The Red Rock Secret Mountain

Not many trails go over, or through, the plateau north of Sedona. Lots go into the canyons that open out onto the Verde Valley. But those get boxed out and end quickly. The few long trails require wading the West Fork, scrambling around in Sycamore Creek, or taking Loy Canyon up onto Secret Mountain. We chose Secret Mountain even though we’d missed our target by a month and May had descended on the desert like a wool blanket straight from an oven.

Long trails mean early starts. Or late starts. When we hit the interstate off ramp on May Day it had been dark for hours, not helped at all by unusual delays north of Black Canyon City. Creeping through Oak Creek’s and Sedona’s idiotic maze of traffic circles just before the witching hour was a blessing. The tourists had long since retired from their hikes, jeep rides, helicopter tours, and dances around energy vortexes led by New Age shamans. We had the place to ourselves.

After a series of half circles in Sedona, we spent the next hour navigating a vine of forest service roads, arriving finally at the trailhead. I cut the engine, letting the dust settle and the starlight brighten before getting out to drag my gear under a juniper. Mary’s nights are filled with more bears, bugs, snakes, and drug mules than mine so she slept in the camper shell.

We woke up way too late Saturday morning, and dawdled far too long. I didn’t care. The morning air was cool. I had a clear view of Loy Butte. And a late morning had been a long time coming. By the time we passed the derelict ranch house at the trail’s start it was already warm in the shade, pushing the promise of a long hot day.

We didn’t let that bother us just then. We strolled along raising knee-high dust clouds, afoot and free in red rock country. We shuffled along for several miles enjoying the dappled light, alligator junipers, pinyon pines, claret cup hedgehog cactus, and clusters of white, yellow and blue flowers. The backdrop was lovely too. Schnebly Hill sandstone, Coconino sandstone, and Kaibab limestone—the three main rock layers—form red, buff and white layers like Neopolitan ice cream.

Gradually the canyon narrowed and deepened. I marked our progress by how much the trail had risen through the Cocnino Sandstone. The trail, according to the map, would eventually box out near the top of the canyon forcing us up an abrupt climb through the Kaibab layer. That is what happened. It was disheartening to look up and see that we had a mile of steep, hot, brushy terrain ahead of us. We sat on a rock, re-laced our boots, slugged down some water, and pushed on.

With every aching step the sun moved closer, the oxygen got thinner, more salt accumulated on our arms and foreheads. The temperature rose with every foot we gained on the plateau. I started wishing we had been here last month. I wished even more that we had started two hours earlier this morning.

Not a moment too soon we arrived at the intersection of the Secret Mountain trail, five miles from, and 2000 feet above, our starting point. It felt like we had gained 1500 of those feet in the last mile and a half. Probably not. At least now there would be bigger trees and level ground. Or in our terms, shade and oxygen. We threw down our packs, sucked on oranges and water, gobbled salted peanuts and chocolate, rejuvenating ourselves for the next five miles. Well, maybe it was five miles. Information about the Secret Mountain trail was hard to get. On some maps it wasn’t marked as a trail at all. And almost everyone agreed that it simply petered out as it approached its terminus, what looked like a potentially spectacular view into the valley.

But the day was wasting. The sun had already slipped past its high point in the sky. We had to get moving. So move we did. There were big trees. And the trail occasionally skirted along the very edges of cliffs, offering views into empty impenetrable canyons. We passed the abandoned out buildings of an old ranch. A short distance from there was a small burned area, the site of a recent fire of mysterious origin. It had burned so recently the smell of smoke still hung in the air. We knew more about it than any other part of our trek: Mary’s daughter was on the hot shot crew that put this one out.

After a few miles on the plateau it became obvious that the trail maps were wrong. We finally encountered a person coming the other way; a young man jogging toward us. Had he gone to the overlook? Yes. How far back? 45 minutes to an hour. Oh, and the trail peters out at the end. You’ll have to bushwhack. Sigh. That fit young man could easily hike four miles in an hour, even if a third of that were bushwhacking. We were never going to make the end of the peninsular-shaped escarpment that overlooked Sedona. It was time to hatch a new plan. We arrived at a copse of large trees, decided to set camp and push on with a lighter load.

Two miles later we arrived at a valley overlook. Not the overlook, even though we could now see it from where we’d stopped. No, just an ordinary overlook. If there is any such thing as an ordinary overlook in Sedona. We’d timed it right: the pinnacles were just taking on a golden tinge from the late afternoon light. The Verde Valley stretched away from us out into a hazy, dream-like distance. We briefly reveled in our accomplishment, commemorating it with a few photos, then headed back to camp for food, water and rest.

We had to improvise dinner. I found out that the reason we’d noticed the faint smell of fuel all day was because my SIGG bottle was leaking. The SIGG bottle was in a plastic bag. No problem there. But it was leaking because the pump seal didn’t seal. Which meant it wouldn’t pump. No hot food for us. We improvised from a bag of lentils, some energy bars and some fruit. I didn’t care. It would have been nice spending the evening sipping tea, propped against a log, watching the sky change shifts. But an early dinner and early bedtime worked too.

Before most of the brightest stars appeared, I was asleep, and slept like the dead. I can’t vouch for Mary. It was her first time sleeping under the stars. No camper shell. No tent. Just a bag and pad rolled out on the ground. For some that first time is fitful, waking to each snapping twig. Or they spend hours watching the dark hulk at the edge of the clearing trying to decide if it is a log or a large animal. But that was her burden to bear. I enjoyed my first night of dreamless sleep in months. I drifted awake in the morning wondering if that was really what I’d come here for.

We didn’t dawdle long after sunrise. Both of us wanted to be down through the hot, steep, exposed Kaibab layer long before noon. We were short on water, not because of the heat, but the one thing I had neglected to count on: dryness. The air was desiccating, the humidity in the low single digits, drying our sinuses, our eyeballs, our alveoli. I had a liter of water to see me back to the truck. Enough. But barely. That last mile of sandy, dusty trail was going to be long.

It was. And back down at 5000 feet the heat was oppressive. Every rock, every sunny patch, sometimes even the trees, radiated heat. Still, I couldn’t help being happy. The Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness had shown up on maps right around the time I arrived in Arizona. After thirty years on the bucket list, we had set off Friday night to pay it a long overdue visit. Now on a blazing hot Sunday afternoon in May we knew we could chew off 20 miles of this terrain, in this weather, in a single weekend. The few other longer trails here were now open to us.

Sitting on the open tailgate, wiping rime from my face, I was exhausted, overheated, and had one blackened toenail. We were still hours from home. But I was happy. And not anxious to leave. Some believe Sedona is a magical place. And for the usual horse-shit reasons. If there were really energy vortexes, windows into cosmic enlightenment, we could drag all of the politicians, generals, technicians, priests and self-identified rednecks here, shove their heads into one of those instead, and change the world. No, it’s magical enough. But it is the everyday magic of the unique combination of latitude, altitude, solitude, climate, geology, and flora. Come here with your burdens sitting squarely on your own shoulders. Then simply mix in your own sore feet, aching muscles, bruised toes, tired shoulders and empty water bags. Add tiny touches of cloudless blue skies, bird calls, red barked manzanita, pock-marked limestone, Indian paintbrush, agave, starry nights and growth rings on fallen trees. Take no shortcuts. The magic you seek will be yours.

Morning prim rose

Morning flowers

The ranch at Loy Butte

The ranch at Loy Butte

Cliff of Kaibab limestone

Cliff of Kaibab limestone

Indian paintbrush

Indian paintbrush

Pock-marked limestone

Pock-marked limestone

Impentrable side canyons

Impenetrable side canyons

An old out building

An old out building

Yours truly at the ranch out buildings

Yours truly at the ranch out buildings

Mary at the Secret Mountain fire site

Mary at the Secret Mountain fire site

Ponderosa pine stump

Ponderosa pine stump

Burned out tree

Burned out tree

Red barked manzanita

Red barked manzanita

Bark

Bark

A view into the Verde Valley

A view into the Verde Valley

Loy Butte

Loy Butte

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