It’s the Journey, Not the Destination

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It turns out the Mud Springs Trail in Arizona has confounded many of us Phoenician four-wheelers over the years. Back in the day before our first Jeep, George and I attempted Mud Springs in our ’99 Dodge Ram 1500 4×4, and on another outing we borrowed our neighbor’s ATV. On both occasions we missed reaching the Holy Grail at the end of the trail: an alleged “Miner’s Shack.” We tried it again when we were newbie’s in Number 7, and again we only got to Mud Springs Hill. In fact, the first time we actually made it to the Miner’s Shack was on foot and had hiked in from a different trailhead.

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Imagine our surprise when, while planning Offroadpassport.com, we discovered that our partner Kristoffer had similarly attempted The Mud Springs Trail back in the day. And like us he’d tried it in his various rigs over the years: a 2003 Dodge Dakota 4×4, his Yamaha Warrior ATV, and he’d also tried it in his first Jeep only to be turned away at the “First Obstacle.” Ah, the allure of the unattainable!

Years have passed and our Jeeps, as well as our driving skills, have collectively improved. So it is with respectful resolve that we gathered to air-down and stoically attempt the trail which had been a source of frustration. It’s slow-going but easy to negotiate at first; like driving on bowling balls as you climb out of a wash and quickly ascend the side of a low hill. As you make your way along the cactus-lined track, you notice the highway below in elevation and you have a view of the entire valley. The trail climbs about 1,000 feet the first few miles.

And then you come to a rocky out-cropping and the “First Obstacle.” This is a fine place to take a little break, during which you may want to study the trail that steeply climbs slippery, decomposing granite and makes a couple of tight switchbacks with several ledges thrown in for good measure. This is also a good time to answer the call of nature, if you catch my drift.

A few words about decomposing granite: this stuff resembles marbles on a sidewalk but in this case, the sidewalk has moguls. It’s nearly impossible to walk on, and driving on it is a little tricky too. On one of our past trips, I videoed a group of four-wheelers on Mud Springs Hill. It’s slapstick funny and yet embarrassingly sad to see one of the wives take a few steps and then have her feet literally fly out from under her, then land on her rear. That’s how slippery it is.

After the first obstacle the trail gets a little more challenging as you encounter several steep, long, rocky stretches on a shelf. Parts of it are off-camber, and there are slick spots where you have to dodge an occasional boulder that has rolled onto the trail. At about four miles in you drop into a small, boulder-strewn valley and you can clearly see Mud Springs Hill on the other side, long before you reach the base of it. Your pulse definitely quickens at the site. This little valley is an awesome lunch spot and the turn-around point for many; however, some folks hang out before heading back just to watch the daring few take the Mud Springs Hill challenge.

Mud Springs Hill is steep, decomposing granite with small to car-size boulders you must either put a tire on or hug. High clearance, low gears, good articulation, and a traction device are recommended here. There’s a boulder halfway up that really reaches out to touch you. The line we’ve found that works best is hugging it, although you can expect at least a scratch no matter what. Some people take a line further from the boulder, and inevitably their rig tips into it as it climbs a rock on the driver’s side.

On our last adventure, the bottom half of Mud Springs Hill ate one of Kristoffer’s valve-stems and by the time he reached the boulder, the passenger rear tire of his 2003 WJ was flat. This is not a place where you can change a tire, so we tried to get that side of the jeep up by stacking rocks and pushing, trying to keep it from leaning into the boulder. In the end he lost a lot of paint and the door handle pushed in and even though Kris’ damage was the worst, he wasn’t the only one to leave paint on the boulder that day.

The upper half of Mud Springs Hill is an awesome test of man and machine as it gets even steeper and more washed out, and then the fun really begins. From the top, the trail degenerates as it goes downhill into a picturesque valley of boulders and saguaro. Out here the trail is less traveled and more difficult to navigate. Careful tire placement is a must through off-camber washouts and rock-gardens. The first time we made it this far was on Easter Sunday 2009, and somewhere along this section a group member spotted a Saguaro skeleton that resembled an angel with a devilish face. We hoped this was a lucky sign when we encountered a particularly pucker-factor spot: you have to boogie across an off-camber plane of decomposing granite flanked by a ditch on one side and a boulder on the other. Adding to the excitement a bit further along is a seasonal water-crossing that can be tricky as you exit onto a steep, muddy, boulder-littered bank with wet tires.

The quest ends near the seven mile mark when you arrive at the Miner’s Shack. Yes, it exists! It’s a one-room tin shed with a fenced yard and a bunch of odd-ball things lying around, as if inviting you to set up housekeeping. There’s an oven, shelves with a mug, a plate, an old coffee tin, and other bric-a-brac. There’s a metal cot-frame and a wooden picnic table in the yard which makes it a great lunch spot; however, you’d better get an early start if you want to be there at noon. The few trail descriptions I’ve found rate Mud Springs Trail ‘4 – Difficult,’ taking about five hours in and out. It took us almost four hours just to get to the shack.

The trip back to the highway always takes less time, whether because you’re going downhill for most of it or you can’t wait to get done so you’re driving faster. I’m not sure which. Descending Mud Springs Hill requires as much concentration as going up it, but gravity makes it easier and faster. Thus the quest for the Holy Grail had been fulfilled for us, several times in fact, but it’s not The Miner’s Shack that keeps us going back. The test of our Jeeps and driving skills is the true appeal; the Miner’s Shack is merely a bonus. In many ways the Mud Springs Trail represents our motto: ‘It’s the journey, not the destination’ – and our accomplishments have not diminished our respect for the Mud Springs Trail’s ability to keep us coming year in and year out.

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