Backpacking in Saguaro National Park - Rincon Mountains, AZ (Days 2 & 3)
I did not sleep well. I almost never sleep well while backpacking which I recently learned is probably due to the adrenaline and cortisol coursing through my body after I finish a hard hike. This is frustrating and I hope to figure out a way to remedy it but for now I just now I won't sleep well.
I get up, start tearing down camp, eat breakfast, filter a bit more water and then I'm off to hike up and over Tanque Verde Ridge. I still felt good, my legs felt strong and they quickly got me to Tanque Verde Peak faster than I thought I would. I didn't realize you can actually get to the true peak so that as a fun surprise! I had 360 views all around the Rincons, to the Tucson valley below, the Santa Catalinas to the north and the Santa Ritas to the south.
I started the hike back down to Cowhead Saddle, losing 1,000 ft in elevation that I had just gained that morning. I was back in full sun but at the higher elevation (over 6,000 ft) it didn't feel as bad as the day before, thank God. The trail was beautiful with manzanitas, oaks, and junipers on either side of me. Rincon Peak stood in the distance, I was slowly getting closer to it. By noon I reached Cowhead Saddle and decided to take another long break since that felt so good yesterday. I dug into my chips, cheese, meat stick, oreos, and a Cliff bar to make sure I had enough calories in me for the climb up to Manning Camp, 2,500 ft in 4 miles. I could do that.
I didn't see a single person hiking from Juniper Basin Campground to Manning Camp, I was completely alone. But I loved it. I really enjoyed hiking up this portion of the trail, realizing that I'd hiked up from cactus to pines! The views were beautiful, I've always wanted to see the Rincons from this perspective, you can't see it from Tucson and only get a glimpse of it from the Catalinas. I love exploring new places and I felt gratitude for yesterday's decision to continue on, otherwise I would have missed these views!
I hiked into the afternoon, finding shade in the pine forest, crossing over crystal clear creeks and knowing I wouldn't have to stress about water when I got to Manning Camp. I was so close! I had almost 2 more miles to go when I started to lose steam. The uphill hiking was finally starting to wear me down. I was so ready to be done hiking. I kept willing myself to hike, "you're almost there, look how far you've come" I kept telling myself over and over again. Finally I reached a trail junction and saw a sign that pointed Manning Camp 0.6 miles ----> that way.
I counted down each 0.1 mile. Out loud I said to myself "only 0.6 to go, only 0.6 to go..... only 0.5 to go, only 0.5 to go..." The trail wasn't even that tough, my body was just done for the day. Finally I eventually got to 0.1 miles left and while hiking the flat trail covered in the pine needles of the towering pines above me, I saw the ranger cabin and knew I'd made it! Finally!
I hiked past the cabin and the trail crew, looking for a campsite. There's 6 designated campsites at Manning Camp and a reservation is required but there's also plenty of places to camp wherever. Manning Camp sits on part of the Arizona Trail so thru hikers coming in almost always have a place to camp, even if the campsites are technically full. I chose Campsite #2 since it was closer to the water and backrooms. Water and bathrooms! This place had everything!
I set up camp and then started my chores, needing to filter more water for dinner and for the next day, trying to get some of those tasks out of the way early. I tenderly walked down past the canvas tents of the trail crew doing work up there. I heard the waterfall before I saw it. Normally it's just a trickle and you have to get water from the pond above but the waterfall was full with a welcoming pool of water below it and a fast stream continuing down the small canyon. I filtered a few liters verrrrry slooooowly. My water filter was so slow. I was having to apply so much pressure to get a good flow that my hands were hurting from the constant squeezing. On my second trip to filter more water my dirty waterbottle finally popped from the pressure of me squeezing which had never happened to me before. Good thing I also brought a SmartWater bottle that I could use as my dirty bottle from now on.
After getting my water and eating a snack I had another thought pop into my head. Ever since my pool experience in Ventana Canyon earlier this spring reminded me of the memory of wishing I had the confidence to bathe naked in the wild while on the JMT (read about that here) I decided that this was my moment. There was hardly anyone else at Manning Camp, the pool around the falls was relatively secluded, I grabbed my sleeping clothes and a wash cloth and headed back to the cold water. I piled up my clothes close to the edge of the pool and looked around one more time to make sure I was alone and then, I stripped naked. I slowly walked into the water until the cold snow melt water hit my calves. If it was warmer, I would have gone further in but the temps were dropping at 7,920. I let my poor feet find relief in the water while I washed off. I instantly felt refreshed and proud of myself for finally feeling confident in my body and free in the mountains. While I wanted to savor the moment I was effing cold so I slowly walked back and tried not to slip on the slick rock. I put on my wool sleeping clothes and sat there for a while, letting the moment wash over me. I was so glad I kept hiking.
The sun dipped down the pines while eating dinner at my campsite. I wanted to watch sunset but there weren't any good viewpoints from where I was and I didn't want to go searching for one with my tired legs. While grabbing another spoonful of my rehydrated rice bowl I heard someone yell "Wahooo!" I looked up and saw a silhouette on a ridge line not too far away. I realized they probably could see the sunset and I decided I didn't want to miss it. I hiked up the short, steep trail as fast as I could and met Michael, he was hiking the Arizona Trail northound and had hiked 20 miles that day! We shared a few stories then quietly took in the sunset. I left him not long after, allowing him to enjoy his solitude. I once again felt gratitude for this hike and for my decision to continue.
I got back into my tent, thinking about tomorrow's hike. I really didn't want to camp at Juniper Basin again. Being able to bath off was so nice and not having that ability the next night made me feel itchy. I also knew that the hike back down Tanque Verde Ridge was just going to suck. It's exposed, rocky, and my poor feet would get beat up. I opened my map looking at my plan and then realized I had another option. I could hike out to Douglas Spring Trailhead instead. It would mean a long day of hiking almost 12 miles and losing 5,000 ft elevation but I'd rather do that than have to hike for another 2 days. I had service at Manning Camp so I texted my Mom to see if she'd be able to pick me up tomorrow and she said absolutely. I felt relief knowing I wouldn't have to hike back down the way I came up. I knew this was the right choice. I pulled out Nicole's book "How to Be Alone" and reading about how she had to change plans and deal with challenges made me feel better about changing my hiking plans. I read for an hour before I turned off my headlamp and tried to sleep.
The next morning was absolutely beautiful up in the pines! The birds were chirping, the sun was soon warming my chilled body, and the air smelled so sweet. I wished I had planned to stay here another night! Man, next time I guess. I packed up everything and by 8:30am I was hiking past the trail register when I realized I needed needed to sign it and also stamp Nicole's book with the AZT stamp!
I knew I'd have a long day of hiking ahead of me, especially in the afternoon when I'd be in full sun in the desert elevation again. I knew the faster I could hike these morning miles the better. I practically flew down the trail to Cowhead Saddle. What took me four hours to hike the day before, I did in two hours. From Cowhead Saddle I hiked toward Douglas Spring Campground. I was surrounded by manzanita once again and I came across the most beautiful manzanita I have ever seen. It was gorgoeous! The views of the Catalinas were also beautiful, it was nice seeing them from this perspective.
By noon I was at Douglas Spring Campground and I was feeling good. I couldn't believe I'd come down so fast, 6 miles and 3,500 ft in 4 hours! I continued on after another good snack break. The upper desert plants were beautiful, blooming ocotillo, prickly pears, desert chicory, lupines, gold poppies, and mariposa lilies. I was grateful for this fairly flat trail, again so glad I didn't have to hike down the rocky TV Ridge. But as the miles wore on and the sun started to beat down hotter, my pace eventually slowed. when I had about 3 miles left I started to lose steam again. I thought I'd read the map correctly but what I thought was 1.5 miles was actually 3 miles. When I realized I was going to be hiking even longer my spirit dropped.
It was then I saw the first person I'd seen since Manning Camp, another backpacker going to Douglas Spring Campground. I told him there was plenty of water there and it felt nice to be able to share beta with another backpacker. Seeing someone else on trail also meant I was closer to the trailhead. So far everything I'd hiked today was new to me but it's a section I've always wanted to hike.
Finally I made it to the part of the trail I'm familiar with, the trail junction to Bridal Wreath Falls. I could have sworn it was only 1.5 miles to the trailhead from there but somehow it was still over 2 miles. How had I gotten it so wrong?? The next part lost another 500 ft in elevation and it was rocky and my feet were not happy. I was really down on myself in this moment but I had to remind myself that I'd already hiked over 10 miles and lost over 4,000 ft in elevation, that's a lot! Of course your feet are going to hurt, it's ok! You're going to be ok.
I kept telling myself this as I kept hiking, slowly getting closer to the trailhead. I still couldn't get over the beauty of the desert though. Palo verde trees starting to bloom, saguaro starting to bud, a few already showing flowers. The desert is gorgeous in the spring and I was grateful to get to witness everything before me.
Soon I made it past the rocky section and was hiking on flat trail again. Only 0.6 miles to go! I passed a bunch of creosote shrubs and took a minute to breath in my favorite smell. The air was full of it and it hadn't even rained recently. Ugh, the desert was just beautiful. Harsh but beautiful. I checked my Garmin to see how much further and soon I could see the parking lot. My mom got out of the car to greet me as I crossed the trailhead. I'd made it! Soon I'd be able to get a shower and sleep in my own bed!
This trip turned out differently than I imagined and that's ok. I'm still learning how to pivot and change plans and when to push on and challenge myself. I'm so glad I finally got to camp in Manning Camp. I definitely want to come back again, just maybe not up Tanque Verde Ridge next time. Hopefully we have another good monsoon season and winter rains so that next spring I can go again!
Day 2 - Juniper Basin Campground to Cowhead Saddle to Manning Camp, Saguaro National Park
Date hiked: April 17, 2023
Total miles: 8.7 miles
Elevation Gain: +3,000 feet/-1,000 ft
Day 3 - Manning Camp to Cowhead Saddle to Douglas Spring trailhead, Saguaro National Park (Day 3)
Date hiked: April 18, 2023
Total miles: 12 miles
Elevation Gain: -5,000 ft
Land Acknowledgement: O'odham, Tohono O'odham, Yaqui