Saturday, February 27, 2010

Manzanita Falls

Hiked to "Manzanita Falls," a Geocache in the Catalina Mountains. The name derives from a nearby granite spillway that runs during the snowmelt and rain. The cache owner, RS Arizona, has an affinity for these rare and ephemeral water features and seeks them out with a collector's zeal. She's been nudging me by email to visit the falls and try my luck at photographing them.

My trip started at the Molino Basin parking area. The canyon that drains the falls ultimately channels into a culvert that ducks under the pavement just north of parking and continues downhill to empty into Molino Canyon.

Even before I turned off the Jeep, I could hear the hushed roar of fast water. On the short walk along the highway shoulder to the culvert, I heard trickling behind the road-cut rocks. Busted bits of spalled rock littered the bike lane. A few steps from pavement, I was ankle deep in numbingly cold snowmelt.


I kept to the stream for most of the hike, unable to stray from the mesmerizing presence of water. Imagine that, water! Not from a tap or a hose or a bottle, but just flowing casual as you please out in the open. I had the giddy thought that I'd actually be glad to drain my Camelbak for the novel pleasure of refilling it from this stream. Desert living does strange things to the mind.


Along the way I shot tons of flowing-water pictures, all of which seemed like masterpieces at the time. I ran up against a frustrating camera limitation, though: max f-stop (min aperture) is only f8. I believe I knew this at one time, but forgot it. It usually doesn't matter, unless you're trying for huge depth of field or slow shutter speed. Today I wanted both, often in the same shot. Still not buying a DSLR. I'd just break it.


About a mile from the culvert I encountered an amazing, long-fall cascade. The water was channeled into a narrow gap, a natural nozzle, and blasted out into space to fall, what?, 50-60 feet? The shot below barely captures it. I blew the others I took, unprepared for anything like this. I hiked around the cliff to the top of the falls, but was unable to get as close as I needed for a shot of the "nozzle." The rocks were glass-smooth and wet-slick. Turns out I was tempting fate getting as close as I did; not 20 yards upstream I stepped on an apparently wet rock and went cut-strings down. The wet sheen was ice.


Farther along, the canyon mellowed out and the flow diminished. I checked the GPS and saw that I was getting close to the cache location just as the terrain was looking less likely to offer any kind of waterfall. On cue, the foliage on the banks was changing from low-desert thorn shrub to trees and manzanitas, so at least half the prophecy of the cache name was being fulfilled.


With the GPS reading 80 feet out, I finally spied the falls. Not (pardon the expression) as splashy as the previous cascade, but a beautiful spot. I signed the cache log, ate half my ham sandwich on the convenient sunbathing rock (a standard feature of all your better waterfalls) then reviewed my options for the return trip. My feet, soft from a winter season of mountain biking, were distinctly soggy from the wet hike, and the sandal straps were making excellent progress in sawing off my big toes. I'd seen some cairns a couple hundred yards back, and I was willing to bet that they marked a route to Bug Spring trail. So I bet on Bugs and headed out.


The uncertainty of when or whether I'd find the trail added spice to the climb out of the canyon, but the cairns kept coming and eventually I intercepted a wide, hard-packed trail. Didn't need a sign to tell me this was Bug Spring, and there were no signs anyhow. Now, which way to the lower trailhead? The trail at this point was mostly going west, so it wasn't immediately clear. Well, if I'm wrong, I'll either have to double back or hike a little more pavement. No sweat. Mental coin toss awarded to this way and off we go.

Bugs meandered both vertically and horizontally, negotiating the creases of the Catalinas and crossing numerous small streams. I'd hike over the occasional patch of snow, then warm my feet in the next cold stream. My wet sandals were now accumulating a fair coating of granite grit and the progress of the toe-sawing operation quickened. I went barefoot for awhile to dry my feet, then slipped on foot-gloves, which I wore for the remainder of the trip.

Bugs eventually left the trees and emerged onto a ridgetop heading south, giving me confidence that I was going the right way. I could see why this is a favorite mountain-bike trail, smooth and swoopy. Hell, I could have used a bike about now myself.


The rest of the hike was uneventful; I sashayed down the switches to Gordon Hirabayashi campground, then walked along the shoulder of Catalina Highway back to the Jeep, eating the remaining half of my sandwich for something to do. Roundtrip stats: 9.8 miles with about 3000 climbing feet. Did I say feet? They're fine, just a few scrapes, enough to serve notice that Spring is almost here.

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