The morning view from the upper South Fork Trail. Photo by Jonathan Patt.

Written by Olivia Weinstein, Wild Stew Field Crew Member.

Howdy, readers! 

Olivia here, finally defrosted from the snow that the sky dumped on the Wild Stew Crew as we continued to work on the South Fork Trail in the Chiricahua Wilderness this past week. I’m especially elated to have my fingers back so I can type to you a reflection of the fun times, the trying times, and the overall memorable times during our third consecutive hitch working in South Fork! 

I think by now, every member on the crew would tell you they are very familiar with the South Fork area, given that we have been making our bi-monthly journey down to Cave Creek Canyon since early November to work on a very special trail that holds so much beauty and so many stories in its soil. From entering beneath a rich riparian canopy of walnut and sycamore, to traversing 19 creek crossings up canyon, there is not much that South Fork lacks in biodiversity. Additionally, South Fork has been a longstanding project for a dedicated and wide-ranging community of people who travel near and far to also maintain these 7.5 miles of trail, in turn creating their own memorable experiences that have been forged into South Fork’s ongoing story. Us crew-folk are very lucky to be part of that ongoing story too, and boy was this last hitch one for the books!

It can be a bit tough accepting that you are about to hike 6 miles up canyon through the infamous “chute” of South Fork with your pack in its heaviest condition, packed with 8 days worth of food and all of the bulky layers you are not wearing because things get rather… sweaty. But that’s what we did all the way up to High Camp! I should mention now that we were a partial crew this time around, with only 5 crew members working this hitch to wrap up South Fork and finally reach the Crest Trail. Because we are never quite complete without the rest of our Wild Stew kin, we definitely had to keep a “small but mighty” mindset throughout this hitch. 

High Camp, our home base for those next 8 days, rests just over 8,000′ in elevation under towering pines that aid the wind in roaring louder and louder on those windy nights that some of us use ear plugs to escape. But what we couldn’t escape at High Camp were the mice! We quickly discovered that we were sharing our kitchen with some pretty menacing rodents, one of which actually stole a square of cheese off of Sam’s lap. From that point on, our nights around the campfire consisted of throwing both rocks and highly insulting remarks at the mice, but in between that chaos were the most genuine laughs and yelps, so thank you mice. 

Before/after of tread leading into a switchback on the upper South Fork Trail. Photos by Jonathan Patt.

This hitch was especially tread-heavy, as most of the brushing required to clear the corridor ahead of us was completed beforehand. Some sections of the upper end of South Fork were a breeze to tread through, like the one section where we completed 250 feet of tread before our first morning break. But other sections… not so much. As we approached sections of north-facing trail, frozen ground was becoming more of a common occurrence and it slowed our tread train down a bit. Despite the frozen ground though, we still focused our efforts on prioritizing a trail width wide enough to fit both hikers and pack animals for years to come hopefully. In order to establish that, the backslope of the tread measured higher than average; sometimes it was almost the same height as our crew member Mary. While it took us a bit more time and muscle than usual, the problematic north-facing tread now has a new and better look—gorgeously curved and contoured! 

Before/after of tread passing through a higher switchback on the upper South Fork Trail. Photos by Jonathan Patt.

Just as pirates would say though, “a storm’s a brewin’.” As our distance to the Crest was becoming shorter and shorter, a winter storm was approaching and making fall on Monday afternoon. Considering the sections of trail that still needed maintenance sit around 9,000 feet of elevation and hardly any tree cover remains after the 2011 fire, it became pretty obvious that completing the remaining 1,200′ of tread amidst a winter storm with 17″ of snow forecast was not going to be a feasible goal. A tough call was made on Monday morning to pick up camp and move lower into the canyon bottom to work the remaining two days of our hitch where the snowfall wouldn’t pose as great of a threat as it would have at the upper end of the trail. It was sad news to hear that we had to leave the upper end of South Fork unfinished for now, especially considering all of the time and work a lot of people dedicated over the years to get the trail in great shape all the way to the top, but it was the right call.

On Monday, we shifted our focus to maintenance of the trail towards the bottom of the “chute”, where a section of tread needed to be widened. Soon after work began, BAM, the snow began falling and it was a lovely sight. Treading in the snow was a first for a couple of us, and we couldn’t help but comment on how neat it was to look back at the white fluff covering our finished trail as we moved along throughout the day. 

Then Tuesday morning came, and with it a total of over 8″ of snow overnight, as well as an overnight low of 15° forecast for the next night. After sharing with each other how soaked our sleeping bags and tents were because of condensation, another tough call had to be made. With both efficiency and safety in mind, we all agreed to let the snow win this time around. With camp packed up and tools gathered, we began our trek back towards the trailhead Tuesday morning, but this hike out would surely be different than the last two.

With the weight of the snow, numerous trees had fallen and bushes sagged into the trail which created quite the bushwhacking experience on the way down. A lot of branch shaking was done to alleviate the whacking, but with that came those trickles of snow so skilled at sneaking down the backs of our shirts. I guess we needed an extra dose of alertness to keep us focused all the way to the parking lot! But what really became clear is that snow changes everything. There’s nothing quite like seeing red rock sprinkled with it, or seeing the massive clumps of it gathered along the skinniest pine needles, or watching it drip-drop as it melts in the sunlight. 

The hike out through South Fork. Photo by Jonathan Patt.

While the snow did change our plans in ways we did not anticipate nor want, it offered us an absolutely beautiful and unforgettable exit from South Fork, for now at least.

We’ll see you all in the new year!

Sunset at the South Fork/Crest Trail junction. Photo by Jonathan Patt.