Last entry first.
February 29, Wednesday. Unmarked ridgeline trail, Ma Ha Tuak range, South Mountain Park. I had circled this Leap Year Day for a special hike, the nearly 10-mile loop up the Alta Trail and back on the Bajada. The combo is one of the 60 hikes I’m trying to complete this year. I had not paid much attention to the Ma Ha Tuak range, lost as it is in the foreground of the park’s higher peaks. The usual hiking distance is 8.5 miles but today access to San Juan Road and the trailhead is closed. That adds another mile and a half roundtrip. So I park my car, toss on my backpack and amble past the closed gate 3/4 of a mile to the trailhead.
After huffing and puffing up some steep switchbacks, I at last reach a high saddle on the ridge. A panorama of Phoenix opens up to the north. But I am puzzled by a trail juncture. Why, in retrospect, I don’t know. In my hurry to get this laborious hike done before nightfall, I had not studied a map. Common sense should’ve told me to take the far-better maintained trail on the left. But I go right instead, enticed by the idea of following the ridgeline east and topping every little summit. The trail is faint but I see fresh bootprints everytime the rocky trail turns to dirt. At times, I climb up boulders using my hands. Unable to fully see above, I push the thought of rattlesnakes to the side and clamber on. It is thrilling, doing something unexpected like this.
At the highest point on the ridgeline I stop to give Nebra a call. I can see the building where she works. She walks outside with her phone as I try to explain where I am. She sees only Goose Hill, a knob on the higher mountains behind me. I’m lined up almost perfectly between her and the Hill. With powerful glasses perhaps she could see me sitting up here. I soon charge on. I see only one other hiker, a shirtless man with tanned skin about a quartermile distant, descending carefully. It is 4:30 when i get back to the car. My pedometer tells me I’ve traveled only about five miles, but what a five miles! Maybe, I wonder, this is what a Leap Year hike should feel like. Serendipity.
February 25, Saturday. Scenic Trail, McDowell Mountains Regional Park. I find this trail historically interesting. The area was ravaged by the Rio Fire in 1995. I had not visited the park since the wildfire, a conflagaration that, as one publication wrote at the time, “exploded like a bomb,” and scorched 22.4 square miles. As I pull into the park entrance about 2 o’clock, a couple of cop cars with flashing lights are parked in front. They are monitoring the Ragnar Del Sol relay race from Wickenburg to Tempe, a distance of 200.5 miles. I pass a few runners near the race’s Exchange 29, the last day of the two-day event.
I pay the park’s $6 entrance fee and wheel my Civic along a nicely paved road with signs that say, “Fire Restoration,” almost 17 years after the Rio. You are told not to venture off the trails and not to gather firewood from burned trees laying on the ground. The land is recovering nicely but the vegetation is low with few trees above head-high. The Scenic Trail combines with another trail, the Pemberton on the south, to form a loop of 4.5 miles up into the Lousley Hills and back to the trailhead and a huge parking lot. I traverse a sandy valley and ascend easily to the Lousleys’ ridgeline on the east. Yellow-flowering brittlebush and yet to bloom bursage dominate the landscape up here. I sniff the wonderful aroma of the creosote which must be wafting up from below for there are few of the bushes on top. Bees are working the flowers, and I run across an isolated stand of saguaros that the fire didn’t reach. But what makes this ridgeline trail a standout are the vistas. I stop for lunch at the Hilda Rosenthal memorial bench and take it in. Sweeping valleys on three sides, leading up to the pointy McDowells to the southwest, the rugged cliffs of the Superstitions to the east and, most breath-taking of all, the high Mazatzals to the northeast and the distinctive Four Peaks. Below to the north lay the Fort McDowell Indian reservation and its cultivated fields along the Verde River.
It is a beautiful day, sunny, calm, temps in the 70s, but few hikers here in the afternoon. Later near the trailhead, I run into fields of fiddlenecks and their tiny yellow flowers. They do not stagger you like a large field of poppies but they are beautiful plants nonetheless. As I reach the car I see a couple of ravens still working the hills and a flock of white-crowned sparrows along a sandy wash. I see no quail but I hear them chatting close by. It has been an enjoyable afternoon. And the Scenic’s rewards came with no great expense of energy.
February 22, Wednesday: Pass Mountain Trail, Tonto National Forest. As I hit the saddle at the northwest corner of this 8-mile loop trail, a new world of grand vistas and wildflowers open up. After traversing the uninspiring southern part, the northern “backside” of Pass Mountain can take your breath away.
Fields of golden California poppies accompany me along the trail. And the views of Fountain Hills and the Superstition Mountains and far-off Four Peaks are magnificent. I last visited Pass Mountain on February 3 when I did the Wind Cave Trail. This time I enter from the Tonto N.F. trailhead on the east side to escape paying the $6 entry fee to Usery Mountain Regional Park. Usery borders Pass Mountain on the south, but most of the trail is in Tonto. I don’t know whether the drive east was worth it. It’s an extra gallon of gas and costs me 30 minutes of precious hiking time. So it is 2:15 by the time I walk the quartermile access and reach the narrow Pass Mountain Trail. Darkness is on my mind. Liu says the trail requires about 3 1/2 hours, and yet I dally. I stop a half hour for lunch and later shoot photos and take notes.
On the lonely backside I run into only nine other hikers in five miles. One stops to admire my hiking shoes, a well-worn pair of Garmonts I bought in June of 2010. He is a high-rise window washer who recently moved with his girlfriend to Arizona from Oklahoma City. He says he really liked his own Garmonts but after 3 1/2 years of backpacking the rubber at the heel and toe began to pull away and only wears them to work now. So I’ve got that to look forward to. Another 10 minutes have passed talking.
I’m walking the trail clockwise. That way I save the best for last, avoid the late afternoon sun in my eyes and I don’t have to immediately hike up the steep part. It is after sunset when I arrive back at the parking lot. My car is the only one left. The lot was full earlier. On all sides I hear quail chattering. Two Audubon cottontails scamper out of my way. A long hike, yes, but a rewarding one.
February 20, Monday: Inner basin, North Mountain Park. I run into many more birds than usual. Flocks of what I believe to be Chipping Sparrows skitter through chaparral at two different points. A hummingbird perches on a snag, the first I’ve seen in the park. It’s probably an Anna’s but the light is bad from where I stand. I see a flash of red at the throat but the tell-tale red cap eludes me.
February 19, Sunday: Massacre Grounds Trail, Superstition Wilderness. Confusion sets in right away. Gone is the old staging area for the Grounds. The half-mile dirt road from the First Water parking lot to an unmarked trailhead has been torn up. A sign says to enter from the Crosscut Trailhead. So, after Nebra turns the Prius around and we backtrack 2.3 miles, we at last head out on a trail. No map or mention of trails at the trailhead. Best I can tell the Crosscut is actually Jacob’s Crosscut, a trail that leads off to the right and Lost Dutchman State Park. We take the trail to the left, leading toward a huge wall of cliffs that shield the Superstition Mountains. First we pass a large field of cholla, both Jumping and Teddy Bear, and enter the largest stand of jojoba I’ve ever seen.
Eventually we travel along a huge outcropping of smooth rock and arrive at an east-facing saddle. It is late in the afternoon and since we’re uncertain where the trail leads we turn back here to try it another day. Our 45-mile trip east from the home in Phoenix is not wasted. You can rarely beat the beauty of the Superstitions anywhere else in the Sonoran Desert.
February 17, Friday: Camelback Mountain, via Cholla Trail. There I was in a scary position on the rocky ridgeline of Phoenix’s most famous landmark. Camelback was supposed to be a routine hike, according to Liu’s “60 Hikes,” but I apparently missed one of the blue dots that mark the sketchy trail to the summit and veered south into dangerous ground. I’m standing on a lightly-used path two feet wide at the most, a rock wall on the right and a slippery slide of a large outcropping on the left that at its end falls off 50 feet or more into chaparral. I am a misstep away from what I think is certain death. Worse, a red compass barrel cactus is growing out of the rock wall at eye level. That means ducking under it so my 10-pound backpack won’t catch on a spine and tip me into disaster. Why I didn’t turn back, I don’t know. Maybe I couldn’t. It is all lost in haze now. I remember easing under the cactus and clambering up some rock to the main trail. You never know what awaits you on the trail, or anywhere else for that matter.
As I approach the summit, an unlikely pair of hikers passes me. They are 40ish and “out of costume.” The man wears dark cuffed pants and a brown shirt and is carrying water in a plastic gallon milk carton. The woman wears a light-blue dress that hits her near the ankles. The hem of the dress is tied into a knot to prevent tripping and exposes a white petticoat. A “veil” covers her hair. I assume they belong to a religious order of some kind. At last I reach the summit, gasping a bit. More than an hour and a half has passed since parking my car on a far-off side street. It is a rocky place, this flattish summit, at 2,704 feet elevation, is the highest point in the Valley. Some gnarly palo verde and brittlebush have wedged roots into the rock. The view naturally is 360 degrees of fantastic. I count 23 hikers on top — and three dogs. I estimate most of the humans are under the age of 30. It is breezy and cool. I eat a sandwich and head down after shooting photos.
After surviving the rocky ledge and stepping onto what I think is safe ground east of the saddle, I stumble and fall at Post 18, fortunately landing on my right arm in dirt and small rocks. A few scrapes result. I know I’m lucky. Not paying attention to the trail can be hazardous. At the eastern end I stop to survey the upscale Phoenician Resort. It was built in 1985 by Charles Keating, infamous for his role in the S&L scandal several years later. Keating served prison time but the resort survived quite handsomely under new ownership. It is after 5:30 when I arrive back at my car on Invergordon. Because of complaints by residents who live in nearby mansions, parking is reduced to the street now. You must walk up a half-mile or more to hit the trailhead. Oh, well. I had to do it. Glad it’s over, the 15th trail on my goal of 60 within the year.
February 16, Thursday: Kiwanis and Telegraph Pass trails, South Mountain Park. The two trails slice through this mountain range on Phoenix’s south side, 2.2 miles north and south. I start up the easy and lightly-traveled Kiwanis Trail from the north in mid-afternoon. I cross a large ravine several times and reach the high point, the paved summit road at Telegraph Pass, in 23 minutes. It was through this pass in October of 1873 the military built a telegraph line that would connect Arizona Territory for the first time with the outside world, in this case to San Diego. If remnants of the old poles remain, I didn’t see any today.
I descend on the steeper Telegraph Pass Trail to the isolated urban village of Ahwatukee, passing an exhibit of petroglyphs made by the ancient Hohokams. Ahwatukee, with more than 75,000 residents, backs up against South Mountain on the north and west, and the vast Gila Indian reservation on the south. Interstate 10 on the east is Ahwatukee’s main artery to central Phoenix, and it’s often clogged with traffic. At one time there was talk of building a road through Telegraph Pass to ease congestion but there was such a clamor by conservationists and others that the movement died. Surrounded as it is by dense population and home to almost two dozen towers on its summit, South Mountain maintains a viable ecosystem.
I turn around at the Desert Foothills Trailhead in Ahwatukee and retrace my steps. It is almost 5:30 when coming down to where my car is parked near the Kiwanis Trailhead, I hear the hooting of an owl high up on the ridge to the west. I stop, pull out my small 8 x 21 binos and find it immediately. The owl perches on the ledge of a crevice. It is brownish with white markings at the jaw. I think it’s a Great-Horned. Wish I had my larger 10 x 30 IS glasses, but . . . . I find a ramada to eat my first meal of the day, a ham and cheese sandwich, while watching another beautiful Arizona sunset, this one over the Estrellas.
February 15, Wednesday: North Mountain summit. If I miss doing elevation for a day or two, antsy-ness sets in. I’m getting in good shape. Legs are strong, cardio improving. I fear losing ground. So today I traveled the steep summit road to the top, just for the exercise. I read later that National Geographic rates Phoenix one of the top 15 hiking cities in the U.S. Also on the list: Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Portland, Las Vegas, Seattle, Los Angeles in the West along with Phoenix, and Washington, DC, Philadelphia, New York City, Austin, Chicago, Miami, Boston and Milwaukee to the east. I don’t believe it’s an honest list. How could you leave out Denver? Or even Albuquerque?
February 13, Monday: Inner basin, North Mountain Park. Walked the length of the park and back to the Visitors Center. Cloudy, 65, with light breeze from SW.
February 12, Sunday. Tom’s Thumb, McDowell Mountains. This marks my first trip up to the Thumb, a 140-foot granite spire at the end of a short but strenuous 1.6 mile trail through a mountainous land of large boulders. If gray granite and dark shadows set against a blue sky can be beautiful, this is it. The “Tom” in the Thumb is a retired school teacher and former rock climber, Tom Kreuser. Kreuser, according to an article three years ago in the Arizona Republic, wasn’t the first to reach the top when he and two other accomplished the feat on September 19, 1964. But Kreuser was the first of the Arizona Mountaineering Club to do so. So Tom’s Thumb stuck, even though after almost a half-century it can’t officially be called that by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. Not until Tom visits the Happy Hunting Ground anyway. The Thumb does not receive the traffic it should if it rested in a less remote area. Remote? This is far northeast Scottsdale and about 40 miles from my home in central Phoenix. The nearest housing development is a mile away.
It is chilly, in the upper 50s with a stout west wind, by time Nebra and I are finally standing under the Thumb. We spread our picnic lunch on some flatish boulders in the sun and take in an amazing sight as we eat. Three ravens and a hawk half their size are having a mid-air battle. I assume the ravens are trying to attack the hawk’s nest on some high boulders. It is a one-sided match. As the hawk chases one raven, the other two descend into the rocks for whatever it is they’re after. The hawk by far is the superior flyer. Its air-obatics are so spectacular, so precise and awesome that it brings a tear to my eye. After a while all is quiet. What the outcome was I have no idea. I hope the hawk won, yet . . . .
We hustle back to the small, dirt parking lot, enjoying the vistas. About 3 miles to the northwest we can clearly see Pinnacle Peak, where we hiked a month or so ago. Tom’s Thumb is much the better hike. More beauty and, although we count 38 on our way back, it is far from the zoo that Pinnacle is on a given Sunday. This is the 12th of the “60 Hikes” and the best one yet.
February 11, Saturday: Inner basin, North Mountain Park. If you hike long enough, you will see every oddity imaginable. I recently was startled by seeing a teenage girl walking up a very rocky Mormon Trail in bare feet. Today, while stopping for a bite to eat at the Trupiano bench, I see in the distance of the Shaw Butte Trail a man on a unicycle. A unicycler. He wears a green shirt and thankfully a blue plastic helmet, as he motors along at a good clip. While fairly flat, the Shaw Butte Trail has many pitfalls for a unicycler. Jagged outcroppings and rocky ravines to name a few. Later I’m so entranced watching a red-tailed hawk I miss a great opportunity to shoot a photo of the unicycler. He passes 25 yards away on another trail. I point and shoot anyway, wanting to preserve the moment.
February 10, Friday: H-3 Trail, Thunderbird Park. This is my first trip to the black Hedgpeth Hills, about 24 miles northwest of downtown Phoenix. Thin soil has left the park a near-treeless place covered with black-lava rock. The H-3 Trail loops up on top and around a summit my GPS measures at 1,828 feet. The trail, one of Liu’s “60 Hikes” hums with activity. Hikers, bikers and joggers. It is the warmest day of the year, and I stop for a sandwich in the shade of a lonely palo verde, which is barely more than a bush. Mountainous vistas open up to the north and east if eyes are trained beyond the huge residential developments in the foreground. Along the trail I search for signs of ancient petroglyphs but see none. I know they’re out here somewhere. Some of these primitive drawings receive shelter at the Deer Valley Rock Art Museum a few miles away.
On the northern slopes I switchback through huge fields of brittlebush. Later in the spring when they flower yellow, the brittlebush treats residents below to an awesome display of color. On the south, I turn right and follow H-1 back to the parking lot. This segment follows a busy 59th Avenue which slits the park in two. A footbridge at the top of the pass leads to the park’s largest summit on the other side of the annoying road. As brittlebush dominated the north, teddy-bear cholla covers the south. This is hardly a wilderness experience. But, for me at least, another Liu trail down the drain, No. 12 with only 48 to go.
February 8, Wednesday: Hidden Valley and Mormon Trails, South Mountain Park. If at first you don’t succeed. . . . Eight days after a failed attempt to negotiate the full length of Hidden Valley, I finally see the light. The “deadend” on the trail was no deadend at all. Unmarked, you must scramble up through a tight place. Voila. There I am disappointed to see a nondescript basin of about 150 yards in length surrounded by unique rock formations. At the far end of the Valley, I ease out through a slit in the rock, the misnamed Fat Man’s Pass. On the return to the trailhead two miles away, I receive reward for my troubles. I stop at the sight of motion. Perched atop a small tree is a handsome little bird decked out for an avian masquerade ball. Black and white “tux” on wing and tail and a black “mask” covering its eyes. If you believe there is no beauty in black and white, you need only to see a male loggerhead shrike to change your mind. Farther down sounds replace sights. A chorus of coyotes emerges from a distant valley. And there is the surreal. High notes of an ocarina waft down from a hilltop where a young man is outlined by late afternoon sun, lost in his music. And there is the teenage girl with streaks of green, or was it pink? hair hiking up the rocky trail barefooted. Barefooted.
Hidden Valley is further pushed into the background at in the parking lot. Stopping to make notes at the ramada, I see a large coyote crossing the street from a residential area. It stops just above me at the trailhead, no more than 20 yards away, its intense eyes on the trail ahead. It is a magnificent animal, brownish with hints of gray and black and sporting a bushy trail. Then it veers off to the west and out of sight, an enchanting moment gone. This is the 11th of “The 60 Hikes.” Forty-nine more to go. The goal seems so far away I don’t want to dwell on it.
February 7, Tuesday: North Mountain Park, inner basin. I’m walking back to the Visitors Center after hiking the length of the park, and I run into Mike S., a longtime acquaintance. He is a serious bicyclist and, at age 62, appears in superior condition. Mike is waiting to join a group of “marathoners” who are going up the steep south face of Shaw Butte for a night view of the full moon from the summit. He tells me he is on the bubble with his job as a pressman at The Arizona Republic, the local newspaper. The owner, Gannett, is likely doing buyouts this week, minimum age 57 and minimum service 15 years. Mike has been with the paper for something like 40 years. At a time when the economy seems on the mend, Gannett’s action is a cruel reminder of how brutally cold corporations can be in striving for profits. Well, I think, Mike at least has his bicycle, and he has his hiking. It’s not like he is one of those who lives only for his job.
February 6, Monday: Lookout Mountain, summit trail. Steep and so rocky a mule would balk at negotiating it, the trail to the top is, if nothing else, good exercise. Trouble is it’s too short. A little more than a half-mile, the trail gets you to the summit in only 15-20 minutes. And I want at least 30 minutes of hard cardio. On the summit, I bite into a deli sandwich and scan the residences below. Almost every one has a swimming pool.
The vegetation is sparse. Creosote, brittlebush, bursage and even a clump of Mormon tea. In a half hour I see only three others up here. Two 60ish men who stop briefly to enjoy the vista and a young Asian woman who immediately turns around and goes back down the trail. It’s been my observation that contemplation on a mountaintop is not the rage among the young. Most of them are exercise freaks. I don’t think they appreciate the desert much. Unsatisfied and chilled by the westerly breeze, I too retreat to the parking lot.
February 4, Saturday: North Mountain Park, summit trail. After a late lunch of soup, talapia, green beans, carrots, corn, mashed potatoes with gravy and three chocolate chip cookies at my favorite buffet, I have to push myself to reach the summit of North Mountain. I know better but I was hungry. It is a cool afternoon, mid 60s, and the sun on top warms me to the bone. I descend by way of chilly shadows on the north side. An owl hoots as I come over a saddle into the inner basin. It is not one hoot. It is many. I wonder if the owl is excited by seeing its own meal in what has just skittered across the path in front of me. A covey of at least 8 Gambel’s quail. The sky is busy too. A Met Life dirigible passes to the north, and I can hear its engine purring. Beyond it five hot-air balloons rise silently and seem to hang like bright ornaments in the setting sun. It’s a nice time to be in Arizona.
February 3, Friday: Wind Cave Trail, Usery Regional Park. I’m sitting on a ledge outside the Wind Cave, about 850 feet above the trailhead, and thinking this “cave” is not nearly exotic as it once sounded. For one thing it is more an overhang than anything, 8 feet high by 8 feet deep and about 20 yards in length. The interior is brown and pock-marked. Urine stains the floor in one place. Graffiti is splashed on a smaller cave on the west end. “Promo” it says in purple paint. And today there is not even a hint of breeze up here. The pop-pop-pop of ammo drifts upward from the shooting range across Usery Pass Road, under the silly sign of white-washed rock that says “< Phoenix.” You wonder why anyone would seek to traverse the 1.6 mile trail to get here but they do. Wind Cave is the most popular of the 21 trails listed in Usery Mountain Regional Park in east Mesa, 34 miles from my house in central Phoenix. The Cave rests high up on Pass Mountain, one of the Salt River Valley’s most notable landmarks. It is notable for the golden horizontal band of tuff that runs nearly the entire length of the mountain’s cliff face. Up close, the band is mostly tan rock with some light pink ones. The golden color results no doubt from a patina of greenish-yellow lichen that covers the rock. Near the mountain’s east end this band pinches together as the cliff ends. Here the rock wall makes an abrupt turn to the south where wind running easily along the cliff suddenly slams into the mountain — and carved the Wind Cave. I was delayed 10 minutes getting to the Cave by an emergency crew of 16 coming down the trail with an injured woman on a gurney. She appeared in her 40s and lay motionless, probably sedated. The parking lot was crammed with rescue-team vehicles and an ambulance as I had started up the trail. It is almost 4 when i start down the trail, passing about 30 hikers on their way up. Near the Wind Cave nice stands of golden poppies glow in the bright sun. It is a beautiful trail that meanders through forests of saguaro and red-spined compass barrel cactus. The dense mixture of their colors, green and red, made my 10th of the “60 hikes” a happy one.
February 1, Wednesday: I’m taking a day’s rest from the trails. After days of elevation hiking, the calves and outer quads are a tinge sore, the legs as a whole yell, “Stop it, we’re tired.” My legs are strong after three years of serious walking and now six months of regular hiking. The calves in particular have changed shape. Once more or less undefined, they are now chiseled and more slender with muscles popping out where I thought none existed. It’s like having your teenage legs back. Except for one thing. The right leg is larger than the left, no thanks to a chigger attack in 1975 while picking wild blackberries in Oklahoma. A specialist told me my lymph glands had been damaged. The “heavy” leg doesn’t noticeably bother me when hiking. I measure the circumference of my calves in midafternoon. The normal left one is 14 1/2 inches, the other 15. Thighs 20 inches and 22. As for cardio, it is improving but a long way from where I hope to be. Moderate climbs still leave me huffing and puffing, and steeper ones cause halts to catch my wind.