Subjective Danger on Arizona's Mogollon Rim Trail
Words and Photos by Scott Nechemias
It was a slow, continuous slide on a 35-degree angle towards the bottom of a mud pit nestled underneath an overhang of red rocks in Sycamore Canyon, the first water source I had seen in 15 miles. Unfortunately, accessing it might involve never returning to solid ground. Here is the first law of backcountry physics: backpackers slowly sliding into a mud pit tend to stay slowly sliding into a mud pit unless they can brace themselves with a trekking pole and begin inching their way back to solid ground.
"I should have brought a mud ax," I thought to myself, giggling. "Is there such a thing as a mud ax?" I discovered that I was better off maintaining contact with the ground in a sliding motion to achieve mud pit escape velocity rather than picking up my feet, which would sink deeper with each step and slide in the wrong direction if I picked them up. I finally extricated myself and decided a snack break was in order to relax and take stock of the situation.
It was my second day of nine hiking the first two sections of Brett Tucker's Mogollon Rim Trail, which stretches across the Sedona Red Rocks Country and then makes its way up to a more defined rim country near Pine. Sections one and two are around 180 miles of bopping in and out of canyons and small sections of cross-country travel. Often, the trails are trails in name only, clearly having gone a long time without the ministrations of a trail crew. The big challenge of the route late fall is water carries, as the distance between flowing sources can be as many as 22 miles. The previous afternoon around five pm, I had taken six liters from a good source where I crossed Sycamore Creek, and I still had a little over two liters left to get through the day and make the five miles to the next one. The attempt to gather water from the mud pit ultimately wasn't necessary. I just figured maybe a little backup water would be on the safe side. Turns out the safe side was outside of the mud pit.
In the middle of November in central Arizona, the sun wakes at seven am, goes back to sleep at five pm, and the light during the day has a golden slant that enhances the varied hues of red, green, and yellow in the high desert landscape. Moisture flits into the atmosphere at an astounding rate, so by the time I finished my snack, it was easy to knock the ten pounds of mud off my trail runners and climb out of Sycamore Canyon to make my home for the evening higher up among the trees.
The next day was spent following single track and jeep road to the north high above Sedona, using the high country to cross over from the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness to the Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness. This is a constant feature of these two sections, from high country to canyon back to high country. It has the rhythm of basin and pass trips that travelers of mountain west alpine are undoubtedly familiar with, just juxtaposed onto a different landscape. Approaching Loy Canyon, I began to hear that rhythm better, and my understanding of how the country around me worked steadily increased. This illumination is a huge credit to Brett's route, showcasing the different biomes and accompanying geology distinctly. I skirted Secret Mountain and began to descend into Loy Canyon. All these heady thoughts disappeared into simple wow factors as I looked out into a dramatic landscape.
After Loy Canyon, I skirted the popular Sedona front country using a cross-country route, safe from the pink jeeps and ATVs that plague this area though not isolated from their noise. One can't help but wonder how this area looked before the advent of motorized tourism. At dusk, I crossed in front of some of the area's main attractions, catching the big red rock formations painted even deeper with red sunset, enjoying having these well-visited spectacles to myself. There was a cost for this dusk cross-country travel. As I night hiked deeper into the wilderness boundary, I kicked my fair share of cactus. I bedded down for the night, prepared to face my brief reentry into civilization for a resupply in Sedona.
The following afternoon, I saw my fill of crystal healing shops and people doing yoga poses in front of rock formations. I had eaten some town food, picked up a resupply package, and was back on my way. I had five days of food, six liters of water, and a 2000-foot ascent ahead. I had barely been able to resist having a lunch beer in Sedona, which was definitely a wise choice given the warm day, big climb, and full pack. The sun set directly behind me while I was climbing out of Casner Canyon, and the moon rose directly in front of me. It gave the illusion of walking from one to the other during the hour the two solar bodies stood in opposition to each other across the sky. However, I did not disappear into an energy vortex.
I woke up early to take advantage of the minimal daylight hiking hours and had a fair amount of cloud cover for the first time on the trip. It broke the sunlight into a wash of color as I made my way across the rim high country again.
My next destination was the Munds Mountain Wilderness and Dry Beaver Creek, but first, I had to make my way along the Hot Loop Trail to Horse Mesa. It's a good thing the Horse Mesa is also full of stellar views because it is rough terrain to find a steady pace on. While still in Red Rock Country, I began to get more hints of the sandstone that became the dominant rock as I traveled south and east.
This is probably a good moment to introduce some of the better signs I encountered along the way on this trip. Signs on a wilderness backpacking trip for an experienced backpacker rarely fall into the category of informative.
This trail here in the rugged desert is challenging with snakes and no water, it's hard to follow, and I might never return. However, should I proceed anyway, let it be known that the search for me will inconvenience untold numbers of first responders lamenting my transition from person to "statistic."
It is always fun to see how emphatic the signs are in their warnings of impending doom, and several in this part of Arizona don't disappoint. If you zoom into the first picture below, you'll see a fellow hiker has helpfully added "seriously" next to "trail difficult to follow."
A sunset every bit as magnificent as the morning sunrise capped off the day.
The next day brought a return to the familiar pattern, a climb out of Dry Beaver up to the rim, and several miles of rim country travel to the next canyon and wilderness area, Wet Beaver Creek. The Chaves trail is an old wagon trail that's difficult to follow, with high grasses obscuring the occasional cactus land mine. It was very slow going.
Once I made my way to the highway crossing, the travel pace picked up on a jeep road on the rim, peppered with outstanding views and incredible trees. I ran into a few hunters who reminded me of the perils of being outside, echoing the many posted signs. It left me wondering how the general zeitgeist about the backcountry is that it is DANGEROUS. I assured them I was fine finding water, knew about snakes, was not on the Arizona Trail nor was I looking for it, and that I slept fine at night despite not being armed. We parted ways, with them looking at me like I was marching off to my doom. This was in stark contrast to my mindset of being thrilled to be an adult on vacation.
I reached the Wet Beaver Wilderness at dusk and once again caught a spectacular end of the daylight show, and I walked the trail slowly, partly due to fatigue and partly due to the views.
By the time I had reached my crossing of Wet Beaver on the Bell Trail, it was dark, and the waist-deep crossing by headlamp might have been ill-advised, but the current was not very swift, and I made it to the other side without incident. I hiked my final climb of the day quickly to warm up on the way to camp, an exertion I might not otherwise have been inclined to make. I slept like the dead that evening, nestled in between two trees.
The route to Pine included one more cycle of rim and canyon, and this was perhaps the most epic of them all–the West Clear Creek Wilderness. The MRT uses trails to enter and exit the canyon, both of them steep to the point that they could well be considered easy Class Two even though they are "trails." The views on the descent make it clear you are in for an experience.
Inside the canyon are plenty of use paths, wandering here and there and terminating into a rock hop, sneaker-wetting crossing that sometimes forced me to get much deeper in the water. It was COLD. On one crossing, I yelled out a string of obscenities that I assumed landed on no one's ears, but I would soon discover there was a scout group a couple of hundred yards down the canyon. I greeted them sheepishly, wondering if they heard my blue language bouncing off the canyon walls.
It's hard to choose pictures from West Clear Creek, with its sheer cliffs hanging over bluish pools. It was quite the exclamation point on a string of incredible hiking days.
After the steep climb to exit the canyon, I went into town food hiking speed. I covered the last 17 miles into Pine much quicker than my normal pace, with visions of cheeseburgers dancing in my head and schemes for my next trip back to finish the route.
Based in Portland, Oregon, Scott Nechemias takes wilderness backpacking trips primarily in the Pacific Northwest, but often other parts of the mountain west and abroad. He's often accompanied by his four-footed companions, Cheese and Utah. Scott has a particular affinity for off trail travel, the high desert, and the places in the world less traveled by people. You can often find him on a route of his own creation, chasing the parts of the map without any trails. For more content follow him at www.alongthewaypoints, or on Instagram