The Box

October 11-13, 2013

This might be my all-time favorite backpacking trip. Well, first, there was the company: David and Rogil — always enthusiastic, energetic, good-humored, well-organized and always thrilled by whatever gifts Mother Nature lays at our feet.

Then, there was the destination: a gem of a canyon we stumbled onto while researching another trip, complete with a gorgeous streamside hike, a spooky slot canyon and glorious camping next to an ancient spring-fed hot tub.

As has become our habit, we left after work on Thursday and spent the night at Blackjack Campground. Although it's hardly our favorite campground, it has the advantages of a convenient location and high elevation, plus it's large enough that you can usually stay out of earshot of the hunting parties with their fleets of ATVs and their noisy generators.

It was a chilly night for so early in the fall, and in the morning a veil of frost lit up the yellow grasses that blanket the rolling ranchland as you drop down out of the Blue Range into the Gila River Valley.

There are at least three ways to approach the box. Of course we had to try the least likely one, only to find a locked gate near the end of the road.

We backtracked to a long rough corkscrew of a road that winds along an impressive ridge, tracking our progress with a wireless gps that uses Bluetooth to feed our position to a second-hand iPad. It's the latest addition to our backpacking gear, which also includes a Nikon D300, an underwater camera, a camcorder, and an 80-meter amateur radio rig — about 10 pounds of electronics all told. I carry all of the non-essentials (like food).

When a downed tree blocked our way, we wedged the vehicles onto the edge of the road. At the top of the ridge was the faintest of trails, but it generally runs along the nose of the ridge for about one mile until a signed trail veers sharply to the right. The next two miles is a relentless series of switchbacks that drops 1700-some feet to the canyon floor.

As we tumble into the valley, a red-and-green spired escarpment rears up on the opposite side of the stream. It would be our constant companion for the next three days.

For the last half mile, the trail finally levels off and slabs along a bench just above the stream through a magnificent mature forest of Ponderosa pine.

We located the warm springs at trail's end, consisting of two ancient cement tubs. The upper tub appears to be a holding tank, and the lower tub is just large enough to hold four close friends. The main tank was empty when we arrived, but a healthy rate of flow indicated that it would fill quickly enough once we procured a branch of the correct diameter to plug the drain.

There was an abundance of fine campsites in the area, and Dennis and I set up in a small clearing right above the stream.

Plumeting temperatures made it an early evening, and everyone was snuggled into their down bags by 8:00 pm. I don't know how cold it got overnight, but it was 19 degrees at dawn. We waited until the sun hit the side of the tent before emerging from our cocoons.

After a leisurely breakfast and another long soak, we meandered downstream. Unlike most Southwestern rivers, this one makes its way through broad green meadows with very little brush along its margins.

And then suddenly the canyon walls contract to form the box, a long dark tunnel of tortured basalt. We waded a short distance into the slot, but the water was glacial, and we turned back when we reached the first mandatory swim.

We enjoyed another fine long soak that afternoon, followed by another peaceful night beside the stream, this one fortunately a bit warmer than the previous evening with temperatures only down around the freezing mark.

We got an earlier start Sunday morning, knowing we had a long hike out of the canyon and a long drive ahead of us. Rogil and I were in the lead, and partway up the hill, we somehow lost the main trail and ended up on a well-used elk trail that offered a steeper but more direct ascent to the crest of the ridge. It should be noted that there's quite a tangle of old and new trails, along with a spider's web of game trails.

When we stopped for a mid-morning break, we checked our position on the iPad, and it was obvious that we were well north of the official trail and following an older path that was an extension of the 4WD road where we had begun our hike. So we stayed our course, scrambling along the nose of the ridge, over lichen-encrusted boulders and around deadfall, sometimes following old blazes or occasional cairns.

About two hours from the canyon bottom, we reached an old parking lot at the end of the road. Had we had a chainsaw or bucksaw or perhaps just a tow strap to clear away some of the downed trees, we could have driven all the way to the end of the road, shaving a full mile off the hike. As it was, we had a long but very scenic hike back to the vehicles, with sweeping views of the valley from a series of windswept promontories.

We reached the cars around 1:30 local time, and were very happy to remove our boots and enjoy a cold drink before setting for home. David and Rogil noticed a couple of bear paw prints on the Xterra, but fortunately the little fellow decided not to break the windows!

It was a fantastic weekend — maybe our best ever — with our favorite hiking buddies in one of the Southwest's most spectacularly beautiful wild canyons.