Monday, May 25, 2020

Coronado National Monument & Montezuma Pass

Today's post is a short one, in distance if not photos.

After a peaceful night of boondocking in the Coronado National Forest there at the end of the blue arrow, I headed on up to Montezuma Pass, at the red arrow. Along the way I stopped at the Coronado National Monument Visitor Center, the green arrow.

But I couldn't get a very early start because the Coronado NF Sierra Vista District Office, like all NF district offices, keeps banker's hours, not camper's hours. And don't even think about stopping in on a weekend when the normal working-stiff has the time to be out recreating on our national lands, because when I say banker's hours that's Monday through Friday only, with all government holidays off too. . .

One thing I can say about the Sierra Vista District Office is that it is located in a sensible spot. Just a few miles south of Sierra Vista on SR-92 which places it immediately adjacent to the NF lands it covers.

This is not always the case.

For instance, the Chiricahua and Dragoon Mountains fall into the Douglas district and that office is actually in Douglas. Which might sound reasonable until you look at a map.

Douglas is right on the US/Mexico border, a full 60 miles south of the Dragoon Mountains, while the vast majority of visitors are going to be coming from the north where Wilcox is sitting right there on the major artery of I-10 only 30 miles from the Dragoons.

But once again, nobody asked me. . .

Anyway, I wanted to stop in at the district office to get some firsthand info on the road over and beyond Montezuma Pass and pick up a trail map.

It just so happens that the Huachuca Mountains have avid hiker Leonard Taylor tramping around in them. Along the way Leonard has written a 120 page hiking guide with detailed descriptions of all the official and a few unofficial trails up there, and he has also published a traditional map of the trails.

I bought the map. (About $6)

By the way, though I managed to get a front-counter person that started her new job literally minutes before I walked in the door, (groan. . .) after I bewildered her with a few questions she called someone out from the back who said that if I came over Middlemarch Pass I would have no problem with Montezuma Pass.

Oh, and a second by-the-way. If you are in anything larger than a small class-C, or pulling a trailer of any sort, after pulling into the district office parking-lot and making a sharp right because straight ahead is gated off, DO NOT make the left that takes you to the front of the building where the main door is. That is a dead-end with no room to turn anything of any size.

Even without making that left, there's not much room to get turned around and if you are pulling a toad you may want to stay out of here altogether.

Some site planning eh?

Of course if you are in a large rig maybe the National Forests aren't for you anyway.

OK, map in hand and a good chunk of the morning already gone, it was time to head even further south, though not too much further because the international border is lurking nearby.

The Coronado National Monument Visitor Center may not look very imposing from the outside, in fact it's pretty hard to see at all from the road, but it's still worth checking out.

Inside is a small museum with a lot of information and - well - an information desk with more info.

In addition to the pocket-brochure for the monument I also picked up a guide to the 5 hiking trails within the monument and another brochure (not shown) that last-year's intern put together describing, with pictures, 63 of the more common plants and trees to be found around here.

But by the time I finished lollygagging around at the district office and spent the better part of an hour here at the visitor center's small museum which has a heavy emphasis on Coronado's expedition through the area in the mid 1500's, the morning was pretty much shot and I had a long ways to go through uncharted territory, so I didn't go plant-hunting or hike any of the monument's trails.

That will have to wait for next time.

Right now my goal is to drive up the canyon another mile to the end of pavement, then another 2 miles from there to Montezuma Pass.

From the visitor center it's about a 1300' climb to the pass and 1200' of that is in that last two miles.

OK, I've left the pavement behind and things are still looking pretty good. Wide, well graded and drained gravel road, so no white-knuckles yet!

 Now the road has narrowed to one lane and - let me look - yep, that's a hell of a first step off to the left there. Still no white-knuckles yet, but I've got a firm grip on the wheel!

If you look at the ridge-line just above the end of the visible road and slightly right you just might be able to see a small white dot. That's not a flaw in the photo, that's some sort of antenna and it's up there at the pass.

Just a little over 2 miles to the south of here there is a much more feasible route through these mountains that requires only 300' of climbing. And you could go completely around the mountains with virtually no climbing at all by looping around the very southern end of them about 3.5 miles south of here, but since the Mexican border is only 1 mile south, both of those options are a a no-go in this era of nationalistic paranoia.

Just when it looks like the mountains are going to box me in, I catch a glimpse of road up there above me. And waaay up there in the very top-left, is a tiny sliver of sky.

Oh man!  Not sure I should have looked out the side window! We're white knuckling it now! Not so much because of the cliff, which is more slope than cliff along here, but simply because of the scope of the drop.

The road is also steep, but we're rolling along in first gear at an easy 2000 RPM (10 MPH) with the coolant temp holding at a steady 225 degrees

and there's the pass up there.

That antenna to the right is truck-mounted but the truck is all jacked up on blocks to level it out, putting the front tires about 3' in the air, so I don't think it's going anywhere anytime soon. In addition to the antenna, the truck, which is a Homeland Security vehicle, has an equipment shack mounted on it and a border agent is sitting in yet another truck right next to it.

Such is life on the border nowadays.

Whew! Made it! (That Homeland Security truck is behind me and I was careful not to photograph it. You can look all you want, but those guys have no sense of humor when you pull out the camera. . .)

Oh wait.

            What do I mean 'Made it?'

This is the view looking west from the pass and that's the San Rafael Valley down there, 1200' feet down there.

And you see that mountain out there under the arrow? That's Lone Mountain and about a third-again beyond it, all on gravel Forest Service roads, is today's real destination.

 So I'm not done yet. . .

By the way, Montezuma pass is higher than Middlemarch pass, but the road is better maintained, which leaves Middlemarch as the more challenging of the passes I've gone over on this trip. Oh, and after Montezuma and Middlemarch, Apache pass is looking more like a bump in the road now. . .

Monday, May 18, 2020

Overnighting in Sierra Vista

Sierra Vista Arizona is a town of about 40,000 and has just about all the shopping and eating a person needs. (But if that's not good enough Tucson is only 75 miles away. Since that's closer than our major shopping town back home that doesn't sound bad to me at all.)

After hiking in the San Pedro Riparian Nca with a fellow blogger that lives in this area, he treated me to a Jersey Mike's sub sandwich and a big-ass chocolate-chip cookie. (That I saved for later.)

On top of good weather year round, (The 4500' elevation makes summers here in the desert cooler than in Tucson and certainly cooler than Phoenix, while the southern latitude keeps the winters mild.) Sierra Vista is within about 50 miles of tons of natural and historic sites & towns here in southeast Arizona.

But after scarfing down our sandwiches at Jersey Mike's it was time for me to let my fellow blogger get on with his life and for me to find a spot for the night. And for all Sierra Vista has going for it, no one could ever accuse this town of being overnight friendly. (There is a Walmart in town, but it is definitely off-limits for overnighting.)

There are a couple of RV resorts right in town, but $35 to park for a single night in a site with full hookups I can't use just didn't sound too appealing. To some $35 might sound kind of reasonable, but not when I've been averaging $5.10 per night on this trip. (And less than $6.50 per night when I look at my data for the past 4 years.)

Besides, both these places call themselves RV resorts and I still remember being shooed out of another Arizona "Resort" like a diseased cockroach because my van didn't meet their minimum size requirements. This was the 350 site Arizonian RV Resort east of Phoenix. It was around sunset after a long day on the road and getting thrown out was an unwelcome surprise.   (This was pre-smartphone app days and the phone-book sized Trailer Life campground guide said nothing about any such restrictions. . .which kinda pissed me off, so much so that I wrote a letter!)

The Sierra Vista unit of the Coronado National Forest (The Coronado National Forest is scattered over a large area across two states and split up into 5 separate units.) lies, literally, just off the southwest corner of town and there are a couple of campgrounds up nearby Carr Canyon Road, but this road climbs 2600' in less than 8 road-miles over about a dozen switchbacks, (Trailers are limited to 12' as anything longer can't make the turns.) making it one damn steep road!

If I was going to stay up there for a few days, and had the time to scout it out before actually driving it, maybe, but not for a simple overnight stop!

So I called up my MVUM for the Sierra Vista unit and started doing some looking for a spot to throw out the anchor for the night. (Motor Vehicle Usage Map  - each National Forest has it's own MVUM - and everyone headed for a National Forest should have it! I download the PDF version into my phone but you can also pick up free paper versions for the local area at most District Offices, if you can catch them when they are open that is. More on that issue in the next post.)

I saw that there is dispersed camping allowed (those little grey dots alongside the road) along and around Miller Canyon Road, otherwise known as FS-56 so I headed that way. (South on SR-92 from the intersection of Fry Road almost exactly 9 miles.

FS-56 is narrow in a few spots and does have one switchback worthy of the name, but comparatively speaking it is an easy road to drive.

The rules for dispersed camping are to be completely clear of the road but not more than 300' from it, and preferably in a spot that has been used before rather than just driving across vegetation. Just because there are grey dots alongside a road on the MVUM doesn't necessarily mean that there are that many usable spots out there so careful scouting of the area is sometimes needed.

FS-5799 might have been a road at one point, but there was no way I was taking The Van down what looked more like a wash than a road.

Even though it is also a 4-number road, which are generally pretty primitive, FS-5740 wasn't much of a challenge for The Van, but there were already several occupied camps down there and I didn't want to crowd anybody if I could help it, so I turned around at the end of the road and continued on up FS-56.

After driving all the way to the top of the road, which ends in a trailhead parking area which makes it off-limits for dispersed camping, I headed back down again and grabbed a spot I had seen on the way up. It was a small loop located right at the point of that one true switchback turn.

It left me only feet from the road, but I was only going to be here overnight and experience told me that the already light traffic would be pretty much non-existent once the sun went down.

Here you can see a glimpse of the road, those light patches just in front of and above The Van, through the trees as it continues on up Miller Canyon towards that upper trailhead parking area.

All in all, this is not a bad spot to spend the night!

Within minutes of my arrival the sun was below the horizon and this was the view out the windshield.

Soon any vestige of light was lost on the ground and after the sky-show was over I was in for the night.

Oh, and that big-ass chocolate-chip cookie from Jersey Mikes was real good!

That's Miller Peak top center. At 9300' it's the highest peak in the Huachuca Mountains.

The next morning, after a quiet, restful night, the rising sun painted the peaks above me long before any rays reached my solar panel as I waited for the nearby Forest Service Sierra Vista District Office to open.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Breaking News

We interrupt our scheduled programming of pre-recorded posts to bring you this corona related special bulletin!

This is what happens when you whine one (OK, maybe 10 or 20) too many times about missing out on the spring camping season and get told to go sit in the corner and play with your crayons - - -

A Sunrise Moonset over the Dragoons

Watchers in the Mist - Guadalupe Mountains

OK, I never promised that they were going to be accomplished efforts. Frankly it's been years since I used my "crayons"

for anything other than painting models and these were my first two renewed efforts at real artwork. But desperate times and all that. . .

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming (Next week anyway) where we will find out how I fared when trying to find a spot to over-night in Sierra Vista.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Sierra Vista and the San Pedro House

November 17 2019

OK, I have managed to horse The Van over Middlemarch Pass, (Or was it more like The Van dragged me over?) but I can't stand around patting myself on the back for too long because I have places to be today.

First stop is Fry's in Sierra Vista for food and fuel. Yep the place was crowded, in fact I think a significant percentage of Sierra Vista's 40,000 inhabitants were there on this Sunday, but I survived - barely - butchadowhachagotado.

Next stop is the home of a fellow blogger.

He was busy yesterday hauling supplies up the steep Carr Canyon road to keep the participants of a memorial bicycle ride watered and fueled and I really expected him to be just as busy today as the ride continues, but I texted him when I got to town and he said come on over, so, like any self-respecting on-line stalker, I did.

Not to give away too many details, but he has a pretty sweet setup. Nice place on a quiet street within minutes of all the amenities that a town of 40 or 50 thousand has to offer. Mountain views to the east, south and west that, because of Arizona laws protecting natural waterways, dry or not, will never be obstructed by houses or other development.

The Wife and I might have more space out here on the property than he does, but he has all the amenities available that we don't. In addition to a well equipped regional hospital minutes away, he has great cell service, inexpensive high-speed internet and cable, streaming, trash pickup, mail delivery, all things we had to give up.

I was expecting a short visit with him before I moved on, but despite his pretty active day yesterday he said he was up for some outdoor activity today.


His town, so I let him choose. And Sierra Vista has a lot to chose from. It's an outdoors-oriented kinda town.

But I have to say, I was pretty damn nervous, standing there in his kitchen waiting to hear what he decided we were going to do. You see, this guy is a hard-core bicyclist that has more bikes in his spare room than I have pairs of pants! (And these are not cheap bikes like my $120 Big Box Beater Bike!)

I just knew if he chose a bike ride (Sierra Vista is pleasantly riddled with bike trails and there are even more rides to be found in the surrounding area which includes a lot of BLM and Forest Service land.) me and the Quad-B were going to be lagging back there in his dust and thoroughly disgraced.

Fortunately for me he chose a hike in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area using the San Pedro House as our starting point.

San Pedro house is only a few minutes drive from Sierra Vista, but the San Pedro Riparian Nca starts at the Mexican border and runs some 40 miles north, averaging nearly 2 miles across, with the San Pedro River running up the middle the whole way.

San Pedro House is one of about 8 different trailheads scattered along the length of the Conservation Area, including one to the ruins of a Spanish presidio and another to a Clovis archaeological site.

There's a lot of exploring to be done along this strip of protected land.

And when I say the river runs up the Conservation Area, in terms of map-speak I mean it literally. You see, the San Pedro is one of the few entirely north-bound rivers in the country.

This river starts across the border in Mexico at Laguna los Patos (Duck Lake) as Rio San Pedro, changes to the Americanized San Pedro River at the border, continues up the full length of the San Pedro Valley, ducks under I-10, continues running north as it slips along the east side of the Santa Catalina Mountains, and finally flows into the Gila River near Winkleman. (The Gila then flows west to eventually empty into the Colorado River, which is flowing south at that point, right back into Mexico.)

And when I say the San Pedro flows I don't mean that euphemistically. This is one of a handful of Arizona rivers that actually has water in it year round.

 We started our particular hike at what used to be a modest ranch-house which has now been restored as the San Pedro House and is run as a bookstore and gift shop 7 days a week by volunteers. But be aware, the gates don't open until 0930 and close again at 1630, so early and late hikers are out of luck.

In its day this ranch, sitting out here on the fertile floor of the high-desert valley

with a reliable source of water near by and surrounded by mountains, grew alfalfa and other livestock feeds.

Today that same watered fertility makes it one of the most

important fly-ways in the southwest.

 The era of the ranch is obviously over, but that has made way for an era of conservation and protection of the native species of the area, and that's a nice thing to see.

We didn't hike so much as just wander around.

In the 3.5 miles we covered in our lazy fashion the elevation varied a whole whopping 30 feet. I think this was the flattest hike I was on so far this entire trip, and the change was nice.

Now that my host has given me a taste of the conservation area I have put it on my list to explore more of it next time I'm here.