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Friday, June 13, 2008

Clifton, The Gila Box and the Mount Graham Mountains

With sunrise brightening the day I wanted to drive down the Chase Creek Historic District of Clifton, a four-block section of town along the hillside of 100-year-old homes barely standing upright. Nothing was open as I drove through at 6:30am, adding to the ghosttown affect.

The section reminded me of Bisbee, another mining town further south, with homes cut out of the sides of the hill and dotted on small lots of land overlooking the town. There were no businesses open so early, but miners were driving north to the Morenci mine and mechanics on Main Street were getting ready to look at cars in their lot.

I didn't stay long because I still had a bit of a drive to Safford and the Mount Graham mountains. Knowing it would take me longer but with an early start, I opted to explore the Gila Box Region, a patch of land along the Gila River that is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

I liked the drive. The gravel road meandered up and around the Guthrie peaks, passing grazing cows, private ranches and sun-burned cabins. The soil sparkled with minerals and I picked up a few jasper specimens myself. From 40 miles away the Morenci mine was still visible, which is an example of either a very important financial asset for the miners, or a terrible eyesore for all others.

The Gila Box region is popular with rockhounds, and the Black Hills Rockhound Area is just off Hwy 191. It's a place I'd love to explore further with more time to play with.

I got back on Hwy 191 at 8:30am, with another hour to drive up the 35-mile Swift Trail to the high peaks. My goal was to hike Webb Peak and perhaps Heliograph Peak, both towering over 10,000' with views of the northern vistas. Could I do both?

The mountain range surprised me with its smallness. I could see vistas facing any direction. Hiking paths started and finished from the Swift Trail. Riggs Flat Lake, which looked more like a small pond, was at the end of the Swift Trail. The first 22 miles were paved, the rest was gravel.

I stopped briefly at the Columbine Visitor's Center, a small cabin five miles from Riggs Lake. Carol, a middle-aged thin woman dressed in a black sweater and 1980s BDU pants and suede hiking boots, manned the center and seemed to enjoy answering questions from visitors as she petted her mangy little black dog on her lap.

The center had historic paraphenalia of the mountains, describing the mining and Indian War history of the range: how men at the turn of the 20th century rode donkeys up the mountains loaded down with heavy equipment, busy developing the ridge with homes for settlers. Gold and silver was mined, and the peaks were used in the 1860s to look out for Apaches below. I would have enjoyed sitting down for a few hours chatting with Carol about her life and her job with the Forest Service, but I was now in a time restraint. I grabbed my brochures and headed out for Webb Peak, a 2.7-mile hike that started just outside the visitor's center.

It was a rocky hike uphill, going pass burned-out pines that made the hike warmer than it should have been for the elevation. The dogs seemed resistant to any fatigue and trekked on ahead, stopping only when I offered them water.

I climbed up the Webb Peak Lookout Tower, glanced in all directions, noted the Mount Graham Observatory to my east, the valleys to my north and south, saw that an "Alexander Fedeef" had been up in the tower just the day before, and climbed back down. The dogs were surrounded with bugs when I got back to them, and the bugs never left us after that.

I went back down via the Webb Peak Road, a slightly longer maintenance road down to the Swift Trail. The dogs found water to refresh themselves. We were back at the van by 1pm.

But I wasn't ready to leave the mountain range, knowing that in the valley it was approaching triple-digit heat. The next hike was Heliograph Peak, an historic peak that was used to spot Apaches over 130 years ago. This was a slightly longer hike up another maintenance road, partly shaded by the pines along the road.

The view from this peak wasn't much different from Webb Peak, but from this peak the recent wildfire from last month was more visible. The lookout tower here is manned 24 hours by a USFS personnel and hikers can not hike up to the top. We didn't mind. We drank our water, enjoyed the view, and hiked back down to our van.

It was now 4pm and time to start the long hot trip back home. It was 66F at the peak, and 93F when I got down to the Safford level of 2920'. It got even hotter as I neared Willcox, where I stopped to gas at Doc's where the price of unleaded gasoline rose from $3.56 to $3.77. (The Texaco station prices rose from $3.89 to $4.09)

Despite the fun I had with the dogs, hiking peaks and discovering new regions, I was tired of the road and glad to be back home. I could finally take a real shower, unload the van of all my dirty clothes, and get back to life as normal again.

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