Saturday, April 10, 2010

Off the Beaten Path-- The Bloody Basin Trail

To Denis and me, one of the joys of life is to pack up the Jeep and head off on a trail. We never know what's going to happen, we get to see the glories of this state off the paved roads, and... it's always good to blow the stink of the city off for a few hours.

For the first several years that I lived here, "Bloody Basin" was merely an exit many miles north of Phoenix on Interstate 17. It wasn't until I'd married Denis and we'd gotten some reliable off road transportation that it stopped being an exit and started being a source of adventure.

We've traveled the Bloody Basin Trail several times now, and it's never ever been dull. If we head north through Carefree and Cave Creek, Arizona, we're up in the mountains driving past the old Cave Creek Mistress Mine and the Sears-Kay ruins. There have been wildfires up here during all these years of drought, and the residents know all about being evacuated.

Going up to Camp Creek used to be what Phoenicians did in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The convergence of seven small creeks there in the mountains meant tall trees, green, shade, and cooler temperatures. By horse and wagon, it took folks a couple of days to get there, but they enjoyed every minute of the green and the cool and the water.

Once you're past the springs, you have a bit of a respite before you're up in the high mountains. One year after lots of winter rains, I thought we'd waited long enough for the water to have dried up, so we headed on up to Bloody Basin. Past the springs and the campground, I began counting the times water crossed the trail. It had to (1) completely cross the trail and (2) have a current. I counted to 34 and was in hog heaven. Hey-- when you live in the desert, simple things like water can be great entertainment!

This particular trip was the year that we stopped at Roundtree Creek, and I stood on a boulder over the rushing water, listened to the birds sing, and looked down at the ground to find little botanic gems like miner's lettuce. It was also the year that we couldn't get to Sheep Bridge because we couldn't tell how deep the lake was on the trail. (Want to see any photo larger? Click on it!)

At one point, the mud was so bad and the gradient so steep that gravity took control of our SUV. The Blazer was leaning so far over on my side that I could've reached out and touched the ground. (I have to admit that my white knuckles didn't want to straighten out enough to do this.) If we'd stopped, we would've been stuck and forced to hike miles for help. Denis, wisely, didn't stop no matter how far we were canted!

The very best part of the whole trip was getting back to Carefree. Lots of rich folks live up in the Cave Creek/Carefree area. Lots of rich folks whose expensive SUVs were shined up to a mirror finish and had never ever done what they were built to do: go off road. There Denis and I were in our plebeian Blazer which was covered in thick mud... and happily throwing big clods of it on its immaculate cousins!

A couple of years later, we were able to take the trail all the way to Sheep Bridge. It was rough, and in several sections Denis had to be very careful of wheel placement as he navigated around (and over) boulders, but it was worth every jounce and jolt to see this gem at the end of the trail.

The Verde River in Arizona is the only river which has never run dry in recorded history. It creates such a blessed oasis at Sheep Bridge under the searing desert sun, that I hope it never does.

Sheep Bridge is exactly what it sounds like: a bridge that was used as a river crossing for flocks of sheep. It is narrow, and it sways, and if you cross over to the other side, you just may see fresh cougar tracks in the sand. Humans aren't the only ones that think of this spot as an oasis.

The entire Bloody Basin area has been home to all sorts of people for hundreds and thousands of years. There are hundreds of Native American ruins scattered throughout. Some say that the area is called Bloody Basin because of what the Apaches would do to settlers who tried to live there. Others say it's because the winters can be ferocious. Whatever the reason, it's a memorable name, and when I think of it now, many images crowd my mind.

In the distance, tucked into the folds of the mountains, you can see abandoned cabins that no longer even have paths to them. The hillsides can be parched from drought, but given even the slightest traces of rain, the Bloody Basin's hillsides can be covered in quilts of Golden Desert-Trumpets and tall clumps of Blackfoot Daisies.

Line shacks for cattle ranches, made from local stone, can be found here. You'll even come across an eighteen-wheeler or two on occasion. I'm glad I'm not the one who has to drive those things along this trail to deliver supplies to the ranches!

What I always think of when I remember the Bloody Basin is the wildlife. The red flashes of summer tanagers along Roundtree Creek. The metallic glint of tiny fishes in the waters of the Agua Fria River. The incredible speed of a Coachwhip snake as it races across the trail. The iridescence of a lizard sunning itself on a large piece of sandstone. The biggest, fattest, sassiest roadrunner I've ever seen (probably because of the abundance of snakes and lizards). But one critter reigns supreme in my Bloody Basin memories.

We'd forded the Agua Fria and were just about to pass by a large ranch when Denis and I spotted what we thought was a large tree branch on the trail ahead of us. When we got close, we could see that it wasn't a large tree branch at all, but a very large snake laying across the middle of the trail.

I thought it was roadkill, and it seemed to be in very good shape. I decided, since it was dead, I'd get out of the Jeep and photograph it so I could go home and find out what it was. Denis and our friend, Helen, decided to stay in the Jeep: Denis because he didn't think two people needed to photograph it, and Helen because she thought I was nuts.

Don't get me wrong. I do not like snakes. At. All. I'm quite willing to look at them from a distance. I admit their importance in the food chain, and as long as they leave me alone, I'm more than happy to leave them alone. But... this one was dead, it was in good shape, and one thing will always hold true in describing me-- I am very curious about the natural world.

I took my camera and walked back to the snake, stopping when I was about eight feet away. At first I'd thought it was some sort of huge rattlesnake (it was a good eight feet long), but as I zoomed in the camera, I could see that those were false rattles at the end of its body.

The longer I looked at it, I could see that, not only was it a large snake, it was very beautiful in its own way. I was actually happy to get this opportunity to see one close up. Speaking of close up, I was taking photos of it in sections. I took one slow step forward and focused on the snake's head.

"Oh oh. Something's wrong. Cathy just took a giant step back!" Helen said from the interior comfort of the Jeep. Denis glanced up at the rear view mirror. In case you're wondering just what it was that I saw in my viewfinder, take a look for yourself!

What made the whole experience rather surreal was, when I got back to the Jeep, Denis noticed that the camera wasn't dialed in to the correct function, so all those photos I thought I'd taken didn't exist! Know what I did? I walked back there a second time and got it right!

All the way home, I couldn't figure out why on earth that snake was in the middle of the trail, not moving a muscle. When I did get home, I began researching. This is a gophersnake, often called "the rancher's friend" because they do such an excellent job of keeping down the rodent population. I am very glad I came across a mild-mannered rancher's friend sunning himself out on the trail that morning. It is a beautiful creature indeed-- but I still get goose bumps when I remember seeing that eye in the viewfinder!

It's been a long, long time since Bloody Basin has been just an exit off the interstate to me, and it is a shining example of why it's important to get off the beaten path once in a while. People need times like this to really appreciate the world around them.

Do any of you have your own favorite places off the beaten path? Where are they? How often do you visit? Do tell!


  1. I had no idea AZ had a river that doesn't run dry. When I first moved here, that was so astonishing to me to go over bridges with signs that it was this or that river, but with just a big dry bed below!

    You all should drive south - tons of flowers in southern AZ now!

  2. What a fun adventure, although I would have steered clear of the snake!

  3. OMG! I would love to see this for myself. My uncle was a forest firefighter based in Prescott for many years and I remember him sending us down through Carefree on one trip. AZ has so much to offer if you love the outdoors, but one of the few things I'm afraid of is snakes, so . . .

    Our favorite place (or one of them) is Algonquin Provincial Park north of Toronto. Well-marked hiking trails, lots of excellent canoeing, moose, otters, countless birds, camping or resort accommodations. It's so beautiful I can't do it justice.

  4. After reading this I do so hope I will get back to AZ this year - sounds fantastic

  5. Wow. This is by far my favorite post you have ever written. I could picture each and every adventure as you described it. Though I am one of those with a hardly-used SUV, I loved the part where your Blazer shed mud on its cousins! Great imagery.

    I lived in Arizona for 3 years and explored several exits off 17, as well as heading down to Tombstone and Bisbee. But I can't say my adventures were as adventurous as yours!

    However, if there is a state to explore, it is Arizona. From the cool pines and skiing (yes, skiing!) in Flagstaff, the red rocks and spiritual paths in Sedona, to the copper mines and Wild West history in Bisbee/Tombstone, this state will amaze you at every pass.


  6. Lovely photos! Wow, I have never made it to Sheep Bridge, but now I wish I had. I don't miss the snakes and scorpions, but I miss those amazing AZ skies and the cactus. What adventures you've had turning off the highway!

  7. You have an interesting blog--I'm excited to read it. I've been to Arizona and I love it. And, like you (referring to your profile), my dream house wouldn't have a kitchen in it either. The one I have is hardly ever used anyway, now that the kids are all grown and gone.

  8. Yikes! You have more guts than I do, regarding the snake. Even if dead, i would have stayed in the car. haha!

  9. my husband and i love to take adventures and have crisscrossed the country in search of them. our favorite AZ memory is an exit on the interstate for 'devil dog road'. that, and tucomcari, which is named in a movie that my hubby likes.

    as for our local adventures, the thing we love about living in new jersey is that we have the ocean, mountains, and two major cities (NYC and Philly) within easy drives. oh, and we don't have weather or animals that can kill us. (toxic waste and mobsters, yes, but no killer snakes or wild animals.) lol.

    nat@book, line, and sinker

  10. I loved this post Cathy. Your descriptions of the area were so realistic. I could "see" the whole trail. I hope we can check out Bloody Basin Trail the next time we are in Arizona. Thanks so much for sharing this travelogue.

  11. Rhapsody-- It took me YEARS to stop thinking it was strange to go over a bridge and not have any water underneath. Now I'm shocked when I look and there's water. (Good thing I haven't been back East for a while. Everyone would think I was nuts!)

    Kathy-- I let myself do something stupid twice a year or so. Keeps me nimble. ;)

    Barbara-- I'm not a fan of snakes either. Denis and Helen were completely shocked at my behavior on that trip. Algonquin Provincial Park sounds wonderful. I'd love to visit it!

    Jackie-- It is fantastic... although traveling it in wet weather isn't the best thing in the world to do!

    Michele-- I love this state and can't see myself ever getting tired of it.

    Beth-- Is it any wonder that I have a tendency to go to sleep whenever we're traveling on paved roads? LOL

    Catherine-- Thank you so much for stopping by. I'm glad you like my blog!

    Kris-- I told you Helen thought I was crazy! LOL

    Natalie-- You can keep your toxic waste and the Mob, and I'll keep my wild critters, okay? ;)

    Margot JR-- You're very welcome. I hope you can travel the Bloody Basin Trail, too!


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