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Mt. Graham Car Camp
Pinaleno Mountains
July 16-18, 1999
by Jeannie Van Lew
Front: Steve, Angie, and Sandy with the cold black nose.
Back: Michele, Lisa N., Adrienne, Lisa B., Tom, Jim, and Joyce.

The monsoons have hit the state hard the last few weeks. Dust storms with their walls of dust creep across the valley, rain pours down in buckets, hikers get stranded on Mt. Lemmon and the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon gets washed away. These have been the happenings of the last few days prior to our trip to Mt. Graham. Even after the fateful call from the Safford Ranger office informing me that there are no toilet and facilities at the campground a number of die-hard, never-give up hikers and campers met on this sky island for a weekend we’ll not soon forget. In all we had in attendance: Tom, Jeannie and Adrienne Van Lew and Sandy, Angie Lien, Lisa Bradley, Steve Kilgore, Joyce Parrish, Geri Dull, Dennis and Joyce Murphy, Michele Pagano, Jim Kranzberg, Meera Desikamani, Vijay Parthasarathy, Terry Connacher, Lisa Neutrelle and Jagma.

Golden Columbine
Tom, Adrienne, and our dog Sandy left early in the afternoon. I rode with Angie to keep her company. After stopping in Safford to pick up the permit for the campsite, we began our accent up the mountain on the Swift Trail. Beginning at the desert floor we began winding our way around the mountain and soon we were among black alder, native walnut, velvet ash and sycamore trees. We passed through Turkey Flat, a summer home area, where we began to spot Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and some Aspen trees. After 22 winding miles we were at the end of the paved road and had not reached the campground yet.

We pushed on and after only a mile of dirt road, we found our destination – Upper Hospital Flat Group Campsite. Hospital Flat was so named because it was used as a hospital during the hot months by the soldiers from Fort Grant at the base of the mountain. There were trees in the area that were 8' in diameter!

We chose our campsite and began to set up our tents and rain tarps. We were hoping we wouldn’t need the rain tarp, but we put it up to hedge our bets. After dinner we joined Tom, the trusty fire tender, at the campfire. We discussed when we should expect the next couple of vehicles when a bright flash of light and crack of thunder warned us of what was to come. 30 minutes later, at 9:30 we were forced to leave our lovely campfire and seek out dry shelter under the tarp. We decided since the sun was down and it was raining after all, that we would just call it a night and wait and see if anyone else would be joining us.

Navigating the slick rock along Ash Creek.

Sometime later in the night, I could hear the pitter patter of drops on the tent fly when two bright lights lit up the sides of the tent. After a few moments of uneasiness not knowing who these new-comers were we found out they were Lisa and Steve. No they had not seen anyone else out there and yes they were going to put up their tent in the rain. Sometime later we were again awakened by more approaching headlights. It was nice to discover that the newest arrivals were Joyce and Geri along with Michele and Jim. Now were only missing the Presslers, but since they have children, maybe they decided not to come.

By morning the rain had stopped, the sky was clear, the birds were singing! Well, the rain did stop at least! And I know I heard some birds, or was that the squirrel chattering? While eating breakfast we made our introductions and decided to hike the Ash Creek Trail #309 to the falls. We cleaned up, left a note for anyone else who might come in late and headed further up the road. We passed another camping area and two creeks. We stopped to have a “Kodak Moment” at Post Creek to enjoy the water cascading down the hillside only to disappear under the road.

Ash Creek Falls
Continuing on, we reached the Columbine Visitor Information Center where we got directions to the trailhead and further information about the trail. The trail begins at the back of the Columbine Camp Area and meanders down the slope through a forest of Aspen with signs of a fire not too long ago. As we descended down, down, down, I knew that some time later there would be up, up, up, but I chose not to think too much about that.

It wasn’t long before we reached Ash Creek, one of several year-round streams in the Pinaleno Mountains. Here it was hardly wider than an irrigation ditch. But it was swift running and COLD!

We found many relics along the route such as a boiler for a steam engine, remains of an old sawmill,and logging flume. I can’t imagine the difficulty trying to run the timber down this mountainside in a logging flume and have it be cost advantageous. I spotted a LARGE Western tiger swallowtail butterfly, with wings a bright yellow and black markings. Ash Creek babbled down the canyon through beds of skunk cabbage, Rumex, a relative of rhubarb, thimbleberry bushes, thornless Blackberry, and red osier dogwood with their small white flowers bloomed at streamside. As we descended lower and the trail meandered alongside the creek we saw beautiful flowers, such as Shooting stars, cardinal monkey flower, wood violet and deer vetch and the yellow Columbine, some of which I had never seen before. We learned that the seed for the blue Columbine has never reached this sky island in Arizona, so all you find here are the yellow Columbine.

We found the sign for the horse detour around an area of slick rock but we chose the short cut. The trail continued along the creek, where we had to carefully cross slippery granite rocks, tiptoe across a “sheared up” portion of the trail along a granite face and then cross the creek which was moving remarkably fast. I began to have visions of falling in, but that is another story of another hike. We all crossed safely and continued down the stream. We saw places where the water plunges down into deep pools and thought, is this the waterfall? No, I decided, on we must go! I think everyone wanted to stop for a lunch break, but I pushed them onward!

We continue on, then through a break in the trees we caught our first glimpse of Ash Creek Falls! Although we were some distance away it was a beautiful scene. With all the rain we had been having, the falls were much more than mere ribbons of water spilling downward 200 feet! We each found our own way to view the falls, some choosing to creep to the edge of the out-thrusting rocks, inching forward to get a view of the entire falls. Back up on the trail was a nice place to stop for our lunch. A breeze kept us cool as we looked outward to the Gila River Valley far below. After Sandy entertained us with her love of apple cores, we packed backed back up, and took the detour route.

Bringing up the rear, as I usually do, I discovered I no longer had the radio I had been given responsibility of. I went ahead until I finally reached the intersection of the detour and Ash Creek Trail where Gail and Joyce were waiting for me.

Hikers scouting the white waters of Ash Creek.

I explained my blunder, telling them I was going to go back, and they could wait for me or go ahead, as I was sure I would find the radio on the trail. Not only did they not listen, but they returned with me, what troopers! Nearly 3/4 of the way back up the detour trail we found the lost radio, lying on the trail with it’s little red light blinking.

The three of us trudged back up the trail. I listened as the group ahead of us gave us their progress. We’d go for a bit, then we’d have to stop to allow our hearts to slow down. We’d go a little further and stop again. We finally came to the last creek crossing and I knew we had those switchbacks to do yet. OK, one more stop and we’re almost there. Will they all be waiting for us at the trailhead or across the street with the cars? We can only hope they are at the trailhead. NO? OK, a few more steps, that don’t seem as heavy as they were coming up the hill. Guess I made it after all!

After returning to our campsite we discovered two more additions to our group, Meera and Vijay and then Terry, Lisa and of course Jagma (see the Fall 1998 Reavis Ranch hike for our first encounter with Jagma, the hiking dog!) We all had dinner and finished just before it started to rain again. Since the fire was already blazing we pulled out our umbrellas and ponchos and continued to sit around the campfire until after dark. Slowly people began turning in, after making sure the fire was out, we did the same.

The next morning we awakened to rain. During a break we fixed breakfast and began packing up. Most everyone decided not to do another hike that morning and planned to head home. I love Mt. Graham and the Pinalenos. I hope to return, maybe not during monsoon season, however.

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updated January 3, 2018