To recover from the Nankoweap death march, we spent an easy recovery day on Mount Hayden, a white butte close to Point Imperial. Rising late, we drove out to the overlook, spent awhile sorting gear, looked at the butte just 2/3 of a mile away, then hiked 100 yards of pavement, jumped the fence, and dove into the brush. Before the fire, the Hayden approach was supposedly fairly friendly. However, the usual post-fire scrub has taken over this part of the rim, including the dread New Mexico locust.
The approach descends terribly loose dirt, then follows the ridge right of a bowl before diving into the brush to a break in the Coconino. Here the thrashing began: Renée opted for leather gloves and brute force, while I chose finesse, careful writhing, and a certain amount of bleeding. This part was not bad, as the watercourse was mostly scoured free of soil and plants. We followed a seemingly useless fixed line for awhile, then actually used it to descend a low 5th class step, where it was vaguely helpful.
Then we entered the suck. The traverse back south to the Hayden-rim saddle had also burned, and is now home to a thriving locust population, occasionally interrupted by oak-brush. There is a network of faint use/animal trails, with one near the base of the cliff being the best, but finding this one, especially on the way in, is next to impossible. Instead we picked our way through lower down, linking logs, surviving trees, boulders, and even the blessedly spine-free oak-brush to minimize time spent in the spiny horror show.
We finally found relief at the red dirt ridge leading southeast to Hayden, where we took a break to sweat and admire our goal. From here it was a fairly painless hike along the ridge and around the butte’s north side to the base of the climb. I took the first pitch, which started with a tricky move from a red ledge to the more solid white sandstone above. After that, it was mostly a low 5th class bushwhack to a sort-of belay ledge full of cactus, dirt, and loose rubble. Though I had climbed sandstone before, I was not used to this gritty variety, which I was slow to trust. I was slowed further by the use of half-ropes, which allow longer rappels and supposedly reduce rope drag on wandering pitches, but mostly just complicate belaying and rope management.
I belayed Renée up while she freed one rope or the other from plants, then she led up more similar terrain to a bulge with a fist/knee crack, the route’s second harder move. After trying a couple options, she decided she did not want to lead it with so much rope out (i.e. a long, bouncy fall while it stretched), so she belayed me up to an awkward stance, where I thrashed around and acted tentative for awhile before jamming fist, foot, and knee in the crack to reach flatter ground, finding a two-bolt anchor perhaps 20 feet on.
It looked like scrambling to the summit from there, so I flaked 100 meters of rope, brought Renée up, and we both unroped for the sometimes-exposed scramble. The final 20 feet on the left-hand side of the butte were a bit tricky, but all the holds were there, and we soon emerged on a large, perfectly flat white table. From this perch we could see the Nankoweap route to the north, and the Palisades and start of the main canyon to the south. We could see people at the Point Imperial overlook, but could not tell if they waved.
Photos taken, it was time to get off this thing. After scrambling back to the anchor, I threw the ropes and slowly rapped, disentangling the ropes from themselves and the brush as I went. The descent requires two double-rope rappels, so I looked for bolts and slings as I went, but found none as I neared the end of the ropes, so I put in at a comfortable ledge, then shouted for Renée to try her hand at finding them. With some searching, she found a slung block, a decent bolt, and a lousy one, on a pedestal 30 feet up to my left. While she pulled the ropes, I soloed up to the pedestal, then clipped in for an amazingly bush-free rappel onto either (1) our packs, or (2) a yucca patch; I chose the former.
The return went much better than the approach. From the ridge connecting Hayden to Imperial, the route stays near the cliffs and is relatively easy to follow. It descends from the cliff near the Coconino break, where it joins a more prominent but ultimately worse route at an obscured junction. I found this use trail pleasant, but only compared to the morning’s spiny hell. After nearly missing the turn up to the fixed rope, we scrambled the gully, bushwhacked back to the ridge, and struggled up the loose dirt to the paved path. We chatted with some friendly Coloradoans who knew a bit about climbing, then headed south to the campground for showers, water, and a rim-side dinner.
Either the north rim has a population of several million deer, or all 500 of them spend their nights right next to the road. I was happy to follow Renée at safe braking distance as she shooed them out of the way on the drive back to Jacob Lake. She apparently found the experience somewhat stressful. We were both tired, so we pulled off on an abandoned forest road a short ways south, found a mostly level place, and promptly passed out.
After more uncharacteristic but not unwelcome water-adjacent activities, we were off to the Grand Canyon for what turned out to be two fairly intense days. The first part of the plan was to backpack the Nankoweap Trail, a less-used and challenging route from the North Rim to the Colorado northeast of the main canyon. I had first become aware of this trail while researching last year’s trip down the Tanner Trail to the Little Colorado. I was interested in seeing it both because it passes through a new-to-me part of the canyon, and because it is the northern part of an old horse-stealing route leading up the Tanner and on south to Mexico. Renée gamely played along.
The trailhead is at the end of a long dirt road following the National Park boundary east, drivable at fairly high speeds even late at night. This being National Forest land, there was ample free camping at the trailhead (i.e. enough for 3-4 parties). We got a leisurely start, eating a decent breakfast and packing various camp-stuff before taking the rolling trail along the forest boundary down toward Saddle Mountain.
Where the trail joins another from the north, it crosses into the park and descends steeply south, then contours along the Supai layer to Marion Point. Like most Grand Canyon trails, its course is constrained by breaks in the white Coconino and red-painted gray Redwall cliffs. In this case, the breaks dictate a long and at times semi-exposed traverse to the saddle west of Tilted Mesa. As this traverse is south-facing and dry, I had packed an extra gallon of water to leave at some appropriate-seeming place. My knee was not altogether happy with the extra eight pounds, so I dropped the water at the saddle, a mere 2500 feet down the canyon.
Along the traverse, we had met a couple hiking out, each party surprised to see the other in this little-used corner of the park, and they mentioned making camp at Nankoweap Creek rather than the Colorado. This sounded like a good idea to me, as it would both make the hike out shorter, and justify my caching the water so high up. Below Tilted Mesa, the trail descends southeast across a loose, steep slope, passing through the Redwall via a rubble-pile before continuing to something like the Tonto Plateau. Unlike in the main east-west canyon that most visitors see, where the rock strata are flat and parallel, the layers here are tilted and confusing, with the same rock appearing at different elevations to the south, and across the river to the east. There were also flora and fauna.
Below the Redwall and Muav, the trail enters a scorched desert hellscape, crossing spiny brush, cactus, and sharp rock on its way toward the cottonwoods suggesting some kind of watercourse. Though these water sources are often buried, we found Nankoweap Creek to be 3 feet of swiftly-flowing, though warm and not especially tasty, water. After a break in the shade, we crossed to find a popular-looking camping area, where we ditched most of our gear before continuing downstream toward the river and some rumored ruins.
The river was farther away than I thought, around endless bends in the lower canyon. Though we found occasional cairns and bits of trail, most of the route was a boulder-hop along one or the other side of the creek. Most of the way down, we found a superior source of water: a virtual spigot of a spring coming from an overhanging rock just above the creek. I quickly topped off my bladder, diluting the Nankoweap-y taste of the contents to an acceptable level.
The stream meets the river in a nasty locust- and mesquite-soaked delta, but a trail leads up and south, crossing over a low ridge before descending to two beaches popular with rafters. Just past the ridge, a well-built trail leads from one of these beaches to the cliff dwelling; both even appear on the USGS topo. Though we had the ruins to ourselves for the moment, two parties of rafters were disembarking on the beaches, while more streamed by along the river. As we later learned, this is a well-known landmark and popular stopping-point for those visiting the canyon by raft.
Ruin-wise-speaking, we had visited Nankoweap and Grand Gulch in the wrong order: buildings that might have impressed me a few days ago seemed mundane compared to what I had recently seen. Still, it was interesting to note the different levels of lintel technology in adjacent dwellings, with some individuals having a better grasp than others of this important building technique. The inhabitants seemed not to have mastered arches; then again, given the abundant flagstone-like rock, they had no need.
Seeing a herd of rafters approaching, we beat a hasty retreat, passing a line of people in mediocre hiking shape on our return. Having time to kill, we headed to the less crowded-looking of the two beaches, planning to rinse off in the river. However, with high clouds directly above, the air and water were too cool for more than a brief foot-rinse.
As we photographed (me, easy) and painted (her, less so) the surroundings, a couple of the rafters approached to chat. Our different frames of reference made talking about the canyon difficult: where they dealt in miles along the river, I thought in trailheads. The raft-folk seemed friendly enough, even offering dinner and use of their “groover,” and I was tempted to laze around for a few hours, partake of their board, and try to interact with humans before shuffling back to camp. Renée was not so inclined, and I soon found my self psyched about her plan to hike back out the same evening. Doing so somehow seemed truer to my nature, and I could probably use the fortifying hours of evening headlamp time.
We dumped and replaced our water at the spigot, shoved the camping gear back in our packs, and took off for the rim in cloudy, comfortable conditions. We reached the water cache surprisingly quickly, and I laughed at the absurdity of pouring out three of the quarts I had lugged all that way. I knew the Supai traverse would feel long on the way up, and doing the last two thirds by headlamp made it feel even longer, especially with no moon. However, I underestimated the long slog from Saddle Mountain to the trailhead; though it is all “along the rim,” it gains 1,200 feet over several rolling miles. We finally reached the cars at some ungodly time near midnight, where I diligently resumed my sleep deprivation training.
Though I normally associate backpacking with debilitating shin-splints, when Ted proposed a trip to the relatively remote eastern end of the Grand Canyon, I quickly agreed to join him. Though I had hiked and run the main Kaibab and Bright Angel trails over a dozen times, and made numerous day-trips nearby, I had never been to this remote section of the park, or done any desert backpacking for that matter. The plan was a 3-day blitz of the most difficult trails on the South Rim: descend the Tanner Trail, continue on the Beamer Trail to the Little Colorado River confluence, then return along the Escalante Route and climb the New Hance Trail. At 46.5 miles and about 10,000 feet of gain, this seemed like a busy but comfortable itinerary, though it was deemed unreasonable by the NPS permit office.
Taking off mid-day, I drove to Flagstaff, hung out with the winos at the Saddest McDonalds in the World, then drove on to some nice Forest Service camping near the park’s east entrance. Waking up early the next morning, I drove through the unmanned entrance station, met Ted at Moran Point, then rode back with him to Lipan Point and the Tanner trailhead. After some quality time spent mocking Ted’s elaborate array of camera gear and freeze-dried food (potato flakes and sardines for me, thanks), and taking pictures of the Asian tourists taking pictures, I headed over to the north-facing start of the trail.
Lipan Point to the Little Colorado
The rim had seen a significant snowstorm recently, so the first part of the trail was slick with packed snow. After several hundred feet of cautious descent, we found easier and flatter walking to the saddle between Escalante Butte and Lipan Point, above the head of Seventyfive Mile Creek. From here, the trail meanders through the Supai past Cardenas Butte, eventually reaching a break in the Redwall. After another steep descent, more side-hilling leads to the river at Tanner Beach, with the dark cliffs of the Supergroup looming to the north.
After lunch, we continued north, following the trail up and across some red sedimentary ledges before descending to a long beach, where the water issues began. The only reliable source of water along our route was the Colorado River, an unpleasant mix of silt, agricultural runoff, giardia, and rafter pee. To combat this, we each had a filter, and Ted had some chlorine tablets. Unfortunately his filter seemed to be clogged for some reason, so after both using mine, we left the beach to make a long traverse along the Bright Angel Shale to the Little Colorado.
This section of trail was the best of the trip, traversing narrow ledges with the river hundreds of feet below on the left, and the Palisades rising nearly 3,000 feet above on the right. For some reason the soft Supai Shale, which normally forms a gentle slope, is nearly vertical here, joining the harder Redwall and Coconino to form a near-continuous cliff. As the trail meanders through the many steep washes which end at cliffs well above the river, this section proved slow going, and it was nearly sunset by the time we reached the confluence.
After dinner, Ted assembled his equipment for some star photography, while I went down to get some water from the Little Colorado. This proved to be a mistake, as its much siltier water quickly overwhelmed my filter. But that was a problem for the next day, so after some unsuccessful attempts of my own at star photography, I crawled into my unzipped sleeping bag for the night.
Little Colorado to Cardenas Creek
Getting a late start the next morning, we retraced our steps along the Palisades to the beach, where we resumed the water wars. Noticing that a large lagoon was less silty than the main river, I forced a couple liters through my semi-clogged filter. Taking a sip, I realized I hadn’t though things through: though the silt may have settled, evaporation also concentrated the salt (and God knows what else) in the lagoon water, so I now had 3 liters of unpleasantly salty water. It was drinkable though, so given my filter’s condition, I kept it. With some more fiddling around, I was able to rinse and squeeze most of the silt out of the filter cartridge, giving it some new life. With this newly-functional filter, we were able to backflow the silt from Ted’s dysfunctional unit, and were now up to two mostly-usable pumps.
Hiking through Tanner Beach once more, we passed an apparent family resting in the shade to avoid the mid-day heat, then left the river to hike across a barren red wasteland to the mouth of Cardenas Creek. At this point the Escalante Route leaves the river and climbs 2,000 feet to avoid cliffs near the Unkar Rapids. Though it was only 4:00, neither of us relished making the long, dry climb up and over in the brutal afternoon heat, so we made an early day, camping at the mouth of the creek.
We had company: five rafts full of Idahoans, beer, and weed, and a backpacking couple in a spot of bother. The woman had caught some sort of stomach bug that morning, and had apparently spent the day alternately vomiting and lying motionless in the shade. The rafters had evidently made a call on their satellite phone, and as we hung around camp, an NPS helicopter landed on the sand nearby. I had expected the chopper to extract the woman and leave everything else behind, but they quickly loaded the couple and all their gear into the chopper, stuck her with an IV, and sped off to who-knows-where. Watching her slowly stumble to the chopper, I realized that she had been in worse shape than I thought, and probably could not have hiked out on her own.
Excitement over, I rinsed my pump, then filled my water bladder from the river. Tragically, while I flushed the last bits of water from the pump, the handle broke, the 8-year-old plastic overwhelmed by the force required to filter so much silty water. The disgusting prospect of drinking chlorinated river water loomed.
After cooking our pathetic hiker-food, we moseyed over to hang out with the rafters as they feasted on fresh vegetables and meat. I was stunned at the luxuries one can carry in a boat: days’ worth of fresh food, cots, chairs, tables, and even a gas-heated shower. Most of the group was from Idaho Falls or southern Idaho — several worked at INL — though I happened to find one state high-pointer from Michigan. After talking until too late around their fire-pit, I forced myself to sleep in anticipation of a long day.
Cardenas Creek to Moran Point
Unlike the previous day, we got started shortly after dawn, eager to beat the sun on the long climb over to Escalante Creek. We almost made it, the sun hitting us near the top of the long sidehill past Cardenas and Escalante Buttes. Descending into Escalante Creek, we were pleasantly surprised to find a short stream of clear, siltless water. We happily filled all our vessels (using the rest of Ted’s chlorine), saved for awhile from Colorado River water, then continued the descent to the river.
From the mouth of Escalante Creek, the trail immediately climbs again to the Tonto Plateau above Seventyfive Mile Creek, which passes through a sort of slot canyon over 100 feet deep on the way to the river. The route follows the rim of this canyon for about half a mile before reaching the creek-bed and following it back to the river. However, we cut off perhaps half this distance via a fun 3rd-class downclimb.
After returning to the river, we followed cairns that climbed up and along Supergroup ledges toward Papago Creek. (Later, we realized that a more efficient route simply follows the beach.) Spotting a group of six high on the creek’s east side, I followed increasingly faint trails to meet them. They turned out to be headed out New Hance as well, though with much larger packs and at a slower pace. They were also wasteful enough to drop goldfish crackers and leave them lying on the ground; I gratefully helped myself to a few. Continuing past them a short distance, I realized that we were off-route; the correct version of this unnecessary high bypass descends to the mouth of Papago Creek.
Passing some college kids hanging out in the shade in this dry wash, we stopped for lunch, then made another apparently-unnecessary high bypass to the mouth of Hance Creek and the start of the New Hance “Trail.” (It looks easier to boulder-hop along the river from Papago Creek.) While the New Hance connects the rim and river, and is not too hard to follow, an early travel writer quoted in the NPS brochure is not far off:
There may be men who can ride unconcernedly down Hance’s Trail, but I confess I am not one of them. My object in descending made it essential that I should live to tell the tale, and therefore, I mustered up sufficient moral courage to dismount and scramble down the steepest and most awful sections of the path on foot… ‘On foot,’ however, does not express it, but on heels and toes, on hands and knees, and sometimes in the posture assumed by children when they come bumping down the stairs… The path down which we have turned appears impossible… The pitch for the first mile is frightful… and to our dismayed, unaccustomed minds the inclination apparently increases, as if the canyon walls were slowly toppling inwards…
The trail, such as it is, starts by following the broad, rocky dry wash of Red Canyon, briefly dodging east to avoid a few jumbles of large rocks. It was early afternoon by now, and brutally hot in the red-walled canyon. The heat was getting to both of us, and we paused in whatever shade we could find. As the canyon narrowed, we found a seasonal stream that emerged from the streambed where it crossed sandstone slabs. Ted wet his shirt, and I my hat, but we opted not to pick up more water, figuring that we had enough to make the rim.
Right where the trail leaves the streambed, we found a perfect campsite in the shade of a large rock, near a place where the stream runs above ground. Ted semi-seriously suggested camping for another night, but I was having none of it: I believe in sticking to schedules, and in moving while daylight remains. Unfortunately, as we climbed the baking west-facing slope toward the base of the Redwall, the heat and Ted’s desk job started getting the better of him, and our pace slowed considerably. This would take longer than I had anticipated.
The trail traverses the Tonto Plateau, then switchbacks steeply toward Moran Point through a break in the Redwall, passing through a sparse juniper forest that seemed lush after hours spent in a rocky, cactus-spotted wasteland. A group of four we had passed resting at the base of the climb split up, two of them speeding ahead of us while the other two suffered slowly behind. Talking with one of the stragglers, I learned that he had flown down from near Anchorage, where the dry winter had given them “only” 200 inches of snow.
Once through the Redwall, the trail makes a long, undulating rightward traverse, returning to the base of the canyon at the top of the Redwall. The spring feeding the stream is apparently at the base of the Redwall: while there is a healthy cottonwood grove at its base, the canyon is once again bone-dry at the top. Ted continued to suffer on the traverse, and with the sun taking its time setting behind Coronado Butte, the heat remained mildly unpleasant, though nothing like it was 2,000 feet below. We were both running low on water, and the last 1,000 feet promised to be a thirsty slog.
As we reached the base of the Coconino, I gave Ted some water and the rest of my food, then mercilessly ditched him. This wasn’t entirely unjustified, as my car was parked at Moran Point, about a mile from the camouflaged “trailhead.” I put the hammer down, grinding up the steep and sometimes confusing trail through the upper white layers, reaching the rim just as the sun sank below the horizon. Fast-walking the trail along the top, I passed the usual trailhead information and “warning you will die” signs well-hidden from the road, then met the two faster members of the party of four, looking bored as they waited for their ride.
Panting and sweating, I mumbled something intended to be friendly smalltalk, dropped my pack, fished my keys out, and took off jogging up the road. Figuring I had some time before Ted summited, I decided to drive into Grand Canyon Village to get some real food and beverages before everything closed. Between traffic and other shoppers, the trip took longer than I had hoped, so Ted had some time to cool his heels next to my pack and get to know the people waiting to pick up the two stragglers. Evidently he moved much faster without my impatient presence looming behind him.
I highly recommend a trip to this part of the canyon. Unlike the main corridor trails — the Kaibab and Bright Angel — which are crowded with hikers and befouled by mules, the east-end trails provide some measure of wildness, as well as interestingly-varied scenery as the Supergroup rises away from the river. The Beamer and Tanner trails were apparently part of a horse-smuggling route from southern Utah to Arizona. Starting on the North Rim, this route descended the Nankoweap Trail, then followed the Colorado until it crossed to the Beamer near the confluence. Though this crossing is no longer possible thanks to the steady outflow from the upstream dam, I hope to return and dayhike the Nankoweep sometime.
Prior to this trip, all my backpacking experience was in the mountains. There, clear water is always nearby, and it is rarely necessary to carry more than two liters or to treat water before drinking it. Also, should one become ill or weak, the retreat is usually downhill. Seeing one weakened backpacker helicoptered out, and exhausting our three water treatment options in as many days, made me apprehensive about doing too many of these. Dayhikes and mountains are so much simpler…
Carr and Miller are two peaks in the Huachuca Range in southeast Arizona, just a few miles from the Mexican border. The range is much like its unremarkable desert neighbors to the east and west, but Miller’s 5,006 feet of prominence put it on my radar. Carr is only a slight detour along the way, with somewhat better views.
I was familiar with the police state south of I-10 from my last trip to Arizona, but in addition to the expected Border Patrol checkpoints and cruising SUVs, the Sierra Vista area features a big, white, creepy surveillance blimp. After running errands under its watchful eye, I spent some quality time in the public library, then my way up Carr Canyon, no doubt suitably surveiled, finding a place to camp near the winter closure gate. There was a bit of late-night traffic on the dead-end road, but no one asked for my papers or tried to swipe my bike.
The bike proved useful once again, as I was able to ride the 5 miles and 1,900 vertical feet of well-graded dirt from the gate to the Carr Peak trailhead. There was a bit of mud and snow higher up, but someone with a key had driven the road and packed it down. From the trailhead, I followed signs toward Carr Peak; while there were initially only bear tracks on the trail, I soon found a few sets of boot-prints. I kept an eye on the dirigible as I hiked, watching it descend surprisingly quickly to its landing pad.
Circling around to Carr’s southwest side, I took a short detour to the summit for a look at Sierra Vista and the craggier canyons to the north, then returned to the trail, circling around the head of Miller Canyon to join the southern end of the Arizona Trail. Some people have reported lots of trash on this section left by migrants, but I only saw a couple of Mexican candy wrappers, including the un-American “Pulparindo: dulce de tamarindo, salado y enchilado”, which actually sounds like it might be good. I did, however, find some of the largest death-yucca (Agave parryi?) I have seen anywhere.
As I neared the southern end of the range, I reached the spur trail to Miller’s summit. Most of the tracks seemed to branch off, suggesting that the traffic since the last snow was from peak-baggers. As on Wrightson, there apparently used to be a fire lookout on Miller, but I found neither plaque nor summit register here. South, the range drops off sharply to the non-obvious Montezuma Pass, then on to the Mexican border and a desert plain broken by sporadic low, isolated peaks.
The jog back to the trailhead was nowhere near as fun as on Wrightson, but still went quickly. Returning to my bike, I found the road was wetter and muddier than in the morning, but only enough to spatter me with mud, not to slow me down. After a fun ride past a handful of people inexplicably hiking the road, I stripped off my muddy clothes, then headed into Sierra Vista to check the forecast. Finding it not at all conducive to poaching Mount Graham the next day, I reluctantly began the long drive home.
After Picacho, I drove through Tucson and south on I-19 to Madera Canyon, the trailhead for Mount Wrightson. Since it is a popular “workout peak” for Tucsonians, I figured the trail would be packed down to the summit, and therefore doable in an afternoon. However, road construction had closed the road 1-2 miles from the trailhead, spoiling my plans for a quick afternoon strike.
Returning down-canyon, I decided to investigate the sign for the Elephant Head mountain bike trail, and was pleased to also find some nice dispersed (i.e. free) camping just outside the heavily-patrolled Madera fee zone. Some of the trails were a bit beyond my ability, and I took an extended detour through a maze of dirt roads on the way back, but much of it was easy enough to be fun. Plus, I had a perfect campsite for the next morning.
Starting from the car the next morning, I biked back up Madera Canyon, and happily found that the road was apparently not closed to bikes (which also don’t have to pay fees). I locked my bike to the trailhead bench and started hiking, finding that the trail was packed as expected. This made it somewhat icy in the morning, but much faster and easier than powder or slush.
I had hiked the first part of this trail in clouds and rain last month, only reaching the memorial for three Boy Scouts who died in a huge snowstorm 56 years ago. Continuing past the sign, I enjoyed views of some nice crags to the east, and an impressive road leading to the Whipple Observatory on Mount Hopkins. Grateful for the people who had packed a trail in the snow, I eventually reached the summit and its old lookout foundation. With the 4,000-foot climb from Madera Canyon apparently the easiest way to the summit, this must have been a hard lookout to maintain.
After taking in the view, including the huge alluvial fan leading north from Madera Canyon, I returned the way I came. I was worried that the trail would be icy, but after hiking for 15 minutes, I started running, and found that the snow had softened perfectly. The return was a wild, skittering, leaping sprint, jamming to techno, swinging around trees on switchbacks, and racing past hikers. I reached the trailhead in under an hour, then passed a few cars on my bike for good measure on the way back to the car.
Every state that James K. Polk took from Mexico has its own Picacho, Arizona’s being a small volcanic protrusion along the interstate northwest of Tucson. Originally a class 3-4 climb with tricky route-finding, it has been turned into a jungle gym for grown-ups via cables, fences, and plentiful signs. It’s not on any list, and not particularly high, but after a thorough ass-handing-to on Lemmon the day before, I was looking for something easy and below the snow line.
How did Lemmon, a drive-up, get the best of me? Rather than driving or riding the paved road, I decided to “play fair” with the mountain by taking the Sutherland trail from the desert at 3,000 feet, yielding a climb of a bit over 6,000 feet. Since the first part is labeled as a 4WD road, and most of the route lies outside the wilderness boundary, I hoped to bike the first 1,500 feet and almost half the distance. I put my bike headlamp in my pack, then waited for the sun to reach the parking lot on the west side of the mountain before starting off. I ignored the angry signs about trespassing on “state trust land,” riding along a well-graded dirt to the rougher Forest Service road. (The signs are apparently unenforced, as a cop right by the 10-15 cars parked right next to the boundary when I returned.)
Unfortunately, the old road turned out to be one of the worst roads I have ever seen, comparable to Colorado’s famous Lake Como road, with a surface made mostly of fist- to toaster-sized boulders, frequent built-up rubble ramps, and even a waist-high step. Though one intrepid driver in an especially burly Jeep had apparently reached the end of the road, I mostly took my bike for a walk, then locked it to a powerline pole and continued on foot.
A boot-pack took me partway up the snowy north-facing slope to Sutherland Ridge, but gave out before the top, leaving me with what turned out to be miles of 4-6″ deep snow on a faint path through boulders and spiny plants. Reaching the junction with the Cañada del Oro trail around 1:00, I decided I would rather not slog the remaining distance to the summit and spend several hours of headlamp time.
Hence Picacho… After camping in the desert a bearable distance from the interstate and parallel train track, I returned to Picacho State Park, put a few dollars in an envelope, and set off to tag the peak around sunrise. The recent rains had briefly turned the desert green, but if any snow had fallen, none remained. I managed to avoid touching the cables, and found a bit of class 3-4 climbing along what would have been a non-obvious route. After a few minutes by myself on the summit, I returned to the car and headed back toward Tucson, looking for something to do with the rest of the day.
Frustrated with the cold, dry weather at “home,” I threw some food, clothes, and a bike in the car and headed back to southern Arizona, where everything sticks, stings, or stinks, with two goals: to revisit the Superstition Mountains, and to tick off some ultra-prominence peaks. Ironically, I finally found snow on the drive south, which took an hour longer than expected thanks to nervous Arizona drivers on the snow-packed roads between Springerville and Globe. I finally pulled into one of the camping spots on the way to the Peralta trailhead, set my bike outside, and turned in for the night.
My first goal was to tag Miner’s Needle and Superstition Peak. Unlike Weaver’s Needle, which is barely visible from Highway 60 if you know where to look, Miner’s stands out impressively on the southern edge of the range. It had caught my attention on the drive home from Weaver’s, but I found little online about its difficulty. Superstition, while not much of a climb, is the range highpoint and an interesting-looking peak. Linking them up makes little sense, but would give me a chance to hike/run some new trails.
This being a weekend at a popular trailhead, I saw a number of cars drive by before dawn, and several more between dawn and when I summoned enough motivation to crawl out of my sleeping bag in the cold. It was cold enough that I took the time to heat my morning “Cup of Sadness,” and nearly froze my hands dealing with the stove and stowing gear. By the time I hit the trail at 8:00, there were 20 or more cars in the lot, and several groups milling toward the Peralta Trail and Fremont Saddle.
I, on the other hand, headed east on the Lost Dutchman trail, which parallels the south edge of the range, passing through a saguaro forest before heading north up the drainage east of the needle. While Miner’s looks like a single, tall rock formation from the east or west, it is actually three separate spires, with a gradual slope leading to within 50-100 feet of their summits from the north. Leaving the trail at the logical place, I found occasional cairns and bits of trail peeking out from the snow, leading to the saddle east of Miner’s.
I saw two possible routes to the summit: The first climbs a 30-foot exfoliating slab to a chockstone on the (shady) east side. The second makes a few wildly exposed, face-y moves around to the gully that splits the south side. While the slab offered a painful-not-fatal fall option, the step-around looked like something I could climb in rock shoes. I switched shoes, put my camera on my belt, then spent a few minutes psyching myself up before making the delicate moves around south. The rock (bonded tuff?) is more solid and sticky than it looks, but the handholds are small enough to make it intimidating going up, and slightly more so going down. If I had to guess, I would say it is about 5.6.
Above the step-around, a bit of 3rd class scrambling leads to the spiny-thing “garden” between the three summit blobs. A final, awkward grovel, made easier by someone’s rock step-stool, leads to the summit. After not finding a register, I stayed only briefly before retracing my steps. I found a rappel sling at the top of the slab, but that was useless to me, so I retraced my steps, once again taking a minute or two to psych myself up for the step-around.
The technical part of my day complete, I now faced a long hike west, around Weaver’s Needle to the range highpoint. This was deliberate: while I could have done the two peaks as separate outings, I wanted to see more of the Superstitions’ interior. Continuing on the Lost Dutchman trail, I jogged past some campers on the way to a surprisingly lively stream, where it meets the Bluff Spring trail. Heading upstream, I passed more campers before turning right at the next junction, toward Bluff Saddle. The Superstitions are probably a miserable place to backpack for most of the year, but it seems people were taking advantage of the recent snow’s water and cooler temperatures.
The trail deteriorated after Bluff Saddle, eventually disappearing in a flat, brushy area near Weaver’s. Heading cross-country up the wash south of the Needle, I soon found cairns and bits of trail along the obvious route connecting Needle and East Boulder Canyons. I following the main trail back to Fremont Saddle, where the usual crowd had gathered to admire the Needle from a safe distance.
Leaving the trail once more, I followed a fading line of cairns through the snow to the west. After suffering through snow and spines on the faint-to-invisible route, I found a sign and well-trod path at the saddle above Carney Springs, where I joined the standard route to Superstition. On the way to the summit, I met a man finishing a long traverse from the Flatiron, and another group of three coming back from the peak. Though the summit is a cluster of rock spires, reaching it requires only a couple easy third class moves. After a few minutes looking over the perfect grid of Phoenix streets, I jogged back down to Carney Springs, then took a trail along the wilderness boundary back to the still-crowded Peralta Trailhead.
Weaver’s Needle is an impressive fin hidden in the Superstition Mountains. Though only a few miles from Phoenix, it is not visible from the city, and only barely visible from highway 60 to the south. Lying in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, the Superstitions’ many small rock spires are mirrored by forests of saguaro cacti. Though not one of the higher peaks in the range, it is certainly one of the most impressive and popular. Its 5.5 crux, short approach, and scenic surroundings make it one of the more difficult and enjoyable desert peaks.
After a late start from Tucson, we shouldered a rope apiece at the Peralta trailhead, and got started around 11:15. Cooler temperatures and a few harmless clouds hung around from the previous day’s rain, making for pleasant hiking up the popular approach trail. With 30-40 cars at the trailhead, I was worried about traffic on the route, but it turns out that the vast majority of people were only out to view the Needle from Fremont or Bluff saddle. We passed people of all ages and levels of fitness on the way to Fremont Saddle, none carrying ropes.
At the saddle, we paused briefly to admire the Needle with the rest of the crowd, then continued on down East Boulder Canyon, where we had the trail to ourselves. As we rounded the west side of the Needle, we heard a dog barking and yelping, presumably frustrated at being left at the base of the route.
The standard route from the west climbs a steep gully between the highpoint and a sub-summit to its south. Shortly before this gully became visible, Mike noticed a couple cairns next to the trail, and we left the main trail to cross the dry wash to the east. After crossing the wash, we followed a line of cairns upward to the northeast, which leads fairly painlessly to the base of the scrambling. Despite Weaver’s being a popular peak near a major city, there is little or no trail along the line of cairns.
At the base of the class 3-4 climbing we found the source of the barking, a juvenile dog trying desperately to climb 4th-class slabs to reach its master. It strained and whined pathetically from its precarious perch near the top, and I felt sorry for it as I scrambled up an easier route to the right. After putting on rock shoes, I scrambled on up the gully/chimney to just below the chockstone at the top. Most of the climbing was moderate, secure stemming on good rock with large holds. The final climb around the chockstone was somewhat more serious, with steeper 5.5-5.6 face climbing to round it on either side; I chose left, and Mike chose right.
At the saddle, I met the dog’s owners, a guy with surprisingly little patience for loud dogs taking his novice girlfriend climbing. We chatted briefly as they set up a rappel, and I dropped a rope to belay Mike up the final section. I learned that one can descend the gully in two single-rope rappels, so we had hauled the monster 11-pound sport rope all that way for nothing. After belaying Mike to the saddle, I left my rope near the bolts, and we scrambled the rest of the way to the summit. While the route description mentions more technical climbing above the notch, the rest of the climb seemed 4th class, and the rock is surprisingly good.
From the summit, fields of small rock spires and saguaros extend in all directions. An arm of the Canyon Lake reservoir is just visible to the north, while bulky Superstition Peak dominates to the west. Though I am not a desert person, the view made me want to explore the spires and twisting canyons. With two more 5.6-ish spires in the vicinity, Miner’s Needle and the Hand, I have an excuse to return. Scrambling back to the notch, we made a single double-rope rappel over the chockstone — might as well use that extra rope! — then packed up the ropes for the hike out. Having carried my light alpine 50m rope on the way out, I was amazed to find that the big cragging 60m weighed almost twice as much. We returned to the trailhead with plenty of daylight left, though not early enough to complete the long drive home.
Baboquivari is one of the handful of desert peaks technical even by their easiest routes, and one of the better ones at that. Located southwest of Tucson near the Mexican border, it is most often approached from the west via an Indian reservation, but can also be approached from the east via the Baboquivari Ranch. I had hoped to scramble the southeast ridge (5.6) then descend the standard route (5.2?), but ended up just scrambling up and down the standard route. This was probably for the best, as the standard route would have been hard to find on the descent.
After loading up the van, Mike took off to ride a section of the Arizona Trail, while I drove up through Tucson and around to the east side of the Baboquivari Range. Though my itinerary was all within the United States, I was stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint on the way north, and passed another on the way back south. The agents were efficient and slightly bored rather than aggressive, peering into the back of the van for a few seconds before waving me on, but I would quickly become exasperated if I frequently traveled south of I-10.
I found the Thomas Canyon road without too much trouble and, after passing through the gate, continued happily on well-graded dirt. I knew this approach required a high-clearance vehicle, so every mile I drove was two fewer miles I had to jog. The road turned van-proof just before a water tank 2.1 miles from the highway, leaving a bit under 5 miles of road to jog to reach the trailhead — not bad. After a false start in which I forgot my rock shoes, I was on my way bright-and-early at 10:10 AM.
Based on my memory of some directions I found online, I turned right at a fork 5-10 minutes’ jog from the car, following two hunters in a pickup who I assumed knew where they were going. This turned out to be a mistake — the correct route continues left past a couple of forks, before finally turning right/north up Thomas Canyon at a 4-way intersection farther west. After jogging past the hunters, I found that my road dead-ended at an old fence, and knew I was off-route.
Rather than retrace my steps to try another road, I continued up-canyon, following decent cow-paths through cactus, ocotillo, and mesquite up the valley to the north. Though I knew I was not on-route, the bush-whacking was manageable, so I continued to the head of the wash, passing occasional debris left by migrants, then started scrambling toward the ridge to the north.
Fortunately I looked back only a short way up the ridge, and noticed a road perhaps a mile to the west. Retracing my steps and following more cow-paths west, I reached the well-traveled road I should have taken, and hike-jogged past the abandoned Clemente Windmill to the ranch gate, arriving around 11:20. My false start and scenic brush tour had only cost 20-30 minutes, so I was still in good shape.
The Baboquivari Ranch house was in good shape, though apparently unoccupied at the moment, with signs directing hikers around to the east. After wandering around north of the house a bit, I picked up the faint trail as it passes right of the corral, then follows the wash north to the saddle east of the peak. Just past the corral, I met the apparent owner of the car occupying the one parking spot at the gate, an older man with a pair of garden clippers. My pleasure at seeing someone clipping the cat-claw away from the trail was short-lived, as the man seemed to have given up only a few hundred yards past where I met him. While the rest of the trail was usable, it was too spiny to run on the descent.
Continuing up-canyon, I followed cairns along the sometimes-faint trail as it crossed and re-crossed the stream-bed. As the wash steepens, the trail switchbacks up the grassy east side, traverses into a slabby gully, climbs the gully, then traverses again to the saddle. It is worth taking extra time not to lose the trail here, as the terrain is steep and spiny. The trail eventually crosses a saddle with a fire ring, where the spectacular cliffs to the north come suddenly into view, then continues up Baboquivari’s north side.
In retrospect, the southeast ridge route is obvious from the approach, crossing the brushy Lion’s Ledge from the saddle right of the peak to a point partway up the left-hand skyline. However, my internal compass was off, so I thought the southeast ridge route must somehow go up the imposingly steep ridge above the saddle. I continued along the trail past the saddle, then ascended a burned ravine to regain the (northeast?) ridge above the brush. After some fun class 3-4 scrambling, I was confronted by vertical walls with no apparent 5.6 route. Traversing around left on outward-sloping ledges turned up nothing I wanted to climb, so I returned to the top of the burnt ravine and continued up and counterclockwise to hopefully rejoin the standard route.
Scrambling up a slot to a chockstone, I climbed fun, pocketed class 4-5 rock to its right, where I found a solid 3-bolt anchor indicating I was some version of “on-route.” From this point, the route apparently goes up and right, then climbs a broad, slabby face to a 2-bolt anchor with some bright webbing. From there, it traverses right and descends slightly to the base of the “ladder pitch,” where a number of rods and large metal brackets are all that remain of the old ladder. This crux pitch is probably about 5.2; while I did not need my rock shoes, I found the climbing somewhat tricky in my aggressively-lugged running shoes, which edge and smear terribly.
Above the ladder, the route continues right through a notch, then down between some bushes and a cliff face, before scrambling left up a ravine to the sloping summit plateau. The fire, which apparently engulfed the entire upper mountain, has eliminated much of the brush, making the route easier than before. I topped out around 4 hours from the car, probably about an hour slower than if I had stayed on-route the whole time. The summit features bolts and brackets for an old lookout, a large cairn, and various offerings to the resident deity.
After relaxing on top for a few minutes, I retraced my route. Downclimbing the ladder pitch was somewhat tricky in my running shoes, and I lost the faint trail once below the saddle, but the return was mostly uneventful, and I reached the van well before dark and with a mouthful of water to spare. Despite the wrong turns, this is one of the better desert outings I have done, and I would gladly return for the southeast ridge if I again find myself in the area.
It is desert season, time to drive through empty land in the long nights, then spend the short days fending off spines. I don’t particularly enjoy solo desert trips, so I was thankful that Mike was willing to humor me and tag along for a few southern Arizona peaks. I had chosen a grab-bag of ultra-prominence peaks and scrambly desert peaks; first up was Chiricahua, an unremarkable “ultra” near the more remarkable Chiricahua National Monument, southeast of Tucson.
We got a dawn start, taking Mike’s van because it is capable of reaching highway speeds even on flats and uphills. The drive south was moderately scenic in its southwestern desert way, with high grassy plains, piñon and ponderosa forests, large mesas, and the occasional crag or cliff-lined cañon. We passed through the redneck backwoods of southwestern New Mexico, descended to the wastelands of the Sonoran desert, and crossed I-10 into the broad and semi-militarized border with Mexico, eventually reaching the trailhead for Chiricahua around mid-afternoon. The “trailhead” is actually a trail sign along a dirt road just wide enough to park a car without blocking traffic.
Much of the area apparently burned in the last 5-10 years, and the trail has seen little work since, so it is often faint and occasionally blocked by deadfall. (This is the trail starting below Sycamore Campground. The Mormon Canyon trail shown on the USGS 7.5′ topos seems no longer to exist.) We followed it up a broad ridge toward the spine of the Chiricahua Mountains, briefly losing it where it switchbacks right around some cliffs on the ridge, then found it again and followed it to where it joined the crest trail.
From here, we followed the crest trail north to Junction Saddle, then the signed trail to Chiricahua’s summit. This trail was usable, but not robust; the other trails shown on the topo seem to have disappeared, perhaps because of the fire. After signing the register and admiring some rock formations to the east, we hurried down to minimize headlamp time, reaching the car less than an hour after dark. Even so far south, daylight is scarce.