Saturday, November 24, 2007

Hike #18: Peralta/Cave Trail Loop, Superstition Wilderness

Length: 5.2 miles

The Peralta Trail is perhaps the most popular trail in the Superstition Wilderness, which when combined with the Cave Trail, makes for a spectacular loop hike that highlights the best the Superstitions Mountains have to offer.

From the busy parking lot, the loop begins by following the Peralta Trail through a lush green valley, which was quite the unexpected sight in the middle of the desert. After about a half-mile, however, the trail leaves the valley and begins a steady climb into the surrounding cliffs. For two-miles the trail creeps slowly up the mountain until suddenly making a turn and opening to a magnificent view of Weaver's Needle.

From this point, most people choose to turn around and retrace the Peralta Trail back to the parking lot. However, for the more adventurous, there is the somewhat longer (and much more difficult) Cave Trail. When first venturing onto the Cave Trail, the first thing one notices is the isolation; after the crowds of the Peralta Trail, the peace and quiet is almost startling.

Continuing along the Cave Trail is quite easy for the first mile; however, eventually the trail approaches a steep ridge, which you must somehow descend. Once at the bottom, the trail all but disappears. For the next mile, you must carefully follow the small cairns that mark the "trail" (and trust me this is not an easy thing to do...the terrain is extremely rough and many of the cairns are extraordinarily small and difficult to find!) I would not recommend taking this portion of the trail unless you feel very comfortable in your route finding skills (and preferably only in a group!)

Eventually, the Cave Trail does work its way down from the hard volcanic rocks into the more traditional desert, where the trail again becomes visible. From here, it is an easy trip back toward the Peralta trail and an easy exit.

To view more photos of the Peralta and Cave Trails, click here.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Hike #17: Hidden Valley Trail via the Mormon Trail, South Mountain Park

Length: 4 miles

South Mountain Park, with over 16,000 acres on the southern edge of Phoenix, is the largest city park in the United States. With numerous trails and a close vicinity to town, South Mountain Park is wildly popular! (In fact, most days the trails are extremely busy and parking can be impossible unless you arrive very early.)

The hike begins with a steep 1.5 mile climb up the Mormon Trail. Although several books claim that this portion of the trail is gradual and easy to master, I found it much more challenging than expected. While the trail is shaded during the morning due to its position on the north side of the mountain, the stair-like aspect of the trail left me exhausted and dripping in sweat.

After reaching the summit, the trail opens to a large, flat mesa and intersects with the National Trail. Be forewarned that the National Trail is a very popular biking trail, so you will be yielding to numerous bikers. From the Mormon Trail, you can turn either way on the National Trail; however, my sources recommended continuing to the right since it's slightly easier to traverse Hidden Valley from west to east.

After following the National Trail for about a half-mile, one will see the clearly-marked Hidden Valley Trail. This is where the excitement begins! Almost immediately upon turning, one encounters the highly popular Fat Man's Pass. This 25-foot long crevice between two massive boulders narrows to only 9-inches at one point, so take your pack off and slide through sideways! (If your width happens to exceed 9-inches, you can merely climb over the boulders - which can be done quite easily.) The trail continues through the desert valley for about a half-mile before entering an area of large boulders. Continue along the boulders, but be very careful because the boulders have been worn smooth by years of hikers. Finally, the Hidden Valley Trail finishes with an impressive nature tunnel created by several fallen boulders (pictured above).

Once exiting the tunnel, return to the National Trail and continue left towards the Mormon Trail. Once reaching the Mormon Trail, continue back to the parking lot with wonderful views of Phoenix greeting you the whole way!

To see more pictures of the Mormon Trail and Hidden Valley, click here.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Hike #16: Cave Creek/Skunk Tank Loop Trail, Tonto National Forest

Length: 10.4 miles

The Cave Creek/Skunk Tank Trail, though quite long and challenging, provides a welcome break from the typical desert climate one expects so close to Phoenix.

Beginning at the popular Seven Springs Campground, the loop begins by following the Cave Creek Trail along the banks of Cave Creek. In the late fall (mid-November), this area will be easily identifiable by the rich gold color of the fall foliage from the various non-desert vegetation growing along the creek bed. (Several of the guide books state that this area is also rich in wildlife and that it is quite common to see or hear javalinas among these riparian areas - sadly I did not encounter any major wildlife.)

The trail continues along this path, repeatedly climbing the hills adjacent to the creek and then falling back towards the creek and valley bottom. Although this portion of the trail does require one to cross the creek three times, the water is generally extremely shallow and poses little difficulty when crossing. Unfortunately, finding the correct spots to actually cross is by no means anywhere as easy! Be on the lookout for the small rock cairns marking the crossings...otherwise you'll never find the proper spots. (I spent 30 minutes trying to locate the third crossing...and still ended up having to climb a steep, overgrown slope to land on the established trail again.)

Shortly after the third creek crossing, the Cave Creek Trail intersects the Skunk Tank Trail. From here, you can either turn around and retrace your way back over the easy Cave Creek Trail, or continue along the more difficult Skunk Tank Trail.

The Skunk Tank Trail immediately begins with a two-mile climb into the mountains away from the creek. The first mile or so isn't so bad due to a nice breeze common at the higher elevations; however, you soon turn between two mountains, and this breeze completely disappears for the next mile or so (making for one blisteringly hot climb!) Although the Skunk Tank Trail does provide a nice panoramic view at the top, it can by no means match the beauty of the Cave Creek. My advice would be, unless you desire a challenging workout, turn around where the Cave Creek and Skunk Tank Trails meet and enjoy a leisurely return hike along the creek!

To view more pictures of the Cave Creek/Skunk Tank Loop Trail, click here.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Hike #15: Black Mesa Loop Trail, Superstition Wilderness

Length: 8 or 9 miles (depending on the source you read....I would believe it closer to 9)

The Black Mesa Loop Trail is actually three trails, the Lost Dutchman Trail, the Black Mesa Trail, and the First Water Trail, which when combined make for challenging 9-mile hike.

The loop begins by following the Lost Dutchman Trail for about 4.5 miles. With a variety of desert vegetation and breath-taking views, this is by far the best portion of the loop. The cliffs overlooking the trail provide welcome shade along the first segment of the hike; however, after a couple miles of gradual incline, the trail leaves the cliffs and opens for a wide panoramic mountain view. After another couple miles, the trail approaches a large flat wash, where it intersects with the Black Mesa Trail. (Note: This can be really difficult to find since the trail all but disappears in the wash. Know that if you come upon the sign for Boulder Canyon Trail, you have gone too far and need to retrace the trail back about 500 yards until you see the wooden marker for the Black Mesa Trail.)

The Black Mesa Trail is the middle 3-miles of this loop. Although this segment of the loop does provide a good variety of vegetation, the views are nothing when compared to those of the first portion. I will advise to watch out for the forests of Jumping Cholla Cactus, which have VERY prickly barbs.

Eventually, the vegetation grows more sparse, and the loop connects with the final 1.5-miles of the First Water Trail. Although this portion passes through a couple minor washes, it is otherwise unremarkable.

To see more pictures of the Black Mesa Loop Trail, click here.