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The Rugged Tramper: The Adventures of Sycamore Canyon

Hey everyone!  Last week I went on a 25-mile backpack through Sycamore Canyon in central Arizona.  I have been itching to get out on the trail again, do some backcountry camping and of course, make some images.  My fellow Imagetramp collaborator Dave has been having some fun on the other side of the world tramping around Wales and Scotland (check out his post on his Wales trip here and his new Wales gallery addition to our Places section here).  I felt it was time for me to get out and do some tramping of my own.  I chose Sycamore Canyon because of the challenges it presented.  Being an extremely rugged excursion, it was a test of my physical and mental endurance as well as my navigation skills.   

Looking up Sycamore Canyon from the trailhead

My fellow backpack rat Stephen, a good friend who's shared some fantastic backpacking experiences with me in Arizona, joined me for our 25-mile, two-day challenge.  We set off from the trailhead around noon after our commute from Phoenix.  Our first view of Sycamore Canyon can be seen in the image above.  Several springs feed the canyon's namesake creek which provides a lush cottonwood oasis for the first four miles and induced an optimism for the trek ahead.  We had to cross Sycamore Creek several times, regularly stopping to enjoy the riparian habitat and its various watering holes.  Often, the trail would skirt several narrow ledges, grottoes and gorges with small caves.   

A shady grotto along Sycamore Creek

Unfortunately, the beauty and coolness of the first four miles led us into a false sense of what this backpack was really going to entail.  After we passed Parsons Spring, the last spring feeding this watery sanctuary, we began what would be an arduous nine miles of boulder-hopping up the dry wash of Sycamore Canyon.  Exposed to the 88-degree heat with the rugged rocks grinding endlessly on our ankles and knees, we stubbornly made our 6-hour journey to what would eventually be our camp for the night.  The dry wash meandered around many twists and turns, widening and narrowing, with little shade from the heat.  We were truly alone in this canyon.  No wildlife to speak of except for two backpackers, carrying 40-pound loads, with an apparent desire for punishment.  At times our conversation would cease as we both dug deep within ourselves to get through this very difficult section of our journey.  Rolling over the constant boulders felt like we were moving through a mogul-like obstacle course.

Beginning our journey up the dry, rocky river bed of Sycamore Canyon

I would constantly refer to our topographic map to gauge our position and progress.  We were eventually looking for the Dogie Trail which intersected the canyon and would get us back onto normal, smooth single-track that would loop us all the way back to our starting point at the head of Sycamore Canyon.  A lot of our pack weight was water weight.  Once we got past the beautiful spring-fed oasis, we had to carry enough water for the remaining 21 miles.  Water sources were extremely scarce.  We would come across small, stagnant pools of water, which we eventually had to drink after treating it.  All part of the adventure!  

Continuing our rocky trek up the canyon in the heat of the day

As the day wore on, we made good progress, but we were losing light behind the canyon walls.  According to our map, the Dogie Trail should have been close by.  I felt I would sleep better knowing we had found our trail, instead of the prospect of having to continue over the rugged boulders of the wash the following morning.  Our spirit was being deteriorated by this rocky canyon, and finding our trail before nightfall was imperative to boosting our morale.  I knew we were close.  My gut was telling me we were right in its vicinity.  However, the failing light would force us to make camp and worry about our position in the morning.  We found a small, sandy section in a wider part of the canyon with a dirty, stagnant pool of water nearby.  The worst-case scenario played out in my mind for the following day if we couldn't find our connecting trail - turning around and backtracking the agonizing nine miles back down the boulder-choked canyon.        

Making camp in Sycamore Canyon

Spending the night in the wilderness is an amazing experience.  It's something I've done many times, yet it never gets old.  The sky was extremely clear, and the creatures of the night could be heard.  We were in bear and mountain lion country, so we needed to maintain a certain vigilance.  Once we got that fire going though, all the hardships of the day's journey withered away as we settled in to a delicious campfire-cooked steak and a Snickers bar for dessert.  Our quiet conversation and the crackling of the fire really warmed the soul.  It causes you to reflect on the good things in life and how happiness can be achieved through the simplest of things.     

After a mildly restful night, we woke to another beautiful day in the backcountry.  I love waking up in the wilderness and seeing the day begin.  There's something very primal about it.  We broke camp, filtered and treated some dirty pool water and set off on more rock-hopping to find our trail.  It was really important to find our trail before the heat of the sun set in and also because our feet really took a beating on the rocky terrain the day before. Our water-weighted packs were feeling just as heavy today.  My camera gear also added to my weight (I carry my Nikon D700 in an easily accessible Clik camera bag that I wear as a  harness on my chest).  The sooner we got out of this boulder-strewn canyon, the better our morale would be. 

Bear prints meant we weren't alone

As we proceeded up the canyon, things were looking less optimistic.  We couldn't find our trail, and according to our map, we were past our junction. We did find this black bear print in the sand suggesting that we weren't alone in this canyon.  It looked to be fairly recent too.  Stephen spotted a small wash heading up a side canyon and decided to climb up and out for a better look.  After about 10 minutes, he came back with music to my ears.  He found our trail!  We both bushwhacked up the side canyon and were soon onto the blissful, smooth single-track of the Sycamore Basin Trail.  Our feet and our spirits couldn't have been happier.  Now we had the task of pushing ahead because we had at least 13 miles to cover and the day was warming up quickly.  Now that we were out of the canyon, our views changed dramatically.  The red-rock country of central Arizona was on display.  Mountains and mesas surrounded us as far as the eye could see.  We were now hiking through juniper-tree studded terrain and the contrast of the red-rock landscape against the deep blue sky couldn't have been more striking and photogenic.  My trigger finger on my D700 camera began going into overdrive.

Red-rock beauty along the Sycamore Basin Trail

Wilderness gate in red-rock country

Blazing the Sycamore Basin Trail

We had a real spring in our step as we peeled off the miles despite our weary feet.  We would hydrate on our filtered pond water and snack regularly under the cool shade of juniper trees, taking in the constant vistas along Packard Mesa.  Our efforts were finally being rewarded.  In the distance we could see the snow-capped Humphrey's Peak; Arizona's highest peak at 12,622 feet.  The warmth of spring was slowly melting away the remnants of a heavy winter in northern Arizona.  The thermometer would reach nearly 90 degrees today and the talk of a post-backpack beer was a constant motivator to keep us trekking along.  However, we did stop to take everything in and utilise this rare time we had from our busy schedules.  We came across a neglected horse corral.  There were also old cabins north of where we were suggesting that this was once a heavily used trail for horse traffic.

Neglected horse corral studded with prickly-pear cactii

At one point we took a power nap and came across the only other hiker we would see on the entire 25-mile journey.  As we approached the end of the mesa and its panoramic views,

Packard Mesa Panorama

we began our steep, rocky, switchbacking descent back into the depths of Sycamore Canyon.  Our end was in sight and the respite of the watery oasis from which we began lured us along.  At this point a certain melancholy set in that I think we all experience when we take any sort of trip or vacation, especially when the end is physically in sight.  As we came to the bottom of our descent we were again amongst the cool shade of the cottonwoods and the chilly, refreshing water of Sycamore Creek.  Taking a time-out to splash some water on ourselves went without saying and it couldn't have been more welcomed by our tired bodies.

Post-hike relief at Sycamore Creek

Putting our packs on for the last time we made the final ascent out of the canyon to the trailhead parking lot and set ourselves for the drive home.  This would be via the Tavern Grille in the nearby town of Cottonwood for a well-earned frosty brew.  Another extremely rewarding and successful backpacking trip to add to the list.  As tired as we were, we forged a smile for a job well done (and of course, the only time I would need and use my tripod after hauling it 25 miles).

Stephen and I at the end

Enjoying a well deserved post-hike brew in Cottonwood. Cheers!

In less than two days, we covered nearly the distance of a marathon of which 9 miles was over rocky cross-country terrain.  We worked extremely hard on this one, but it'll be a trek we'll look back on fondly.  For map and stat nerds (much like myself) here's a link to the details of our trek obtained from my GPS watch.  (If you have Google Earth installed, click on the 'Export' tab in the toolbar of my Garmin page via the link above to see a very cool view of our trek).  To view all the above images as a gallery, click here.  Thanks a bunch for stopping by.  I hope you enjoyed reading about my trek as much as I enjoyed doing it.  I look forward to sharing more of our adventures and photography with you here on Imagetramp.  Cheers!