Part 1: Cosmic detours at the Grand Canyon
Sometimes the best laid plans go awry and how you react in those moments says a lot about you. My friend Jonathan and I originally planned to hike the Grand Canyon in April of 2020 but COVID-19 changed everything. We rescheduled the trip for October of 2021 and had other friends interested in camping and hiking to the bottom of the canyon with us. But by the time I landed in Phoenix on Thursday, September 30th, two friends had dropped out, leaving just Jonathan and I to venture forth together.
I was not impressed by the sprawl and desert landscapes of the Phoenix valley when I landed. My mom recently retired to the suburbs and I taxied to her new home then loaded up her Ford Escape in the afternoon and headed northwest towards Prescott to meet up with Jonathan. An hour north of Phoenix the arid desert showed signs of life with the sage covered earth giving way to trees and green shrubs while the rolling rocky hills slowly turned into mountains. It was a nice drive into Prescott and before I headed over to Jonathan’s house, I parked by the historic Yavapai County courthouse and walked the downtown streets that were filled with western charm.
I met Jonathan in Yosemite National Park in 2017 and although we talked on the phone and texted periodically, I hadn’t seen him in person since then. He welcomed me with a big smile and a hug and we imbibed in several drinks that night with another friend while sorting camping gear and packing for our Grand Canyon adventure.
We were on the road the next morning before 8am and it was a beautiful drive. We stopped at the small heavily forested town of Williams for groceries, then drove straight north through Tusayan to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Just outside of Tusayan we scouted public lands roads for a place to camp and found a great spot a mile from the entrance to the national park. After setting up camp, we hiked into the dry forest and brought out a large pile of ponderosa pine for firewood as the afternoon sun moved overhead with big white clouds providing occasional shade. It was a gorgeous afternoon in the low 60s and we were excited for our hike into the canyon the next day.
A few hours before sunset, we entered the national park and drove east to Navajo Point. From the road, the canyon showed through the trees on many occasions and looked unbelievably magnificent in its size and beauty. Jonathan has been to the canyon over thirty times and proved to be the best travel guide I could’ve asked for and his enthusiasm and knowledge of the area was very much appreciated. After Navajo Point, we worked our way back to some areas Jonathan recommended for photography. We hiked part of the rim trail and eventually down to an exposed overlook with an open expansive view. It was truly incredible. When we returned to camp, the skies cleared and I fired off star trail photos in the forest behind camp while we ate a big meal and prepped for our long hike the next day on Bright Angel Trail to the bottom of the canyon.
During the night elk groaned mating calls in the forest nearby which echoed in every direction until just before sunrise. The sounds were alien-like and absolutely obnoxious to the point of hilarity. I didn’t sleep more than a few hours and early in the morning I drove to Tusayan to buy us several more gallons of water for the day. When I returned to camp, Jonathan crawled out of his tent and we laughed at the elk of the night. After a carb-heavy breakfast and Dogwood coffee that I brought from Minneapolis, we loaded my mom’s Escape with our hiking essentials and were ready to begin the adventure we had been planning for nearly two years. There was one problem however—the car battery was dead. Tick-tick-tick-tick the starter sounded and I couldn’t believe our fate.
Rather than cursing to the heavens, I quickly got to the task at hand and thought somehow we could save the hike. We went through several scenarios and I finally opted to call my mom’s insurance. Over an hour later, an old-timer named Randall showed up in a faded out early 80s Dodge pickup truck and tested the battery. It was dead indeed and needed to be replaced. Since the small towns nearby didn’t have what we needed, he said our best option was to drive 165 miles roundtrip to Flagstaff and buy a new battery after he boosted the car. And with that, our hike was over before it began.
We returned from Flagstaff in the late afternoon and drove back to the canyon rim before sunset. It was another beautiful day and I’m glad to have seen Flagstaff but couldn’t help but feel a little disheartened. For whatever reason the universe had other plans and we were not supposed to hike the canyon on this trip. Early in the morning the car started with no hesitation and none of the lights were left on while we had breakfast. Jonathan and I discussed the possible reasons but had no definitive answers. And so we accepted our fate and made the most of our last night at the canyon.
We parked near Grand Canyon Village and walked to a few different locations to take photos before heading back to camp where we stoked a big fire. The night was much quieter and I slept well. The next morning was chilly and we took our time packing up camp before driving back to Prescott where Jonathan had some work things to tend to.
Part 2: The Prescott local tour
We relaxed in the afternoon, had a great Mexican meal in Prescott Valley, then tossed some beers in Jonathan’s Toyota Tacoma and drove out into the mountains. In the evening, we took a winding gravel road up to Sunset Lookout. There were several other cars parked and the view straight west was gorgeous and it was easy to imagine the days when cowboys traveled this area on horseback. Sprawling out for miles into the low mountains, it was beautiful country and I appreciated seeing it.
Later we drove to the edge of town and up another gravel road to the remnants of an abandoned bridge over a steep creek valley below. It was dark, and on the hidden hiking trail down, I rubbed a prickly pear cactus and had shards in my left shin for the next several days.
We drove the road higher up the mountain and stopped on the side and got out of the truck. Jonathan told me earlier to bring my camera and tripod and then I realized why. A few days before the October new moon, the stars sparkled vividly overhead and I was grateful. Working together, I composed some photos while Jonathan light painted the towering pines with his headlamp and it was a great time high in the mountains.
In the morning, Jonathan took out a map of Arizona and highlighted several areas that I should visit near Sedona. We had several cups of coffee before I gave him a big hug goodbye and was on my way. It is good to have a good friend like Jonathan.
Part 3: Hiking Doe Mountain in beautiful Sedona
It was cloudy and I drove north out of Prescott then east on Highway 89A towards the historic mining town of Jerome. After days of constant storytelling, laughing, and music, the quietness of being alone and driving to somewhere new was meditative. I kept the radio silent and peered straight to the high desert humming along at my own pace with little traffic around. As I made it closer to Jerome, the highway switched back several times through mountain passes in beautiful splendor.
Jerome is very touristy and there were a lot of people and cars around the main streets of town. I drove slowly admiring the old fashioned charm of the roads and buildings but had no reason to stop as my heart was set on getting to Sedona to hike and camp. On the other side of the town of Cottonwood, the drive became even more scenic. Soon the red rocks showed bright in the distance as the late morning sun pushed through the clouds and I was in Sedona. I purchased some healthy groceries then followed Jonathan’s directions and drove north through Oak Creek Canyon to see where I might end up.
I stopped at a ranger station and picked up a map that showed the area hiking trails and campgrounds. It seemed like a good time to play the Grateful Dead and I pushed further north with the car windows down through the tight canyon with beautiful views in every direction. I passed several campgrounds that were already full before stopping at Oak Creek Vista to experience what the view back south was like. It was just after noon and the intense sun highlighted the white clouds heavily as I looked south. On the walk back to the car, I admired the craftsmanship of some members of the Navajo Nation who were selling jewelry and small sculptures on tables near the parking lot.
According to the map, there weren’t many camp options further north so I drove back south and into Sedona. My mom warned me that heavy rain was forecasted in the night so I made the decision to hike all afternoon then drive back late to her house after dark instead of spending more time looking for a place to camp.
I did some quick research and decided Doe Mountain was a good less used trail worth exploring. Many of the clouds were burning off in the early afternoon and it was in the 80s. I packed plenty of water and my camera and talked to a few people at the trailhead before going left on the Aerie Trail loop. Magnificent scenes were bountiful from the start and it felt amazing to finally be on a real hiking trail and out in the wilderness. I was very grateful and moved at my own pace, quickly breaking into a sweat as the sun beat down.
I saw two mountain bikers and few other hikers, but mostly felt the gentle solitude of walking alone in the desert. The trail was well worn but sometimes desert rock obscured any signs of footsteps and I took those areas slower working to find my way. The sweat on my back dried quickly in the arid air and I reminded myself to stop and drink water on several occasions with Doe Mountain standing low and beautiful to my right. To my left Coconino National Forest opened to red rocks, juniper trees, and white clouds much to the delight of my camera and wide angle lens.
As the sun moved lower in the west, long shadows crossed the trail and I picked up the pace to finish the five mile hike so I could move on before sunset to another location. A couple miles northeast is the popular Boynton Canyon Trail and I stopped just before sunset and ventured out. The desert was quickly cooling now and I passed several people finishing their hikes as I started. About ten minutes from the trailhead was a gorgeous wall of red rock with a hoodoo standing tall on the far end. Near the spire is one of the many energy vortexes in the Sedona area but there wasn’t time for me to hike to it in the daylight. Instead, I went off trail and hiked straight up rocks and around cactus and agave plants to a better open view.
The energy of the Sedona area is rich in spirit and I felt very harmonious and at peace after spending the afternoon hiking and exploring. It was dark when I made it back to the trailhead and I took my time before driving west out of town and then south towards Phoenix.
Part 4: In the shadow of the Superstition Mountains
A few days later the desert once again called me and I moved east out of Phoenix towards Apache Junction. I set up camp at Lost Dutchman State Park just after noon with the temperature over 90 degrees. The sun was too intense to hike in, so I drove the Apache Trail highway north through Tonto National Forest. The land felt very unforgiving and sorrowful and looked uninhabitable. As I drove, I stopped at several pull-offs to explore before winding down low to the Salt River and man-made Canyon Lake. As someone who consistently experiences to beauty of Minnesota’s natural lakes, Canyon Lake looked contrived and I pushed on to a tiny ghost town called Tortilla Flat where I had a look around as the afternoon sun burned hot overhead.
I drove the Apache Trail back through the rugged desert and mountains and took refuge from the sun in my tent when I returned. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky nor a tree to provide shade so I laid down with the fly doors open with a light breeze flowing through. I listened to music, wrote down some thoughts, and my great friend Matt and I sent several text messages to each other during this time. I will always cherish that communication as a little over a week later he unfortunately passed away and I lost one of my very best friends.
In the late afternoon, the sun was tolerable and I made dinner then hiked around in search of a good north facing perspective to photograph star trails. Big saguaro cactuses stood everywhere — some looking healthy and standing tall while others had broken arms and rotting holes in their places. Confident that I found my spot, I returned to camp to relax while waiting for the sun to set.
On the way back to camp, I got within a foot of stepping on a tarantula. I jumped back and it jumped and tried its best to hide in the open near a large rock. My wide angle lens was on my camera so I had to get close to photograph it and it seemed friendly and didn’t want to do harm. I let it be and took it as a wake-up call to pay closer attention to what was coming alive in the desert as the sun was setting. Later, I fired off an hour of star trail photos before light clouds moved in obstructing the sky. I was hoping for more time but took what I could get.
I woke early and drove to the north side of the Superstition Mountains and hiked a short trail while the sun rose in the east. Returning to camp, I packed my backpack then hit trail climbing up into the mountains. The loose rock trail was a challenge to climb but I pushed on to some spectacular views while the sun shined just over the peaks. As soon as the sun made it over the top of the Superstition Mountains, the desert air quickly heated up into a dry furnace and I worked my way back to pack up camp before it got too hot.
I drove north out of Apache Junction and stopped by the beautiful city of Scottsdale with its palm tree boulevards and rich neighborhoods. After meandering around the old town area for a few hours, I made my way to the northeast corner of the city to McDowell Mountain Regional Park to hike the Tom’s Thumb Trail. On the trail I passed a family who warned me that they had just seen a rattlesnake which piqued my attention but I fortunately did not see it. Having to get back to family matters, I kept the hike short but this park is stunning and someday I will return to explore it more.
Time is unrelenting and the harshness and beauty of the desert made that even more evident to me. While Arizona isn’t a favorite state that I have traveled to, it has an underlying magnificence just waiting to be discovered beneath its desert starkness. Sedona in particular touched my soul and is a place I will experience and explore again. And the mountains of the north harness friendships and wild stories of America’s past. With my mom and other family members in the Phoenix area, I’m sure it won’t be long before I return. Perhaps then I will know what it feels like to hike into the Grand Canyon and witness its reverent earth energy from the inside.