Friday, February 22, 2008

Hike #29: Wind Cave Trail, Usery Mountain Park, Tonto National Forest

Length: 4 miles

Although I greatly enjoyed my last visit to Pass Mountain, I was fully prepared for a great disappointment with the Wind Cave Trail. One of the things I enjoyed most about my Pass Mountain Trail was the amazing views of the Superstition Wilderness on the east side of the mountain; since the Wind Cave Trail is entirely on the west side of the mountain, I was fully prepared for a mundane hike. Fortunately, with the help of some beautiful spring flora, the Wind Cave Trail proved an enjoyable and unexpected desert adventure.

The Wind Cave Trail begins in the the Usery Mountain Park, one of the county-controlled parks. Although this area is normally your stereotypical desert with little more than sand and prickly cactus, with the recent winter rains, the desert floor had been transformed into a sea of green with scattered bursts of wildflowers! Working your way towards the mountain, you gradually begin climbing along a series of switchbacks leading to the easily-recognizable strip of yellowish exposed rock 2/3 the way up Pass Mountain. Wind erosion has slowly cut away this rock to form Wind Cave, a small cavern on the south side of the mountain.

Although Wind Cave is the official end of the trail, those more adventurous might choose to continue another half-mile towards the peak of Pass Mountain. Although the trail is slightly more difficult after the cave, numerous spray-paint arrows and a rather well-worn path make the assent relatively painless. Once at the peak, there is a commanding view of both the Superstition Wilderness to the east and the entire Phoenix Valley to the west. (Unfortunately, the sky was completely overcast during my visit, so the view was considerably diminished.) From here, merely retrace the trail back to the park entrance.

To view more photos of the Wind Cave Trail, click here.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Hike #28: Siphon Draw Trail to Flatiron, Superstition Wilderness, Tonto National Forest

Length: 6 miles

Starting at the Lost Dutchman State Park, the Siphon Draw Trail provides an extremely strenuous climb up the Superstition Mountain. Although the Siphon Draw Trail is quite difficult, the convenient start point and trail's beauty make it very popular (and often quite crowded.)

The first mile of the trail passes through the Lost Dutchman State Park and is extremely well-maintained; this segment of the trail is a luxurious dirt path with well-defined rock borders. However, the trail soon leaves the state park and enters the Superstition Wilderness. While the trail continues with a well-marked route, the path is no long the smooth dirt but instead a series of small loose rocks. The trail climbs higher and higher getting ever more narrow and rough.

Eventually, the trail arrives at a large smooth stone basin, which after a heavy rain will have small streams of water cascading down its sides. To the left of the basin is a large waterfall which marks the official end of the Siphon Draw Trail. Although most people choose this as the turn-around point, a good many continue climbing along the unofficial "trail" towards Flatiron, a large, flat plateau on the top of the Superstition Mountain.

The unofficial trail is quite easy to follow thanks to heavy travel and a series of white spray-painted arrows and dots. Although few route finding skills are required, the difficulty of climbing makes this one of the most challanging trails in the Superstitions. The mile between the waterfall and the top of the mountain gains over 1,500 feet in elevation and is nothing more than a continuous climb up jagged rocks. Although this part is challanging and will get the heart pounding, the rocks do provided a nice climbing surface with plenty of places to clutch as you drag yourself up the mountain.

Finally, after climbing until you think you can go no further, you arrive at a 12-foot rock wall that proves to be the most difficult obstacle yet! Although not impossible this rock wall is by far the most vertical challenge encountered on this trail. Fortunately, immediately on the other side of this wall is the top of the Superstition Mountain and a large flat plateau (and trust me, after climbing for what seems like forever, the flat land will be something to rejoice over!)

The large plateau area to the right of the trail is known as Flatiron, and provides thrilling views of the entire Superstition Wilderness and Phoenix Valley. Flatiron makes a perfect resting point, although I'd advice those with vertigo to stay away from the plateau's steep cliffs! After a well-deserved rest, it is time to retrace your steps down the mountain. Although not as physically exhausting, the route down requires careful footwork and can take considerable time. However, once arriving back at the waterfall and stone basin, the smooth, well-developed trail returns for a speedy exit.

To view more pictures of the Siphon Draw Trail, click here.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Hike #27: Ford Canyon/Mesquite Canyon Loop Trail, White Tanks Mountain Regional Park

Length: 10 miles

Although the Superstition Mountains to the east of the Phoenix Valley are generally considered to be the busiest and best source of hiking trails in central Arizona, the White Tank Mountains to the west of town, though smaller, offer many unique trails that rival the Superstitions in terms of both difficulty and beauty. Located about 20 miles west of downtown Phoenix, the White Tank Mountains provide a wonderful desert environment, that seemed far richer in both vegetation and wildlife than any area of the Superstitions I've yet explored.

My adventure in the White Tank Moutains began with a leisurely walk through the desert surroundings of Ford Canyon Trail. The first 3-miles of this trail are an easy stroll along a very well-developed path, with little to no incline; this segment of the Ford Canyon Trail is quite popular and likely to be somewhat crowded with both hikers and mountain bikers. However, just after the 3-mile point, the trail narrows and begins working it's way into the mountain's white granite cliffs; the increased difficulty discourages most other hikers and almost all bikers, so the trail will now pretty much clears out and provides long-awaited solitude.

Actually entering Ford Canyon, the trail quickly climbs the canyon's wall - above brilliant pools of water in the white granite of the canyon floor. While walking this, one can't help up wish the trail were just a hundred feet lower so that that crystal clear water would be within reach; forunately, the trail soon dips and returns back to the canyon bottom, winding its way around the many deep pools and large boulders. For the next couple miles, the trail continues along the semi-dry wash of the Ford Canyon floor. This segment of the trail can be somewhat difficult to follow due to the lack of developed path; however, the trail generally continues through the wash and can be found by merely following the numerous footprints in the wash's sand.

Eventually, the trail leaves the wash and returns to an establish path (that leads straight up!) The majority of this trail's elevation is gained in the miles immediately after the wash. Climbing through a series of steep switchbacks, the trail slowly leads up one peak and then quickly desends again. From this first desent, a spectacular view of the Phoenix Valley (with the Superstitions Mountains and Four Peaks Mountain) can be seen between the rugged peaks before you. Unfortunately, the decent is short-lived, and the trail soon begins another steep climb towards the trails highest point.

From here, the Ford Canyon Trail ends, and the Mesquite Canyon Trail begins. Working it's way down the mountain's eastern cliff, the Mesquite Canyon Trail has an odd pattern of steep, rocky desents followed by amazingly smooth (and level) plateaux. Eventually, the Mesquite Canyon Trail returns to the parking area and a welcome end to a long hike.

To see more pictures of the Ford Canyon/Mesquite Canyon Loop Trail, click here.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Hike #26: Pine Creek Loop to Ballantine Trail, Tonto National Forest

Length: 8.8 miles

Although the Ballantine Trail is located less than 40 miles from the Phoenix area, this trail seems to be one of Arizona's best kept secrets. A relatively easy climb, the Ballantine Trail passes through the rocky transition region between the Superstition Mountains in central Arizona and the Mongollon Rim in the north. While the boulders and mountains are beautiful in and of themselves, it is a heavy winter rain that brings the true beauty of this trail into bloom! With three creeks surrounding the trail (Pine Creek, Camp Creek, and Rock Creek), a heavy rain will fill the normally dry valleys and provide a welcome soundtrack of rushing water!

The trail begins with the short Pine Creek Loop, which loops 1.5 miles either way to intersect with the start of the Ballantine Trail. My guidebook recommended starting with the southern segment of the loop; however, this segment was quite a steep climb and probably would be better saved for a downhill finish!

Whichever route you've chosen, the clearly-marked intersection for the Ballantine Trail is soon approached and the trail leaves the original loop - curving east with the Camp Creek sparkling far below. The Ballantine trail continues along the creek's path, slowly working it's way down toward the valley floor. Almost immediately after meeting the Ballantine Trail, the path becomes surrounded by large formations of boulders - some in quite interesting shapes (perhaps a woman playing hide-n-seek, as my friend pointed out.)

After a couple miles, a large mountain of crumbling rocks, known as "The Boulders", looms to the right. Near the eastern base of The Boulders is a fork in the trail, with a faint, but well-marked trail heading toward to the right. Following the numerous rock cairns, the trail soon crosses the creek, and continues around The Boulders. With breathtaking views of the Superstitions in the distance, the trail soon turns and the third and final creek comes into view. The end of this trail is a small waterfall that tumbles over a series of boulders, making the perfect location for a well-deserved break. From this point, it's merely a matter of turning and retracing your way back to the Pine Creek Loop and the original trailhead.

To view more photos of the Pine Creek Loop and Ballantine Trail, click here.