I live with a conundrum. I adore hiking in strange areas, but fear going alone and getting lost or hurt with no one to help me. So for two years, I’ve sat at home staring out longingly at the forest stewing over this dilemma.
Then I heard about the Payson Packers.
The group meets every Tuesday morning in the Stage parking lot before heading off to hike the hundreds of forest roads, streambeds and trails of the Rim Country.
They divide into four groups which cater to different levels of hiking abilities: A, B, C and Z. The Z group includes the most intense hikers. So on a mid-March morning, I set off with the Packers, safely tucked into the A group with my friend Monte McCord.
“We’re going to Forest Road 1705,” said Monte, “It’ll be about six miles with a moderate 600-foot elevation change.”
I gulped. After a winter at the keyboard, I had serious reservations. “Monte, I’m not sure I can keep up. I’ve really let myself get out of shape.”
“You’ll be fine,” he assured me.
Still, I was developing a real case of test anxiety.
Promptly at 8:30, (these folks are always on time), we jumped in our cars to drive down toward the Tonto Basin area where Forest Road 1705 intersects Highway 87.
We pulled off onto the well-maintained, dirt Forest Road 1705 below the 188 turnoff. Parking near the entrance to 87, our cars were hidden by bushes. About 16 people made up the group; including grandfathers, granddaughters, a former Payson fire chief and numerous other retirees.
“We’ll hike up and around to the right and then loop around to the cars,” said Jim. “At the top of this hill I’ll show you a pile of quartz someone dug up trying to find gold.”
The observation immediately connected the hike to the colorful history of the area, since prospectors accounted for the first whites to move into the region, which at that time belonged mostly to the Apache. David Gowan, the stubborn Scottish fisherman turned prospector who reportedly was the first white to stumble on the Tonto Natural Bridge, worked several gold mines in the region. He’s buried not far away alongside Deer Creek.
The trail started immediately with a hill, which left me huffing.
“You sure they’ll wait for us at the top?” I puffed to Monte.
“Absolutely,” Monte replied, not a strain to his voice.
Sure enough, we two were the last to arrive at the quartz pile.
The quartz from the vein spilled out onto the ground. The folks looking for gold had really given it a good go. The pile of pale rocks the color of butter seemed oddly misplaced against the red soil.
Prospectors learned to look for gold wherever they found outcroppings of quartz. Both form in veins that seep into cracks in other rocks buried thousands of feet beneath the surface. At those tremendous temperatures and pressures, both quartz and gold melt down into fluids. As the shift of crustal plates causes those buried rocks to rise, the quartz and gold cool and harden. The gold usually forms in combination with other elements like sulfur, which later dissolves — setting free nuggets of gold. Sometimes, a white and yellow outcropping of quartz at the surface, like the one on which we stood, is the inconspicuous tip of a rich vein of mingled quartz and gold extending far beneath the surface.
The Tonto Basin and the surrounding mountains have never yielded a fabulously rich mother lode, but have given up rich nuggets and lurid tales of lost gold mines. One witness in the 1850s even reported that Apaches sometimes made bullets out of gold.
The view from this high point showed us the Tonto Basin spread out below. Deeply incised by Tonto Creek and the Salt River, the basin is bounded by rocks that bear witness to the titanic collisions of crustal plates that created North America. The floor of the basin itself has river deposits thousands of feet thick. Defined by a deep fault that captured the Salt River, the basin has seen civilizations rise and fall — from mammoth-hunting spear-throwers during the last Ice Age, to the cliff castle building Salado, to the wide-ranging Apache and finally to folks like us — who consider a six-mile hike a lot of exercise.
“The Indians who lived here had a 360-degree view,” said Monte, surveying the vista.
Archaeologists theorize the Salado moved into the hills and cliffs from the banks of Tonto Creek and the Salt River to protect themselves from raiders from the low lands. After the raiders left, the Salado would return to their fields.
As we headed toward our first stop, to our left towered a rock outcropping. Nature had created a casually profound sculpture of rough red rocks with saguaro cactus, little nubby bundles of prickly pear and grasses peaking through cracks to add color. The sun warmed my bones after a long winter. Life felt good.
After a brief stop for lunch, we trudged on up the hill, as I fell ever further behind, dawdling over the view.
Throughout the hike, we stayed on the forest road, reluctant to bushwhack at the onset of snake season. I happily stayed on the trail. I’m not that fond of snakes, especially the kind that rattle.
As we headed back to the car, I saw tiny yellow, purple and daisy — like wildflowers peeping out of the scrub brush and cactus.
With drive and hike time, we arrived back in Payson by 12:30. A wonderful way to spend a Tuesday and a great hike to tuck away in my lineup of places to go with my two teenage daughters on a weekend.