After our time in Death Valley we wanted a change of pace, scenery and temperature and so headed to the Eastern side of Arizona towards the Mogollon Rim. I read an article at Expedition Portal about a trip to the Rim and decided that next time we had the opportunity and were in that area we would make an effort to explore that neck of the woods.
For a while I was inadvertently adding an “N” to Mogollon and was mentally pronouncing it “MON-Goal-On” Rim. I finally pulled my head out, did some research and found out some history behind the name, its correct historical pronunciation as well as how the locals pronounce it. It is named after Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollon, a former governor of Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico, part of New Spain, then a territory of Mexico and eventually what essentially became the state of New Mexico. The pronunciation of “Mogollon” has long been an issue of contention. I found several online references that say it is pronounced “Mo-Gee-Yun” or “Mo-gi-yon” with the accent on the first syllable. When talking to locals about this they instead usually pronounced it “Muggy-Own” or “Muggy-On” so… YMMV.
With an average elevation of 7000 feet the Rim runs approximately 200 miles (320 km), generally Northwest to Southeast from Northern Yavapai County to near the New Mexico border. It cuts through the heart of the largest contiguous Ponderosa Pine Forest on the planet. We knew that Forest Route 300 was also called the Rim Road and so headed into the area to find it and then to explore and find a suitable spot to spend some time.
Once we were in the general area we decided to set aside our general rule of not paying to camp and spent the night at Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood, AZ. We have been there before and know it has water and showers included in the reasonable price and, after a month in the desert with water and showers being at a premium, we wanted to return to human form before venturing out on this next adventure. Leaving Cottonwood on Highway 260 through Camp Verde we made our way slowly up the long grade towards its intersection with Highway 87. Turning left onto Hwy 87 towards Happy Jack we were planning on stopping off at the Forest Service Office to get a little information on camping and Rim specifics but soon came across a sign indicating Forest Road 300 was just ahead and into the woods so we took a gamble and blindly headed that way. Adventure…Yay!
We drove until we dead-ended at an open section of the Rim offering extensive vistas and decided to take a break.
We used the opportunity to take closer look at our paper MVUM for areas with allowed dispersed camping, found a few suitable targets and began our more focused rolling search. Another sign indicating we were on the General Crook Trail soon appeared and we made a quick stop to take a picture just for you.
As we meandered along FR300 looking for a suitable campsite we passed more than a few large RVs and 5th Wheels and Toy Carriers pulled into little forest alcoves and set up. We even came across what seemed to be a chainsaw/ATV party with several groups cutting down trees while others seemed to be amused by running their ATVs in circles in order to produce as much dust as possible. Fun, fun. For a moment we were appalled that people were cutting down trees but then remembered that there are several Firewood Cutting and Collecting Programs the Forest allows the public to take part in for a nominal fee. It was pretty obvious that these mediocre dirt roads were not an impediment to those sorts of travelers who seem, in general, to be the type who like to make a lot of noise and leave a big footprint…in other words, those we tend to try and stay away from. No offense, the forest is huge so, since we would rather see and hear the forest and it’s wildlife than you and your machines, we will find a different spot and leave you to your noisy, (relatively) crowded fun.
As FR300 generally parallels the Mogollon Rim we decided to take a perpendicular course and found FR218A heading towards the Rim itself and then FR218 which parallels the Rim even closer than FR300. Our first few attempts down smaller, perpendicular roads were thwarted by downed trees.
We eventually made it through one that only had a couple of rocky sections and two mud bogs to get through and then we found ourselves literally at the edge of the Rim itself.
Since there was an existing fire ring we decided that this would be a legal and suitable place to camp for a week or so as we explored the surrounding area. We found a small bench which was made by someone squeezing a piece of wood between two trees decades ago so that the trees now have grown around the edges of the plank and tightened their grip.
It was such a nice spot we decided to have a nice cool beverage with our view: cool, freshly filtered Brita water for the girl and an Arizona IPA for me.
With Sunlight streaming through the trees and a nice gentle breeze in the air we began to set up camp.
We finished our set up just in time to be informed by Mother Nature of the first reason why this site would not be the perfect spot…Wind. Yes, with a capital W. Upon closer observation we should have realized that all those seemingly healthy 8-to-12+ inch pine trees, without obvious beetle or fire damage, snapped off from half to 3/4 of the way up the tree leaving essentially a bare lodge pole or simply ripped out of the ground root ball and all were an indication of some powerful forces at work here.
In our general experience it seems winds start up around 4pm if they do at all. Here though it seemed that as soon as the sun had warmed up the valley below the Rim where we were at the thermal updrafts came roaring up the side of the Rim directly at us. That first day the winds started at around noon and didn’t let up until past midnight, at least that is when the Tacoma stopped rocking back and forth so that I was able to fall asleep. When I say “rocking back and forth” I do not mean a gentle, smooth, regularly-paced rocking like a crib, I mean gusts of upwards of 40 knots of varying intensity and duration.
Thankfully the next morning dawned breeze-less and we were able to have coffee and breakfast without difficulty. Still tired from our less-than-fitful sleep we decided to just suck it up, break down camp and move to a more protected campsite. We took our morning walk with an eye on finding a more suitable spot and quickly found one. We’ve done this enough times (hundreds) now that I can break down camp and pack it all away in the Tacoma within 30 minutes to an hour depending on how efficient and focused I am being. And that is if I am packing things well so that they will handle an extended trip over less-than-smooth terrain. For this move which was to be all of a couple hundred feet into a small, protected clearing surrounded by a ring and wall of smaller (20′) pine trees it took all of 15 minutes. Somewhat concerning were all the basketball-sized rocks freshly turned over that we came across all over the general area.
For a brief moment we had amused thoughts of the Mogollon Monster but decided this was just bears (or possibly javelinas) looking for tasty grubs to eat and so would take precautions with our food. Not a big deal, at all, as we regularly play in bear country and know how to protect our stuff and the bears.
So, forceful winds were #1 on the “less-than-perfect-campsite” list and the probable presence of bears was reason #2. Shall we try for three or more? Read on and find out.
Along with bears we also regularly come across deer or signs of deer such as antlers, antler rubbing spots on trees, flattened spots in grass or pine needles where they have bedded down for a night and deer scat. The deer scat we usually find is about the size of a jelly bean. What we found here was something… bigger. These piles of scat were larger in number and substantially larger in size. Something about the size of those little solid chocolate Easter Eggs with the foil wrapping. Yumm.
We’re guessing this is an indication of the largest member of the deer family in the Coconino National Forest, Elk, as opposed to the smaller Mule or White Tail deer. If it was later in the season and the Rut was on that might have been another item on the “less-than-perfect-campsite” list as a 600-1200lb creature with hooves could stomp my less-than-brilliant dog daughter into meat mush and that would make me very sad.
On day two, just as on the first, the winds whipped up around noon and did not abate until well after dark. Our second, protected camp was indeed a substantial improvement over the first, open site and we were able to cook and sleep without difficulty. Two other issues caused by the winds were the regular windfall of pine cones and branches as well as a coating of yellow pollen on everything. Pine pollen is not one of the things I am specifically allergic to but still my nose and eyes complained a bit and so fought back with the power of pharmaceuticals, namely Loratadine. Better Living Through Chemistry.
Over the next several days we took numerous hikes to explore the surrounding area and found many interesting as well as some infuriating things.
It’s one thing to find a piece of garbage in the wilderness. That happens regularly and many times can be attributed not to malice but to inattention, for example when a gust of wind takes your wrapper and blows it away. It takes a special breed of lazy douche though to go to the extra effort to collect your litter and then, instead of disposing of it properly, proceed to go to the extra effort to dig a hole and re-litter it by poorly burying it.
Number three on our “less-than-perfect-campsite” list was the fact that the two mud bogs and rocky section on the access road did not dissuade more than a few curious ATVers from coming down the road and then either proceed to play their “how-much-dust-and-noise-can-we-make-by-doing-repetitive-donuts” game or pull out guns and scare my poor dog into a quivering mess…which are both unacceptable. So, that means I get to be the “dick” or the “asshole” or some other unkind word (sticks and stones buddy) after I go and reveal our presence all of 100 feet away and show them the rule that states “150 yards away from a campsite” before you can be an obnoxious douche. Since our experience at Anerson Flat I now know to always have the actual pieces of paper from the Forest or BLM land or wherever we are that specifically spells out both ATV and firearms rules.
While I was always able to make my point to the noise and dust-makers and they subsequently drove off, #4 on the “less-than-perfect” list was those who came to stay and camp. Yes, these are public lands and yes, it was Memorial Day weekend but there are more than 1.8 MILLION acres in this National Forest where you can camp and, literally, several HUNDRED little side roads you can go down and find places to camp at and you decide to stay here right next to us?!? Pretty inconsiderate if you ask me. Yes, I know you or they did not ask me but I’m telling you anyway. So, when two late-model Ford F-150 trucks, each towing a trailer with a 2-stroke dirt bike and an ATV on it grunted their way out of the muddy roadbed and into the clearing our faces fell. Okay, probably not Willow’s – she doesn’t care, but mine certainly did. They stopped, got out, looked over at our camp, huddled in hushed discussion for a couple of minutes (YES, they’re deciding to go somewhere else!) and then made the wrong decision. This was late on Friday morning, close to noon and we (okay I) was steeling myself for their intrusive presence for the next three days. I made it a point to walk over, introduce myself and Willow and offer their little terrier mix dog a treat. Surprisingly, that night they had a nice campfire, quietly drank some beers, went to bed at a decent hour and were generally as good a neighbor as we could have hoped for.
The next morning though, after a nice, quiet coffee and breakfast the sounds of trailer tailgates being slammed open portended what was to come. 2-stroke motorcycle and ATV engines being started and revved as they warmed up. Someone obviously getting a beginner’s crash course on how the ATV worked and slowly driving in circles around the general camp area and repeatedly putting it into reverse and backing up and then into 1st gear and going forward and learning how sensitive the throttle was by repeatedly revving the engine to shoot forward and then slam on the brakes in a panic. All the while their little dog is absolutely loosing his freaking mind and barking non-stop at all the excitement going on in his camp. Heck, if I was a little dog I’d be excited if I got to go on an ATV ride too. Sadly, as they are getting ready to roll out of camp they break the little guy’s adventuresome heart, scoop him up and lock him in their pop-up tent trailer. If I was him there would not have been a single piece of furniture in that trailer not rendered into little bits by the time they got back. We don’t know if he did that but expect not as when they returned around EIGHT HOURS LATER there was no raised angry voices or “Bad, Bad Dog!” exclamations thrown around. So, good dog. What he did do though was bark to show his displeasure essentially non-stop for the entire time they were gone. Had they tied him up outside we might have left a note and taken him with us on a hike but he was literally locked in the trailer so we had no recourse except to escape the incessant pissed barking by heading out on another extensive hike along the Rim.
Surprisingly and happily when the neighbors returned from their all-day dirt bike and ATV excursion they quickly stowed the machinery, packed up camp and were out of there before dark on Saturday night. We crossed our fingers/paws in hopes no one else would attempt to take their place and, in that at least, we were successful. Willow spent the vast majority of her time rolling and covering herself in the red dirt as she lazed about in the sun.
On our Sunday morning hike we came across a special sight and were treated to a brutal reminder that Nature Is Metal when Willow disturbed a Tarantula Hawk in the process of dragging off its prey to a fate worse than death.
One day we make a quick trip into Strawberry for some supplies and decided to make a stop at the historical schoolhouse in town.
The whole time we were in camp the faintest wisps of smoke could be smelled intermittently on the wind. Several times we could hear sirens down below in the Geronimo Estates area. Since the Stanley Cup playoffs were in full swing then and one of my teams (Go Sharks!) was doing well we made several trips down into Strawberry where we found a little sports bar for a couple of games or further down the road into Pine to That Brewery for another couple of games as well. While driving on Hwy 260 we were regularly confronted with smoke causing reduced visibility and quite the stink.
During one of those trips into town we spotted a gathering of fire vehicles and pulled into the parking lot where they were to see about getting any information we could. There were several fires being managed in the area, two caused by lightning and one by typical human error and all were being allowed to run their course so as to benefit the Forest. There was a large, detailed map up on a board that the firefighters and fire managers were referencing that was showing the extent of the Pivot Rock Fire which was the one closest to us.
Talk centered around shifting winds and smoke and we quickly asked if where we were camping would be okay in the following hours or days. The response was essentially, “from what we know about the upcoming weather and how this fire has behaved so far we expect you to be fine but, if you suddenly have smoke in your camp that means the winds have shifted and you might want to preemptively pack up your gear and head someplace else.” We thanked them for their friendly insight and continued on our way.
The next day we were visited by a fire crew representative informing us that the winds had in fact become shifting and variable and so they were recommending we take this early opportunity to vacate the area with a sense of purpose. We didn’t need any convincing as the smoke had appeared and was getting closer by the minute.
Sadly, this was also the morning we found out we had been burgled and so we were already in the process of moving on. Our timing, as always, is impeccable 😉