Tunnel? There’s A Tunnel Around Here? 7-23-11

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This trip was going to be the second try of a weekend where we returned to the valley via a large red tow truck. There was a circle route Ralph had mapped out for us to do along the Old Rim Road that, unfortunately, had to be postponed that trip. We were looking forward to this ride.


We camped at a different spot, than we had previously, that boasted a spectacular view of Payson and the surrounding and distant mountain ranges. We spent most of Friday afternoon and evening looking through binoculars, scouring maps, using a compass and finding information on our phones to identify landmarks. I spotted my beloved Four Peaks and nearby Mount Ord. It was a view from the north so Four Peaks was not easily recognizable. We enjoy this activity immensely. Thankfully campfires were permitted this weekend as the last time we were here, our evening was dark and chilly. Seriously, to me camping isn’t camping if we can’t have a fire. The campfire is the warmth, the light, the wonder of the forest at night. It is pure pleasure.

Hot coffee, cereal, and hazy sunrise made a spectacular morning from our boulder on the edge of the Mogollon Rim. It was time to get packed up and ready for our ride. We brought our helmets for this ride because it might be chilly, the roads were good so it would probably be pretty windy and there’s always the threat of showers this time of year. There was a short hike planned so we brought extra Gatorades and waters and off we went.

The hike was down off the rim to a railroad tunnel that had been attempted in the early 1880’s. It was supposed to go up through the rim and span 3100ft, taking the rail from Globe to Flagstaff. After digging only 70ft it was abandoned for lack of funds. Ralph and I both like tunnels and especially anything old and historic Arizona. We were looking forward to checking this place out. According to the GPS, the hike would only be ¾ of a mile to the tunnel. We aren’t really fond of hiking being kind of lazy and not in the greatest shape but we decided we could handle a 1.5mile round trip walk. Right away I was not too thrilled when the trail headed almost straight down. I knew my knees and calves would be protesting soon and for days after. But it was only ¾ of a mile right? And we wanted to see the tunnel!

Normally if we plan to leave the quad and have our helmets along, we take a cable and lock to secure them to the vehicle while we are away. Unfortunately, we didn’t think to bring it and our $1500 pair of helmets was left on the floor covered in coats. Not very secure and I didn’t like it. But it was only ¾ of a mile right? We’d be back soon! He grabbed a Gatorade and handed me a bottle of water and off we went.

After maybe ½ mile, Ralph informed me that his GPS now said the trek was 2 more miles. What?? Really??  Not cool! I was carrying my heavy jacket and a water bottle and the camera was swinging from my neck. This was all tolerable for a very short hike, but now I was feeling uncomfortable and getting a bit grumpy. I told Ralph I wanted to stash my water bottle and pick it up on the way back. He thought we should hang on to it and later on we were grateful we hadn’t left it behind. As we plodded on we saw some cool critters. Ralph saw some coyotes and I spotted (and heard) a young rattlesnake. But where was that tunnel? And shouldn’t there be a sign? This was getting pretty unfun as was thinking about the climb back up and being worried about our helmets. All of a sudden we found ourselves at a small parking lot at the bottom of the rim that we had been to on a previous trip several months before. This was most unsettling because the tunnel was supposed to be up high, not too far off the rim. Ok we were lost. Not “uh oh” lost- we were at a parking lot and there were people around but we were majorly off course.

Whatever we do, we do it to the best of our ability and we do it well. And in this case we were messing up spectacularly! Ralph and I are both determined and stubborn so we hiked back up a ways and then back down a ways, crossed the creek and then recrossed it, and then decided to go up a canyon to our east. The tunnel HAD to be up that way. Where else would it be? The GPS had failed us but only because Ralph plugged in the wrong coordinates. He says he will always trust the GPS. I didn’t know what to think about the GPS but I did know that we were hiking up a canyon where there was no trail. The brush was fairly thick and big rocks made hiking slow and tedious. I wasn’t really tired, just apprehensive and of course thinking about the steep trail that we had come down off the rim on and of course worried about our helmets. The longer we were gone the better the chance that someone unscrupulous would come along and snatch our beautiful, expensive helmets.

As we kept going, we maintained our hopes that we would find the tunnel and at some point agreed that if and when we came upon it that we would just climb out the rim from wherever we were. Way too far and rough to go back the way we had come. We decided that if the tunnel was ahead that it had to be toward a draw to the north. We decided that tunnel or no tunnel that we would go on up that draw. It was getting steeper now and we were in a wash of sorts. Every now and then there would be boulders that we weren’t sure we could get past. It was so weird to see elk tracks along the way even in the very steep parts. I wondered how elk could navigate and climb this stuff. Finally the creek bed became impassable and we were forced to climb out up the side. To the west of us the top of the rim looked lower than the draw summit we were heading towards and I thought it might be a gentler incline after that to get to the road. There was a cluster of rocks and I thought we should head to the right of them. We couldn’t get the data on our phones to work to check the terrain so we were left to guess and then just go for it. So that’s what we did.

The Gatorade had been drained probably by the time we reached the parking lot so we had been conserving the water for a while. Luckily I’m not one who requires lots of water and I rarely feel thirsty so I was ok with just a sip now and then. But at this point the water was gone. And it was getting kind of hot. Up towards the rim we climbed.  And the climbing was hard. All of the rocks were loose. All of them! Even the big ones worried me since I was putting more of my weight on them. It was treacherous. We had to use our hands almost the entire rest of the way. Manzanita was everywhere. Yikes. I hate Manzanita. It doesn’t push to the side when you try to get through it. The Dude Fire in 1990 had left lots of dead branches sticking up out of the dirt. Manzanita can be nearly impenetrable and on a path this steep things were pretty hairy. Dead or live Manzanita, loose rocks, on a really steep hill, in the sun, with no water and a long way still to go?  Not good. Really, really not good. And worse yet, what about our helmets, darn it?

I think I must have been running on adrenaline because I don’t recall ever feeling tired. I just wanted to keep going to get out. I just needed to get out. Ralph had been feeling ill since we came out of the creek bed, complaining of nausea and dizziness. He needed to rest frequently and we climbed towards any tiny bit of shade we could see. He needed to lie down sometimes and it was tricky with all the rocks and on an incline so steep. At one point he rested on a fallen tree horizontal to the slope. I sat by him and held onto him. His condition worried me and probably kept me from freaking out myself until we got to our destination to the right of the rocks. That’s when my heart sank. We were not on the rim like I had hoped we would be. We were on a ridge that was jutting out from the rim. And worse yet, the rest of the ridge was mostly huge boulders with very little dirt around them and incredibly steep. It looked impassable. We rested under a tree and weighed our options. We could see the draw we had come down from the rim to the west. If we had our binocs we may have even been able to see the quad parked at the top. We considered a route over to that draw. It would be super steep down from where we were and then back up the steep trail. But there would be water for sure at the creek. It would take us hours to get there and we weren’t sure we could make it without water. To our right was the rest of the draw that the rocky creek bed forced us out of. We could go over to that but it was also pretty far and super steep. Again the lack of water worried us. We just really needed to get out now.

Ok onward. To the right or left of the boulders? We started on the right. And after forcing myself through some Manzanita I found myself at the base of some boulders that I could not climb up. And I could not go around them. That’s where I lost it. I started to cry. I think it was a feeling of being trapped and losing hope. My mouth was feeling dry and sticky after crying and that terrified me. Ok no more crying. Back we went to our tree to plan our next move. We thought briefly about making a call for rescue. I thought about whether my boss would believe me if I told her I was stranded on the Mogollon Rim and couldn’t make it to work Sunday morning. A couple of times we toyed with the idea of my going ahead and then bringing back water. But we decided we needed to stay together. We do things well and we had to finish this adventure, together. We had to try the left side.

I began to have renewed hope as we were able to inch our way past the rocks and move farther up the ridge. It continued to be hand over foot and loose rocks and lots of rests but finally we emerged onto the rim. I was out first and I weakly hollered down to Ralph that I was out. He didn’t hear me but it didn’t matter. He climbed out a few minutes later and we sat for a bit to rest, relieved and thankful. It was still a mile hike on the road back to the quad. We stumbled along like zombies waving to passing vehicles like we were just out on a leisurely stroll. We were filthy and all beat up. Luckily I had on pants but Ralph was wearing shorts and his legs and arms were covered with scratches. I dreamed of a cold Gatorade in the quad and of course I worried about my helmet.

There were some people standing by their truck near the quad when we got back. They asked us if we had hiked down to the Tunnel. I smiled a tiny smile inside. Ralph muttered something about climbing up the rim and they laughed. I didn’t even acknowledge them, I just went straight to the RZR.  Thank God, our helmets were there safe and sound!

I figured we would just go back to camp and lie down, we were exhausted, but Ralph said “Want to continue our ride?” and of course I said yes. We downed about 2 gallons of fluid, put on our awesome helmets and off we went. We drove out on a couple of points so we could see the ridge we had climbed. We gazed through the binocs and were amazed at what we had just done.

That day I felt so close to my husband. That day was a bit life threatening and I was scared, but I was with Ralph. I’m finding out that it doesn’t matter where I am.  As long as I’m with Ralph, there’s no place I’d rather be.

Click on interactive map below.


About Ellen

A native Arizonan, who grew up camping and backpacking all over Arizona. My husband and I share a love for the spectacular Arizona landscape and rich history. We are passionate about spending our weekends exploring in our RZR. Backcountry driving combines my love of the outdoors with the thrill of experiencing my husband's expert four-wheeling skills on challenging terrain!
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