Westerners Ascend the East Side of Oak Creek Canyon

April 29, 2022

By John Regalski

Westerner Mustangs spotted this beautiful Alligator Juniper on a recent hike. These trees can grow to be 500 years old, and parts were used by Native Americans for teas, incense, and chewing gum.
On a sunny, late March morning, the Mustang Group of The Sedona Westerners gathered to hike Harding Springs Trail and continue to Ritter Butte. The original plan was to hike Hot Loop Trail however, due to the expected heat, it was decided to switch to a trail that would provide comfortable shade. The Harding Springs Trail in the Oak Creek Canyon fit the bill. The trail is enveloped by Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir trees which is typical of the central Arizona Canyons. Ritter Butte would be our destination. Prior to the hike, Jerry Walker, our leader, provided an overview of what to expect. He had scouted the area recently along with Terri Petrescu who would serve as the “tailgater” to ensure the safety of the group. The Mustangs are one of seven groups that comprise The Sedona Westerners. Mustang hikes take place every Thursday. The majority are 7 to 9 miles in length with an elevation change of 1,000 to 2,000 feet. The elevation of our trailhead was at 5,440 ft with Ritter Butte reaching to 6,975 feet and our total distance was 5 miles. We parked our cars at the Cave Springs Campground located on 89A directly across from the Harding Springs Trailhead. The route follows an old horse trail and, for that reason, it is one of the wider paths with not as severe an ascent although still moderately steep. Most Sedona Westerner hikes are divided into two groups with one being leisurely while the other moving at a slightly brisker pace. Our group decided to remain together and move at an easy pace which would allow for greater appreciation of our surroundings. We were greeted at the beginning of the hike by tall, healthy Ponderosa Pines which kept the trail cool. Within one half mile we discovered hitching posts. These posts may have been placed by Colonel Harding who settled in the area after the civil war as did many others. He farmed in the Cave Springs area and used it as a pack trail to transport supplies and farm goods between the canyon and the Mogollon Rim. There was evidence of a past apple orchard not far from where we parked our vehicles. After hiking for a mile with an elevation gain of 800 feet, we arrived at the rim. At that point, we took our first break where we were treated to an expansive vista of the west rim of the canyon. The eastern sun lit up the rock and highlighted the “Baby Carriage” rock formation located at the top of the rim. After everyone was rested, we continued along the rim. We were now in a more open environment which involved only minimal climbing. There were many signs of renewal noted along our path. Bluebells were just beginning to open, Verbenum were in full bloom and the incredibly soft petals of the Mullein plant were starting to take shape. There were many robust Ponderosa Pine saplings surrounding us. One member of the hike even commented that we were part of the renewal given that there were a number of new Sedona Westerners on this trip. One standout feature was the unique Alligator Juniper. The tree’s name comes from its distinctive bark which is rough and square-plated. The thick bark grows in a checkered and furrowed pattern. You will find it on dry hillsides at moderate elevations such as we did. It is drought and heat tolerant. Young trees have a growth rate of 0.6 inches in diameter per decade with a lifespan of 500 years. Native Americans used their strongly scented berries for teas, incense and cornbread. Tree resin was used for chewing gum. As lunchtime neared, we arrived at the top of Ritter Butte. With unobstructed views and a bright blue sky, we were able to scan the horizon and view the incredible red rocks to the west & south. To the north was majestic snow-capped Humphreys Peak, the highest natural point in Arizona with an elevation of 12,637 feet. It is located within the Kachina Peaks Wilderness 11 miles north of Flagstaff. After a lunch consisting of homemade meals, lively conversation and many photo ops, we began our trek back down to Cave Springs all the while continuing to enjoy the mild temperature provided by our Conifer canopy.

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