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See Canyon Day Hike
Mogollon Rim
May 23, 2015
by Chuck Parsons
 by Bill Zimmermann 
  GPS Map 
by Jim Buyens
17 smiling Arizona Trailblazers pose near the See Canyon Trailhead. [photo by Bill]
Front Row (kneeling): Rudy, Badger Bill, Monika, & Anikó.
Middle Row: Chuck, Eileen, Nancy, Linda, Jim, Biljana, & Dave F.
Back Row: Michael, Debbie, Wendy, Andy, Lance, & Dave M.

For any hiking club that’s been around as long as the Arizona Trailblazers (we can trace our roots all the way back to July, 1996, with the founding of the Motorola Hiking Club), finding new and interesting hikes we have never done before becomes more and more of a challenge with the passing of the years, as we continue to rack up hundreds and hundreds of hikes and burn through thousands of miles of trail. So we occasionally and unabashedly resort to a tried and proven method successfully used by the movie industry for many years. We do sequels, repeats, and reboots. After all, it’s far easier than trying to come up with something brand new each time.

And such is the case with the See Canyon hike we are doing today on Saturday, May 23, 2015. Wendy Rennert last led this hike for the Arizona Trailblazers on July 30, 2011, and oddly enough had the same number of hikers we have today, 17 to be exact. And five of those hikers (Wendy, Monika, Jim, Rudy, and Michael) apparently enjoyed the experience so much in 2011 they are back at it once again four years later. With many new hikers in the club who have never done this hike before and with nearly four years gone by, I decided it was time once again to revisit this beautiful slice of Rim Country, Arizona, arguably the most scenic and wild of all the Mogollon Rim area trails that blaze a path to the very top of the rim.

With so many new hikers in the mix, it’s a good idea to get their feedback from time to time on new hiking ideas. So instead of the usual round of introductions, followed by everyone’s last trail hiked, I ask everyone to share with us an Arizona trail they have always wanted to hike but either missed it the last time the Trailblazers did the hike or it’s a hike that has never been on our schedule before. The response is both interesting and comprehensive, with a full range of hikes all across Arizona, including Mt. Humphreys, Mt. Lemmon, Mt. Baldy, Mt. Wrightson, Miller Peak, Thompson Peak, Little Granite Mountain, Peak 2811 in the Superstitions (apparently a lot of mountain climbers in this ambitious group), Fossil Creek, Groom Creek Loop, the Prescott Circle Trail, the Arizona Trail around Patagonia, and last but certainly not least, a rim-to-rim (North Rim to South Rim) backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon as well as a shorter backpacking trip down the South Kaibab Trail to the Colorado River.

Navigating the first of several crossings over Christopher Creek. [photo by Wendy]
Group introduction and discussion of favorite hikes. [photo by Wendy]
Christopher Creek runs parallel with the trail for a while. [photo by Dave M.]

All Arizona Trailblazers hike leaders who are reading this please take note. Although we have done most of these hikes in the past (and some several times), it has been a while for many of them and perhaps time to revisit most of them once again, especially since we have so many new hikers in this club.

On a gorgeous Saturday morning in late May that seems more like fall than rapidly approaching summer, 17 Arizona Trailblazers set out from the See Canyon Trailhead on a trek that will take us to the very top of the Mogollon Rim on a tough and challenging 1,700-foot ascent over typical rough and rocky Rim Country terrain. There are several different access points to the See Canyon Trail, and we start from the one on the other side of the creek, opposite Christopher Creek Campground. This will be the first of at least six or more crossings over Christopher Creek. Fortunately the creek is not running too high today, and the first crossing is relatively easy. Starting temperature this morning is a delightful 50 degrees under mostly sunny skies with a wedge of thick cumulus clouds squatting on the distant horizon, one of the first indicators of Arizona’s approaching monsoon season.

Trailblazers hike through a lush forest setting. [photo by Nancy]
The trail begins to get a little slippery here. [photo by Wendy]
This section of trail is not completely level. [photo by Eileen]

Hiking through See Canyon during spring and early summer, especially along picturesque Christopher Creek, is about as close as you can get to experiencing a rainforest environment on an Arizona hike. The trail meanders through the lush riparian corridor provided by the creek for roughly a mile or so, surrounded by tall grasses, waist-high bracken ferns, moss-covered logs and rocks, scattered wildflowers, and small grass-filled meadows under a dense forest cover of giant ponderosa pines, bigtooth maple, box elder, mountain ash, Manzanita, and several species of oak. Higher up on the trail, approaching the rim, we will start to see more aspen. If you want to hike to the top of the Mogollon Rim in the middle of summer, this is your trail. Just be aware of the dangers of flash flooding along Christopher Creek during monsoon season and don’t tempt fate by trying to cross high, rushing waters.

Another chance to get our feet wet. [photo by Dave M.]
Careful Trailblazers! Tricky log crossing here. [photo by Bill]

About a half mile from the trailhead we come to the trail junction with See Spring and debate whether to take the short spur trail to the spring now or on the way back. The consensus is in favor of checking out the spring on the return hike, so we continue hiking toward the rim on the main trail. We come to several more creek crossings along the way, all easily negotiated with strategically placed boulders and logs, before the trail begins a gradual incline and starts to move away from the creek.

You know it’s damp when you see moss like this. [photo by Wendy]
The fungus among us – it’s everywhere!
[photo by Wendy]
I could be wrong, but this tree seems to be
scratching itself. [photo by Eileen]

The next mile or so is a mix of steady, but still relatively gradual, climbing amid easy stretches of level ground. The serious climb still awaits us about two miles in from the trailhead. So this is a good warm-up stretch of trail to help prepare us for the real ordeal that lies ahead.

See Canyon and its namesake trail are named after the pioneering See family (John See, along with his wife Annie and infant son Charlie) who settled in this area in the late 1880s and built a small working ranch on Christopher Creek.

Unfortunately the story doesn’t end there, and the family did not live an idyllic happily-ever-after existence along beautiful Christopher Creek.

In what may well be Arizona’s oldest open murder case in history, John See allegedly shot and killed his young wife, Annie, in May of 1892 as she was milking the family cow. His motive for doing so is lost to history. Their son, Charlie, was apparently the sole witness to the crime and obviously far too young to remember anything or give credible testimony.

John See later went to his parents’ home and admitted the crime, before making his escape to Mexico along with his younger brother Bob, who their mother insisted go along for safety reasons. Bob returned to Arizona many years later but John, comfortably settled into his new double life with a Mexican wife and children, never returned to America. As the story goes, a much older John See wanted to see his first son, Charlie, before he died.

Andy, Debbie, Chuck. [photo by Wendy]

Upon hearing this request, Charlie and a close cousin traveled to Mexico and met with his father and stepmother, before eventually returning to Payson. Did Charlie ever forgive his father for killing his mother? That too is apparently lost to history. The original See family ranch on Christopher Creek was purchased by another couple in the late 1920s and demolished, but the original logs were reused to build another cabin.

Fungus1_DaveM Fungus2_DaveM
[left] fungus has the texture and feel of soft, wet Teflon; [right] shelf fungus. [photos by Dave M.]
Linda and Chuck make it look easy.
[photo by Eileen]
Debbie and Andy ride a bucking log. Really!
[photo by Wendy]
Nancy demonstrates how to cross a fallen tree with grace. [photo by Bill]
Andy has his own way of getting across.
[photo by Eileen]
Making the final descent into a rocky ravine. [photo by Eileen]

Although much of it has overgrown during the past eight years, we can still see occasional evidence of the Promontory Fire, started by a careless camper in May, 2007, in the form of charred trees (some still standing and some long fallen) and burned out tree stumps. The fire eventually burned through over 4,000 acres before finally being extinguished several weeks later.

On top of the Mogollon Rim, however, it’s another story entirely. There in the summer of 2002 the largest wildfire at the time in Arizona’s history burned through over 468,000 acres, or 732 square miles, most of it still visible today. The Rodeo-Chediski Fire was the result of two separate conflagrations merging into one raging and virtually uncontrollable beast of a wildfire, the first caused by an unthinking lost motorist trying to attract attention and the second intentionally started by a seasonal firefighter looking for employment. His employment was short-lived, however, and he soon got hard prison time for his skills as an arsonist.

From time to time we encounter deadfall across the trail, forcing us to go over, under, or around the fallen trees blocking our path. Wendy remembers some deadfall from her 2011 hike, but tells me there seems to be much more of it now, four years later. Some of this deadfall may be the result of the Promontory Fire, while some may be the result of bark beetle damage. Whatever the reasons, we certainly seem to be running into more and more of this on our hikes through forested areas. Trees keep falling down much faster than work crews can clear them from the trails. Seeing this damage time after time on dozens of hikes over the years certainly doesn’t give us a whole lot of hope for the prospects of Arizona’s besieged forests.

Between prolonged and severe drought conditions, massive bark beetle attacks resulting in millions of dead trees, and the constant threat of wildfires which have already burned off more than a million acres of forest in the past twelve years, Arizona’s forests are being assaulted on all fronts with little relief in sight.

Eileen is hot-footing it through the forest.
[photo by Dave M.]
Anikó has found a couple of good hiking poles.
[photo by Dave M.]
This looks awfully painful Dave! Can I offer you
a couple of Tylenols? [photo by Eileen]
Apparently some people get bored very easily.
Good workout for those biceps. [photo by Bill]

The trail dips down into one last rocky ravine, before scrambling back out and beginning the primary ascent to the top of Mogollon Rim. From this point on it’s going to be a steady grind all the way to the top, with only occasional short descents and level stretches few and far between. But we are, after all, Arizona Trailblazers, and each and every one of us is up to the task at hand (or at least I certainly hope so). So it’s onward and upward from here on out, with the key emphasis on upward. We traverse through one series of switchbacks after another, as we continue to claw our way to the top of the Rim. You think you’re getting closer when you start to see open sky ahead through the trees, only to find out later you still have hundreds of feet of additional elevation to conquer. Is there no mercy? God, grant us the strength and the determination to keep going. Legs, lungs, and feet, please don’t fail us now!

Indian Paintbrush [photo by Wendy]
Golden Columbine [photo by Wendy]
Manzanita in full bloom. [photo by Wendy]
Crimson Manzanita leaves. [photo by Wendy]
Western Wallflower [photo by Dave M.]
Golden Pea [photo by Dave M.]
Fungus or flowers? [photo by Eileen]
Strange flora. [photo by Wendy]

With occasional rest breaks, we continue to grind our way through one set of switchbacks after another. With each set of switchbacks behind us, we are that much closer to the top. At one point Jim tells me that we are at the 7,700-foot mark according to his GPS, and I realize we now have less than 200 feet of additional elevation gain. The temperature is getting noticeably cooler as we approach the top of the Rim. We struggle through a really steep section of trail full of loose rocks and rubble, and I remark to anyone listening that this is going to be especially treacherous on the way back down. Those of us with hiking poles are thankful we have them on this hike, while those without poles are probably wishing they had a pair.

We begin to hear voices somewhere above us, and before we realize it we find ourselves in a large clearing where the rest of our group is gathering for lunch at the top of the Mogollon Rim, within earshot of vehicles moving along on nearby Forest Route 300, the Rim Road. The elevation at this point is 7,860 feet.

I’m not quite sure, Biljana. Are those socks or gloves? [photo by Dave M.]
It’s just a walk in the park for Debbie and Wendy.
[photo by Nancy]
Andy is a study in the art of relaxation. [by Bill]
    Although the See Canyon Trail is only 3.5 miles to the top of the rim, most of us are pretty tired at this point after trudging through 1,700 feet of elevation gain, the majority of it in the last 1.5 miles. So this is a welcome break and a good chance to get spent calories and electrolytes back into our systems and recharge our run-down batteries for the long trek back down the rim.

The temperature up here is hovering at 50 degrees, but with a steady breeze blowing through the pines it feels more like the lower 40s. It’s time to break out those long-sleeve shirts and light jackets once again. At the same time, though, let’s savor these unseasonably cooler temperatures for as long as we possibly can. Before we know it, triple digits are going to be the norm once again for the Phoenix area, and we’ll all be looking back fondly on this cool day in Rim Country and wishing we could do it all over again.

Hungry Trailblazers gather for lunch in the pines. [photo by Dave M.]
Handy logs make for great seating. [photo by Eileen]
Rudy entertains us with his harmonica.
[photo by Wendy]
Anikó and Jim share a ponderosa bench.
[photo by Bill]

I had earlier joked about everyone at least going out to FR 300 after lunch and toe touching the road just to prove we had made it all the way to the top of both the trail and the rim, and a number of hikers oblige as seen in these pictures.

We take one last group picture after lunch, gather our belongings, and start to make our way back down the trail.

Tired Rudy. [photo by Dave M.]
Arizona Trailblazers toe touch the edge of FR 300.
[photo by Eileen]
... and Wendy takes it a step further.
[photo by Wendy]
Last group picture at the top of the Rim. [photo by Bill]

But before doing so, I ask everyone to be extra careful on the way back down, especially through the steep sections with lots of loose rock rubble. Even with a pair of hiking sticks you can still lose your footing in this type of dicey terrain and take a nasty fall. It’s going to be pretty much down hill all the way back to the trailhead, but we certainly can’t afford to get careless now. So we slowly start moving out.

Clouds are scuttling across blue skies high above the Rim. [photo by Dave M.]
Some very steep terrain here. [photo by Eileen]
Watch the footing, Trailblazers! [photo by Bill]
Monika leads the charge down this stretch.
[photo by Dave M.]
Nancy and Bill do the Christopher Creek
boulder dance. [photo by Eileen]
The steepest part is finally behind us. [photo by Bill]
Final crossing on this stretch of the creek. [photo by Eileen]
This radio antenna, found along the trail,
belongs to Jim. [photo by Nancy]
There are cairns and then there are ultimate cairns.
[photo by Dave M.]
Eileen strikes one last pose on the trail. [Eileen]
Badger Bill at See Spring. [photo by Nancy]
Another great view of Christopher Creek on the way back. [photo by Eileen]
Beautiful view of cascades along the creek. [photo by Dave M.]
Ten hikers make it to See Spring, with Dave M. behind the camera. [photo by Dave M.]
Parting shot of Christopher Creek.
[photo by Wendy]
Debbie walks the plank on the final approach
to the trailhead. [photo by Wendy]

At the end of most of our hikes, especially those in the Payson or Flagstaff area, the last major decision of the day usually centers on where to stop for dinner. It’s a long drive back to the valley, and few of us care to deal with dinner preparations after a big day of driving and hiking. We typically stop at one of three different locations in the Payson area for dinner, but this time someone suggests Boston’s Common House on Main Street as an alternative.

It turns out to be a bit of a challenge locating this place, but we eventually find ourselves in an old converted house built in the mid-1920s with a rather interesting history of ghosts wandering through the premises from time to time and creating havoc and spooky situations as only ghosts can. Then there is also the spine-chilling story of large physical objects moving or flying through the air on their own accord, but we’ll save that one for another trip report.

Thanks to all for a terrific day of hiking in Rim Country, Arizona, and a special thanks to Eileen, Wendy, Nancy, Bill, and Dave M. for providing the many great pictures for this trip report. As we sweat out yet another grueling summer in the blistering heat of southern Arizona, we can always think back to this cool, cool day in See Canyon and our hike along beautiful Christopher Creek to the top of the Mogollon Rim (where it was actually chilly!). Hopefully that can help cool us down for a while anyway.

I would also like to especially acknowledge Wendy and Debbie for completing this hike. Both expressed reservations during the hike about being able to make it all the way to the top of the Rim. But to their credit they persisted, hiked through the pain and ultimately summoned up the inner strength, courage, and determination to make it all the way to the top with the rest of the group. Job well done, Wendy and Debbie!
Fifteen hungry hikers are ready to chow down. [photo by Eileen]

Here are the statistics I recorded for the See Canyon hike. Note, however, that 9.66 miles is a little longer than most other people with GPS units measured. Also, these stats include the spur hike to See Spring, which amounted to about a mile and a half:

Hike Statistics, by Jim Buyens
Total Distance:9.66miles
Starting Time:8:42AM
Moving Time:5:38hrs:min
Stopped Time:0:49hrs:min
Finishing Time:3:10PM
Avg. Speed Moving:1.7mph
Avg. Speed Overall:1.5mph
Starting Elevation:6,250ft
Minimum Elevation:5,999ft
Maximum Elevation:7,894ft
Total Ascent:2,222ft
Starting Temperature:50°
Finishing Temperature:56°
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Arizona Trailblazers Hiking Club, Phoenix, Arizona
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updated June 1, 2015