For my birthday this year, we decided to return to Overgaard to spend another weekend at the Gaard-Chak. Although we really do enjoy camping and backpacking, it was just as nice to have the cabin to use as a base of operations for hiking adventures in the White Mountains; and we had enjoyed the time that we had spent there for our anniversary so much that we thought it would be fun to do a repeat, this time with Mary.
And Erika, too. Erika was also planning to spend the weekend at the Gaard-Chak, so she invited us to join her. In fact, she was already heading up on Friday, by herself, so she asked us if Mary wanted to come along with her for the ride, to keep her company. She gladly said yes, because that gave John and me the chance to do a date night before driving up north to join them on Saturday morning.
On Saturday morning, August 11, John and I awoke early, despite a late night spent drinking beer and bowling, and we started on the road to Overgaard. It was a long, two and a half hour drive to get there, so we decided to break it up a bit by doing some short hikes along the way.
The first hike we did was at Willow Springs Lake, which is located just off of SR 260, just east of Woods Canyon Lake. John had read about a trail that leads from a parking area just off of Willow Springs Lake Road (FR 149) to the lake, and he was very much interested in figuring out where it goes. His motive was to find out if he could snowshoe to the lake by way of that trail, so he wanted to try it out during the summer first, when there wasn't snow on the ground.
Unfortunately, we didn't make it far on the trail. As soon as we left the car, we immediately found ourselves walking through the mud, in the midst of thousands of flying insects that were buzzing through the humid air...and it only got worse from there. We only hiked about a third of a mile then decided to turn back and return to the car; we would have to try that trail another day, when conditions were drier.
Another short hike that we wanted to do was at the Canyon Point Campground, only a few miles away from Willow Springs Lake. Although we had visited Canyon Point Campground before, a couple of years ago when Aunt Lotte was staying there in her motor home, but we had no idea that there was a fun little trail to hike there. That trail was the Sinkhole Trail #503, a half-mile long trail that, as the name suggests, leads to a sinkhole. It sounded interesting, so we decided to go check it out.
The trail began at the B Loop within the campground; a tenth of a mile later, though, the trail left the campground through the back gate and entered the forest. For nearly a half of a mile, the path wound through the forest. Then, it suddenly turned and began to descend into the sinkhole.
The sinkhole was an interesting phenomenon. As soon as we entered it, it was like being in a completely different ecosystem. The forest outside of it was sparse, but inside, it was dense and green, filled with spruce and firs and aspens. There were green ferns blanketing the ground and an abundance of wildflowers all about. It was such a beautiful place that we could have stayed there all day, just admiring it.
Eventually, though, we had to climb out and hike back to the campground - a hike that took us only fifteen minutes. On the way back we were once again bombarded by thousands of flying insects - mainly mosquitoes - so John asked me if I had packed the Deet.
"Nope," I replied. "I wasn't expecting this many bugs."
That prompted us to make another stop on the way to Overgaard - this time, in Forest Lake, where we purchased mosquito repellent to ward off those nasty bloodsuckers. Of course, by that time, John's legs were covered with mosquito bites that he had received while we were hiking the Willow Springs Lake Trail. Now they were itching like mad, so he also had to buy some cortisone to sooth the sting.
While we were in Forest Lakes, we decided to stop for lunch at The Bugles, one of our favorite restaurants on the Mogollon Rim. There, we had a nice, relaxing lunch and enjoyed one last hour of child-free time before we drove the last ten miles to Overgaard.
By the time we arrived in Overgaard, I think Erika was looking for some child-free time. Beginning on Friday night, as they drove to Overgaard, Mary had talked Erika's ear off; she couldn't stop giggling about the skunk they had found dead on the side of the road (it smelled so bad!). Then, when they arrived, they discovered that a twelve-pack of sodas had exploded inside the refrigerator. The last person to have used the cabin (thankfully, not us!) had turned up the refrigerator but had forgotten to turn it back down again. The sodas froze and eventually exploded. Mary had never seen anything like that before, and she giggled about that, too, even as she helped Erika clean it out.
Some time after we arrived at the Gaard-Chak, we decided to go take a little drive, to kill some time before dinner. John announced that he had loaded the coordinates for a geocache in Heber, located off of Black Canyon Road. We turned left at the IBG grocery store and took Black Canyon Road for about two miles, until the road turned to dirt. Just past the end of the pavement, we came to an ATV trail and a rocky hill, where the cache was hidden. The cache was a difficult one to find - in fact, it took us nearly twenty minutes to find it, and it was twenty minutes of climbing all over the rocky hill, looking in every nook and cranny.
After finding the cache, we returned to the Gaard-Chak and began to get ready for dinner. For my birthday dinner, we were going to return to Kabuki, the Japanese teppenyaki restaurant where we had enjoyed our anniversary dinner last month. Before we could leave, though, we took some pictures outside, on the old bench under the pinion in the front yard, while we were all dressed up for dinner.
We drove into Pinetop-Lakeside that evening and had a fun dinner at Kabuki. Instead of getting a private table, this time we did teppenyaki seating and enjoyed a fabulous show. The teppenyaki chef was very impressive, and we were all entertained by his antics and showmanship. At one point, for Mary's benefit, he hollowed out half an onion and turned it into a volcano that shot fire into the air! On top of that, the food was excellent and we enjoyed every single bite. To go with it, we enjoyed a lovely sake, and yes, there was a free dessert, too (and not green tea ice cream this time). It was a great experience!
After dinner, we returned to the Gaard-Chak to turn in for the night; it was an early night, but it was important that we get enough rest for our hike in the morning...
The next day, our plan was to hike the Country Club Trail #632 - the same trail that John and I had hiked during our anniversary trip in July. Even though the trail was 4.5 miles long (including the spur up to the top of Pat Mullens Mountain), it was flat and easy enough that Mary could do it with minimal complaints. And, if we got started early enough, we could be done hiking by lunchtime, meaning we could grab a bite to eat in Show Low.
We left the Gaard-Chak around 6:30 that morning and drove to the Country Club Trailhead, within the Pinetop-Lakeside town limits; it took us just over and hour to get there.
Our hike got off to a great start that morning. We hit the trail around 8:00 a.m. and hiked at a very good pace, considering that we were hiking at the pace of a seven year-old. I think it helped that Mary was hiking with Grandma; she always seems to do better when Grandma is there to keep her entertained.
By 8:30 a.m., we made it to the junction with the spur trail for the summit of Pat Mullen's Mountain. Since Mary was hiking well that morning, we decided to go ahead and take the spur to the top of the mountain; that would also give us another chance to look for the geocache that was hidden up there - the one that we couldn't find the last time we were there.
As we took the switchbacks up to the top of Pat Mullen's Mountain, we stopped several times to check out the giant junipers along the way. There was one juniper that was so large that John suggested we hold hands and form a circle around it, to see if we could do it. Even with the four of us, we barely made it around the tree! We also took a picture of Mary in front of it, for perspective, and she was a dwarf next to it!
We made it to the top of Pat Mullen's Mountain with minimal complaints from Mary; once at the summit, we all sat down on the pile of rocks to rest and to eat our snacks. Then, John pulled out the GPS and tried once again to zero in on the geocache that was hidden up there. This time, I managed to find it, hidden in a small depression in the ground and covered with leaves. I'm not sure why we couldn't find it the first time, because it really wasn't that hard to find at all!
After resting - and after replacing the cache to its hiding place - we started hiking back down the mountain. The difficult part of our day was over; from there, it was all downhill - or flat - all the way back to the trailhead. Mary continued to hike strongly for most of the morning, and we were able to make very good time.
While hiking that morning, John discovered that he had the coordinates for yet another geocache along the trail. This one was hidden in the gnarls of an old log that had once belonged to a juniper tree. It didn't take us long to find it, leading us to believe that we were finally getting good at this geocaching thing.
Mary finally started to wear down about a half of a mile from the car; unfortunately, that was when it started sprinkling on us, so we had no choice but to hurry her along.
We finished hiking the 4.5 mile-long trail at 11:30 a.m. - just in time for lunch! And since we were already in Pinetop-Lakeside, it didn't take us long to get to lunch. We stopped at the local Red Devil restaurant and shared a large pizza (with a couple of beers to wash it down). It was a delicious lunch and a great way to end a fun morning of hiking!
After lunch, we headed back to Overgaard; along the way, we bypassed the turnoff for the Gaard-Chak to go look for one last geocache. It was one that John and I had found during our anniversary trip, but we thought it would be fun for Mary and Erika to find this one, too. The cache was located right at the junction of SR 277 and SR 377, just north of Overgaard. Although we thought it was an easy find, it wasn't as easy for Mary and Erika; in the end, we had to help them find it.
Once the cache container had been replaced, we all got back into the car and returned to the cabin, so that we could pack up, clean up and lock up. We all pitched in and helped Erika get everything cleaned up, but before we were done, she released us from our cleaning duties, stating that she would get the rest of it done without us. (I think she just wanted some peace and quiet...either that, or she wanted the cleaning done her way. I can certainly appreciate that.)
And so, with that, John and Mary and I climbed into the car and started back towards Phoenix. Another fabulous birthday weekend had come to an end...
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