Christopher Creek’S Red Rocks Rival Those In Sedona

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KMOG radio station blares from my clock radio right on schedule. It’s 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning — hiking day. Am I really going to leave my warm, quilted nest of a bed to go hike? I could remain here and sleep another hour, with no one to disturb my comfort. I could ease into the day, and finally catch up on my mound of paperwork and check off on the reservoir of to-dos on my calendar. Besides, the house is too cold to rise.

Then, images of the green beauty of the forest begin to flicker past my mind’s eye. Did I move to Payson to sleep more and hone my skills at paper management? I recall the feeling of oneness engendered when I merge with nature.

So, with country music playing in the background, I throw off the quilt and start my day. The phase of resistance has run its course, and the forest beckons. THAT’s why I live in Payson.

I meet my comrades at 7:15 at the Stage parking lot, and we disperse like ants of a common consciousness into the four vehicles for the trip to the See Canyon Trailhead, north of Christopher Creek. The commute sometimes “outs” the strugglers (me) from the morning people; we’re awfully quiet. However, pleasant conversation ebbs and flows naturally, as our truckload nears our destination at an elevation just over 6,100 feet.

Scrambling out of the vehicles, we grab our packs and hiking poles. The rich blue contrast of the sky above the green ponderosa pines is stunning. Smatterings of yellow-leaved oak trees and a few crimson red maples flare throughout the trailhead area. I inhale the crisp morning air.

It’s heads-up as we head out. I fall in line with my cohorts, who also made hiking a priority today. We break the crest of the foothill and a vast terrain opens up as we move west along the Highline Trail. The rising sun behind us showcases our reward for leaving home. The sheer rock walls of the Mogollon Rim appear almost white between the green of the trees and the blue of the sky. Climbing higher, we see red maples that couldn’t wait another day to strut their brilliance.

Today’s trek will take us to local red rocks that rival Sedona. Over hill, over dale, to the sound of hiking poles clicking on rocks, we climb to our highest vista at 6,640 feet. We round the hairpin curves of the draws. Steep cliffs abound, carved by the water that also hollowed out large caves underfoot. Two miles in, a great ship of red rock protrudes from the green vegetation along the base of the Rim.

After another half-mile, the group disperses like ants once again to explore the smooth rock-face. A sense of freedom lifts me as Mother Nature wins out over man’s contrived straight lines, in far more shades of color than a 64-crayon box.

Eventually, our fearless hiking leader calls a snack break atop a shady cliff under a couple of pinions. Hiking packs are quickly shed, revealing wet shirt-backs. (No need for a warm, quilted nest now.) We ants begin to settle down, lined up along the cliff edge, feet dangling — birds on a wire.

After a measure of communion, some of the birds/ants grow restless. One-by-one, we throw on packs like saddles and resume our explorations. As our leader heads down a steep draw, the group again coalesces.

It’s difficult to fathom the amount of water that gushes through here. Whole trees have washed down the ravine to lodge in improbable positions. We muddle over and under the great trunks, hurdling large boulders and using our poles to make controlled landings. The medium boulders sometimes serve as staggered steps; a protruding tree-root as a banister. A vast collection of ankle-twisters have washed in amongst it all.

We keep our pace through the gauntlet of brush, trees and boulders, every muscle doing its part. I feel like a kid clambering over the rocks and trees. Occasionally, between draws, we can glide along an animal trail, but our leader’s GPS disdains such easy pathways.

Emerging from the draws under a cloudless azure-blue sky, we ants eventually connect with an old forest road no self-respecting four-wheel drive would risk. Still, it offers welcome break from bushwacking.

We tromp along a patchwork of washed out roads that scurry off in every direction. Eventually, we emerge above a huge open pit uranium mine. The trees look healthy: Maybe we won’t start glowing after all.

Next we encounter ancient alligator junipers, each trunk too big to encircle with five of us, hands linked. ‘Tis fun, and rare, to get by with such silliness.

Two miles later we again veered off cross-country for the last half mile. The landscape consisted of charred stumps and old ash beneath a canopy of mature Ponderosas. We coasted down the final descending stretch, having travelled 5.8 miles.

A satisfying sense of accomplishment washes over me, something no stack of paperwork could have yielded. I grin in gratitude as we pile into the SUVs and trundle back to our neglected mounds of paperwork — waiting for us so patiently.

But on at least this one morning, I threw off the quilt and climbed out of bed… and I’m so glad I did.

Forest lovers who can hike 5-8 miles at a pretty good clip… come and join us! We have five different colonies that disperse every Tuesday morning. For more information, call (928) 478-6803.

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