Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Fly-Hike-Fly: The Rincon Mountains Hike

On the flight to Atlanta the guy next to me was commenting that flying through Salt Lake City would have been much shorter. Well since this was a mileage run the extra long flights were on purpose. Now I'm a proud Delta Silver Medallion member. Was it worth it? Well,yeah! I got to go backpacking in the Rincon Mountains by Tucson, AZ.

I packed light. The only things I didn't take along on the hike where my iPod,sport shorts (for the hotel pool), a nylon laundry bag (in case the backpack needed to be checked) and a "man-purse". I used the extra bag to keep the backpack within the dimensions of the carry on. It worked well. The pack fit into the overhead compartments of the MD88 and the 757 without trouble. TSA didn't made a fuss about the camping gear either.

Driving to Summithut (an outdoor sports store) to get the camping fuel did take some time. There I also filled my water bladders. I decided to take six liters with me. On the way out I stopped at a grocery and got tortillas, two apples, two cucumbers to take along,and water to keep in the car. I also got a foot long sandwich at Subway. Next time I have to remember not just to skip the mayo and similar toppings off but also the wet vegetables (tomatoes, pickles, etc).

The drive out to the Miller Creek trailhead is a long one. Not just the interstate but also the 16 miles of gravel road. On it though you enter a pretty cool landscape. So even the drive was scenic. I finally got to the trailhead at 3pm. The hard part was then to repack everything into the backpack especially since it was late and I wanted to be on my way.

Drive to the Miller Creek Trail Head

Miller Creek Trail Head

First part of Miller Creek Trail

Right at the trailhead you have to go through a gate. It was the first one of many. The ascent along Miller Creek was nice as it took me past many big holders. A dark thunder cloud came which started to worry me a little. As the first few big droplets fell I stopped to put the camera away and put the rain cover on the pack. Surprisingly that was all that came down. Once I got to the Heartbreak Ridge trail my climb was done and the Happy Valley camp came up quite quickly. It was moved closer and I was expecting it to be at the old location.

At the Saguaro National Park border

View from the Miller Creek Trail

Heartbreak Ridge Trail to Happy Valley Saddle Camp

I checked out the campsites, three in total of which only two have bear lockers. The campsite furthest back was already taken. I looked in the other bear locker which looked like a pantry. People left peanut butter, beer, a whole pound of sugar (what's that for?) and other crap. I decided to go to the old camp site to see if there are bear lockers.  Nothing besides the old camp sign was left and it had a note "closed" on it.  So I went back and cleared out the bear locker and stuffed all the junk into a barrel nearby.

Happy Valley Camp

I had just enough time to setup camp before it got dark. I ate my soggy sub and then headed to the camp site with the two backpacks but no owner.  I was about to check their backcounty permit since I was a little worried about them since it was totally dark by now.  Just then the owners hiked in with flashlights.  They were a young teacher couple that just returned from Rincon Peak.  I retired at around 7pm.  A few big drops awoke me and I was expecting rain but again that was all that came down.

The next morning I broke down camp and stashed most of my belongings in the bear box.  I didn't feel like cooking so I just ate pop-tart and some snacks of breakfast.  Then I headed off to climb Rincon Peak.

Rincon calling

Rincon Peak Trail

Heartbreak Ridge and Happy Valley Saddle

The last 1/2 mile of the ascent is quite steep but the view from the peak is quite worth it.  Best view of the whole hike.  I ate a pack of tuna with tortillas up there while enjoying the scenery.  On my way back to Happy Valley camp I meet two guys that were hiking the Rincon as a dayhike.

Cactus enjoying the view from Rincon Peak


After getting my stuff and feeding the few but always active mosquitoes at Happy Valley camp I found that there was a toilet hidden on the north side of the camp.  It turned out that every camp had a toilet.

I was hoping that the Heartbreak Ridge Trail would continue through the nice forest vegetation but it soon started with a long incline that was mode miserable by the midday heat and sun.  That section had only low vegetation, probably due to a fire a while ago, and no shade.  That's where my misery for the day started. The view of Rincon Mountain, the Happy Valley and what I hiked in the morning was excellent though.  The little side excursion to the Happy Valley Lookout wasn't to rewarding as the view from there isn't great.  There is however a toilet behind the building.

Rincon Peak and Happy Valley

Heartbreak Ridge Trail

I continued on the Heartbreak Ridge train and went to Manning via part of the Fire Loop trail.  It seemed like I was going horrible slow since I didn't feel well.  I couldn't quite figure out why but it seemed to be an abdominal thing.  Short rests didn't seem to help much.  Because of that I didn't enjoy this stretch of the hike much.

Heartbreak Ridge Trail

You might get burned
when reaching for the sky


Near the Manning area, while hiking through the highest part of the trail (8200 feet), thunder clouds with cloud-to-cloud lightning was above me and I wondered when it would hit ground being so close to the clouds.  Again I was just being scared by thunderstorm but did not get any rain.  I meet a group families hiking from Manning to Spud Rock camp, dressed in rain gear.  Because I didn't feel well and wanted to get to my camp I kept the encounter short. It turned out that the ranger and her interns that came back from Spud Rock got hit by the rain.  I still can't believe that.

Fire Loop Trail

Strangely once I arrived at Manning I started to feel better quite quickly.  There I was the only camper besides the ranger and the interns. The sign-in box is quite unique with a deer skull complete with antlers and postcards with photos of the Manning family by the cabin.  Thanks to the ranger the toilets even had toilet paper and the one closest to the cabin had a bucket sink and soap.

Registration Book at Manning Camp

All staff at Manning has their own permanent tent structure  to sleep in.  The cabin has the kitchen and dining room.  They have a big bench press equipment although the intern girls ensured me that they weren't using it.  Apparently the interns hike to various springs with the ranger to monitor them.

Creek at Manning

Camp Site

Manning Cabin

I talked to the ranger about my options between taking the Heartbreak Ridge and Miller Creek trails back or the Turkey Creek trail and hike the four wheel drive road between the trailheads to the car. I decided on taking the Turkey Creek trail even though it was a couple miles longer and I'd hike the gravel road between the trail heads in the midday heat.  But it featured a steady decent and a new area of the Rincon Mountains.

Spud Rock

At Turkey Creek Trail

Neat Plant

Lower part of the Turkey Creek Trail

Hikers at the Logbook

On my way to Spud Rock the Ranger and interns caught up while I was taking a break.  I followed them to Spud Rock where our ways split.  Except for a slip, which planted my rear on some pokey plant, the decent was quite uneventful. I passed the families that camped at Spud Rock on the lower section of the Turkey Creek Trail.  They were heading home as well but had their SUV parked at the end of the four wheel drive road.

Turkey Creek Trail at the
Saguaro National Park border

Rincon Peak, Happy Valley Saddle and Heartbreak Ridge

Four-wheel-drive Road

The trickiest part of the hike was following the gravel road.  At one point an unmarked split came up and at first I took to wrong way.  So, when in doubt take the road with the gate.  Going toward Miller Creek trailhead I encountered three horses that were running up to me and looking at me expectantly.  I also noticed some horse slobber on my car once I got there.

Between the two trailheads

Free roaming horses

This ended my hike.  I drove back to the hotel, washed the car (rental companies don't like it when you take their cars on gravel roads) and my cloths, got dinner and retired.  The flight back was uneventful and provided me with plenty of time writing this blog entry on paper.

Wanderroute 1292925

Fly-Hike-Fly Notes


The apples, cucumbers, and Subway sandwich were a hit. I'm still packing too much food and too large portions. This is specially true with the oat-granola mix and milk-chocolate mix for breakfast.
The chicken (bag), mashed potatoes (plain flakes), Nido (whole milk powder), and vegetable (Just-Plain-Vegetables freeze dried mix) with pepper was a great dinner. Instead of just adding everything to hot water I might try to add the vegetables earlier so they rehydrate better.


The six liter water worked out great. It's just the right amount to hike to the Happy Valley camp, overnight, climb Rincon and hike to Manning. Although I actually only use up all of the four liters.
Water for filtering at Happy Valley isn't great. There were a couple of stagnant puddles that didn't look very inviting. Manning on the other hand has clear running water. The best place to get it is on the rock by the fence where the water comes out of the holding pond.

The gravity water filter worked great and fast. I used an old nylon sock as a prefilter when filling the bag to keep large derbies out. It worked great with running water as it had enough force to penetrate through the sock. But it might be different for still standing water.
Having a good water source like at Manning is nice. I ended up filtering six liters.


I took just the right amount of clothing. The only thing I didn't wear was the layer of long underwear and rain gear. But both are good to have along just in case.

I had no issues taking only one set of nylon long sleeved/legged hiking shirt and pants for the entire trip. After the hike I washed them out along with underwear and socks.
Besides the sock everything dries quite quickly. For drying don't wring your garmet. This causes stress and might damage the garment. I instead squeeze the water out of it. Hang it on the shower curtain rod for a little bit to let the water drip. Squeeze the garment from top downward, pressing the water out as it hangs. Lay the garment on a bath towel and roll both up. Gently wring the roll, causing the towel to absorb the water while protecting the garment from the wringing stress. The nylon garments should be dry in a couple of hours.

The seams on the REI Sahara pant came undone at the seams. Not yet to the point that it revealed anything but still having a brand new pair fail that quickly is disappointing. Otherwise the pants, just like the matching REI Sahara shirt, fits well and are comfortable and function well. The Tucson REI store offered to exchange them but my size wasn't in stock. I could have traded them for a different pair but the other nylon pants all have zip-off legs which I don't like.


As weird as it is, my cheap Swiss Gear external frame backpack from Sam's Club performed well. The extendible top allowed me to put everything inside the pack, protected from pokey plants along the trails. Though if I wanted I could use the straps on the pack to attach the tent, mat, or ice pick. It carries pretty well and I hardly noticed the difference when it was full or just lightly packed. I did notice some pilling on my nylon shirt due to the pack.


I just like trail runners. These Salomon have a few hikes behind them and are nearing their live expectancy. The next pair of shoes I'll get in a larger size as these are a bit tight. I forgot to tighten them well on the last day for the decent. This caused my toes to touch the front and get sore. For climbs and flats I like to wear them a little loose because they are tight.


I had a couple printouts of the National Park Service map. Multiple maps because printouts easily get destroyed. These are all you really need. All trails are pretty well maintained. Most even have red metal plates nailed to trees. Only at very few places one has to pay a little attention to where the trail is. I had my handheld GPS with me as well. Mostly to tell me the distance I hiked and for the novelty to look at the route I hiked afterwards. I did have GPS tracks of Miller Creek, Rincon Peak, and the Heartbreak trail but none of the Turkey trail. The free Topo map for the GPS was nice with the tracks.

Hiking Route

A one and a half day hike up to Happy Valley, camp there, hike Rincon Mountain and back via Miller Creek trail is a great route. During my miserable part on the second day I really wondered why I didn't do that. However, now that the misery is behind me I'm happy to have gone to Manning. That camp would be great for a base while going on the many trails around there.

Final Thoughts

No matter how lonely it is, you will get caught with your pants down.