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Weatherford Canyon Day Hike
June 20, 2015
by Chuck Parsons
  GPS Map 
by Jim Buyens
Trailblazers gather for the requisite introductions. [photo by Wayne]
22 Terrific Trailblazers at the Schultz Tank Trailhead. [photo by Bill]
(Try saying that four times without tripping up.)
Front: Tamar, Funyung, Monika, Eileen, Bill, Rudy, Christina, Anikó, Quy.
Back: Wayne, Dave M., John, Jim B., Dave F., Scott, Sana, Mark, Sandy, Al, Alex, Chuck, Jim

A sizzling hot 114 degrees forecast for the metro Phoenix area today. Almost hot enough to fry an egg on the hood of a black Corvette Stingray. How does one stay cool in this kind of heat? Go to the mountains! At 8,000 feet in elevation, Schultz Tank Trailhead below the San Francisco Peaks area should be in the low 70s by the time we start hiking. The expected high for the day at our destination, Doyle Saddle at a lofty 10,800 feet, is only 72 degrees. It’s a simple no-brainer.

Schultz Tank shimmers near its namesake trailhead. [photo by Eileen]

Why bake in the desert when we can stay cool in the aspens at 10,000 feet or more? So we’re leaving this sweatbox behind and heading for the cool, clean high country of Northern Arizona today to explore the Weatherford Canyon Trail which runs parallel with the Weatherford Trail that most people are familiar with.

This is the easy part of the hike. [photo by Dave M.]
Group picture taken, 22 Arizona Trailblazers strike out from the trailhead in single-file on the narrow Weatherford Trail. If we were totally gung-ho today (and actually a little insane), we could take this trail to the junction with the Humphreys Peak Trail at Agassiz Saddle and go all the way to the top of Mt. Humphreys and enjoy the 360-degree panoramic views from Arizona’s highest peak at 12,633 feet.

Instead, we’re going to settle for Doyle Saddle at a mere 10,800 feet. But wait. That’s still 2,800 feet of elevation gain isn’t it? Gads! But 2,800 feet of elevation gain is a darned sight better than 4,633 feet of elevation gain, unless you’re a totally committed Iron Man Hiker. And in fact, we do have several of those among us today. (They know who they are.)

Entering the Kachina Peaks Wilderness. [photo by Quy]
OK Trailblazers. Let the games begin. [photo by Wayne]
Trailblazers approach a large aspen grove. [photo by Wayne]
Thousands of tall aspen reach for the sky. [photo by Wayne]

And if we really wanted to get crazy and were somehow capable of going back in time to the 1920s – the famous Roaring Twenties when virtually anything was possible – we could have actually driven this route to Doyle Saddle and beyond on John Weatherford’s toll road, using one of his specially modified Model T Fords. Why hike to the saddle when you could drive to it in style? Hundreds of adventurous motorists did just that, taking in sweeping views of the lofty San Francisco Peaks, as they bounced along on Weatherford’s dusty toll road. Unfortunately, the Great Depression took a major bite out of his business. And when the National Forest Service incorporated this area into the Coconino National Forest sometime during the 1940s they permanently closed the trail to all further vehicle traffic. Now the only noises encountered along the Weatherford Trail are the soothing sounds of nature and the voices of hikers.

Roughly a half mile from the trailhead we branch off from the main Weatherford Trail onto a nondescript and unmarked path that looks more like a narrow game trail than a hiking trail. After a few more twists and unmarked turns we’re finally on the faint Weatherford Canyon Trail. Sandy and Eileen had hiked this trail some weeks earlier, and had we not had the benefit of their presence and guidance today we would probably never have located this turnoff. They had earlier recommended taking this route because of the beautiful aspen forest in Weatherford Canyon. And they were certainly right about that. Few of us have ever seen such an amazing forest of aspen before.

Weatherford Canyon Trail meanders
through the aspen. [photo by Eileen]
You can hardly see the hikers for the trees.
[photo by Dave M.]
Aspen soaring high into the Arizona sky. [photo by Wayne]
A wilderness of aspen as far as the eye can see. [photo by Eileen]

We suddenly find ourselves completely enveloped by a dense forest of tens of thousands of tall thin aspen, packed so tightly together there is hardly room for a trail at all. If you were to somehow wonder off this trail, you would find yourself in a seemingly impenetrable sea of extremely dense aspen with no sense of direction and no apparent way out. An aspen maze. Nevertheless, this is certainly a unique hiking experience for many of us who have perhaps become somewhat jaded after years of hiking many hundreds of miles of Arizona’s highly diverse trails, ranging from desert to canyon to riparian to forest to mountain.

A virtual wall of aspen greets hikers on this trail. [photo by Dave M.]
Weatherford Canyon Trail punches its way through the trees. [photo by Quy]
Trailblazers nearing the end of Weatherford
Canyon Trail. [photo by Dave M.]
Deadfall forces us over, under, or around downed trees across the trail. [photo by Quy]

The signature tree that defines these lofty peaks of Northern Arizona, the quaking aspen is actually the most widely distributed tree in all of North America, ranging from Alaska to Newfoundland to the Sky Islands of Southern Arizona like Mt. Lemmon and Mt. Graham. It is typically the first tree to start the process of renewal after a major forest fire. Every single stand of aspen, however large in size, propagates from a single tree sending out lateral root sprouts in all directions just beneath the surface of the soil. The largest single organism on Earth is not a large fungus colony or a massive bacteria culture or even the largest of the Giant Sequoias. Surprisingly, it’s a stand of roughly 40,000 aspens covering 106 acres in the Wasatch Range of Northern Utah, all propagated from one single tree that started growing an estimated 80,000 years ago. Quite a unique species in the world of trees.

Exactly five years ago on June, 2010, we wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere near this area. Hundreds of fire fighters and numerous hot shot crews were swarming all over the place, fighting the raging Schultz Fire centered on 10,083 foot Schultz Peak, just one mile east of the Weatherford Trail and roughly mid-way between Schultz Tank and Doyle Saddle. The fire came perilously close to the trail, but prevailing winds thankfully kept it from completely overrunning the trail and burning the thousands of trees along both sides of Weatherford. Sadly, yet another human-caused forest fire consumed over 15,000 acres of prime forest before finally being extinguished after several weeks of backbreaking work by Arizona’s finest.

Toadflax. [photo by Quy]
Pussytoes. [photo by Quy]
Raspberry. [photo by Quy]
Blue lupine nods in the breeze. [photo by Dave M.]

After a couple of miles of hiking through the dense and shady aspen groves of Weatherford Canyon, we make a sharp left turn and merge onto the main Weatherford Trail once again. From here, we’ll hike the Weatherford Trail all the way up to Doyle Saddle. And from one of the Forest Service signs we just passed it appears that Doyle Saddle is still another four miles away. This certainly doesn’t jive with the information I received from talking to one of the rangers at the Peaks Ranger District several weeks ago when I was planning this hike. The ranger told me it was 10 miles round-trip from the Schultz Tank Trailhead to Doyle Saddle. Now it looks like it’s going to be at least 12 miles round-trip. (Little do we know what we’re really in for today.)

Mark takes a moment to check his GPS.
[photo by Bill]
Unidentified bird sitting on her nest.
[photo by Bill]
Pine cones at various stages of development. [photo by Wayne]
Trailblazers are making the grade. [photo by Dave M.]

We continue hiking north before encountering a series of large switchbacks. You have to actually look at a detailed trail map showing Weatherford Trail to appreciate just how large these switchbacks really are. If the trail was a straight line through these largest switchbacks it would be at least a full mile shorter. But probably a lot steeper too, so we should happily settle for the switchbacks. At least the trail gradient hasn’t been too bad up to this point, with no insanely steep sections of trail to negotiate. But we’re also above 9,000 feet at this point, and that’s pretty thin air for us flatlanders from the desert. So we all regroup from time to time for a brief rest break to recharge our lungs before continuing onward and upward. Whenever hiking in the San Francisco Peaks area, upward is always the key word to keep in mind. Just accept the fact that most of the trail is going to be vertically oriented.

Trailblazers are moving up in the world. [photo by Bill]
Emerging from the forest primeval. [photo by Eileen]
Serious discussion going on. [photo by Dave M.]
Badger Bill has a look of concern. [photo by Eileen]
Can’t decide where to bury Bucky III. [photo by Jim]
Monika leads the charge along this section of trail. [photo by Wayne]
What on earth are these hikers looking at?
[photo by Jim]
I pose for grub worms and fat flies.
[photo by Quy]

As we approach the 10,000 foot level the air is becoming noticeably cooler, especially along the shady stretches of trail or whenever a slight breeze comes along. The thinner air makes hiking even more challenging, but if its cooler air it makes for better hiking conditions, at least for me anyway. The forest gradually begins to open up more, and we can start to see a few peaks and even a little snow along some of the exposed ridgelines up ahead.

Several of our hikers are actually surprised to see any snow up here at all, as hot as it has been with record breaking temperatures all over the state for the past several weeks. But heavy winter snows can last well into the summer at these higher elevations, especially above 10,000 feet and on the north facing slopes where there is minimal sun exposure. And it did snow up here just a week or so earlier, so that may be what we’re seeing right now.

The predominantly ponderosa pine and aspen forests at the lower elevations slowly and almost imperceptibly begin to give way to more alpine species like Douglas fir and Englemann spruce as we climb even higher on the Weatherford Trail.

Since we’ve already climbed 2,000 feet up to this point, the worst of it is behind us now. Only 800 more feet of elevation gain to go before reaching Doyle Saddle. Woo-hoo!

This tree has deep tap roots. [photo by Eileen]
Close-up shot of the exposed root system. [photo by Quy]
Yup, that’s really snow up there, guys. [photo by Dave M.]
Close-up shot of the snowy ridgeline. [photo by Dave M.]
Taking a break on the way to the saddle. [photo by Wayne]
Sure hope nobody rode this over the edge.
[photo by Wayne]
Anyone up for building a snowman?
[photo by Jim]
That white stuff is certainly not cotton candy. [photo by Bill]

For a variety of reasons, during the course of the hike six hikers drop back to return to the trailhead one or two at a time. I talk to each one briefly as we cross paths, and if they have a radio we will try to stay in contact for as long as possible. Everyone else is at least a quarter mile or more ahead of me at this point and completely out of sight.

I’m beginning to experience some serious stomach cramping and seem to be getting weaker and more run down by the minute. Gradually, as time goes on, doubts about being able to complete the hike begin to creep in and overshadow all other thoughts. I stop every few minutes to rest and drink more water to make sure I’m staying well hydrated. Then I hear Bill over the radio informing anyone within range that his lead group has finally reached Doyle Saddle, with about a dozen other hikers scattered along the trail between my position and the saddle.

On the final approach to Doyle Saddle. [photo by Bill]
We’re almost there now. [photo by Dave M.]
Bill, Alex, and Al are first hikers to reach Doyle Saddle. [photo by Bill]
Trailblazers mugging for the camera on Doyle Saddle. [photo by Bill]
Hello there, Monika. Glad you made it. [photo by Bill]
President Buyens at Doyle Saddle. [photo by Jim]
Breaking for lunch on the saddle. [photo by Jim]

What to do at this point? Should I keep going and push on through the discomfort or throw in the towel and start back for the trailhead? As hike leader, I feel like it’s my responsibility to make every attempt to link up with the main group and meet them at the saddle. But I’m not too sure just how much further I can go the way I feel and at my much slower pace of hiking. So I keep pushing forward, stopping every 100 yards or so to rest and drink more water. If I can at least keep doing this, it’s just a matter of time before I eventually reach the saddle. Am I suffering from altitude sickness or what? The primary symptoms are typically severe headaches, nausea, dizziness, and extreme shortness of breath. Since I don’t seem to have any of those symptoms, I keep trudging along, hoping that whatever it is will eventually go away and I will start to feel better.

Then I get the news from Bill that all other hikers are now at Doyle Saddle. At this point I can’t be much more than a half mile from the saddle myself. I can already see where the saddle is located, but can’t get a clear view through the large grove of trees dead ahead. So close and yet so far away. By now I’m totally spent, my tank nearly on empty. If I had sufficient time I think I could make it, but it would simply take me too long to get there and back to this point, and by then all the others would be heading back anyway. And I don’t want people waiting too long for me at the trailhead.

Spectacular view of the peaks from Doyle Saddle. [photo by Wayne]
Close-up picture of Fremont Peak. [photo by Quy]
11,489 foot Doyle Peak from the saddle. [photo by Wayne]
Snowball_Sana Snowball_Jim
Jim and Sana square off. Splat! Splat! [photos by Sana, Jim]

So I make a decision to stop right here in the shade, sit down and have some Gatorade and salty peanuts and almonds, and wait for the others to rejoin me. It’s a bitter disappointment for me to accept, but as the saying goes it is what it is.

About five minutes later I see Funyung coming up the trail. I thought she had turned back long ago. She stops to chat for a minute or two and then decides to push on to the saddle. I try to discourage her for the same reasons I am going no further. But she continues on nevertheless. Less than 15 minutes later she returns with the rest of the group from the saddle, and we all start hiking together back to the trailhead. It’s going to be a very long trek, since several GPS tracks indicate nearly 8 miles between the trailhead and the saddle – three miles more than advertised in the hike description.

Although this hike was originally written up as 10 miles round trip, and the trailhead signs indicated 12 miles round trip, several of our GPS units indicated the total hiking distance was roughly 15.5 miles round trip between Schultz Tank and Doyle Saddle. But despite the extra mileage, it sounds like most people had a pretty good time on the hike, with several of you setting a new personal record on a day hike for total hiking distance, total elevation gain, or both. Congratulations to those of you who raised the bar and set a new personal best for yourselves. Job well done! Perhaps Mt. Humphreys next to raise the bar even higher?

14 happy Trailblazers at Doyle Saddle. [photo by Bill]
Front Row: Anikó, Bill, Monika, Christina, (Quy not pictured).
Back Row: Sana, Jim, Al, Mark, Rudy, Scott, John, Dave M., Alex, Wayne.
San Francisco Peaks panoramic shot from Doyle Saddle. [photo by Wayne]
L to R: Fremont Peak (11,969'), Agassiz Peak (12,356'), and Humphreys Peak (12,633').

Thanks to both Mark Purcell and Anikó Mikó who served as my eyes and ears (I can’t believe some of the things they heard!) on Doyle Saddle, since I was unable to make it there myself. I asked Mark and Anikó earlier if they would put together a few short paragraphs on what they both saw and experienced from the saddle. Please check out their insightful and interesting supplemental reports at the end of the main trip report, along with Mark’s unique snow angel shot. Great job Mark and Anikó! I really appreciate your input.

And a special thanks to Quy and Funyung for staying with me for awhile on the trail on the hike back out and thanks also to Jim and John for making sure that I got back safe and sound to the trailhead in one piece. And finally thanks to Scott for volunteering to bury me by the trail in the event I didn’t make it back at all. Fortunately for me, Scott did not have to follow up on that grim task.

Making the long trek back to the trailhead.
[photo by Wayne]
Just a few more steps to go, Quy.
[photo by Dave M.]
Ten Tired Trailblazers back at the Schulz Tank Trailhead. [photo by Dave M.]
(Try saying that four times without tripping up.)

One last item on that mysterious wreck sight we encountered roughly a mile or so below Doyle Saddle. I followed up on that a few days after the hike and learned from someone at the Peaks Ranger District (hopefully this is more accurate information than I got about the hiking distance) that although the specific details about this wreck are unknown, they believe it occurred sometime during the 1950 to 1960 time frame and decided to leave the vehicle in place since it would be too expensive trying to remove it from the site.

And despite what I learned earlier about the National Forest Service closing this trail to all vehicle traffic back in the 1940s after they incorporated the area around Weatherford and Schultz Tank into Coconino National Forest, the folks at the ranger district told me this trail was only closed to vehicle traffic sometime between 1964 when the National Wilderness Act went into effect and 1984 when Kachina Peaks Wilderness was created. Hiking the Weatherford Trail today, it’s hard to imagine ever being able to drive all the way up to Doyle Saddle. But even if we could, we would never think of doing such a thing since we are, after all, the Arizona Trailblazers. Would we? Hello? Is anyone out there?

Supplemental Report
by Mark Purcell

Even at the trailhead, I had my suspicions. I overheard conversation about sources that indicated the upcoming trek was longer, much longer, than advertised. Although I did not activate my web-based smart phone GPS app due to spotty coverage, data from others and the sign at about the 3-mile mark stating “Doyle Saddle – 4 miles” confirmed by impression.

Knowing the careful preparation our leader donates to all of his hikes, there had either been a unintentional miscalculation or misinformation provided to him by an outside source (ultimately the culprit). Inherently, most of the hikers who associate with the AZTHC are adventurous, goal-oriented, and know both require doses of flexibility (vs. doses of ibuprofen for a couple days after the hike). It was forecast to be hot, which actually was fortuitous as in anticipation I had packed an extra bladder of water that was eventually tapped.

See how angelic I am? [photo by Sana]

At the final ascent destination of Doyle Saddle, those of our group who elected trickled in. There was still snow in shaded areas at that roughly 11,000 foot elevation which invariably triggered the juvenile side of my personality to attempt a snow angel. We had a clear view of Humphreys Peak and tiny figures of life forms atop. Even though our accomplishment as a group so far (even if we did not all quite make it to the endpoint) would not have the “headline” status of that iconic summit, is it not just as much an "A" day?

My generational colleagues will remember the opening lyric from the 60's era song “Spinning Wheel” by BST (younger readers can Google that for further delineation). Anyway, “What Goes Up, Must Come Down”. Descent would portend a rocky trail, increasing temperatures, and dealing with my anatomical preference and tolerance for the rigors of ascent. “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now” (an even more obscure song reference). Yes, those extremities protested mightily as we approached the terminus but we all indeed eventually complete the round-trip. Although Barry’s catalog is not normally considered for inclusion in my iTunes play lists, I would have at that point sung along to at least one stanza of “Looks Like We Made It”. Followed by general agreement that I am much better at carrying a backpack than a tune.

Thanks, Chuck, for leading the hike!


Supplemental Report
by Anikó Mikó

I had no suspicions about this day hike. I believe anything that is written in the hike announcements. But to be really honest I didn’t even read the announcement all that well, because a 12.2 mile +-2500' elevation should have triggered an alarm within me. And if I had paid attention, I would have trained a little bit for this one, by doing at least 4 rounds of North Mountain for several weekends in a row.

Did none of that. Figured this would be a relatively easy day since we climbed much lower than Mt. Humphreys. It wasn’t, an easy day that is. The closer we got the slower we got. Rest stops became more and more frequent. By the time my group reached the Saddle most of the Trailblazers were already there. I was tired, but the vision of snow pulled me onward! I had to touch the “white stuff” I haven’t seen for so long! Feeling overheated in shorts and a t-shirt, it’s hard to believe snow could be cold, but it is, very, very cold stuff! I am glad I made it.

My only regret is that I didn’t take time to survey the views of the Inner Basin. Maybe ... I will be back! (Kind of like the Governator!).


Supplemental Report
by Jim Buyens

For those who haven’t heard, the 10-mile estimated distance for this hike came from the Forest Service. Chuck called them up and that’s what the ranger told him. You’d think those people would know how long their trails are but oh well, at least we got some good exercise.


Jim’s Hike Statistics
Total Distance:15.92miles
Starting Time:9:16AM
Moving Time:7:37hrs:min
Stopped Time:1:00hrs:min
Finishing Time:5:53PM
Avg. Speed Moving:2.1mph
Avg. Speed Overall:1.8mph
Starting Elevation:7,974ft
Minimum Elevation:7,974ft
Maximum Elevation:10,529ft
Total Ascent:3,048ft
Starting Temperature:81°
Finishing Temperature:85°
photo by Sana
→   More pictures and commentary, by Jim Buyens.
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updated August 9, 2018