Backpacking in Saguaro National Park - Rincon Mountains, AZ (Day 1)
I haven't backpacked since my hike of the John Muir Trail in 2019 (read all about that 230ish mile trip here!). Since it had been 3.5 years I was anxious to get another backpacking trip planned for sometime this year. I've been working on getting back a lot of the strength and endurance I've lost since 2019 and I knew having a goal, like a backpacking trip, would help me get that strength and endurance back sooner.
Tucson had an incredibly wet winter. Lots of rain and snow fell in the desert and in the mountains, streams and rivers were bursting with water. Normally dry washes were full. I've had my eye on going up to Manning Camp in the Rincons of Saguaro National Park East for a few years now. The Rincons felt elusive to me, your only option is to hike in, there's no road that can take up you up there like the road to Mount Lemmon in the Santa Catalinas. The only way I was going to get to Manning Camp was if I hiked one of the numerous trails that climbed 5,000+ ft in anywhere from 12-15 miles, from dry desert landscape up to the pines.
I've had others warn me to be sure that water sources are accurate otherwise I'd be stuck carrying all the water I'd be needing (which is a lot). There aren't many water sources in the Rincons (at least close to the trail system). Manning Camp has year round water but many of the other backcountry campsites only have seasonal streams or springs and are dry most of the year so unless you want to run out of water, you need to carry a lot.
The best time to hike into the Rincons is spring after a good wet winter or in the fall after a good monsoon season. Since we had both the last year I wasn't sure if we'd be as lucky again in the near future so I figured this spring was going to be my best bet for getting up to Manning Camp. I reserved my campsite on Recreation.gov and kept training, doing longer and harder hikes, like Agua Caliente Hill and all of Ventana Canyon, while lifting weights with my sister. I definitely felt a difference adding all this additional training, my legs felt ready to take on the challenge but my mental strength was a different story. More on that later.
We had a longer, cooler winter than normal and I got used to the lovely temps in the 60s and 70s. I wasn't thinking about how quickly it heats up once summer creeps in so when I scheduled this backpacking trip for the end of April I thought the temps would still be in a good range for me. Wrong! By the first week of April it was already heating up. I was getting nervous about the dates I'd picked and decided to move my trip up a week from April 24-26 to April 17-19. I'm so glad I did. I honestly wish I went the first week of April but I wasn't quite ready with my training at that time.
I was excited to finally get back out there by myself but I was feeling trepidation as well. What if I no longer liked backpacking? What if I got lonely? What if I ran out of water? What if this is too hard for me and I haven't trained enough?
In a sense I was trying to get back to my 2019 self, that excited, adventurous woman who took on the Sierras by herself. I've grown so much since then but I've also lost a lot. In a way I feel like I've been trying to get back to that version of myself but she no longer exists. My 2023 self has learned lessons that woman didn't know and yes my body may be different and I don't get outside as much as I'd like but that version of myself is still inside me. So what if I come away from this trip with a different mindset about an activity I used to love, that's normal! That's called growth and being a human. I was feeling all of these things and the night before my trip I was still unsure if I'd actually go through with it.
Even driving to the trailhead that Sunday morning I was unsure if I wanted to actually hike this thing. I let myself feel what I was feeling and then told myself I had to at least try. So I did. And at 8:00am I parked my car at the Javelina Picnic Area in Saguaro National Park East, lifted my heavy pack onto my back and started hiking.
The temperatures felt wonderful for the first hour but as soon as I started to climb and gain elevation, the clear blue, cloudless sky allowed the sun to beat down on me. Tanque Verde Ridge trail has almost zero shade. The nice temps felt so much hotter in the full sun. I felt like I was hiking in the 90s when in reality it was the mid 70s. That full sun zapped my energy. Plus having a full pack I was hiking very slow.
I ran into a couple backpackers coming down, most had camped at Juniper Springs Campground, where I'd planned to camp that night. There's a stream that runs along side the campground but the last water report from the ranger at Saguaro National Park was from 11 days ago and it said there was "some water" there. The ranger said he wasn't sure what that meant so he advised me to bring all the water I'd need, just in case there wasn't any there. Crap. This was the whole reason for me to hike it this spring, so I'd have water! I was feeling nervous at this point and the hot sun was making me drink my water way faster than I thought I would. Would I have enough to last me tonight and tomorrow if there was no water at my campground?
The first backpacker I ran into, another solo female hiker, told me there was plenty of water there. I relaxed immediately. But then she said, "yeah, there's plenty, it's just a trickle though." I thanked her for the beta but was also confused. Well at least there was water. The next backpacker I saw, a solo male hiker, told me there were some stagnant pools and a sad trickle if you could find it. He said there's water there if you're desperate. I went back into panic mode. Which is it?! Just a trickle, some water, I think we need a better way of categorizing water sources in the backcountry...
I hiked on, finding shade where I could at a lone pinyon pine tree or large juniper. I took a long break to eat a snack, reminding myself that I feel better when I eat. I sat on a flat rock eating chips, a meat stick, olives, and jelly beans. Did I really want to keep going? I could turn around, I didn't HAVE to do this trip. Is this fun? Am I enjoying myself? Or am I just making myself do this? I contemplated turning around and just staying home. I was only 4 or so miles in, I could definitely turn around. The more I thought about it though, the more I realized it was fear that was telling me to stop. I had trained, I was ready, my legs and butt were feeling strong. I wanted to keep going. I packed up my snacks, feeling better with the added calories and sugar and kept hiking.
About an hour after my snack break I took a sip of water from my reservoir and the water stopped coming out. Hmm, weird, maybe there was a kink in it somehow? I dropped my pack and opened the lid to discover that I'd already drank 2.5 liters of water, my reservoir was almost completely empty. Crap! That meant I only had 1.5 liters left in the extra bottles on either side of my pack. What if there really wasn't any water at my campsite? What would I do? I told myself there was a trickle there, that's what the other backpackers had told me. I'd be fine... I'd be fine. I was going through water waaaaay faster than I thought I would. I just could not drink enough with the hot sun.
Thankfully about half a mile from the Juniper Basin Campground I hiked a cross a wash that had water in it. I filtered water, filling my 2.5 liter reservoir which made me feel a lot better. But it took a while since my water filter was so slow. That would come to frustrate me in the days to come. But hey! I had water! I hiked on and soon found myself at the welcome sign for Juniper Basin Campground. I'd made it up 3,000 ft in elevation in 7 miles. And there was flowing water! Yes it was "just a trickle" but plenty for me to filter for all of the water I could possibly need. Hallejulah.
It was only 3pm. I found a good campsite, set up my tent, ate some snacks, and then laid down in my tent for a quick nap. I was exhausted, I felt wrecked from the sun and the stress of whether or not there'd be enough water and whether or not I wanted to keep hiking. I'm so glad I decided to continue.
While I made dinner a father/son duo hiked into camp and set up further down from me. I felt better having someone else at the campground, glad I wasn't going to be alone. Speaking of alone, I brought alone Nicole Antoinette's book "How to Be Alone" about her thru hike of the Arizona Trail in 2017. It was comforting reading her words about her struggles with hiking by herself and dealing with water scarcity in the desert. It felt meant to be that I should be reading this book now, on this backpacking trip.
After the sun went down I cuddled up in my sleeping bag, read more of Nicole's book, and then eventually fell asleep. I'd have another tough hiking day tomorrow, hiking up and over Tanque Verde Peak and then up to Manning Camp but I felt ready for the challenge. I was finally going to get to Manning Camp.
Tanque Verde Ridge Trail to Juniper Basin Campground, Saguaro National Park (Day 1)
Dates hiked: April 16, 2023
Total miles: 7 miles
Elevation Gain: +3,000 feet
Land Acknowledgement: O'odham, Tohono O'odham, Yaqui