Last week I was excited to run a loop that I had spied on a trail map of Sedona a while back. The loop caught my interest because of it's remote nature (almost all of it is in a wilderness area that is really hard to access) and because it is about 20 miles long. It is really hard to find loop trails that are that long. I try really hard to find point to point or loop runs because they are more stimulating to me than out and backs and to find one of this length is really exciting.
The loop I planned to follow was the Hot Loop Trail. This trail starts just south of Village of Oak Creek and follows the base of Woods Canyon (similar to Oak Creek Canyon) and then climbs up onto the mesas left of Woods Canyon. Once on the mesas, the trail wanders along the top for quite a while and then drops back down and into Jacks Canyon. Jacks Canyon takes you back near Village of Oak Creek and then the trail breaks left, travels over a pass and then drops back into Woods Canyon and back to the car.
I had read that the trail was hard to route find on because of it's remote nature (it doesn't get much traffic) so I planned to turn back if it got to confusing. Can you smell epic yet?
Here's the story...
I started the run at about 10:30 am figuring it would take me about 4 hours to finish the run. I had some Shot Blocks, Gu Shots, 1/2 a banana, 2 cliff bars and about 1 1/2 quarts of water.
The run started at a Ranger Station and follows pleasant, flat, trails through open desert into Woods Canyon. Once in Woods Canyon the trail wanders around and I had to rock hop the creek here and there. After a mile or so traveling in the bottom of the canyon the Hot Loop Trail cut left and up onto the mesa with about 1,000 feet of gain. Once on the mesa I was rewarded with flat running on a nice trail with views of Oak Creek Spire and many other sandstone walls and spires below me to the left. After I lost view of Oak Creek Spire the trail became more difficult to follow. Many sections resembled faint cow paths. Luckily, there were cairns built here and there to help out. Also, the trail became more wet and muddy in shady sections making travel more difficult. Not bad though...so far.
Then next many miles were amazing. Even though the trail was hard to follow, it traveled along the rim of Woods Canyon with impressive views of the rushing creek thousands of feet below and cool basalt and sandstone walls along it's rim.
After a while the trail got better and traveled throught my favorite section of the run. I would say that this is as close to feeling like being in Zion National Park as I could get in Sedona. I was running on top of a sandstone mesa with slickrock everywhere. There were cute stunted trees grasping to the sandstone here and there and to the right were stunning views of sandstone spires and walls in the upper and tighter parts of Woods Canyon. To top it off, every 1/2 mile or so a nice little stream would be flowing through the slickrock and I would soak my head to refresh in the mid day heat (temps got up to high 70's). It was really, really special running through there.
Then the epic started...after that wonderful section of running the trail climbed steeply up onto another mesa on a rough trail that was smack dab in the blazing heat. This climb brought me onto a flat mesa that should have been easy traveling but the snow hadn't melted all the way yet at this elevation and there were slushy snow fields, rivers of water flowing everywhere, standing water and lots of ankle deep mud. I could have made the decision to turn back here but I was only about 1 mile from where the trail drops down into Jacks Canyon, away from the muck and back toward the car, so I trudged on.
Traveling along the mesa was slow moving as I jumped from rock to rock, slopped through mud, crossed small streams and slipped through soft snow. After mucking along the mesa for a while I realized that I missed the sign (if there ever was one) for the trail that leads down and into Jacks Canyon and I was way, way past wanting to go back and try to find it. I realized at this point that it would be easier to keep going forward and cross country to Schnebly Hill Road and go down that and at least get down into Sedona. Going back at this point (I figured I went at least 3-5 miles too far) would make for a 30 mile day and I didn't have the food and water for that. The best thing to do was shoot straight for town and then, even if it was farther to get back to my car, I could ask people in Sedona for food or water or get a ride if need be.
I was committed then...I cranked forward to Schnebly Hill Road. Suprise...the snow got deeper as I rose in altitude and got closer to Schnebly Hill Road and the Creeks got deeper. Nothing to bad though because anything is better than the mud mine field I just went through and here I could scoop up snow and eat it, saving on precious water which I still had some reserves of. After a few more miles of postholing and creek hopping I made it to the lookout on Schnebly Hill Road.
From here I knew I would make it back. It was just a matter of getting down Shnebly Hill Road to Sedona and piecing together trails to Village of Oak Creek and then run down the road to my car. I guessed this to be about 20 miles, about equal to the 20 or so miles I have already traveled to this point. It was now 2:30 pm and I had a long way to go.
Just after descending from the lookout on Schnebly Hill Road I was able to call Susan to check in with her. I was originally planning on being at my car at this point and calling her and letting here know I was done and be home soon. Well...I was now calling her to let her know that I was probably going to be at my car by around 6:30 pm and worked. Susan was wonderful and offered to pick me up but I am stubborn and felt that I got myself into this mess and I was going to finish what I started. I felt it would be a good character builder and learning experience. She probably thought I was crazy to pass up a ride back to my car and part of me was thinking the same thing.
I began the long trek down Schnebly Hill Road with no one else around (the upper half of Schnebly Hill Road closes in the winter) and it was kind of nice to be running down a nice graded dirt road with no cars or anyone around and definitely nice to not be tromping in the snow and mud anymore.
After a few miles, I reached the gate that closes in the winter on Schnebly and was welcomed by hords of people and jeep tour jeeps. Weird after all the alone time but very nice to know that from now on I can get water, food or a ride if I needed it.
Near the bottom of Schnebly I ran out of water and was on the hunt for a jeep tour to beg from. Not long after my water hunt started, I ran past a guy widdling a walking stick at a viewpoint and he hollered over to me to ask if I wanted some water. I ran over with a big grin and told him I would love some! He filled my water container with icy water from his cooler and he told me about how he comes from Europe every year to visit the Southwest and how he loves Sedona the most. He said that this is his wifes first trip here and she is off horse riding right now. I thanked him (he was very nice!) and went on my way knowing now that I had the water (tasted a little like hard alchohol) and just barely enough food (I started rationing) to make it to the car.
Not more than a mile down the road I left Schnebly Hill Road and got onto the trails that would lead me back to Village of Oak Creek. I figured I had 13-15 more miles at this point. The winding trails brought me past famous Sedona sandstone features such as Snoopy Rock and Bell Rock, on the way to Village of Oak Creek. On a normal running day I enjoy floating along these sandy and slickrock trails enjoying the views. On this run, I was just trying to keep it all together. Early on, after leaving Schnebly I learned a slow methodical shuffling movement that would keep the pain to a semi tollerable level and keep me moving forward at a decent clip. Waves of aching pain would come and go and my breathing would quicken and silly grunts would come out when ever the pain got to be to much.
Somehow I kept it going and made it to Village of Oak Creek and the road. From here it was all gravy. It didn't matter how much pain I had because I only had a few miles left and I could crawl that much if I needed to. In fact, I started to feel better. I was able to pick up the pace a little bit and the last mile to the car I actually had a decent speed going (I probably looked like I was barely running to motorists driving by...). It must have been the delirious mode I was in that got me running faster, I was saying things out loud like..."Focus!", "Good form, come on!" and "You can do this, this is easy!"
The next thing I knew I was wandering around my car in circles so that I wouldn't turn into a tight little ball, drinking tons of water and eating whatever I had in the car including a bag of salt and vinager chips. Mmmmmmm.... The time was 6:30 pm and it was a loooonnnggg day! I stayed in the parking lot for a while stretching and walking, feeling an extreme emotional high from the day and feeling very, very satisfied.
I called Susan and told her that I was fine and coming home soon, went to a gas station and got a Gatorade and Big Snickers (it was the best food I could find) and wolfed them down, drove home and had some dinner with Susan.
When the day was done, I had run about 40 miles in about 8 hours and gained and lost thousands of feet of elevation on almost all single track trails while seeing some of the most amazing terrain in the Sedona area. What a day.