Karen, Carl, Mimi, John, Ann, Bettye, Mohammed, Barry, Chuck, Rich, Randall, Rudy

This is such a photogenic hike, it’s hard to hike fast and furious, but rather you take photos fast and furious, and hike at a dedicated photographer’s pace, stopping every few feet to compose another interesting angle.

We follow the stream for the entirety of the hike, and since this is an in-and-out hike (not the name of a secret menu item at a famous burger joint!), we get many angles and vantage points and lighting conditions for photographs!

Thompson Trail (Forest Service Trail #629). As Arizona Highways says: “so many shades of green.” 8800 feet to 8600 feet elevation. One website lists the mileage to the connection of #628 as 6.5 miles round trip, while another lists about 5 miles round trip. The Thompson Trail was built from a grant from the Heritage Fund, in cooperation with the US Forest Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Lin
Lin, our leader. [photo by Carl]
view
Green and green. [photo by Lin]
falls
Greek. [photo by Lin]
hikers
Carl and Lin. [photo by Randall]
Randall
Randall is enjoying the creek. [photo by Lin]
squirrel
A friend. [photo by Randall]
hikers
Victoria and Rich. [photo by Ann]
hikers
Mimi and Karen. [photo by Mimi]
creek
Flowing water. [photo by Ralph]
creek
Water, reflection, trees, green, blue sky, puffy clouds. [photo by Ralph]
hikers
Lin and Carl. [photo by Randall]
hikers
Ann and John. [photo by Randall]
hikers
Carol and Mohammed. [photo by Randall]
view
Trees, water, and meadow. [photo by Ralph]
hikers
Diva and Ralph on trail. [photo by Ralph]
people
Lin and the native policeman. [photo by Ann]
people
Ann, Carol, policeman, and Mohammed. [Ann]
Side Note:

After the Thompson hike, some of us still had lots of energy, and since part of Mt. Badly is known for its beautiful rock formations, seven of us decided we would go hike a few more miles.

Well, short story version—Leader Lin got the wrong trailhead information from the website. Instand of going left on AZ 273, we went right on AZ 273. After 10 miles of dirt road, we were stopped by a good looking and fit native policeman.

“Where are you going?”

“We’re going to Mt. Badly East Trailhead.”

“Do you have a permit?”

“No.”

“Well, you can’t enter the reservation without permit, due to COVID19.”

“What?”

“Sorry.”

Very disappointed, seven hikers made a U-turn and were ready to go back. Then we heard Randall said: “Guys, I think I have a flat tire.” Sure enough, his tire was flat.

For the next 15 minutes, a crew of seven started to work hard to help Radall change the tire. Lin, Carol, and Ann posed with the good-looking policeman for photos, while John, Randall and Mohammed were trying to locate the correct place for jacking up the vehicle. We got the tire changing done in record time. By then everyone was dusty and dirty, and had enough entreatment. Hiking was no longer on our mind.

“Let’s just go back to campground.”

car
Nice car with flat tire. John, Mohammed, and Radall. [photo by Ann]

Wait, the story is not done yet.

“Look, wild horses!”

“Really?”

There was a herd of wild horses on the left side of the meadow. They were beautiful. At this point, we all needed some enjoyment and a relaxing moment.

horses
Wild horses. [photo by Lin]
horses
Nice view. [photo by Lin]
horses
Herd of horses at a distance. [photo by Lin]
horses
Beautiful horses! [photo by Lin]

Sometimes things just do not go as you planned. But don’t stress out—be flexible, be open. And remember, sometimes life will give you something more than you planned. Yes, we did not get our milage done, but we had those beautiful horses for us in the meadow for that awesome afternoon moment. Very grateful.


Monday, September 7, 2020, by Lin and Carl

Today is our last day of our trip. Most people just want to relax and pack and go back to central Arizona, but some of us are planning to hike one more trail. There were 7 of us hiking the Indian Spring. They are Carl, Barry, Joe, Ann, Victoria, Rich, and Lin.

sign
Spillman Spring.
picture
A’ Hikin’ we go!
yellow
Log and flowers.
hikers
Hikin’ through the green ferns.
lizard
Horned toad joins us on the trail.
hikers
We love hiking!
guard
Cattle guard.
hikers
Barry, Joe, Richard, Ann, and Victoria.
hikers
Clownin’
hikers
All lined up. [photo by Lin]

This hike starts the same as the hike to the Big Lake Lookout. We went clockwise, and instead of hiking up to the Big Lake Lookout, we continued on the loop, went to the first spring, which is Spillman Spring, and then went about a half mile farther before turning around and heading back to campground, to get ready for departure and heading home into the heat of the Valley of the Sun.

Lin and Carl stayed an extra day and camped.

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updated October 26, 2020