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Mt. Baldy Car Camping Trip
White Mountains
September 23-25, 2005
by Chuck Parsons
  Trail Map 
group
Ten Arizona Trailblazers are ready for a grueling 13.5-mile marathon hike to the top of Mt. Baldy.

This group picture, taken at the West Fork Trailhead on Mt. Baldy, is a good example of how not to take a picture of people. One of the cardinal rules in taking such a picture is to make sure that your subject’s heads are not in deep shade, as is the case here. From left to right, nine of the twelve participants on the Mt. Baldy trip prepare for the 13.5 mile round-trip hike to top of Mt. Baldy: Doug East, Jenni Jacobs, Mark DeSutter, Joyce Parrish, Sheila Grant, John Long, Joe Michalides, Bill Michalides, and hike leader Chuck Parsons. The hapless and unnamed photographer on the other side of the camera lens, who shall be forgiven for his transgressions, goes by the initials S.G. The fact that we had a sunny day and resulting shadows was actually a good omen for this trip, as will be explained later.

A few hundred yards from the trailhead, a group of Arizona Trailblazers makes their way across one of numerous scenic alpine meadows surrounding by thick forests of Colorado blue spruce, aspen, ponderosa pine, and Douglas fir.

hikers
Over hill, over dale, through grassy meadows, the Trailblazers will prevail.

The West Fork Trail to the summit of Mt. Baldy is one of the premier hiking trails in the Mt. Baldy Wilderness area and one of the most scenic in all of Arizona, as it parallels the meandering West Fork of the Little Colorado River for the first couple of miles and climbs through heavy forest cover to the highest peak in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona at 11,403 feet.

river
The West Fork threads a serpentine
passageway below the trail.

Below the trail the rushing waters of the West Fork of the Little Colorado River navigate through a tight horseshoe bend, as it joins a network of streams and rivers draining the northern slopes of the White Mountain watershed and makes its way toward the Little Colorado to the north. Before it can empty its waters into the Little Colorado River, however, the West Fork runs headlong into a small dam, backing up and forming a picturesque little mountain lake called River Reservoir, the largest of the three Greer Lakes to the northeast of Greer.

From time to time fly fishermen can be seen working the sparkling waters of the West Fork, a blue-ribbon trout stream teaming with rainbow, brook, and cutthroat trout, as they cast their colorful hand-tied flies into the current to entice a hungry trout rising to the surface.

A couple of miles from the trailhead Joyce, Mark, Sheila, and Joe take a rest break on a convenient log seat overlooking the West Fork of the Little Colorado, flowing below the trail.

Shortly before our arrival at this scenic location we were witness to a very rare event that none of us had ever experienced before in all of our collective years of hiking. Even more amazing, we would witness the same event once again before the sun would set on this day. About a mile from the trailhead, shortly after passing some campers near the West Fork well below the trail, we heard a loud and sharp noise similar to a distant explosion.

hikers
Joyce, Mark, Sheila, and Joe enjoy the scenery.

We then saw a large tree, probably a ponderosa pine or Douglas fir, slowly start to topple over, cracking and splitting as it went, before smashing into surrounding trees and slamming into the ground. Not exactly something one sees every day on a typical hike in the forest.

forest
Ghost forest of dead pine and fir trees.

Several miles from the trailhead, after leaving the large open meadows behind us and starting to gain serious elevation under heavy forest cover, we encounter this large stand of dead Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir trees. Tens of thousands of dead trees – most still standing, but many already fallen – cover dozens of acres of a once lush green slope on Mt. Baldy.

As we hike through this silent and ghostly forest of doomed trees, we realize they were all still thriving on our last visit here just three years earlier. Since that time they have fallen victim to ravaging armies of voracious pine bark beetles that have been sweeping through Arizona’s forests over the past several years, laying waste to millions of trees like some ghastly grim reaper. The forests will eventually recover, just as they do after a large fire, but it will take many, many years before they return to their former splendor. In the meantime, the pine bark beetles will continue to go about their destructive ways, as they march across the forests of the West, until this prolonged drought breaks its vise-like grip on the landscape.

If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a noise? You bet it does!

After about five miles of hiking and winding our way through most of the long switchbacks on the trail, we are still under heavy forest cover at an elevation of about 10,800 feet when we hear what sounds like the rumbling noise of a rockslide and freeze in our tracks.

leaves
Autumn is breaking out in the White Mountains.

My first thoughts center on finding an escape route – trying to determine which way we should run to get out of the path of tons of rock and huge boulders suddenly roaring down the steep slope above the trail. Time seems to freeze and events begin to occur in slow motion under such circumstances, so after what seems like several long seconds we hear a loud and sharp cracking noise on the slope above us and look up just in time to see a massive and towering ponderosa pine start to fall down in its final death throes, groaning and splintering and creaking, as it ever-so-slowly loses out to the force of gravity.

It leans over more sharply now, rapidly gaining momentum under its tremendous weight, as it begins to smash its way down through the thick forest canopy surrounding it, throwing out a shower of forest debris in all directions on its way down, all the while cracking and splintering even more, as its huge trunk literally explodes under the powerful forces now overtaking it. With its full bulk and momentum now obliterating everything in its path, it finally slams down hard on the forest floor, sending a powerful shock wave racing through the ground that we can feel beneath our feet, as we stand awe- struck and almost paralyzed with fear less than a hundred feet down the slope from this fallen forest giant. We have just witnessed our second falling tree in one day on the same trail – this one just a bit too close for comfort. I wouldn’t even care to guess the odds of that ever occurring again.

Greer
The picturesque mountain community of Greer, Arizona.
    On Sunday mornings on our car camping trips we normally have an optional smaller hike available for anyone who wants to do a little more hiking. However, after the extra long trek up and down the slopes of Mt. Baldy yesterday, no one seems to be in the mood for more hiking on this fine morning in the White Mountains. So we all go about the normal business of breaking down our campsites and packing away our gear before heading home.

That task out of the way, six of us decide to take the short two-mile drive into Greer for a leisurely breakfast and a little sight-seeing, while the rest of the group starts the long drive back to the Phoenix area. Over our hearty breakfasts of omelets and burritos we marvel at the perfect weather we enjoyed during this camping trip. The days were sunny and clear, with temperatures in the 65-75 degree range, while the nights were just cool and crisp enough to enjoy the warmth and camaraderie of the campfire.

This is in stark contrast to our last two outings on Mt. Baldy, where we encountered heavy rain storms, with an extra measure of thunder and lightning thrown in for excitement. On our last trip three years ago the rain was coming down so hard that sections of the trail turned into a fast-running stream, and we were all cold and wet by the time we returned to the campground. Mt. Baldy 2005 was a welcome change of pace weather-wise. This last picture is looking down on the picturesque and idyllic little mountain community of Greer from one of the local forest roads. We take one last wistful look at the town and bid both Greer and Mt. Baldy a fond farewell, as we head back down the mountain and make our way back to our homes in the desert. Mt. Baldy will still be waiting for us next year, and we will be eager and ready to take on its challenges once again.

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Arizona Trailblazers Hiking Club, Phoenix, Arizona
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updated October 29, 2017