A hiker’s journal: March 2012

Latest entry first.

The lonely and very steep west trail to the summit.

March 14, Wednesday:  Uncharted trail, North Mountain summit.  An acquaintance of mine, Bob, has told me over and over about this lonely trail he takes up to the summit three times a week from the western slope.  Trouble is I could never find it from the inner basin no matter how clearly the description.  Today I decide to look for it from the top rather than the bottom.  Not long ago I had seen this guy on the summit walk around on the south of the chain-link fence that protects the three tall towers from trespass and disappear.  It had to be “Bob’s trail.”  Sure enough.  I ease around the narrow path with a deep drop-off and begin descending a faint and very steep trail covered with jagged outcroppings and loose rock on the west side.  Moments before, I had seen three young men in their 20s literally fly down over the rock and quickly disappear, timing their descent to a city park to the southwest.  Not me.  I take forever it seems to finally reach a gentle saddle where the trail divides, south and north. I take the north one, obviously the route down to the inner basin and back to the parking lot.

Looking south to North Mountain, the uncharted trail traverses the ridgeline on the right.

It is not as lonely up here as I first thought.  I count three others on the trail.  A young man and woman going up.  Later I see a young woman with her dog coming down far behind me.  It is a clearly defined trail below the saddle, and I wonder where it will meet up with the Christiansen Trail in the inner basin, a trail I’ve stepped along many, many times.  How could I miss this?  The answer soon becomes apparent.  The trail peters out into almost nothing at a point where the Christiansen and Shaw Butte trails merge for about 50 yards.  There is no sign, no cairn, nothing.  This isn’t an exciting trail.  But if you seek to avoid the herds that ascend to the North Mountain summit on the paved service road on the east, well, this is your baby.

March 13, Tuesday:  Main and High trails, Boyce Thompson Arboretum.  It’s hard to figure out what Liu has in mind for these trails in his “60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Phoenix.”  He describes this walk through the world-class arboretum west of Superior, Arizona, as 3 miles.  I walk all over the place and barely hit 2 1/2 miles.  Oh, well.  Close enough.  The arboretum lays almost 63 miles from my home in Phoenix, but technically it is under 60 miles from Phoenix’s far east side.  Certainly, I hit the place at the right time of the desert year.  Just about every plant is in full bloom.  And the plants come from deserts all over the world.  Even from Australia.  It’s a great way to spend an afternoon.  And it marks by 21st hike of the 60.  Only, only, 39 more.  (See separate article on the arboretum).

Vulture from the west, summit on left. From the east, the peak is a much more distinctive knob.

March 10, Saturday:  Vulture Peak Trail, Vulture Mountains south of Wickenburg.  In the saddle beneath the summit of this landmark, 3,658-foot peak, my heart sinks.  After gasping to reach this point on a narrow trail of short, very steep switchbacks, Nebra and I am are looking up at an even steeper climb, 240 feet higher, over jagged rock that will require the use of our hands.

On the summit, Wahn munching a ham and cheese.

We take a faint trail to the left and begin ascending a ravine with loose rock.  I stop at several points trying to find a hand-hold above my head to grab as I push off with a foot.  Nebra inches up through a tight chute while I veer right over smooth rock.  I can’t say which is better, which is less dangerous.  At last we reach the top, a nagging thought in our minds.  “I’m not looking forward to going back down,” I say.  It’s well past 4:45, my self-imposed deadline for turning around, “no matter where we are.”  I don’t want to negotiate the rocky areas in darkness.  But we push our luck.

Looking back to southwest as trail steepens.

The views are magnificent in all directions.  The old Vulture Mine rests to the southwest.  Discovered by Henry Wickenburg in the mid 1860s, it was Arizona’s first famous gold mine, a magnet that put the territory on the radar screen of eastern investors.  Almost directly below us is the Hassayampa River, a dry streambed most of the year.  It was up the Hassayampa that the gold-seeking Walker Party came in 1864, the first-known white men to set foot in central Arizona Territory.  Now, this entire, flattish summit is all ours.  In fact we have seen no one else as we hiked up.  Lunch is one grocery-store sandwich apiece.  Nebra thumbs through two summit registers taken from their place in ammo box.  She reads a few entries to me.  Nothing exceptional.  Personal triumphs, grand views.  That sort of thing.  Thirty minutes have passed, and I’m getting antsy to start down.  After Nebra writes a comment in one of the registers, we go over the south side and down the chute.

A permanent resident of the land, a blotch-sided lizard, I believe.

Strangely, as I’ve found before, going down these steep places is easier than the ascent.  We’re at saddle in no time.  Men’s voices waft up from below.  We wait on them.  Two men, in their 50s, finally emerge.  They are carrying large backpacks and intend to stay overnight on the top.  “Where’s the Starbucks?” one of them says, smiling at us.  I shudder to think how difficult it is going to be to carry those packs up the craggy rock.  Nebra and I make good time and, after taking a new trail back to the car and stumbling over the numerous other trails, we are back a few minutes after sunset.

This is our second hike to the Vulture summit.  We last did it on Thanksgiving Day 2001.  Two months after 9/11, it was an emotional hike.  A dozen hikers were on top.  Someone had placed a small U.S. flag in some rock.  Others had written deep-felt feelings in the register. I recall my eyes watering as I read.  Quite a contrast to this visit.  It is dark as we thread our way back to the main road and steer toward Phoenix, 60 miles to the southeast.   It was work to get to the summit, but the rewards were worth it.  And now hike No. 20 is in the books.

Petroglyphs in Hieroglyphic Canyon.

March 9, Friday:  Hieroglyphic Trail, Superstition Wilderness.  I can think of only two good reasons to hike up this easy trail on the south side of the Superstition Mountains.  One is to see, in wet weather, the waterfall cascade from the highest peaks through a narrow canyon.  Any other time, like today, the intent would be to view the petroglyphs, ancient art carved into canyon rock.

More petroglyphs along the narrow canyon.

It was 1:30 when I leave from the trailhead and spear north through usual desert growth, leaving behind a nearly-full parking lot with its 27 vehicles.  Fields of creosote and brittlebush provide yellow blooms on both sides of the trail.  But, alas, no poppies, only some small-flowered fiddleneck here and there. On the way up I pass 43 hikers descending the mile and a half trail.  Busy place.  Just below the falls, I cut through a small forest of chaparral and soon clamber atop some large boulders that rise above the falls on the east.  Forty-five minutes from the trailhead.  The best of the petroglyphs are on the west side. Graffiti artists have thankfully spared petroglyphs on the higher parts.

The largest pool at the bottom of the waterfall area.

I count eight other hikers scattered on boulders.  Some enjoy a picnic in the sun.  Soon I am alone with only a pleasant southerly breeze.  There is no waterfall of course.  We have not had rain in many weeks now.  But there are three pools.  Two small ones and a large one of black water  where a woman’s straw hat floats a the side.  I don’t fully grasp petroglyphs.  I see a “deer” and a “mountain sheep.”  There is a circle I imagine is some sort of zodiac.  Anyway I don’t tarry long.  On the way back, up the trail comes nine others, including a family of five with three young children who eye me suspiciously until I speak, telling  them about the water pools and the bees.  It is almost 5 when I get back to the parking lot.  My Civic is one of only three cars now.  A cool wind has set in from the northeast and clouds cover the sky.  It happened in a blink of an eye.  Anyway, this is No. 19 for me of the “60 Hikes.”  Just 41 to go.

March 7, Wednesday:  North Mountain Park, inner basin.  I walk the length of the park and back to the Visitors Center.  This marks the first time I’ve walked across the big retention dam on the southwest corner.  It stretches maybe a quarter-mile in an arc and is composed of dirt, slabs of cement, metal and other junk to give it weight and counterbalance any force of water.  At the deepest part of the dry “lake” bed behind the dam is a flood gauge.  It stops at 23 feet.  I estimate water at 28-30 feet will overflow the dam and wash down on homes below.  No worry now.  We’re in a drought.  On the way back dozens of swallows swarm by.  They are moving so fast and erratically in their search for flying insects that I can’t pick them up in the binos.  I wonder if the insects were blown in by the strong west wind for I had not seen swallows in the park before.

March 5, Monday: North Mountain Park, inner basin.  As I head back to the Visitors Center, a young female jogger approaches, a medium-sized red dog on a leash at her side.  As we pass, the dog suddenly darts at me.  I pivot on the gravel path and swing my left leg away. The woman quickly reins in her dog.  “Sorry,” she says and keeps running.  Now out of sight and probably for my benefit only, I hear her admonishing the dog,  “No,” she says several times.  I’m almost certain the dog has absolutely no clue what she’s talking about.   While I’m glad there’s a leash law in the park, it means nothing if you get bit.  You trust those on the trail to know their dogs, to know what they’re capable of.  The young jogger obviously did not know her dog, or didn’t care, or both.  Earlier I passed a Hispanic man with a pit bull.  As he approached I saw him take up slack in the leash and step between me and the dog.  He was to my mind a responsible dog owner.  He either knew his dog well or wasn’t going to take a chance.  My advice to those on the trail with dogs is this.  Tighten the leash when you pass someone.  You may know what you’re dog is capable of, but the other person doesn’t.  It’s called courtesy.

The Flatiron area of the Superstition Mountains.

March 3, Saturday:  Siphon Draw Trail, Superstition Mountains.  At the basin of the dry waterfall area, the ascent up to a saddle, as Liu writes in his book, is “insanely steep.”  And he is right.  The way up is not only very steep, the surface is smooth rock at the bottom and loose rock toward the top.  If you were to slip and begin to fall, you would roll a long way down and likely sustain serious injuries.  Nebra and I stop at the basin for sandwiches at a warm, sunny spot at a side of the dip in the smooth rock.

The waterfall basin and smooth rock on the Siphon Draw Trail.

We watch a steady flow of hikers negotiate the steep terrain up and down.  Some inch along on all fours.  The more brave and better balanced try to stand up but invariably slide on pebbles and have to catch a stable place with a hand.  Some, near the bottom, try to race down the smooth rock, using zig-zag patterns to keep speed under control.  The basin is the official end of the Siphon Draw Trail, but most choose to go higher, up to the closer saddle or beyond to a higher one more than 1,000 feet above us near the spectacular cliff called the Flatiron. While a vast majority of the hikers out here are young, some are old.  A woman of about 80 is descending with poles in her hands.  She asks if we plan to go all the way up.  “I don’t know,” I say.  “I don’t think you have time to make it before dark,” she says.  “You still have a long way to go.”  That thought is echoed by a man in his 30s traveling with a young boy.  “You’re not even half way there,” he says.  The man is carrying a kite and has been flying it on top.  “It was great,” he says and heads down into a small wooded area beneath the basin, on his way back I assume.

Siphon Draw Trail Vista
Usery Mountain and Apache Junction from inside the Siphon Draw canyon.

Nebra and I want to push on and we do.  She moves up the slope faster than I.  I’m carrying 12 pounds on a small backpack, and there are moments when I teeter, feeling on the verge of falling backward.  At last we reach the top of the small narrow saddle.  What great views! Looking down the canyon, now growing with shade in the dying afternoon, we see to the northwest the Usery Mountains and the scattered homes around Apache Junction.  High above, the Flatiron soars majestically on the south.  To the north my binos pick up a charred spire of rock where a plane crashed around Thanksgiving killing all six aboard, including a father and three of his children.  (See separate article, March 9, “The charred memorial above Siphon Draw”).

In wet weather, these two ravines usher rainwater off the top of the Flatiron.

It is easy to see from here why a vast amount of rainwater can shoot down into the basin and smooth the rock.  Two extremely steep ravines carry the runoff from the Flatiron down, past the saddle on the north and exploding down into the basin.  No place, I think, to be caught even in a small shower.  The way down for me is easier than going up, and harder for Nebra.  I wonder how sore my leg muscles will be tomorrow.  I feel a bit of discomfort above the left knee and the outside of my quads burn. But, thank the gods, we are soon down safely in the basin and on our way back to the trailhead.  We chat on the 2.5 mile return, happy that we took the challenge and did more of this hike than required.  I’ve now done 18 of “the 60 hikes,” and still my goal seems a long, long way off.

March 1, Thursday:  North Mountain summit.  There is this Hispanic guy coming down the paved trail in front of me doing phantom exercises.  Weightlifting exercises with no bar, no weights.  First he does the military press, jerking the “bar” to the chest then pushing it high above his head.  Then he does some curls.  With every step or two he does another.  Is there any physical benefit from doing these “phantom lifts?”  Maybe he’s on to something.  Dope most likely.

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