The Blue River begins where the Campbell Blue and the Dry Blue converge just south of Mother Hubbard Canyon on the New Mexico border. It flows south to the San Francisco River through some of the most scenic, yet rugged terrain you'll ever find on Arizona. Our journey starts at the former Y-Y Ranch owned by Joseph Hampton Toles Cosper. It is a journey through time...
"Whoopee Ti-Yi-Yo Git Along Little Doggies," depicts what the Blue River area looked like in the late 1800's and 1900's. The term "doggies" refers to orphan calves rounded up on the rough and rugged trails worked by rough and rugged cattle (cow) hands romantically known as "cowboys." The terrain was dangerous to say the least. It was an age when Geronimo, the Apache Kid and ruthless outlaws still struck fear in the hearts of pioneers.
While scouting out the best route to take down the Blue River, located in the Blue Range Primitive area south of Alpine, my thoughts travel back to the history that blankets every ancient cottonwood tree, every polished river stone and every ounce of crystal clear and very cold water that rushes southward in its journey to the San Francisco River. At the trailhead, the beginning of my journey following the southerly flow, I see that this river is as beautiful as its past inhabitants write about it, and yet I know that today, it is on its best behavior. The Blue River can be as dangerous (its floods have taken many lives) as it is beautiful and it chooses its own route as it has throughout time.
Our Journey begins at the gate of the old Y-Y Ranch. Its modern renovations camouflage its historic beginnings as the largest individually owned cattle ranch in the Arizona Territory in the early 1900's. Its former owner, Joseph Hampton "Toles" Cosper, is known as a very generous yet stern father and business owner. His contributions to the community, whether it was his leadership as sheriff, justice of the peace and constable or his ability and preparedness to perform dental or medical duties distinguished him as the central figure in the Blue. The dances held at the ranch are still talked about to this day. Their popularity brought visitors from as far as 90 miles by horseback and wagon. Toles brought in musicians from Clifton to entertain their guests and sometimes played his old Stradivarius fiddle as well. Parties would last up to 4 days and the Cosper hospitality extended to supplying all the meals, sleeping facilities and even, on some occasions, a little moonshine.
His wife Lou Ella kept up most of the duties around the home such as cooking three large meals daily for the family and ranch hands while rearing their ten children. She passed away on May 28, 1935 in Clifton. Toles sold the ranch and lived with two of his daughters in Clifton until his death on November 17, 1943. Today relatives of the Cospers still reside in Arizona and New Mexico and attend their annual reunion at the former Y-Y Ranch Headquarters (1887 to 1927) located at KP Cienega trailhead in the Blue Range Mountains.
At the end of the primitive road we are traveling, lies the Smith Ranch - a 15-acre ranch homesteaded by Alvis Francis Smith. The ranch house burned down a few years ago, but the small stable and corral still stand. As the road ends, we realize the trail disappears.
There are no trails as we hike down the Blue. As the river rises, what once were trails are washed away and knowledge and a map are your best guides. The term "flow "is a literal expression where rivers are concerned and we allow the Blue to give us its lessons in field skills. This includes lessons in crossing the river at least 40 to 50 times before reaching our destination - it's precisely 41 times according to Sam Luce.
We meet Sam Luce as we continue our travels. Luce owns a ranch on the Blue and spends many-a-waking-(and sleeping) hours in the primitive areas. His rugged appearance from his hand-made, well-worn leather pants to his genuine, dusty white cowboy hat leads us to believe he is a true relic of the Blue Range. Contrary to this first impression, we discover he is a doctor. He is the first doctor to have lived on the Blue. His passion for adventure entices him across a harsh terrain throughout the Blue Range and New Mexico. His traveling companions include a German shepherd dog, a pack mule and a very friendly horse (intent on discovering the identity of this group of ungainly visitors to his territory). As I reach out to pet his equestrian friend, I am greeted by large, whiskered nostrils that snort in my face. After exchanging hellos and a brief discussion of what lies ahead, we say good-bye to Dr. Luce and continue on our journey.
Dr. Sam Luce owns a ranch in the Blue. His travels through the Blue Range Primitive Area sometime last for weeks at a time
The next destination spot, according to the trail on our map, is the HU Bar Ranch. Hugh McKeen was a tough Texan cowboy that traveled into the Blue country to gather up wild cattle that had wandered over from New Mexico. He traded one of his mares for the old Benton Ranch (now the HU Bars Ranch) and made it his headquarters from 1889 through 1906. His Brand was HU. He married May Balke and had one son named Brunson. The ranch, barn and corral still stand and is used by modern day pioneers (hikers) as overnight shelter or just a resting point. A thorough sweeping by Dr. Luce on his way through, gave the old place a pleasant appearance.
Other ranch ruins that rest near the Blue River include the old corral of the Tenney Ranch which is located on an area known as Poverty Flats (at the mouth of Squaw Creek, south of HU Ranch and north the XXX Ranch). The old school house that once resided in this area was destroyed by the 1906 flood. After the flood several tenants on the Blue moved away including the Morgan and Keahy families and the McKeens. The Tenneys moved to the Blue in 1900 and in 1901 they traded a team of horses and a wagon to Mr. Tom Hatch for squatter rights in an area known as Bush Valley (Alpine).
As we reach the Salt River Baseline, remnants of yet another ranch still stand. This area is where the Forest Service Administration site was located. It is also where Nat Whittum was killed by Natives. The story told is, Whittum had asked Freddie Fritz, Sr. to pick up his mail in Clifton. Upon delivering the mail to Whittum', Fritz found him dead. He (whittum) had heard a noise in the barn, went out to investigate and was shot while trying to protect his horses. (Stealing horses was common in a territory known as the wild west. Outlaws and even grizzly bears kept ranchers busy devising ways to protect their property).
Grizzly bears roamed the banks of the Blue River. There are several stories that tell of trapper's and ranch owner's entanglements with these large animals and at the end of the trail, a tombstone is a reminder of such a tale. Freddie Fritz, Sr. settled on the Blue 32 miles north of Clifton. In 1898 his battle with a bear left serious wounds that never healed and in the last five years of his life he slept on pillows soaked in alcohol. He died in 1916 and is buried on the ranch. Freddie Fritz's XXX Ranch, now owned by the U.S. Forest Service is still standing today and marks the southern end of the #101 Blue River Trail.
As we reach the XXX Ranch, our journey along the Blue River comes to an end. The River doesn't end here, it continues its tireless travels until it joins the San Francisco River several miles south. My hiking companions, Lee Nuzum, John McCaslin and Angie Van Kirk, and I are ready for a rest after our 16 mile hike down a trail lined with river rocks and sand. The 40+ river crossings have left our feet wet, cold and tired and the thought of a hot shower and a warm bed sounds extremely inviting. Our five hour drive back to our vehicles, as well as the dreaded two hour drive home, increases our exhaustion, but we will remember this incredible journey through time for the remainder of our lives...it was a tough hike, but hey, I'm ready to get my hiking boots wet again.
Angie VanKirk hikes along the banks fo the Blue that is lined with riverstones and sand
Footnotes: This hike is for experienced hikers. The terrain is rugged and hiking is slow. I highly recommend setting aside at least two days to hike the entire trail (one way). The HU Ranch, located about halfway, is an ideal place to spend the night. The Forest Service's only request is that you take care of the structure so it can house hikers that may wander in after your visit. I cannot stress enough the fact that you have to cross the river several times. If you don't want to get your feet wet, don't hike this trail. If you need to take your dog, please note that this is wolf country. Wolves are territorial and will kill an unattended dog -so will javelina. This is a primitive area and you are not allowed to 1. possess or use a motor vehicle, motorized equipment or any form of mechanical transportation except wheelchairs used by a mobility-impaired person. 2. Possess or use a hang glider or bicycle. 3. Land an aircraft or drop or pick up any material, supplies, or person by means of aircraft including a helicopter. Please pack out what you pack in, leaving only footprints (that will eventually be washed away by the river anyway). For more information, contact the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests at (928) 333-4301, the Alpine Ranger District at (928) 339-4384, the Clifton Ranger District at (928) 687-1301, the Gila National Forest at (505) 388-8201 or the Glenwood Ranger District at (505) 539-2481. The historical facts about the Blue River Cowboys were taken from a book entitled "Down On The Blue" Commissioned by the Blue River Cowbells, compiled and edited by Cleo Cosper Coor. It can be purchased at Reeds Lodge in Springerville. I would like to thank the Alpine Ranger District for their assistance in my research. Also, thanks to Jane and Don Hoffman for hospitality above and beyond the call of duty for letting us sleep at their house, down on the Blue, the night before our hike and a special THANK YOU to Kathy and Wayne Gardner, owners of the Pinetop Office and Art Supply in Lakeside for their tireless efforts in getting me all the information I needed. Kathy is the great-grand daughter of Joseph Hampton "Toles" Cosper former owner of the Y-Y Ranch on the Blue River...whose legend lives on.