Trail: Mount Baldy Loop
Dates: June 2,3,4 2017
Length (approx): 16 miles (full loop)
Difficulty: Moderate to Hard
Water: In Abundance
Elevation Gain (approx): 2200 ft to the "top" of Mount Baldy
Route Finding: Easy
Wildlife in Area: Bears, Grey Wolves, Coyotes and Elk are a possibility
"Oh hey, that's a bear!"
When the idea of exploring the Mount Baldy wilderness was first presented, my initial reaction was "Great, but who's got time to go to California?" Little did I know, there was a Mount Baldy in Arizona. I was perfectly aware of the White Mountains in eastern Arizona, but somehow the name Mt. Baldy had escaped me.
Located near Sunrise Ski Resort, the Mount Baldy wilderness stands out as a hidden gem in a state full of hidden gems.
For this trip, I enlisted my cohorts Dan and Shelby to venture out with me. The more research we did, they more we came to the conclusion "How has this place escaped us for so long?"
All three of us are very experienced backpackers, and none of us had ever heard of the Mount Baldy Loop.
We left Phoenix on Thursday night and took our time getting to the area. We finally arrived close to 1am and found a campsite near the trail head. We could hear coyotes (or maybe wolves) howling in the distance but not close enough to cause concern.
In the morning we headed over to the main parking lot at the east trailhead. There is a sign-in station there along with a few of the usual signs explaining the area etc. We started down the trail about 9:30am and almost immediately took the right fork to the Crossover trail (#96) that connects the east fork (#95) and west fork (#94).
The crossover soon enters into a large pristine meadow, and in that meadow, there was a black bear. Now the bear was a good 400 yards from us and at no time did we feel threatened, but it was awesome to see.
The three of us stood there for a bit just observing the bear, making enough noise to let it know we were around, and after a few minutes the bear decided the show was over and headed back into the woods.
We continued down the Mount Baldy crossover trail making enough noise to as to not startle any other bears in the area (we didn't see any others). At about mile 3 we came upon the west fork of the Little Colorado River ( although it really is just a stream ). We stopped here and had some lunch and took in the amazing scenery. It is also here that the crossover tail connects with the west fork of the loop trail.
After lunch we continued down the west fork of the loop trail for another 3 miles or so. The trail basically follows the Little Colorado, so water is not a concern on this trail. We ran into a few church groups out for day hikes, but overall the trail was pretty quiet. Also about this time, we noticed some clouds moving in.
We reached the area that would become our home for the next 2 nights about 2:30pm or so. We camped in the giant meadow that marks the end of relatively flat portion of the trail. At this point the trail will begin to take you up to the peak of Mount Baldy. We would explore that the next morning.
We found a great area with some tree cover, next to the stream and a pre-existing fire ring. Set up our tents, hung our food bag high above the ground and it was about that time the first few rain drops started falling.
The rain came in quick, followed soon by the thunder and lightning and eventually some pea-sized hail. The weather lasted for about 90 minutes and alternated between a light sprinkle and a total downpour. It was the first trial run for my new MSR Elixir 2 tent and it handled the rain great.
As the clouds cleared and sun went down, we started a small campfire ( although the damp wood made it harder than normal) made some dinner, had a few nips of bourbon and headed to bed. The rain made the overnight temps pretty cool, if I had to guess, I would say it was high 30's.
The next morning we got up made some breakfast and got onto the trail by about 10am. The weather was perfect with no signs of any inclement activity on the horizon. The trail headed back into the tall pines ( with pockets of aspens mixed in ). It was here that the devastation of what I assume is the bark beetle infestation became readily apparent. While we had passed plenty of down trees on our way in, once we got higher in elevation the tree fall made several areas of the trail borderline impassable. Several spots required getting on hands and knees to climb under trees. There were also a few stream crossing required, although most spots had logs placed to avoid getting your shoes too wet.
It took us about 1.5 hours to go the approximately 3.5 miles to the "top". The truth is you can't really get to the top of Mount Baldy. The top is a protected sacred area belonging to the White Mountain Apache Tribe. There is a line of demarcation in which you really shouldn't go past without permission of the tribe. That being said, the best view is a clearing you come to about a 1/4 of a mile from the demarcation line. We hung out there for about 30 minutes, caught our breath and had a little lunch. The altitude is about 11,000 ft at that point and even a few steps uphill could be draining. There was still a fair amount of snow at that altitude. It was 110 degrees in Phoenix and we were 4 hours away chucking snowballs at each other. Awesome.
We left and hiked down back to camp. That morning, we left a few beers chilling in the creek (thanks Shelby) and they tasted amazing after the hike. Also our food bag fell at some point while we were gone. We got lucky though...it didn't seem any creatures were interested in our Mountain House meals. We made some dinner and had a much easier time starting the fire that night. The low temp was about 10 degrees warmer on night two - no long johns needed.
The next morning we were up and gone pretty quick. We made sure our campfire was nice and wet, and we were on the trail by 8:30. The hike out seemed to take much less time than the hike in and we were back to the car before 11am.
After a quick stop at Pinetop Brewing Co. for lunch, we were back home.
We didn't get to the east section of the loop. Gives us a reason to go back and explore that area, including the remains of a plane crash from the 60's.
The Mount Baldy area is definitely now in the regular rotation. We can't wait to go back. It's easily in my top 2 or 3 places of the best Arizona has to offer.