Back to the Blue Range

September 16-20, 2015

Our love affair with the Bue Range began with an unplanned hike along Pueblo Creek when our backpacking trip got washed out by the flood of September 2013. We returned for a two-day backpack the following spring, and then in the summer of 2015 we pushed farther into the Blue Range during an exploratory car camping trip with our friend Ann H. With Pueblo Park as our base, we began learning about the rich early history of this area, and discovered well-preserved cliff dwellings and petroglyphs nearby. We vowed to return in drier weather for a longer stay and more hiking. We posted a trip on the Tucson Backpackers calendar and were delighted when five friends signed on, including Ann H and Miguel from Silver City.

On a Thursday afternoon on mid-September, we found ourselves a nice big campsite under the giant Ponderosa pines in Pueblo Park. We were surprised to see several other rigs in this normally lightly used campground, and we'd just gotten set up when we were startled by a rifle shot from a nearby campsite. The second time it happened we let our neighbor know we weren't impressed, and a few minutes later he came by to tell us why he was firing a rifle in a public campground.

We had heard a lot of bellowing from a bull grazing across the road in the old ballpark. We even wondered if it was the same bull that chased us three miles up the road on our last trip to the Blue Range. It turns out Ferdinand wasn't quite as harmless as we thought. A few days earlier, he had charged a woman and broken her hip, pinned a young boy against a tree and rampaged through the park knocking over tents and camping gear. Setting aside — reluctantly — the question of whether cattle should be allowed to graze on public lands including campgrounds and wilderness areas, why wasn't this animal either euthanized or at least relocated after injuring two people?

Instead, Ferdinand continued his reign of terror, marauding through the park and charging campers, especially when they did their best to shoo them away. And so we all agreed that if there was another attack, we'd be having steak for dinner. It was a nervous night for our group — especially the tent campers — with Ferdinand still bellowing in the distance. But he didn't venture into our area and there were no more gunshots. The next morning John S-J told the full version of his encounter with a herd of bloodthirsty Austrian bovines, and I must admit I will never look at cows quite the same way again.

Our first hike was an out-and-back on the Tige Rim trail, which meanders up the back side of a ridge through classic New Mexican high desert to an overview of the Blue Range. While there was nothing really spectacular about this hike, it was a lovely and easy hike through alternating high grassy meadows and forests of alligator juniper, piñon, Mexican blue oak and fragrant Ponderosa pine. For fire-weary southern Arizonans, it is thrilling to walk in forest untouched by catastrophic wildfires.

We didn't encounter any significant wildlife on the trail, but there was plenty of evidence of their presence, from very berried bear scat to ovaloid elk poop to feline segments wound with rodent fur to owl pellets packed with teeth and bones. At night there was a symphony of wild voices including distant elk bugling, screech owls, great horned owl duets and maybe a lone wolf.

Our second hike was an exploration of the Lanphier trail, located off the Blue River Road a few miles near the admin site. Though we were only a few raven miles west of the previous day's hike, we were 2000 feet lower in a lush riparian environment. After this summer's generous monsoon the path was overgrown and sometimes difficult to follow, but the surroundings could not have been more inviting. With the dense forest canopy, grassy meadows and ever-present babbling brook, it reminded me of the middle fork Gila River before the flood of 2013 swept away the cottonwoods and replaced the forested paths with fields of boulders.

We had only planned to hike as far as Indian Canyon, but the significant drainage we had been expecting was disguised as a muddy area on the side of the trail, and we blew by the junction and ended up at a luscious camping area near a corral at 3.6 miles.

We capped off a great hike with a memorable side trip that got us back to camp with just time enough to cook dinner before a late monsoon thunderstorm drove us all into our tents.

Next morning we slowly packed up our soggy gear. Connie, Ann and Miguel headed for home, while John, Deanna, Dennis and I decided it was time to test the Tacomas with a drive up the rough 4WD road to Saddleback Mountain. At 8340 feet, Saddleback is the highest peak in the eastern Blue Range and is capped by a fire tower constructed in 1935. A fallen tree across the road created a nice tactical challenge for the guys and great photo opps for me and Deanna. After bouncing like bauble-heads for 3.3 miles, we found the road gated and locked, so we stashed the trucks and continued on foot.

At the summit we found an unmanned and locked tower with a killer 360-degree view of the entire Blue Range, all fresh-washed and perky after the previous night's rainstorm. The summit was awash in wildflowers and seemed like a wonderful place to spend a few weeks or months or maybe a lifetime.

We rolled back over the high pass on the Pueblo Creek road, feeling somewhat familiar but no less spectacular after six traverses in three days. An undercurrent of cool air reminded us that fall is only a few weeks away, but we're eager to return to the Blue for an extended backpacking trip now that we've sampled a few of its flavors.