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Gila River Canyons
March 31, 2018
by Chuck Parsons
  GPS Map 
by Dave French
all of passage 16
Trailblazers maneuver into position for the critical group picture. [photo by Quy]
All lined up in proper group formation now. Smile for the camera! [photo by Quy]
Front Row: Rebecca, Tamar, Mimi, Quy, Cecilia, Carol, Li, Linda, Barb K.
Back Row: Michael, Andy, Lance, Dave M., Biljana, Barbara H., Dave F., Debbie, Michelle, Glen, Becky, Terry, Ted, Wendy, Chuck.

In a scene straight out of an old Keystone Kops routine (at least for those of us old enough to remember watching those zany and hilarious cops from the golden age of silent slapstick comedy), six vehicles carrying 24 Arizona Trailblazers scurry around after one another and cross paths numerous times. We head north up one road, as we pass two of our vehicles heading back south and wave to each other. Then we head east on another road, as we pass two more of our vehicles heading west and wave to each other once again. Where the heck did that darned trailhead go anyway? Did it collapse into the river below? It’s up yet another stretch of road and then down another, through a winding series of curves and switchbacks, as we chase after one another like a pack of bumbling bloodhounds hot on the trail of some exotic new scent, trying to locate the Gila River Canyons Passage 16 Trailhead.

Apparently recent construction in the area, part of it related to the construction of a new and improved Kelvin Bridge, has resulted in the BLM’s relocation of the old trailhead. We talk to some backpackers just starting out, and they finally point us in the right direction. The trailhead still begins at the Kelvin Bridge, as it crosses the Gila River. Just beyond the north end of the bridge the route turns west onto Centurion Road and follows that through a residential area to a new trail. Passage 16 then follows the Gila River west for 15 miles, before changing directions and abruptly turning due north away from the river. But today we only plan to hike in about six miles, before turning around and following the same track back to the trailhead.

Hiking the Arizona Trail, Gila River Canyons Passage 16. [photo by Quy]
Arizona Trailblazers are on the move. [photo by Li]
A mountain of multi-hued mine tailings. [photo by Dave]
This picture represents at least 12 separate layers of tailings. [photo by Wendy]
It’s hard to believe something on this scale is all man-made. [photo by Quy]
A line of Trailblazers work their way up the trail. [photo by Quy]
Looking back down the trail, with the town of Kelvin in the background. [photo by Dave]
Li photographs photographers photographing the scene below. [photo by Li]
Looking west into the vast Gila River Valley. [photo by Quy]
A beautifully backlit chain fruit cholla stands guard over this area. [photo by Dave]
Huge cottonwoods mark the path of the Gila River. [photo by Quy]

On the final day of March, twenty-four Arizona Trailblazers gather near the Gila River Canyons Trailhead for the requisite group picture. Today we’re hiking yet another small piece of the historic Arizona National Scenic Trail. Passage 16, Gila River Canyons, was the last section of this 817-mile long trail that extends from Mexico to Utah to be completed in late 2011. The time is 7:40 AM as we hit the trail, under partly cloudy skies with a cool and refreshing temperature of 60 degrees.

It almost feels like the crisp hint of fall in the air this morning, but we all know better. We enjoy the cooler temperatures while we can, knowing what’s in store for us later in the day with a forecast high of 90 degrees, the hottest day so far this year. 90 degrees!? Are you kidding me! Whose idea was this hike anyway? By starting the hike a full hour earlier, we should hopefully dodge the hottest part of the day. Well, that’s the plan anyway.

Stopping for a quick breather on the trail. [photo by Dave]

We start out on a wide dirt track for the first quarter-mile or so until it brushes up against a curving set of railroad tracks, before veering off and starting a gentle uphill climb. Soon we begin navigating a set of long and winding switchbacks that carries us higher and higher on the trail for a terrific view of ... mine tailings.

Yes, mine tailings. The waste material left over from mining operations that are piled up so high they look almost like artificial mountains or perhaps even something on the surface of the moon. In this case, it’s waste material from the Asarco Ray Mine Operations. We’re talking copper here, copper mining on an unbelievably mammoth scale. The Ray Mine processes 250,000 tons of copper ore every single day, 24/7 year around, and ultimately produces 100 million pounds of pure copper every year, copper shipped around the USA and around the globe.

ASARCO (American Smelting and Refinery Company) was established in 1899 primarily as a silver and lead smelting and refining company. For many decades all the mining took place deep underground in a vast network of tunnels. At some point mine operators determined that copper should be their primary focus. The Ray Copper Company was formed and in 1952 mining underground in tunnels was abandoned in favor of open-pit mining on a much larger scale. The Ray Mine Operations represents one of the largest copper reserves in the entire world, with estimated reserves in excess of one billion tons of 0.5% grade or better copper ore.

The railroad tracks referred to earlier are part of the Copper Basin Railway, which transports copper ore from the Ray Mine to Hayden for processing. Although mountains of mine tailings certainly don’t make for beautiful scenery, copper mining has always been an important component of Arizona’s overall economy. Remember Arizona’s famous Five Cs? Copper, Cotton, Citrus, Cattle, and Climate. That combination of elements has served to make Arizona what it is today.

As we climb higher on the trail, even more of the river comes into view. [photo by Dave]

After a mile or so the trail gradually levels off before beginning a long series of gentle ups and downs. Thankfully, there are no grueling climbs of hundreds of feet on this trail, only series of small elevation gains and losses. And lucky for us, we’re also hiking under partial cloud cover with a cooling breeze to boot. So far so good, concerning the weather. And we seem to have the trail pretty much to ourselves so far today and only see an occasional biker from time to time. Apparently, the wiser hikers took heed from the weather forecast and decided to stay home today. So I suppose that makes us foolish hikers? Heck no, it doesn’t!

Michelle and Li enjoy a break under a large chain fruit cholla. [photo by Carol]
Rebecca, Debbie, and Linda take five. [photo by Carol]
Glen decides to give his tired feet a break.
[photo by Carol]
Quy is grinning behind a large shrub—likely searching for wildflowers. [photo by Carol]
Glen, Li, Michelle, Carol, Linda, and Michael take a break from hiking. [photo by Dave]
Meanwhile, Wendy, Chuck, and Mimi continue trudging up the trail. [photo by Quy]

We’re Arizona Trailblazers, after all, and we’re certainly no wimps when it comes to hiking in questionable weather. Bring on the heat, bring on the cold, bring on the rain, the snow, and the hailstones. Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail shall keep us from our appointed rounds of hiking, by golly!

And for the first time in what has been the leanest desert wildflower season in years, we begin to see scattered wildflowers along the trail. In fact, I think we see more wildflowers on this one hike than all the past hikes put together this spring. Although the trail is very dusty and dry today, apparently this area has been receiving more rainfall than the desert around Phoenix.

A kaleidoscope of colorful wildflowers. [photos by Quy]
Yet another set of beautiful wildflowers. [photos by Quy]
chia desertbells
Chia and Desertbells grace the trail. [photos by Wendy]
Pinewoods Spiderwort. [photo by Wendy]
Strawberry Hedgehog. [photo by Li]

Of course our resident wildflower expert, Quy, can somehow ferret out more wildflowers than any of us. Sometimes I think she can even make them materialize out of thin air. I have to confess that I didn’t see over half of all the wildflowers in her vast picture collection from today’s hike and, in fact, I never do on all the hikes we’ve done together over the years. Where in the world does she manage to find all these flowers anyway? I’ve asked her about this on several occasions, and her answer is always the same: “You just have to know where to look for them, Chuck.

This small brass survey marker set in concrete
bears the initials “DS”. [photo by Dave]
Close-up shot of the marker, showing a date
of December 16, 2011. [photo by Dave]

Located about two miles from the trailhead on a remote ridge overlooking the Gila River, this small and unassuming brass survey marker represents Arizona’s “golden spike” moment that signifies the final completion of the last trail segment of the last passage of the 817-mile long Arizona National Scenic Trail. Dedicated on a cold and windy day on December 16, 2011, this little survey marker represents the fulfillment of over 25 years of tireless work, dedication, commitment, and sheer determination on the part of one Dale Shewalter.

Dale Shewalter hiking somewhere in the Flagstaff area.
Often called the “Father of the Arizona Trail” by legions of friends and co-workers alike, Shewalter, more than any single individual, was responsible for seeing the Arizona Trail transform from a mere thought and a dream to a line drawn on a map and, ultimately, to an actual hiking trail running the entire length of Arizona, from its southern border with Mexico to its northern border with Utah.

Unfortunately, Dale Shewalter didn’t live quite long enough to see his dream completely fulfilled. He died on January 10, 2010. But his name will forever be associated with the Arizona National Scenic Trail that he worked so long and so tirelessly to see completed. His trail received National Scenic Trail designation by congressional action in 2009.

But once any trail is completed, the job doesn’t simply stop there. It takes ongoing work and commitment on the part of thousands of volunteers to keep a trail of this length maintained and upgraded for the continued enjoyment of the tens of thousands of hikers and backpackers who use this trail every year. And that work is overseen by the Arizona Trail Association, whose stated mission is to “protect, maintain, enhance, promote and sustain the Arizona Trail as a unique encounter with the land.” The ATA’s first Executive Director was Dale Shewalter.

A baby saguaro and a baby staghorn cholla take root in this paloverde trunk. [photo by Quy]
Crested saguaro seen along the trail. [photo by Dave]
A second crested saguaro near the trail. [photo by Quy]
Not sure what this is. A saguaro tumor? [Quy]
Pyramid Rock. [photo by Quy]
This little guy is trying to blend in with his background. [photo by Quy]
View looking west along the Gila River Valley. [photo by Dave]
Another view looking west, with the trestle bridge below spanning the river. [photo by Quy]
Trailblazers look down onto the bridge over the Gila River. [photo by Quy]
Debbie and Becky, with the bridge in the background. [photo by Li]
Li by the tracks leading to the bridge. [photo by Li]
We finally come to a point on the trail where we’re looking down on an old trestle bridge spanning the Gila River. The trail eventually winds its way down close to the bridge in a long series of rolling hills where we encounter quite a bit of overall elevation change.

We’re all likely thinking the same thing—this is going to be a real challenge climbing out of here on the way back when it will probably be much warmer. But we take advantage of a long break, exploring around the bridge, taking lots of pictures. Dave and I both conclude that this is a bridge in desperate need of some serious repairs, as well as a good paint job. Otherwise, one of these days it’s going to collapse of old age and metal fatigue and wind up in the Gila River below.

According to Michael, the bridge marks the three-mile point for us long-haul hikers. Three of our hikers head back to the trailhead, while the rest of us continue trekking onward for another three miles or so to our turnaround point. More ups and downs along the way, as the cumulative elevation change continues to pile up.

Wendy and Barb K. pose in front of the old trestle bridge. [photo by Wendy]
Last group picture of the 21 long-haul hikers. [photo by Quy]
This old bridge is in dire need of repairs and a paint job. [photo by Dave]
The Gila River flows peacefully along beneath the bridge. [photo by Quy]
Gila River, with the bridge in the background. [photo by Quy]
Dave M. makes a last stop near the bridge. [photo by Carol]
21 Trailblazers find the perfect spot for lunch. [photo by Quy]

The sun comes out from time to time, but for the most part we have a light cloud cover that protects us from the most intense sun rays. And we still have a light breeze that helps cool us down a little. In seemingly record time, we blow through the next three miles and find a nice shady area in a large wash and stop here for a well-deserved rest and lunch break. The time is 10:30 AM. So we’ve hiked six miles in less than three hours, and that includes stopping at the bridge for at least twenty minutes or so. We’ve made pretty good time up to this point. But it remains to be seen how well we’ll do on the long hike out.

Li and Debbie lead the charge on this stretch of trail. [photo by Quy]
Dave is in the lead on this section of the return hike. [photo by Quy]

It’s after 11:00 by the time the rest of us pack up and head back out of the wash, reluctant to leave the precious shade behind. Now we’re in full sun with only an occasional breeze that’s no longer as cool as it was an hour or two ago. Still, it’s a breeze and we’ll take whatever we can get at this point. So onward and upward we travel. Over hill, over dale, those Trailblazers just keep rolling along. The sun goes in and then the sun comes back out. The breeze kicks in and then it dies back down again. And so it goes on and on all the way back to the bridge.

A forest of stately saguaros as far as the eye can see. [photo by Quy]
Saguaro triplets? [photo by Quy]
On the other side of the large cattle gate we find some welcome shade and take a water break here. We do a quick water check, and everyone is OK for now.

Less than three miles to go now hikers, but make no bones about it. This is going to be a tough haul from this point onward, especially going uphill under full sun. A quick glance at my backpack thermometer reveals 87 degrees. Yikes! By now most of the group is well ahead of us, as Lance, Cecilia, Mimi, and I bring up the rear of this long train of hikers.

We continue trudging onward and upward, trying to put as much of this trail behind us as possible. Visions of ice-cold Cokes, frosty mugs of beer, or even ice-cold water dance through our heads.

Are we starting to hallucinate? At last, we finally see the small parking area in the distance where our vehicles await us and think we’re just minutes away now. But then we also see all those long switchbacks between us and our vehicles. After navigating through several long sets of switchbacks, the parking area really doesn’t seem any closer. What the ...? It must be one of those dang mirages. So we are hallucinating! By now it seems even warmer, and I’m beginning to think maybe my brain is starting to cook.

Let’s take another water break and recheck our supplies. Cecilia and Mimi both are starting to run low, but Lance has some extra water to share with them. What little I have left is almost starting to get too warm to drink.

Two more switchbacks and the parking area is beginning to look somewhat closer, but still not close enough for us. This is beginning to remind me of the infamous Jacob’s Ladder on the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon. You hike up through impossibly long switchback after switchback and look up toward the South Rim, only to discover that it’s no closer than it was five switchbacks earlier. We keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward toward our elusive goal.

Meanwhile, Andy takes a rest break back at the trailhead. [photo by Carol]
Michael shares a bit of humor with Tamar and Rebecca. [photo by Quy]
Dave celebrates the completion of another great hike. [photo by Quy]
This guy is just chugging it down shamelessly. [photo by Quy]

Eventually, both Cecilia and Mimi run out of water, but by now we’re just minutes away. We finally arrive to the cheers of our fellow hikers. Half the group decides to head back home, while the rest of us decide to try Old Time Pizza in Kearny, famous for actually delivering pizza to hungry hikers right at the trailhead. How convenient is that? Ice cold drinks and hot pizza after a long day of hiking. It just doesn’t get much better than that.

→   More pictures, by Quy
→   More pictures, by Li
→   More pictures, by Dave

Dave’s Hike Statistics
Total Distance:12.2miles
Avg. Speed Moving:2.40mph
Avg. Speed Overall:1.98mph
Minimum Elevation:1,648ft
Maximum Elevation:2,156ft
Total Ascent:1,800ft
Dave [photo by Carol]

Supplemental Report
by Ted Tenny
  GPS Map 

Though I’d never been on passage 16 of the Arizona Trail, I jumped at the opportunity to lead a shorter version of Chuck’s hike. I got close to the railroad bridge over the Gila River.

The morning was partly sunny and delightfully cool. By the time Barb, Wendy, and I had finished the hike, it was just starting to warm up.

Thanks to Chuck for organizing and leading this fine hike!


Southern Pacific tracks beside the Gila River.
Arizona Trailblazers on the march.
Local high point on the Arizona Trail.
Colorfully backlit ocotillo.
“Won’t you hug me?”
Railroad bridge over the Gila River.
New growth on an old cholla.
Birds live here.
Wildflowers cheer us along the trail:
pink blue
white pink
yellow white
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updated April 4, 2018