This week, inspired by a desire to be social and participate in a Halloween-themed activity, I went on a night hike in the Tucson Mountains. The planned route was to climb Wasson Peak (the highest peak in the Tucson Mountains) along the King Canyon Trail, starting early in the evening and continuing through to about midnight under the full moon. This hike was organized through the Outdoor Adventures program at the University of Arizona, which for a nominal fee ($18) promised guidance along the 8-mile planned route, transportation to and from the site, and headlamps. Sounds like a good time, right?
Here’s what really happened.
For one thing, I should have known we were in a bit of trouble when our “guides” (undergraduate student employees from the University) couldn’t find the trailhead. Sitting in the second row of seats in a 15-passenger van, I could hear them debating whether or not we’d passed the trailhead as we drove slowly up and down the roads just outside Saguaro National Park (West). Once we got to the right place, we set out happily along the winding trail. Hiking at night was cool at first: we saw some birds, a spider that no one could identify, and once the full moon was out the landscape of the mountainsides was beautiful. We gladly trudged along for a half mile, a mile, a mile and a half as my Garmin ticked away. The trail got quite sandy and we started having to scramble up rocks. Then we reached a 15-foot high, impassible wall of rock and realized we were at a dead end. The guides squinted at their black and white paper print out maps and expertly determined that we were no longer on the trail. Hmm, no kidding.
After a half-mile of backtracking, we found the sign post that clearly indicated where we went wrong and started up the correct trail. This detour was no big deal to me, and the group of five other hikers was still pretty sanguine at the time. A mile or so of uphill hiking later, we reached the saddle between Wasson Peak and the next peak over, offering our first cool view of Tucson by night.
The next mile or so of climbing from the saddle to the top was the most strenuous part of the uphill trail. It’s certainly doable for someone of a good fitness level, but walking along narrow trails with steep drop-offs might be scary for some, especially at night. This was where I discovered that one of my fellow hikers was afraid of the following things: birds, snakes, geckos (!), “anything that slithers,” and heights. So… maybe a night hike up a mountain was not the best idea? Judge for yourself. We reached Wasson Peak after just over 4 total miles of hiking, including the brief detour. I have to say, the payoff here was great. These pictures clearly don’t do justice, but from the top of the peak in the full moon you can see all the neighboring mountain ranges, all of Tucson, Marana, and the little town of Three Points on the opposite side of the mountains.
Unfortunately, this turned out to be both literally and figuratively the high point of our journey. On the way down, the guides offered us a choice: go back down the way we came, or take a different route down the back of the mountain. Some of the more intrepid girls on the trip (and we were all females, except for one of the two guides) spoke up and wanted to try something new, but there was obviously dissent from the two ladies in the back who were already tired, wearing ridiculous footwear, and were complaining of blisters. No one listened to them, though. After all, we were promised that this back route down would be: 1) Easier, with a more gradual decline; and 2) more interesting, with an abandoned mine shaft along the way. Both of these things were lies. I mean, OK, there was a mine shaft. But it wasn’t interesting.
At any rate, we started down the mountain and got about a mile before the guides realized we were on the wrong trail again. Now, I’ll give anyone a free pass on one wrong turn. But the second wrong turn, 5-6 miles into the hike and as the night was advancing, was something I had less patience for. It also came out in this exchange that, of our two guides, one had only taken this trail once and the other had never been on this particular route. I kind of feel like the primary job of a guide should be to know where the hell they are going, which wasn’t the case here, and that a guide should never take hikers down a trail they are not completely familiar with and especially not at night, in the dark, without the aid of a GPS device or even a compass. I got a little angry at this not only because I was hungry and tired and because I felt I had wasted my $18, but also because I twisted my ankle as we were backtracking on the trail again, walking along a section we shouldn’t have been on in the first place. To his credit, the male guide walked a little more slowly with me as I walked it off, but our female guide just kept plowing on ahead. I should also mention that at no point did either of them take ownership or apologize for guiding us the wrong way twice.
Unprofessionalism continued once we were back on the proper trail again. It turns out the “easier” trail we had been promised was a complete lie, as the “correct” trail was uneven, eroded, and covered with loose rocks. Given that we were already seven miles in, were not close to being back at the van, and that I was walking unsteadily on a hurting ankle, it’s no surprise that I completely wiped out on the trail somewhere along here. To my anger, the female trail guide (who was walking alone 20-30 feet ahead of the rest of the group), just turned and stared at me. I had ripped out the knee of my pants and cut my knee and my hand on the fall, but she didn’t even ask me if I was all right or offer to slow the pace. She just kind of watched as another hiker helped me up (by the way, I wasn’t the only one stumbling along this trail), and went right back to walking along ahead of us at a brisk pace. I almost lost it.
Finally, finally, about nine miles into what should have been an 8-mile hike, we crossed a dry creek bed and found ourselves just a short distance from the parking lot. Just a short distance from it, and below it. Yep, our “moderate,” “easier” back route finished with a scramble up another 12-or-so-foot rock wall. As our female guide scrambled up, I turned to the male guide and said, “You seriously expect us to do that?” Two other girls, one of whom had been struggling with blisters and foot pain the whole way down, were giving him the same look but they clearly just wanted it to be over. The guides had to help us all get up the wall, and mercifully it was only about a tenth of a mile from there to the parking lot. In total, we clocked about exactly nine miles.
Overall, I would say this: I really liked the King Canyon Trail and I’m interested in going up in the daytime, when I think the views would be great along the way. Round-trip, heading from this trail to Wasson Peak and back would probably be under 6.5 miles round-trip. But I will certainly never again spend the money for a “guided” night trip with amateur guides who don’t know the trail and don’t seem to care about the pacing and welfare of their hikers. Unsurprisingly, I was promised we’d have the opportunity to evaluate this trip through Outdoor Adventures. Two days later, I’m still waiting for that evaluation form in my e-mail. I’ll also be waiting a while to run or hike again, since my knee is quite bruised and my ankle doesn’t feel so hot, either. But, hey, at least I tried something new and had a real Halloween adventure. Let’s hope my next hike goes a little more smoothly!