Southeast Arizona - Part II
Thursday April 12th
After a very cold night sleeping in the bed of the truck, we loaded up and headed out, trying to get warm and to get the frost and condensation off our sleeping bags. We drove back to the Empire Ranch and walked down through the tall cottonwoods.
A male Summer Tanager was sing from the great heights of the canopy. A pair of Gila Woodpeckers chattered away madly and the kestrel family still tended to their whining fledglings. Further down the cottonwood wash, the spring surfaced and ran strongly. A mixed group of warblers passed through as a large flock Chipping Sparrows drank and bathed in the creek. As we left, we saw three Gray Hawks soar higher and higher above the cottonwoods.
We moved on to our next destination: Madera Canyon. After passing a border patrol checkpoint, we turned on to Empire Gulch road. The road took us through Box Canyon, which appeared to be lower in elevation as many of the wildflowers, including the ocotillo, Mexican poppy, and penstemon were in full bloom. We noticed this immediately after having not seen many wildflowers in bloom since this point.
Along the dirt forest service road, I spotted a racer sunning itself in the road moments too late and I gave it a fatal blow to the head. I felt badly for killing the snake, but at least it died pretty quickly after I struck it.
By mid-morning we reached Madera Canyon and Bog Springs Campground, which is the only campground in the area. We were half expecting to see the campground full, but there were still a good number open. After we had picked out a campsite, a female Broad-billed Hummingbird flew up to me to give my red bandana the once over. I knew I had to hang up my hummingbird feeder. By the afternoon I had Black-throated and Broad-billed Hummingbirds coming in.
After setting up our tent (for the sake of privacy), we hiked out to Bog Springs and the loop to the other two springs. Hiking out to the trailhead was somewhat annoying. The trail was an old jeep road, full of loose large rocks, steep, and without a good cleared path. We hiked out to Bog Springs first. Off the jeep road and up to Bog Springs, the trail climbed up the mountain side and offered good views of the valley below. The sun was shining down intensely, making the hike a little more difficult, but there were oaks to shade us every so often. The environment was similar to the Chirachuas and Cave Creek Canyon, but seemed to be further along in terms of seasons. The sycamores had more leaves in Madera Canyon. Closer to the spring, there were more trees to shade us tall stands of oak and ponderosa. Sycamores grew closer to the creek.
Bog Springs, as with the other two springs on the loop, were piped and plumbed to collect in a small cement trough. From Bog Springs, the trail wrapped around the mountainsides though tall oak forest. Occasionally there would be the small flock of titmice, nuthatches, and redstarts. At the last spring, the trail met up with the old jeep road. We followed the jeep road down the mountain, trying to maintain our knees as much as possible. A small trail splits from the jeep trail and cut across the slope. Eventually it met up with another jeep trail, which took us back down the mountain to the old rocky jeep trail. I’m glad we took the loop the way we did, because walking up the jeep trail would not have been fun.
Back at camp, we indulged ourselves with a head rinse under the facet at our site. The water was cool, but refreshing especially without having washed it after several days in the desert. We relaxed for the evening, watching the hummingbirds at the feeder and the jays and woodpeckers coming in for a cashew.
At dusk, we were serenaded by Common Poorwills, Elf Owls, and Whiskered Screech Owls. It was amazing to hear them all around us in the oak forest surrounding us. I listened carefully and hear a brief but distant call of the Mexican Whip-poor-will.
Friday April 13th
We hiked down to the trail that paralleled the road of Madera Canyon. We first hiked up passing the amphitheater and followed the trail along the mountainside. Small signs along the trail point out some of the flora and rock formations. From the trail, we got a good view of Mount Baldy, the saddle, and other points on the ridge across the canyon.
We hiked the trail further down the canyon, past the Bog Springs campground. There were many more people on the trail. Maybe half of them were carrying binoculars. The trail followed the creek closely and was more birdy than the part of the trail that lead up the mountain. We saw Summer and Hepatic Tanagers, a Hermit Warbler, and a Broad-billed hummingbird building a nest, along with the usual suspects.By the time we reach Proctor at the end of the canyon, the sun warmed up the day and the birds were less active. We stopped for a snack at the ramada and noted a sign advertising the bird festival taking place the following day. We made our way back up the canyon and found a Black-chinned Hummingbird sitting diligently on her nest.
In the afternoon, we took a rest from the sun and the days heat. But we hiked back out in the evening on the Dutch John Spring trail, which started at the campground. The trail was eerily silent hardly a chip or peep from any birds. Just the sound of the occasional gust of wind in the trees and the crunch of oak leaves was all that we heard. The Dutch John Spring was defunct the cement trough empty, but we followed the trail past the spring and farther up the hill. We reached a natural spring where water seeped from the rocks and the moss grew thick. Monkey flower was in full bloom and a few yellow columbine recently opened.
At nightfall, I was hoping for a repeat avian chorus, but not a note was uttered. I thought it strange, and though maybe the families with 5 kids and their very bright lantern (I swore it was attached to a full sized propane tank) had scared off all the nocturnal creatures.
Just as we settled into the tent for the night, the winds start. I thought nothing of it at first, but I awoke later in the night to the sound of wind rushing toward us and howling around our tent. The wind was so strong it picked up dirt and threw it against the tent. It felt like someone was taking a shovel full of dirt and chucking it against the tent with every gale. The smaller particles of sand made it throughout the nylon mess and coated us. Maybe this was why the birds were so quiet; they knew what was coming.
Saturday April 14th
We awoke to the sound of splatter on the rainfly. The night’s wind storm seemed to have brought in a cold front. As we dusted off our sleeping bags, we noted how cold it was. We debated on whether to pack up and go somewhere else. We decided to tough it out and stay.
We drove up the canyon to the farthest trailheads. We had read that the Carrie Nation Trail was a good trail for seeing the Elegant Trogon in the spring. Fully geared up with several layers, hat and gloves, we hiked up the trail as the rain drops fell.
In the mist and gray skies, Tor spotted a Gray Hawk fly from the trees. It headed down the canyon, perhaps to find better weather. The trial followed the flowing creek up the mountain. It was a different feel - hiking in the low clouds and dispersed light, perhaps described as a ghostly.
Just as we were about to reach the switchback, which would take us back to the creek, I saw a flash of green followed by a long tail that was outlined in white. It landed farther back, away from the trail, but though the branches I could see the trogon. It peered back at us over its shoulder and sat long enough for us to look at him. It flew down and out of sight, but began to softly call.
The ice/snow on the ground was now thick enough for us to leave tracks. When we reached the car, we drove down to the Santa Rita Lodge to check out their bird feeders and their gift shop. From the people who worked at the gift shop we learned that the festival was cancelled, which wasn’t too surprising. It was too miserable out for people to want to be outside.
Their feeders, however, were hoping with activity. The ground was alive with Chipping Sparrows. Lazuli Buntings and Black-headed Grosbeaks crowded one feeder and Pine Siskins and Lesser Goldfinches at another. They seemed content enough with this segregation.
We drove out of the mountains to Continental, the small town near the mountains. As we neared the town, the clouds broke and the sun bathed the town in warmth. We restocked our supplies at the Safeway and looked back at the mountains. We couldn’t see them. As we drove back up to Madera Canyon, the clouds looked a lot lower and the foothills looked like they were dusted in snow.
Finally I just gave in and decided to try Proctor, which was lower and might be drier. We drove down to the parking lot and walked down the canyon. There were still some pockets of snow left, but not as much as up above. We hiked Proctor Road. The national forest road led out to Elephants Head and also had free camping sites, which were probably used when Bog Springs was full.
The road crossed low elevation desert, with a lot of mesquite and some ocotillo. We saw a Phainopepla and heard a Northern Mockingbird singing. As we were hiking we could see the edge of the clouds and watched them closely. We monitored which direction they were moving and if they were going to break up. We noticed the clouds lifting off the mountains. It was a hopeful sign when we could see Mount Baldy again.
By the time we reached the campground, the sun was out and the large clouds had broken up. The signs of snow around the campsite had begun to melt away. At dusk, the poorwills called, but no others, not like the first night there.
In the morning, we drove back to the Carrie Nation trailhead. Tor had lost the battery cover to his GPS so we were going to hike back up and look for it. We both knew it would be a fruitless search in the snow, but it would also be an excuse to look for the trogon again.
There was still a good layer of snow on the ground. From the looks of it several people hiked up the trail during the storm. Crazy. Along the creek we heard the call of the trogon. This time we heard two calling back and forth. We climbed up the switchback and began our search for the cover. No luck, so we tried to pinpoint the calling trogon. We stood watching and waiting hoping to catch a glimpse. The most I saw was a shadow of it on the ground. At least it was neat to hear two of them.
We stopped at the Santa Rita Lodge feeders again. There were birds and many gray squirrels, but not as many as the day previous. Perhaps the snow had triggered them to eat, but now that it was nice there was not drive to congregate. At camp, we packed up and let the tent dry out. As I was taking down the hummingbird feeder, the female Broad-billed Hummingbird (perhaps the same one that buzzed me when I first got there) flew up to look at the spot where the feeder hung. She then flew up to me and looked at the feeder in my hand. Before zipping off, she gave the now vacant hummingbird feeder spot the once over. I think she left before I could say sorry.
We left the Santa Rita Mountains and headed south. We stopped at Nogales for gas and lunch. I had picked up the suggestion of Las Cabanas from the Road Food website, so we went there. It was a bit of a hole in the wall, but that could be a sign of a good restaurant. I ordered the chili relleno and tamale. Both were very tasty. The relleno was cooked well and not too greasy and the tamale was exceptional and a bit odd. I found a carrot, potato, and a green olive in mine. Still it was good.
After lunch we drove out to Pena Blanca Lake. We parked at the campground nearby and just as we were getting our packs ready for hiking, 2 border patrol trucks simultaneously pulled up to the camping area across from us. Then a white van pulled in as well. The driver got out and opened the backdoor. Slowly several young men got out of the van, all of them illegal immigrants. I tried not to obviously stare at these proceedings so I’m not sure if they were gathering them all together or doing an exchange, but the van pulled away first will the illegal immigrants. The trucks remained and we heard the guards talking. Eventually they dispersed. I become a little hesitant to camp here after that, but this was a designated campground with vault toilets that were maintained.
By evening the lake quickly emptied out. As dusk set in, we knew we were the only ones in the area, except for the border patrol, which would drive by often. Our truck was set back from the road, so we had some buffer from them.
We prepared for the night and planned to sleep in the bed of the truck again. We noticed a plane flying in a quadrant circling over and over again. It probably had infrared or some sort of high tech gadget to seek out illegal immigrants. A sheriff stopped by and asked if we were camping in the area. He asked if we were armed, not for his knowledge but for our safety. When we told him no, he responding with “this is a different place at night.”
As night set in, every 30 minutes or so, a patrol truck would drive by on the road. We were surprised when a black helicopter flew over only 15-20 feet off the ground and closely followed the road. We were a little uneasy as we tucked in for the night.
I was awoken only a few moments later by the sound of Tor talking to a border agent. The agent saw our truck and was poking around the site. Tor said he saw him looking in our firepit. The agent asked if we were camping yes; are you alone no, my wife is here. And that was about it. Not sure why he felt like he had to check us out. But I’m sure I can only guess about half of what the agents deal with.
The patrol cars seemed to drive by less often as the night wore on. Cold set in and I could feel it through my bag. This was probably the coldest night we spent in the desert. I can’t imagine doing it with only the clothes on your back.
Monday April 16th
We drove out to Sycamore Canyon (another sycamore canyon). It was a place I read about as having some unique wildlife and a great diversity. The road ran parallel to the border so it was full of border patrol. We must have passed one every 10 minutes. We also passed a large base of the border patrol.
In the parking area for the canyon, the birds were singing their hearts out. Ash-throated and Dusky-capped Flycatchers, Canyon Towhees, and Rufous-crowned Sparrows were a part of the morning chorus. We followed the old jeep road through the grassland and followed a cow path into the wash. Cow paths led us through dense stands of willows and scrub. Large pools of water contained numerous little fish.
Following a faint call, I saw a blur of brilliant red, black and white streak in front of me. I didn’t know what it was at first and thought maybe it was a Painted Redstart, but it seemed too big. I continued my pursuit and found a male Elegant Trogon. He called quietly from the scrub until finally he flew up into the oak and out of view.
Turning my attention back on the canyon, I noticed we finally entered the canyon. The tall rock walls stretched high above us. On the bottom of the canyon ran a wide and shallow stream over giant boulders and slabs of rock. The floor of the canyon was separated by the walls with cottonwoods, willows, and scrubs. Oaks grew on the hills below the rock walls.
Another couple and their dog hiked past us. And we nodded hello. We reached a large pool that was encompassed by steep rock. We scrambled down the edge and managed not getting wet. A little farther along, we saw the clusters of blooming yellow columbine.
I noticed a lot of movement ahead of us and told Tor that “people were coming.” We stood aside as we watched the leader or coyote and 24 men and 1 woman march by. Many of the men looked like the ones we saw the day before the ones that were under border patrol custody. They were relatively young men, well-built and had a look of determination (mixed with desperation?). They carried very little, mostly just the clothes they wore (including jackets during the hot day). Some carried plastic 1 gallon jugs of water. The coyote said hello, not even stopping, and continued past. The rest of them streamed by single file. I looked ahead and saw the other couple had stopped as well as the illegal immigrants marched by. They were in a narrower area of the canyon and were much closer to the “action.”
After they passed, we continued down the canyon. I had conflicting emotions. These people were so determined to get to the US they hired someone to lead them in. They used the same corridor to enter to obtain something they’re willing to potentially risk their lives for. And here we were using this beautiful canyon to enjoy and enhance our relatively stress free lives. It was hard to look at the canyon the same way again. And it was hard not to think about how many people have marched through this canyon only to be caught, die, or if they’re lucky make it to the city.
Still we hiked down the canyon, but I felt this little rain cloud hanging over me as we went on. The canyon narrowed into a slot of rock with the stream down below. We clung onto the rock faces to get through without going for a swim. The leaves of the sycamore trees were further developed here than compared to all previous places we’ve been. The signs of illegal immigrants were more obvious a bed of grass under in a niche in the canyon wall, a prayer candle, discarder clothing, bags, empty water bottle jugs, old cans, and even encampments.
We saw the couple again and talked to them about the illegal immigrants. It was a pretty wild experience. It was kind of nice having them in the canyon with us when it happened. We didn’t feel so alone. The couple was into herping and they told us about the Sonoran Mud Turtle that was in the canyon.
Further down the canyon the scenery changed from tall sycamore trees lining a wide creek to large boulders that required rock hopping to large rocky bottoms and tall canyon walls. It was quite beautiful with a layer of turmoil buried beneath it, or so that’s how I saw it now. The paths that ran the canyon and that were so well maintained were created by immigrants. What made this canyon so hikable to us was what made travel to the promise land easier for them.
We continued hiking down the canyon a bit more until we decided to head back. The worry about running into the stream of immigrants was long gone. We didn’t know which way they would go too. It seemed if they went to the road they’d get caught especially in that large of a group. We wondered if they stayed together until they reached a city or if the coyote only had to get them to a certain point then his job was done.
The hike out was relatively quiet. Perhaps we were both deep in thought or just tired from the heat. The birds seemed to have quieted down as well.
Back at the car, we cooled off and prepared to drive all the way back to Cave Creek Canyon. I knew it would be a long drive ahead of us. And also knew we wouldn’t get there until after dark. I don’t like drive in the desert in the dark, as many critters come out at night. It was a long drive that was fairly uneventful. We past ads for “the thing” a road side attraction, but didn’t stop. We were about an hour from Cave Creek Canyon when night set in.
As we were driving up the dirt roads, I started to feel slightly nauseous. I thought maybe it was just the stress of trying to get there or it was that we hadn’t eaten dinner yet or that I just need a bit of fresh air. I pressed on, not saying anything, because I didn’t want to jinx myself, if that were possible. I kept looking forward to getting out of the car where everything would feel better.
We finally reached Cave Creek Canyon, but drove up to Herb Marty where there were more trailheads. As I drove up the winding road, I finally couldn’t hold it any longer. I stopped the car, told Tor I was sick, and dashed to the side of the road. As things were coming out, I was trying to think what was causing this or what I ate. Tor drove the rest of the way as I was wiped out. I broke down and couldn’t function or think much.
Tor took over and we ended up back at the Idlewilde campground. I didn’t feel well enough to sleep outside so I slept in the car. It was a rough night being sick and camping are two things that shouldn’t be combined.
Tuesday April 17th
In the morning, I still didn’t feel 100%. I didn’t feel motivated to do much nor did I want our vacation to end like this. I couldn’t make the decision of what to do. Tor finally made the executive decision and drove us back to his parent’s house. I pretty much passed out during the entire drive.
It was really nice having the house during this period. I probably would have been miserable without it. I was able to sleep properly and to have a bathroom close by.
Wednesday April 18th
I woke up feeling much better and even had somewhat of an appetite. Unfortunately, Tor fell sick with what I had and we switched places. At least our staggered sickness allowed one of us to take care of the other.
We probably got the norovirus, most likely from the restaurant in Nogales. It wasn’t a great way to end the trip, but we were both incredible thankful for the roof over our heads during it.
Thankfully, Tor got well enough to make the flight back home. Curiosity got the best of us and we stopped at “the thing” on the way to the airport. It cost one or 2 dollars to see it. We were curious but not stupid. The other reason we stopped was to look at the gift shop, which was full of crap mainly stuff from Chinese factories. There was no theme or reason things where being sold there. We quickly left this store with our curiosity squelched.
Despite the rather unpleasant end to the trip, we had a great time during the other part. It was a good introduction to this part of Arizona. The highlights for me were Madera Canyon (even with the snow) and Chircahua National Monument. We saw a lot of memorable sights and some great birds. There’s still a lot to see so I’m looking forward to going again.
Chiricahua National Monument
Chiricahua Mountains, National Forest including: Cave Creek Canyon and Rucker Canyon
San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge
San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area
Las Cienegas National Conservation Area
Madera Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains
Pena Blanca Lake