Winter offers the best time of the year to hike in the eastern White Mountains. There are few if any other hikers on the trail, the monsoon rains are not an issue and despite the large temperature swings – extremely comfortable if you are properly clothed.
It’s early December and we decided to take advantage of the lack of early snowpack and do a little pre-winter camping on Mt. Baldy. At first we were going to drive to the West Baldy #94 trail head, but decided that hike would be too short for our adventure, so we began looking for something a little more substantial. My two friends Joe Walsh, Jr. and Roy Laos are both residents of Greer, AZ. We have shared numerous day hikes and side adventures together in the past. Joe happens to live dead center in the Village of Greer, AZ – ground zero between Molly Butler’s and the Neon Moon. Joe has always wanted to begin a hike from his cabin, hike south on 373 to the Government Springs trail, then follow the West Fork of the Little Colorado River to the #94 West Baldy trail head – continuing to follow the West Fork to an appropriate camping area.
So, we made arrangements to meet at the Rendezvous Cafe early on a Saturday morning for a large breakfast before we commenced our journey, then back to Joe’s cabin for a gear check. Unfortunately, we arrived at the Rendezvous Cafe a little early, their winter hours were bumped back to 8AM rather than the normal 7AM. However, the restaurant opened for us early and soon we were eating an excellent “base” meal for our trip. Back at Joe’s cabin we made the last minute gear sorting that is typical of any camping trip or extended hike. All of our packs were around 50#’s and we were carrying two 4 season tents, food, down bags, sleeping pads, water filter, iPod w/backpackable speakers, saw/machete, fire starter, etc., etc. We were all utilizing trekking poles and had “layered up” with nylon windproof clothing on top and bottom. Joe had made a trip up the West Fork trail the previous weekend and reported that in spots there could be as much as a foot of snow on the trail.
We knew that we would be camping in one of the large meadows at the base of Mt. Baldy near the West Fork of the Little Colorado River to insure our water supply – beats melting snow. We reckoned that the round trip would be somewhere between 18-20 miles. Usually a day hike for us, but with 50# backpacks, an excellent overnight adventure!
As we began hiking south down the roadside trail next to 373 we knew we were blessed with a perfect December day – mid-40’s, azure blue sky, no wind and that gorgeous Arizona winter sun. Arriving at the Government Springs trail head, we could see only a few footprints holding in the shady “snowy” areas. The Government Springs trail meanders along the West Fork and requires several crossings, our first crossing was over a “fish barrier” approximately 1.5 miles upstream, the next fish barrier was iced over and we were forced to rock hop over wickedly icy rocks… a minor slip by Roy yielded no bad karma as he was wearing waterproof boots. In less than 2 hours we were at the car park for the West Baldy Trail #94 at Sheep’s Crossing. The 273 road which travels from Sunrise to Big Lake was recently opened after a two year massive overhaul. The new bridge at Sheep’s Crossing is amazing, akin to a freeway overpass. As we began making our way up in elevation, the unconsolidated snow proved slippery and progress was slower than expected.
Hiking through the meadows with the sun beating down on us, it felt more like a day in May than early December. We were all sweating in earnest and stopped to drink every half hour or so. After an hour and a half we crossed the West Fork of the Little Colorado River one last time and arrived at a level campsite. The snow was close to a foot deep near the river and the water remained high, rock hopping was not an option for crossing. However, there was an “ice bridge” that looked strong enough to support our weight. Joe went across first, then Roy and finally me – hovering around 260#’s with all of my gear. The ice bridge was very slippery, baby steps and lots of balance points with our trekking poles. We were able to find some decent level ground with little or no snow to pitch our tents.
It was now mid-afternoon and previous campers had left some dry firewood at the camp site. We began gathering more firewood off the ground. I smiled as I watched Joe and Roy take turns with the machete/saw cutting up firewood which reminded me of red-neck samurai loggers. We held out until the last sun rays left our campsite before lighting our fire, it seemed like we had a half cord of wood to burn. Although the fire started slowly due to the snowy conditions, before long we were having dinner next to a wonderfully warm blazing fire.
We all retired around 8:30PM looking forward to sleeping in our 20 below bags and 4 season tents. Although we did not see any bear sign on the trail, we did hang our food and backpacks in trees a couple hundred yards away from our campsites. Bears are not the only critters that enjoy human food, skunks seem to have acquired the taste as well. One of the quirks of winter camping is that once you are in your warm sleeping bag, you tend to want to stay there for a long time. It was not unusually cold, probably around 20 degrees, but climbing out of a nice warm bag the following morning and into your clothes is a no-nonsense process… speed is your friend. We awoke around 8:30AM with no incidents during the night. We immediately got our fire going again, and were a little surprised that the previous evening’s “barn burner” had left us without any red coals.
Around 11AM we had finally broke camp and began our journey downstream. We had traveled approximately 9 miles up stream to an elevation of 10,200′ the day before. Now we would take advantage of dropping 1700′ in vertical elevation back down to the Village of Greer. We walked with long strides along the river, crossed 273 and picked our way up, over and around down timber across the Government Springs trail. We had previously decided that since we had to walk by the Neon Moon, that we might as well stop in for some adult beverage refreshment and pizza. This seemed to add an extra amount of energy into everyone’s gait. I was amazed when I looked at my watch and saw that we covered the 9 miles back to town with 50# packs in just over 3 hours. A testament to the power of beer at the end of an adventure!
Author’s note: The Government Trail from Greer to the West Baldy Trail was devastated by the 538,000 acre Wallow Fire (summer 2011). The Government Trail is closed and likely will be for years. However, the West Baldy Trail does remain open for public use. The Wallow Fire is the largest fire in Arizona history and scorched 850 square miles in the White Mountains of east-central Arizona.
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