Hiking Escudilla Mountain and a Bonus Lake Stop
On our first full day in the White Mountains we set off north to the Escudilla National Recreation Trail, one of the two routes ascending Escudilla Mountain, the third highest peak in Arizona. We had driven through miles of charred forest the previous afternoon on our way west to Hannigan Meadows the day before but it wasn’t until we drove north and then slightly west into the Escudilla Wilderness that we were able to appreciate the scale of the 2011 Wallow Fire which burned 538,000 acres. We had never traveled through such a large burned area; scorched land and withered, blackened trees stretched beyond what I could see, even from the vantage point of the peak.
Despite the devastation throughout much of the area we encountered multiple areas of regrowth and even some pockets of forest left untouched on the trail. We started the 6 mile roundtrip hike in one of these areas of healthy regrowth where juvenile aspen crowded the older stand, filtering the early morning sunlight as it streamed through their gangly branches and thin trunks. The steady ascent through the aspen continued for over a mile until we rather suddenly broke out into a large meadow with fir trees largely skipped-over by the flames. After reaching the top of the grassy expanse however we dove back into the burned area with the trail becoming more and more cluttered with sooty deadfall as we approached the top.
Despite the easy 1,500 foot elevation gain and short distance to the peak I found myself getting tired as I approached the top, fatigued I realized later partially by the constant navigation over the winter’s blowdown but mostly by the unsettling screeching of the wind through the trees. I am no stranger to the eerie sound of a strong wind ripping through a burned out area but I have never quite heard it scream as it did that day. It very literally made my anxious, and I could tell even Abby was happy when we started our descent.
The peak, cluttered with recent regrowth, didn’t offer quite the unrestricted vistas I’d expected from the high point of 10,900 feet but being able to see the scope of the fire damage and the surviving patches of green below was an amazing sight nevertheless. I could also see the extent to which the clouds had rolled in during the past hour, suggesting it might rain sooner rather than later. Our descent was entirely dry however – albeit a bit gray – and by the time we reached the truck the blue skies were pushing in again.
The clearing weather and early finish to our hike led us to stop at a lake along the forest road we’d passed on our way in. The mature ponderosa pine ringing the shore were fantastic but the deep blue color of the water and the reflection of the cumulus clouds in the lake made it picture-perfect. It was special too that we had the place to ourselves, as we’d had the trail to ourselves earlier with the exception of a ranger going to check on some equipment at the peak. It’s easy to see the evidence of heavy use the Escudilla Wilderness gets during the summer months in the broad trails and well-worn paths around the lake shore, but our entire day was spent uninterrupted allowing us to enjoy the scenery that much more.