During our checkout process from San Diego, we had a few free days and decided to take a trip to the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park in Arizona. We started off with a 6 hour drive from San Diego. Along the way we passed through the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness Area which is always a sight to behold. When we had nearly arrived at our destination we started to wind our way up into higher elevations and then were finally in the small town of Yarnell, AZ. Yarnell did not have many open businesses but there was a Dollar General open and we stopped for some snacks. For dinner we had instant soup cups and peanut butter and jelly: a very fancy dinner. We planned to van camp in the area, and there really were not a lot of options as small as the town was. So, we cooked dinner and stayed the night in the parking lot for the trailhead. Early the next morning we were up and getting ready for our big hike. The memorial hike is around 7 miles long with an elevation gain/loss of around 2,500ft. The weather forecast looked like there would be some wind coming in the afternoon so we wanted to get started as early as possible. I think we did not make it onto the trail until 9am though with getting the beds broken down and breakfasts (instant oatmeal) and everyone moving in the same direction. The weather was cool, but not terrible. Along the trail were steel plaques affixed to large rocks telling about each member of the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew that died in the middle of a wildfire in 2013. Each member had their own plaque with a photo.
It was sobering to read about these fine young men that gave their lives in the defense of others. As we crossed over the ridge at the top of the mountain the wind was blowing decently and Chipmunk started getting pretty winey due to being cold. We found some shelter behind a cluster of large rocks, took him out of the pack he was riding in and snuggled him up against Kevin with a blanket. Before too long he was warmed up again and the hike pressed onward. As we neared the end of the trail we could see the fatality site below us in the box canyon. We hiked down into the canyon and spent some time at the fatality site memorial before making our way back up to the ridge. By this time the wind had kicked up considerably, hours ahead of when the weather channel predicted it to build. Unpredictable wind conditions like these were exactly what the Hotshot crew was up against some 8 years ago, putting the whole thing into even better perspective. It was lunchtime by this point, but everyone was well aware of the deteriorating weather and when put to a vote the whole family agreed to skip lunch in favor of hiking out on empty stomachs so we could get off the trail before the weather really got bad. An updated forecast advised of gusting winds around 50mph with a wind chill in the mid 30s. We remembered that we keep an emergency bivvy sack in our pack and wrapped it around Chipmunk for the hike back. He was much warmer this way.
Our pace was much quicker on the way back down, which was aided by the downhill slope of the trail, but I believe we all knew we wanted to be off the mountain. Miss Kicky Feet always amazes us by doing her own hiking. At 4 years old she was able to hike the whole trail on her own and she spent the last half of it pretending to be an airplane, flying and gliding into the strong wind, complete with sound effects. Upon reaching the bottom we encountered a mildly frantic mother asking if we had seen her daughter who was further up the trail and had texted her mom that the weather was deteriorating. We remembered seeing her and thinking she was not properly equipped for the temperatures and wind, but we were not in a position to head back up the trail to find her. We advised her that we had seen a State Parks ranger on the trail and that hopefully she would run into him. Back at the van we loaded up and drove on to Prescott, AZ which was the home base of the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew. We found a learning center dedicated to the memory of the Hotshot crew which had multiple displays describing the people, tools, and fire conditions that ultimately led to the demise of the team. It was apparent that this western town where everyone knew everyone was still very much grieving the loss of these 19 local heroes. We finished out the day with dinner at Cracker Barrel (Prescott is a much larger town than Yarnell) and van camped in the Cracker Barrel parking lot. The next day brought even colder temperatures and freezing rain with occasional sleet, so we elected not to head out on the planned trail hike. Instead we opted to explore the downtown area including the former Sam Hill hardware store and The Palace Saloon. The expression "What in Sam Hill's!" started here referring to the odd/unique things that could be found at the hardware store. The saloon offered some very tasty grub and a large wooden bar from the 1800s. The bar even survived a massive downtown fire due the farm hands that were drinking that day dragging it out of the building and across the street prior to the bar's building burning to the ground. While it may sound like a tall tale, there is photographic evidence of the story's truth. The amount of history within the saloon was more than enough to warrant the stop.
What a difference a day can make! The following day was not in the 30s nor sleeting, but rather it was sunny and warm. After making breakfast we hiked out to the Alligator Juniper tree, an important tree just outside Prescott that the Hotshot crew defended during a wildfire just days prior to the fatal Yarnell fire. The tree is actually listed on the U.S. Forest Service list of historic places. The tree is very old and very large compared to the other brush and small trees around it. This tree has also served as a lasting memorial to the Granite Mountain Hotshots with items placed on and around the tree by visitors from around the nation. Upon returning to our van and changing into lighter clothing we headed northeast again to the Petrified Forest National Park, which we have been to a few times already, but wanted to see again before heading overseas for the next few years. After the Petrified forest we decided it was time to return to San Diego and prepare to leave California. We really enjoyed this impromptu hiking vacation and time spent together.
For anyone not familiar with the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew, I would encourage you to read about them and/or watch the movie Only the Brave (2017) which depicts the events that led up to the creation and demise of the Hotshot crew. I have made a video of our pictures and posted it on YouTube which can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uiDGjvxkPv0