Sunday, August 2, 2015

2007 AHS Volunteer Trail Project in Arizona's Hells Canyon Wilderness

The Bureau of Land Management's Hells Canyon Wilderness (9951 acres) is located in Arizona's Sonoran Desert in the foothills of the Hieroglyphic Mountains, 25 miles northwest of Phoenix and abutting the western boundary of Lake Pleasant Regional Park. Terrain is gently rolling valley floors and steep hillsides and arroyos. The Spring Valley Trail's north and south forks traverse a verdant palo verde -- sahuaro community and include barrel cactus, ocotillo, and desert grasses. It is also home to a wild burro population. We were driven to within a mile of our planned base camp.  To reach the camp area, we had to hike across a 1/4 mile wide arroyo whose bottom was covered in large stones and small boulders, and then hike up the hillside seen in the photo below (look closely dead center and you'll see people hiking uphill left to right on the switchback trail.)  We had to make a number of trips to get our personal gear, the work tools, and all our food and water up to camp. Actually, the ranger had to resupply us with water several times during the week, so we made many trips carrying heavy water containers.

Our first day involved "brushing" the three mile north fork of the Spring Valley Trail. The long growing season allows cactus to encroach upon the trail, so lopping the palo verde, prickly pear, ocotillo, grasses, etc. is important to allow hikers and horses to travel unimpeded. BLM trail boss, Tom (left) watches as Don and Doug work with loppers.

Some sections of the trail traverse long stretches where the established trail is obscure or indistinct. To aid in keeping travelers on the trail, rock cairns are placed within line-of-sight of one another to serve as directional markers for hikers. Three or more rocks are unlikely to accidentally wind up on top of one another, so cairns are generally three or more rocks tall. Tom and Bob (photo below) and I spent days 2, 3, and 4 constructing 35 large rock cairns on both the north and south forks of the trail. 

We scoured the land near the chosen cairn site and carried or rolled large rocks to the designated location and painstakingly built large thigh-high cairns as seen above. The BLM rangers had scouted the trail in advance, determined what repairs were to be done, and marked each work site with a stake indicating the improvement needed. (Of the 20 trail projects I've worked on to this point, this was the most organized a host agency had been.)

Chris and Jim work on a drainage dip and run-off channel to divert rainfall off the trail to prevent erosion. Though this desert climate only receives seven inches of rainfall annually, cloudbursts can cause severe damage where trails are susceptible to erosion, so water control features such as water bars, runoff channels, and drainage dips are vital to preserving the trail tread. When properly built with rock, these water control features can last for decades.

Steep terrain is common in these mountain foothills, and man-made steps, though not considered a "natural" trail element, can make a trail safer for hikers and can also help prevent the trail from becoming a river during downpours. In the photo below, the lower step has been installed and another heavy stone is being wrestled into place above it. Four steps were eventually set into place here.

I realize many people think of deserts as vast wastelands, but after a number of trips to our U.S. deserts, I have come to agree with Edward Abbey that they are beautiful in their own right and alive with all sorts of fabulous flora and fauna. Below you see our repaired trail, the scenery along the trail, and far in the background, the immense Lake Pleasant.

The intrepid crew:
(l to r): Bob, Chris, Jim, Chuck, Lloyd, Don, Doug, and Tom

As thanks for our efforts, the BLM ranger in charge of our project, Bill, took us on a hike in nearby Agua Fria National Monument, also under BLM jurisdiction. It is a 70,900 acre cultural and historic monument. Below is a photo from our visit to the 800 year old Anasazi ruins.

A drive on a gravel road, a hike over open desert, a descent down a steep 300 foot canyon side to the dry creek below, and a climb up the other side of the canyon...

...brought us to the Pueblo la Palata, a major settlement of stone and masonry pueblo ruins of 80 or so stone-wall homes. Pottery shards dotted the area and the outlines of the majority of the dwellings were clearly evident...

...and numerous petroglyphs such as below were scattered about, carved into the desert finish of the cliff face.


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