My friend Steve is getting ready to head out to Texas for ten days and expressed his desire to hike up Miller Peak, a summit he hadn't bagged yet. Since I was due a peak this month, decided to join him. When he emailed me on Sunday saying he was able to hike on Monday, we agreed to meet at 6am at the parking lot to start this hike.
I was seven minutes late. I was too late to watch the sun rise from the parking lot. (Why did I think it would be a 15-minute drive to the trail head? It's more like 25 minutes!) "Nina has been rubbing off on you!" said Steve as I pulled up, referring to Nina's incessant habit of always being late. It took another 12 minutes to get all my stuff ready before we took off at 6:19am. Zeke seemed hesitant to get out of the truck and hiked slowly behind me the entire time. This was a concern for me as he's normally exuberant and alert. Have I been pushing him too hard? Does he have an injury or illness?
The only people at the trail head were Border Patrol agents. For the entire duration of this hike, we were the only ones on the trail. That was fine with us. As soon as we got to the trail we took our dogs off the leashes. Trace flushed a few flocks of birds but Zeke heeled to me the entire time. I stayed in front to take pictures, stopping to allow Steve to catch up with me.
Steve had researched the elevation of the trail and knew what he had volunteered for. There is no easy way up to Miller Peak: elevation gain is around 4000' no matter from what trail one starts at. This southerly approach is the easier approach, but that's not much consolation while hiking up the grade.
Steve started out strong. He has been hiking regularly since returning from Texas last fall and I saw improvement in his pace since our joint hike up Carr Peak last October. But he soon tired after the first mile. There are three abandoned and closed mines in the second half of the second mile that interested him. There was no water in the spill drain by the third mine shaft, something that can provide water to a thirsty dog.
It's 1.8 miles from trail head to the Miller Peak Wilderness boundary and once we got to the wilderness boundary, we took plenty of stops to rest. Zeke continued to look tired and didn't drink much. What he didn't drink, Trace gladly finished for him. But I soon experienced a leak on one of my half-gallon plastic bottles, perhaps a pinhole puncture that made me loose a pint of precious water. I wanted to make sure the dogs had enough water. We stopped to pour what water I had left in Steve's containers. That gave me access to a quart of water which I had to ration. My pants and back were wet from the leak.
The trail's grade lessens in elevation gain once in the wilderness, but after a half mile of relatively level terrain, another ascent is felt. "I thought you said this was level!" said Steve somewhat disapprovingly. The ascent begins as the trail slowly gets ready to jump over to the western side of the ridge. I learned fast to no longer add commentary to the trail. What's level to me is not level to someone else.
The southern Huachuca Crest Trail (part of the Arizona trail) suffered extensive damage during the June 2011 fire. Sadly, no new Douglas firs are growing where once old growth stood. The scrub oaks that have regrown since the fire are now suffering from drought again; so many leaves are turning yellow and dropping. I see that color change even in the valley. The winter rains helped only while it was raining and we've had a warm, dry spell since early March. We only saw four kinds of wildflowers, too: red cardinal, purple lupine, small white cluster flowers and small yellow prostate flowers near the peak. Dry weather prevents flowers from blooming and the mountains looked dry.
The morning sun was still low enough to provide some shade once we were on the western ridge. We stopped a lot, averaging a mile an hour. Zeke rested in shade whenever he could. He drank some but let Trace take his snacks.
Once we made it to Lutz saddle we had a mile to go before going on the spur trail to the summit. Steve was determined to bag that peak. Lutz saddle suffered minimal damage during the fire and thus is one of the few shaded areas left with mountain grasses swaying in the wind. We rested again here, among visible signs of border crosser camp sites: empty cans of albacore tuna "en aciete" were near a rock fire ring; I took those back with me on the return hike.
We stopped to look at the view. I pointed out well-known landmarks: Lutz canyon and the steep trail to the top, old mining sites with what looks like overgrown mining trails no longer listed on current forest maps. And, as expected, the trail takes another steep ascent in that last mile as it passes through a half-mile rocky cliff, with its natural stone steps and loose rocks that can twist even the hardiest of ankles. The views to the west from here are spectacular and that makes dredging up this trail worth it. Here's where I like to linger, too.