Caching in the Sonoran Desert

A couple of months ago, I found out that I would be going to Phoenix, AZ (specifically, the town of Gilbert) for a short business trip in mid-May. I immediately did what I always do: I checked the area for any geocaches of interest that I could target during my free time. Turns out that there are 3 caches that were hidden in the year 2000, all within 30 minutes’ driving time of Gilbert: Geocache (GC57; Arizona’s oldest active hide), Diablo Point Cache (GCFE), and Senda de Tonto (GCED). Being a huge fan of older caches, I put these on my list, in hopes I could get to a couple of them. My day job was on a Tuesday and Wednesday, so I booked my flight out for early Monday morning, and my flight home for Thursday mid-afternoon. That would leave Monday afternoon and evening free, and Thursday morning. Could I possibly squeeze all three of these in?

Monday afternoon: Diablo Point Cache

GCFE is located in South Mountain Park, the largest municipal park in Phoenix. It’s a short 15-minute drive from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. From a timing and driving standpoint, it made perfect sense to attempt it immediately after arriving, as it’s much closer to the airport than it is to Gilbert. My flight was scheduled to arrive at 9:20am, leaving almost the entire day free. The down side to this plan was the weather forecast. The predicted high for the day was 97°F, and I would be out during the hottest part of the day. I reasoned that if I wore a hat, dressed appropriately, used lots of sunscreen, and drank LOTS of water, I should be OK in the dry desert heat. I’m in pretty good shape, and am used to stifling east coast humidity. A few days prior to leaving, I plotted the hike out on paper using OpenStreetMap trail maps. It looked like about a 4 mile out-and-back hike, assuming I started at the Mormon Trailhead, which is along East Valley View Drive at approx. N33° 21.982′ W112° 01.814′ (conveniently enough, there’s a cache right at the entrance to the parking lot: GC78F3K). While 4 miles is no problem, the tough part would be the roughly 700′-800′ of elevation gain between the parking area and my destination. What could possibly go wrong?!?

For water, I packed my Osprey Manta hydration pack, which has a 3-liter reservoir. I also packed two half-liter water bottles, for a total capacity of 4L. My flight arrived right on time (thanks, Southwest Airlines) and I filled my pack and bottles at an airport bottle-filling station before leaving to pick up my rental car. I had the car by around 10:45, and arrived at the trailhead at 11:30 after a quick stop at Subway for lunch. At lunch, I pre-hydrated with about 20oz of Gatorade, so I was as ready as I’d ever be.

The hike started out easy enough. The trail was dry and rocky, with a steady uphill grade and a few switchbacks. I thought I’d be the only person crazy enough to be hiking this trail during the heat of the day, but I passed an older couple slowly working their way uphill, and a woman heading down. After about a half mile, I approached the first cache along my hike: GCCE2F, “Camelback View”, which was placed on 02/01/2003 and named for its view of Camelback Mountain off in the distance. The area also has a great view of greater Phoenix, including downtown and the airport. After some scrambling around, I located the cache, and rested under a shady rock while I signed the log. From here, the distance to GCFE was a scant 0.83 mile, but distances can be deceiving!

The second phase of the hike was relatively flat. A breeze was stirring up, which felt really good. The area was quite beautiful, with Saguaro cacti dotting the landscape, and a very cool natural rock tunnel as well. Soon after that, the going got tough, though. I left the Mormon Loop trail and hiked a short distance on the National Trail, before taking an unnamed shortcut up the mountain to join a trail called Midlife Crisis. The shortcut trail was steep and mostly rock, and I lost the trail in a few places as I scrambled ever higher. My GPSr was a big help keeping me on course, though, and eventually I found the much-easier-to-follow Midlife Crisis. This trail took me up to a couple of peaks with incredible 360° views. You know you’re doing something right when you can see for miles in every direction. Well worth all of the hard work getting up there, even without the cache!

As I closed in on the cache, I had to lose some of my hard-fought elevation. That’s always tough on the morale, as with an out-and-back hike, I knew that I’d have to regain that elevation again! The cache itself was several hundred feet off the trail, near a large rock formation. I won’t give the hide away, but I will say that I read a few logs in advance, and had an idea where I might need to focus my search. After checking a few other places, I looked in the right spot and found the cache. What a hike!! I sat for a good 10-15 minutes resting and savoring the find. As of this writing, the cache still has its original log from December 2000! That kind of longevity definitely is the mark of a good hide.

After signing the log and replacing the cache, I had to hike back to my car. After all that work, it was hard to fathom that I was only halfway through my hike!! I considered taking an alternate route back, which would have taken me past more caches; however, not being familiar with the area, I decided to go with “the devil I knew” and return the same way I came. I was getting a little tired, and wanted to make sure I could get back without running out of water.

The hike back was faster, but still difficult, as anyone who has had to hike a significant distance downhill while tired will tell you. I was really happy when I finally got back to the parking area. All told, I had hiked 5.5 miles with a total elevation gain/loss of around 1500′-1600′. I went through about a gallon of water. As I was pulling out of the parking lot, the temperature gauge in my rental car read an even 100°F.

All in all, this was a great hike with a nice payoff at the end. Perhaps it was a little ill-advised to do alone, but I lived to tell the tale!

Thursday morning: Geocache and Senda de Tonto

The great thing about these two caches is that they are only about 6 miles apart, so it’s easy to combine them into one trip. I had a flight out at 2:10pm, and sunrise was at 5:20am. The parking area for GC57 (along Bush Hwy in Tonto National Forest) was about a 25-30 minute drive from my hotel in Gilbert. I figured that I would get on the road at 4:15 (easy to do, as my body clock was still on eastern time) and by the time I arrived, I’d have enough predawn twilight to begin my hike, and plenty of time before I had to catch my flight. I packed my breakfast to go (a “Which Wich” sandwich that I bought the previous evening) and left right on time. When I pulled up to parking, the temperature was a pleasant 62°F. A far cry from Monday’s hike!!

The area where GC57 is hidden is known as Bulldog Canyon. The parking area has a gate, and beyond the gate is a dirt road that is suitable for most vehicles (although from the looks of it, I think you’d want something high profile to get through some areas). If desired, one can get a free permit from the Forest Service (which includes gate combination) and drive to within about 0.6 miles of the cache. However, I figured I would just park outside the gate and hike in. From the gate, the cache is about 4 miles round trip. The terrain is much flatter than South Mountain, but a little over a mile of it involves bushwhacking through the desert. There are several other caches sprinkled along the road, and I found 3 or 4 of them en route.

The desert bushwhack was lots of fun. It’s not difficult to navigate, though you do have to choose your path wisely and watch your step. The primary hazard is not what you think: yes, there are cactus spines, and you will get some stuck in your shoes. It’s impossible to avoid. However, more so than the spines, there is horse poop literally everywhere!! Apparently, there are herds of wild horses that roam the desert; I wasn’t lucky enough to see any, but I sure saw plenty of evidence of their presence. Aside from that, the area is beautiful, and the views are breathtaking. It’s hard to imagine a better time of day to be there than dawn.

After about 20 minutes of winding my way between prickly plants, I closed in on GZ and found the venerable GC57. After performing the usual rituals (including releasing my own trackable), I worked my way back to parking and found a few more caches. Total hike time was about 2.5 hours, and total temperature gain was around 15 degrees, as it was in the mid 70s when I got back to the car.

Next stop was Senda de Tonto (GCED), which is about 6 miles west of GC57, right along Bush Highway. Of the 3 caches, it’s the shortest and easiest hike. The terrain is hilly, but the hike is only about a quarter mile each way. The cache is along a well-used trail, and I saw several hikers and bikers. There are some beautiful views along the trail, as well. Some of the Saguaros in this area still had blooms, which look to be popular with bees. I wrapped my hike up just past 8:00am, and got back to my hotel a little before 9, early enough to enjoy the free breakfast, finish my packing, and rest for a little bit before leaving for the airport.

I was really happy with the amount and quality of caching I was able to fit in during my limited free time on this trip. I wish all of them could be this successful!