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Sierra Ancha Wilderness, AZ – 30 Mile Loop Hike May 2016

a view from the cliffs above pueblo canyon in the sierra ancha wilderness, arizona

Overview

View All PhotosSierra Ancha Wilderness Video on Youtube

  • Location – Sierra Ancha Wilderness, AZ
  • Park Administration – Tonto National Forest
  • Fees & Permits – None
  • Travel Logistics – Flew into Phoenix, rented a Toyoa Yaris
  • Length Of Time Hiked – 3 Days, 2 Nights
  • Miles Hiked – 30
  • Trail Type – Loop
  • Trailhead – Parker Creek
  • Trail Difficulty – 6.5/10 (not including off-trail segments)
  • Fires Allowed – Yes
  • Solitude – 7.5
  • Scenic Beauty – 8

Notes

This trip was a bit different for me. I had about a week to plan it, and hadn’t had a chance to do any training. I’ve only been lifting weights since my return from Big Bend in January, and hadn’t even had the time to do that during the previous month. The week leading up to the hike, I got in about 4 hikes of around 6 miles with a 45 pound pack and did stair climbs one day with a 45 pound pack.

The route I planned out winds in and out of the Sierra Ancha Wilderness, within the Tonto National Forest. It was somewhat difficult planning loop hike through. The geology of the area and way the trails are laid out make it better suited for day hikes or point to point hikes instead of loops, unless you don’t mind either hiking large parts of the same trail twice, road walks, or huge elevation gains/losses. I identified a lot of areas I wanted to see here but in the end, it was impossible to make a loop out of them.

Sierra Ancha Wilderness 30 Mile Loop Hike – Map & GPX Files

Total distance: 30.04 mi
Max elevation: 7776 ft
Min elevation: 4695 ft
Total climbing: 9938 ft
Total descent: -9934 ft
Download

 

Getting There

I flew out to Phoenix after work on Friday. The plane left Detroit around 4:15 EST and I landed around 5:50 PST. After picking up my backpack from baggage claim and the rental car, I headed out. The car was a little Toyota Yaris, only $57 out the door for Friday-Monday. I stopped at a gas station and picked up a couple gallons of water, and stopped at a Culvers to grab my last hot meal for a couple of days.

Now, I headed east on 60 towards Globe. This is my second trip to Phoenix since hiking a big 92 mile route in the Supes in 2014, and I can really appreciate the view of the Superstition Mountains after hiking the entire ridgeline on my last day of that hike. Driving along 60 provides great views of the Superstition Mountains and has access to the Peralta trailhead, which I still have yet to visit. I hear it’s one of the busiest trailheads in Arizona.

The drive along 60, 188 and 288 is very scenic. Unfortunately it was getting dark quick and by the time I hit 188, I couldn’t see anything. I turned onto 288, crossed the Salt River and started heading uphill again. Even though it says the pavement ends, the surface is just as good as the pavement elsewhere on the road, and it wasn’t rough anywhere. I made it to the Parker Creek trailhead, right off hwy 288, around 8:45pm.

I decided to sleep in the car tonight. Big mistake. The Toyota Yaris drivers seat is almost impossible to sleep in. The stupid headrest is tilted forward at a ridiculous angle, preventing you from leaning your head back at all. It was a long night, and always, part of the adventure. That’s what I tell myself, anyways.

Day 1 – Saturday May 21st, 2016

Miles Hiked – 11.49
Route – Parker Creek Trailhead to Edward Spring

a view of parker creek trailhead in the sierra ancha wilderness/tonto national forest

Parker Creek Trailhead

I couldn’t sleep and just woke up at 5am when the sun rose. I filled my water bladder, water bottles, ate breakfast, etc and finally got on the trail around 6:30am. The sun would barely have risen yet back home.

south fork parker creek water pools

Water above the dam on the South Fork Parker Creek

The Parker Creek trail starts climbing immediately after leaving the parking lot. The trail skirts the highway for a little while before the road turns west and the trail turns east up South Fork Park Creek. The trail here is a steady incline and runs alongside the creek, which appeared to be dry. Then, I came across a small dam which was channeling water somewhere. Above the little dam, there were small pools of water. Little did I know, this would be the most water I’d come across the rest of this hike.

hiking the parker creek trail in the sierra ancha wilderness

Parker Creek trail starting to climb

hiking across a scree slope in the sierra ancha wilderness along trail 160, parker creek

Scree slope along the Parker Creek trail

View from the Parker Creek trail below Carr Ridge in the sierra ancha wilderness

View from the Parker Creek trail below Carr Ridge

Past the dam is where the trail really starts to climb. But with the climb comes my first elevated views of the surrounding mountains. The trail crosses a scree slope for a few hundred feet, which provided some good views as well. In the distance, I could see the Four Peaks and Theodore Roosevelt Lake.

what the view from carr ridge looks like

At the saddle on Carr Ridge just north of point 6896. Not much of a view.

A view of coon creek canyon from trail 160

Coon Creek Canyon

There’s a couple of good views up along the Parker Creek trail, but once up on top of the saddle, there really isn’t much to see except trees. There’s a couple of campsites up here, but nothing special. I kept moving and dipped down into the next valley. Lots of green here, unlike my other Arizona hikes which have been at lower elevations. Very cool.

From here, I’m headed up Aztec Peak. The trail loses a bit of elevation as it makes it’s way past Mud Spring, which appeared to be dry. The trail splits off to Carr Trailhead or the Rim Trail. I’m headed towards Carr TH. The trail gains 400ft elevation and emerges into an even greener environment, full of lush grasses and trees.

hiking the trial up aztec peak tin the tonto national forest

a view of aztec peak from a green meadow

Aztec Peak in the distance

It’s a short road walk along a FR 487, a 4×4 road, before passing the Peterson trailhead. Eventually the trial heads back into the forest. It wasn’t long before the trail passes through a large open meadow that looked like it could have been Michigan, with grass that green. I was not expecting this in Arizona.

Hiking to aztec mountain

Next the trail passes through an area ravaged by fire and downed trees. There were a lot of large trees that requires maneuvering to get over. It looks like it’s been a while since this trail has seen any maintenance. But I could say the same thing about several stretches of trail in the Sierra Ancha Wilderness.

view form the trial up aztec peak

As the trail nears the top of Aztec Peak, the lack of trees make for some pretty good views. The last couple hundred feet up Aztec Peak were really nice.

aztec peak fire towe

The fire tower on top of Aztec Peak

view of the sierra ancha wilderness from the fire tower on top of aztec peak

View from the fire tower. The op level is blocked off

view of the four peaks and theodore roosevelet lake from the fire tower on aztec peak

Looking southwest towards the Four Peaks from the fire tower

On top of Aztec Peak, it was pretty windy and much cooler. I went up the fire tower only to find that the top level was inaccessible due to the hatch being locked. It was extremely windy up here, maybe 50-60 mph, so I only took a couple of pictures and headed down.

red rock cliff view from aztec peak

View from Aztec Peak

relaxing on aztec peak in the sierra ancha wilderness

aztec peak views

lone tree grows from the red rock cliffs of aztec peak in the sierra ancha wilderness

After that I went to check out the red rock cliff edges along the southeast side. This area was really cool. Long, distant views from a variety of comfortable seats on the rocks provided a great place to stop and eat lunch. At 7748′, this is the tallest point along my hike. I had 4G service up here too. If it weren’t so damn windy, it’d be a great place to camp too if it weren’t for the road that runs up here. FR 487 runs up to the top here and it looks like Aztec Peak gets a fair amount of use. There were two different vehicles that came and went while I was up here, along with a pack of ATV riders.

After finishing my food I headed down Aztec Peak along FR 487 for a short ways before jetting off onto the ridge that heads towards Murphy Peak. While hiking along FR 487, I was an object in the road. It was an iphone, 65% charged, with a cracked screen and very dusty. I bet it fell out of the pocket of one of those ATV riders that just passed through here only 10 minutes ago. I set the phone alongside the road, propped up against a rock, so it could be seen more easily if they come back to look for it.

looking south towards aztec peak

Looking back towards Aztec Peak

FR 487 takes s sharp, hairpin turn right where the ridge to Murphy Peak looked the most accessible. Judging by the beaten path out onto this ridge, I’m going the right way. I left the road behind and started my off trail adventure. The trail quickly faded away, but the terrain was pretty open and not to difficult to traverse besides some downed trees.

overlooking murphy ranch

Murphy Ranch below

a view of the sierra ancha wilderness from point 7662

View east from point 7662

view of the sierra ancha wilderness from point 7662

View northeast from point 7662

Next my route has me going up point 7662′. The approach from south/southeast is cliffs, so I worked my way around the more gentle southwest slope. Once on top, I had a pretty good view of Murphy Ranch from some interesting rocks. Some rocks were pitted, others looks like they had warts. Another section had light colored veins running through it. Really great views to the east from these cliffs.

thousands of white flowers on the ground below tall pine trees

Near Murphy Peak

The ridge I descended down Murphy Peak

I continue my hike north to Murphy Peak, the second tallest point on the hike at 7732′. It was pretty easy going up to the top, but trees obstructed the view. From here I headed down a ridgeline that will intersect trail 150. This section was steep but pretty manageable, then levels out. Before long I found trial 150 and was on my way down hill along the north side of Murphy Ranch.

I followed trail 150 a ways before leaving the trail and continuing in a straight line towards my destination, Edward Spring. This next off-trail section was among the two toughest challenges on this hike. The vegetation was thick and often thorny most of the way down, with steep slopes near the top.

hiking through thick vegetation in the sierra ancha wilderness

Just a taste what is was like off-trail between Murphy Ranch and Edward Spring

Just as the trial was getting steep, the vegetation was becoming impenetrable. I had to backtrack a little and find a way around the thick patches of trees, shrubs and bushes. I found a game trial that got me past one of the thickest spots, but quickly lost it. I found the best strategy to be to follow the faint little game trails where you can and just do your best in between the game trails, through the thick stuff. While dipping down into a small drainage along the way, I scared up an what I believe to be a bull elk, judging by the overall size of the animal and the size of it’s antlers. It wasn’t that far away, maybe 150 ft, but he bolted before I got a good look at him.

Off-trail between Murphy Ranch and Edward Spring

hiking off trail in the sierra ancha wilderness

Still off trail-between Murphy Ranch and Edward Spring

There were a lot of Manzanitas through some stretches, and along with the other plants they did some damage on me. My arms fared alright since I had a longsleeve shirt on, but my shins took the brunt of the damage despite having pants on. I wouldn’t recommend anyone following this route, unless you’re slightly crazy like me. It took me about 1.5 hours to go 1.6 miles off-trail.

upper pueblo canyon

Looking west into the upper Pueblo Canyon area

pueblo canyon overlook in the sierra ancha wilderness

Looking east into Pueblo Canyon

I was hot, hungry, thirsty and tired by the time I made it to trail 141, just a short distance from Edward Spring and some amazing overlooks above Pueblo Canyon. I first went to check out the views from the cliffs, and see where I could camp in close proximity to said views. I couldn’t find the proper pair of trees to hang my hammock from near the cliff’s edge, but only a short 2 minute walk back to my campsite closer to trail 141 will suffice. I found Edward Spring to be completely dry.

hammock hanging in the sierra ancha wilderness near edward spring

Camp near Edward Spring

After getting my hammock set up around 2:15pm, I took, a 45 min nap. Today was only supposed to be 8.9 miles or so, but ended up being 11.5 miles and 4000 feet of elevation gain. The route I draw out on the map, no matter how detailed I think it is, always seems to fall way short of the actual distance hiked that day.

view of pueblo canyon

Pueblo Canyon

After my nap I headed over to the cliff’s edge with some food and my camera. I explored along the edges for a while, looking for that perfect shot of Pueblo Canyon. I spent most of the afternoon just lounging around on the cliffs, enjoying the beautiful scenery and silence. It was cool to have such an amazing place all to myself, during what seemed like prime hiking weather. From what I can tell, this place doesn’t get a ton of backpackers.

Sunset at Pueblo Canyon

sierra ancha wilderness moon

After watching the sunset to complete an enjoyable evening I headed back to camp. I didn’t set up my tarp above the hammock since there’s no rain in the forecast for the foreseeable future, so tonight’s full moon lit up the sky throughout the night. I went to bed at 8pm, right after it got dark.

Day 2 – Sunday May 22nd, 2016

Miles Hiked – 13.19
Route – Edward Spring to Asbestos Point

a view of the sunrise over pueblo canyon

Sunrise over Pueblo Canyon

pueblo canyon sunrsie

I woke up at 5am today, and just barely caught the sunrise. I headed over to the cliffs overlooking Pueblo Canyon just as the sun peaked over the horizon. Really nice sunrise from this spot.

After getting my fill of pictures, I headed back to camp to finish packing. I snacked on a few items this morning, but didn’t want to eat a full breakfast until I know for sure I’ll have water from Cold Spring. I’m running low on water, having drank more than I expected yesterday.

Hiking in between Edward Spring and Cold Spring

Trail 141 was a little overgrown in spots but overall pretty easy to negotiate. The hike to Cold Spring was about 1.2 miles of easy walking.

Bones only a few feet from Cold Spring

a picture of cold spring in the sierra ancha wilderness

Cold Spring

Looking northeast down into Cold Spring Canyon from Cold Spring

When I reached the spring, I saw a pile of bones from a large animal a few feet from the water. As for the spring, I was pretty disappointed. It was a pool maybe 18″ in diameter and about 2 inches deep. I really should have brought my MSR Miniworks water filter so I could have filtered out the mud and debris a littler better. I brought my SteriPen Opti and Gatorade bottles instead. I ended up digging the pool out a little deeper to get my bottle mostly submerged, but of course, had to let the water settle first. It took a long time to filter this water. I chugging a liter now and filtered 5 more to finish out the hike, unless I come across more.

Hiking the Rim Trail

I left Cold Spring Canyon after getting my fill of water and continued on towards trail 139, the Rim Trail. My maps show the trail climbing out of Cold Spring Canyon more abruptly, but the trail I followed skirted the contour lines a little more. This stretch had been burnt in the past so maybe the trail was re-routed. It eventually intersects the Rim Trail which I continued south on.

There were occasional vistas along the Rim Trail but usually only where the trail traverses around the edges of canyons like Cold Spring Canyon, Devil’s Chasm, and some unnamed canyons. Of course, if you have the time and are willing it looked like there’d be some killer views from some of the ridges above these canyons but that would be all off-trail. Since I know I’ll be doing some serious bushwhacking this afternoon to get to Zimmerman Peak, I had to pass.

Sometimes the trail was well beaten and others it was practically non-existent. There were a couple spots along the Rim Trail where it got so faint that I lost it. I saw a couple of piles of bear crap through this area, and some were pretty large.

Finally, good views from the Rim Trail

The landscape changes a bit when the trail turns the corner into Coon Creek Canyon as it’s a south facing slope. Here, there’s more cacti and shrubs vs pine trees. At least the trail now skirts the edge of the cliffs more and there is more to see. The last couple of miles were a little dull to be honest.

rattlesnake on the hiking trail

Almost stepped on this rattlesnake before he moved under that shrub

With the new environment come new dangers. I came within 3 feet of steeping on a rattlesnake. It was in the sunlight in the middle of the trial, but just beyond a small patch of shrubs obstructing my view of the ground. 2 minutes ago, I was just thinking about how I had somehow never seen a rattlesnake yet on any of my hikes, no joke! And now here I am looking at one. There was cliffs on one side and dense shrubs and thorn bushes on the other wise, so it was hard to get around him. I quickly moved past when he had his head turned the other way, as he tried to move aside as well. I made it past him, but coming so close prompted the tell-tall rattle sound.  Cool, but now I need to really watch out for those guys.

Coon Creek Canyon

Eventually I hit the Parker Creek Trail (160) where i had passed through yesterday, but went up to Carr TH from here. This next .65 mile section to the top of Carr Ridge is the only part of trail I’ll be repeating along this figure 8 style loop. It was almost noon now and I was getting warm in the sun.

Soon enough I was at the top and took a break in the shade. I ate a little food too but not much. Like I often complain about, I wasn’t hungry when I really should have been.

hiking off trail on carr ridge

Carr Ridge

After lunch, from here on out it’s all off-trail. I heading in a southerly general direction down the Carr Ridgeline to Zimmerman Peak. I’ve been told there’s some wicked patches of Manzanitas near Zimmerman, but so far the terrain is pretty open with only large, well spaced pines to worry about. As I go farther south, the pines thin out a little and there’s other types of vegetation to contend with, but it’s still easy going. The first 1.5 miles or so was not an issue at all. There’s remnants of a barbed wire fence that runs along the very top of this ridgeline, which just so happens to follow almost the exact path of the route I drew at home based on the topography. How convenient, this made a great marker to follow when needed. Between this and the game trails that weave around the pockets of vegetation, it’s not too hard to make your way through here.

carr ridge views to the south

Looking south

The closer I get to Zimmerman, the more difficult it becomes. There’s beginning to be some really great views as well. I didn’t take as many pictures as I’d like’d to have through here.

off trial hiking through manzanitas bushes in arizona

Wading through manzanitas

Near point 6936 is where the going got really tough. The manzanitas were so thick it was crazy. Instead of going up the ridgeline and over the summit of point 6936 I found it easier to skirt the western hillside. However, once I emerged south of point 6936 the manzanitas became even worse. There was a sea of them all down this ridgeline as far as I could see, and no game trails running through them. Also, they were swarming with bees on the little flowers, so I had to wade through bees as well. This was one of the most difficult sections of the hike. My legs and shins were taking a a real beating.

panoramic photo of the sierra ancha wilderness from zimmerman peak

Looking northeast

After much effort and lots of cuts and scrapes I made it down the ridgeline below point 6936. It was a little easier going up this next hill, the last one before Zimmerman Peak. Closer to the top of this hill, I saw another rattlesnake. I spotted this one a little farther away, but it was essentially head level since I was going uphill. Not a good place to be. I gave this one some room and went around it.

view from zimmerman peak of asbestos point, four peaks and theodore roosevelt lake

View southwest from Zimmerman

view from zimmerman peak

When I reached Zimmerman Peak I was rewarded with some really awesome views. I stopped for a while to rest, take pictures and look for a spot to camp, if that was even going to be possible.

After a little searching I determined that it was probably not possible to hang my hammock up here. Bummer I guess, but I didn’t really want to have to do any more off-trail hiking tomorrow morning if I can get it out of the way today. So, down to Asbestos Point.

asbetsos point ridgeiline

View of the ridgeline that leads to Asbestos Point. It looks much easier from this angle

looking at asbestos point

Asbestos Point

The first bit of trail down Zimmerman Peak was the steepest. This part leads down to Zimmerman Point, then down the final ridge to Asbestos Point. That same barbed wire fence is still running down the center of this ridgeline and continues to be a good marker to follow. Eventually I hit FR-489, the 4×4 road that runs up here to Asbestos Point. After what I just hiked through it’s hard to believe there’s a road near here. I followed it a few hundred yards up to the top of the ridgeline leading up to Asbestos Point.

asbestos point hammock hang campsite

Campsite near Asbestos Point

Now I could look for a place to camp. There’s more pine trees here to hang from, but I’m not seeing the right trees that will give me a view from my hammock. That’s alright though, because it’s still pretty windy and I’d rather have some cover. I found a spot that fit my needs not too far away, and just a short walk from some great views to the south. It was about 4pm now.

old bulldozer at abandoned asbestos mine

After getting camp setup, I hopped in the hammock to relax for 20 minutes. Afterwards I headed over to the area where they used to mine for asbestos along the cliff’s edge. There were a lot of mosquitoes out though and I had to put on my headnet. There was an old bulldozer sitting at the end of the road near the edge of the cliff, as well as numerous other mining artifacts laying around.

entrance to an asbestos mine in the tonto national forest

Asbestos mine entrance

photos of an asbestos mine

Inside the asbestos mine

an old bed inside an asbestos mine

exploring inside an old asbestos mine

The sides of the cliffs had several mine entrances exposed and uncovered. They probably figured that the fact that it’s an asbestos mine will keep people out. Wrong! I went in a couple of them a short ways, just to get a peek. I was careful not to kick up any dust, took a few pictures and headed out. Check that one of the bucket list.

After making my way around the mountain and it’s mines, I headed back to camp to finally eat some dinner. It would have been really nice to have a fire and heat up my bacon cheese pita sandwich thing, but I didn’t want to go through the trouble just for this sandwich, when it’s windy and dry out and I don’t even need the warmth. I ate almost two of those but didn’t have a great deal of water left. Now it’s ration mode until I get back to the car in about 15 hours. I think I had about a half liter left by the time I went to bed later tonight.

tonto national forest sunset

asbestos point sunset arizona

sunset from asbestos point

After dinner I headed back towards the cliffs edge for the sunset. It would have been much better up on Zimmerman, but that wasn’t in the cards. I took some pictures and enjoyed the sunset as my final night here comes to an end. Dead tired, I headed back to camp to get some rest.

 

Day 3 – Monday May 23rd, 2016

Miles Hiked – 4.51
Route – Asbestos Point to Parker Creek Trailhead

asbestos point sunrise

Sunrise from Asbestos Point

The wind died down last night and it ended up being pretty calm. I slept pretty good. Once again, I was up at 5am to catch the sunrise.

After packing up camp and barely eating anything for breakfast I headed out. Today should be an easy hike, mostly downhill along FR-489 and then a short road walk back to my car at Parker Creek Trailhead.

fr-489 4x4 road up to asbestos point

Not even close to the worst of what this road was like

At first, the road looks alright. Eventually though, this thing had ruts like 3 feet deep. I mean, no problem for me, I can just walk around them. But driving up this road seems insane. I wonder how much use this road gets. I know people make it up to Asbestos Point and camp, there’s plenty of toilet paper up there to prove it unfortunately.

Going down this road was uneventful and fast. Fine with me a I have a plane to catch this afternoon. I passed Pocket Spring on the way down which I could hear running water from, but I didn’t go to check it out. Farther down, Parker Creek was flowing closer to hwy 288.

Where FR-489 dumps out into hwy 288

When I did finally reach hwy 288, I had a 1.33 mile road walk north to my car. The first thing I did when I got into my car was chug water from the extra 1.5 gallons I had sitting in there. After changing clothes I was on my way back to Phoenix to catch my plane.

 

Final Thoughts

It was great to get out and do this hike, I really needed to get away. I’m hoping this will be just the start of a busy summer, my favorite time of year. It was awesome to visit Arizona when things are in bloom and a little greener. This was my 4th trip to Arizona but my first outside of January and March when things are a little more brown.

I was pretty tired from this hike but on the other hand, I only had 1 week to prepare for it. Considering that, I think I did pretty good physically. The first day had 4000 feet of elevation gain, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I did lose 7 pounds on this hike in just 4 days, but I’m kinda getting used to that. I am going to look into appetite stimulants and see if that’s something that can help me get more food in my body during these hikes.

The Sierra Ancha Wilderness, and surrounding Tonto National Forest, has some awesome views. In my situation, being solo, only a loop hike would work for me. I could have put together a much better route if a point-to-point was an option.

The off-trail sections of this hike were pretty tough at times. Sometimes I wonder why I choose to do this stuff, when I’m poked, cut, bruised and battered from bushwhacking through all that madness. Somehow, the harder a hike is for me the more rewarding it feels I guess. And that’s one of the things that can be hard about hiking solo sometimes. Nobody else will ever truly know what you went through, what you saw and how you felt, despite your best efforts to describe it with words or pictures. It can be a powerfully motivating experience though, revitalizing the mind and soul. I’m ready for my big summer hike… I just need to figure out where!

cuts and bruises on legs from off trail hiking

Damage done from off-trail hiking

 

 

As always, questions and comments are welcome!

If you found my trip report useful, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment! Alternatively, if you feel you have any information you’d like to share with others regarding this hike, please feel free to leave that below in a comment as well.

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Superstition Wilderness, AZ – January 2014 (Backpacking Trip Report)

Superstition Wilderness 7 Day Hike Overview

All Photos From This Hike | HD Video

  • Location – Superstition Wilderness, AZ
  • Park Administarion  – Tonto National Forest
  • Fees & Permits – None
  • Trail Name – Custom route, various trails
  • Trail Type – Semi-loop
  • Length Of Time Hiked – 7 days, 6 nights
  • Miles Hiked – 92
  • Trail Difficulty – 8
  • Solitude – 7.5
  • Fires Allowed – Yes

For my annual winter hike, I thought I’d give the Superstition Wilderness in Arizona another try. My previous attempt here in March of 2013 was a failure due to sickness, and further hindered by weather and gear problems. This will be a solo hike as was my previous visit here.

Total distance: 88.31 mi
Max elevation: 5292 ft
Min elevation: 2064 ft
Total climbing: 28921 ft
Total descent: -29193 ft
Download

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Superstition Wilderness, AZ – March 2013 (Post Hike Trip Report)

Superstition Wilderness Hike Overview

Complete Superstition Wilderness Photo GallerySuperstition Wilderness HD Video

  • Location – Superstition Wilderness, Arizona
  • Park – Tonto National Forest
  • Trail Hiked – Custom Route
  • Miles Driven To Destination – 4200 miles Round trip
  • Length Of Time Hiked –4 days, 3 nights
  • Trail Type – Loop
  • Miles Hiked – 20+
  • Trail Difficulty – 7/10
  • Fires Allowed – Yes

 

Total distance: 20.64 mi
Max elevation: 3327 ft
Min elevation: 1670 ft
Total climbing: 5778 ft
Total descent: -5997 ft
Download

 

Only 3 days before I left to drive 2,000+ miles across country, I thought I had everything covered. After all, I’d spent several weeks planning and preparing for this trip, an 88 mile 6 day, 5 night solo hike through the Superstition Wilderness of Arizona. Sometimes though, things don’t exactly as planned. Any number of factors can quickly turn a much anticipated hike into “can’t wait for it to be over” experience. For some, this may be something like being sick on your hike. Or, maybe a freak storm that pinned you down for an entire day. Freezing cold water infiltrating the tent at night, popped air mattress, etc. Well, for me it was all of those things, and more! What a disaster.

Alright, let me start from the beginning. After selecting the Superstition Wilderness as my backpacking destination, I invited my buddy Jesse to go with me. He could not make it due to his schedule, so I decided to go solo. No big deal, I don’t mind. In fact, this actually allows me the opportunity to try and cover more miles… my hiking partners are not usually up to pushing it too hard. So, what I had planned for this hike was 88 miles in 6 days, roughly twice as many miles as I’ve ever done in the same time period. Below is an overview of the route I intended to hike. Start/end point is at the Canyon Lake trailhead.

superstiion wilderness 80 mile loop hike route

 

I made several gear changes before this trip to save some weight. I shaved over 8lbs off my pack weight! More on that in another post.

It had been 5 months since my last hike in Linville Gorge, NC  so I was anxious to get out on the trail. I was really looking forward to this hike, but unfortunately I started feeling sick 2 days before I left. I had just finished doing some stair climbs with a weighted pack, and all of the sudden I got the chills and felt weak. Uh oh. The next day was more of the same, and a slight runny nose and cough developed. When it came time to leave, which was a 30 hour drive  for me(each way), I decided to chance it, gambling that I’d feel better by the time I started my hike. I was going to break the drive up into 3 days, so that would buy me some time. However, I got sicker as I drove. By this time, I started developing an upper respiratory infection. Armed with some OTC expectorant and cough syrup, I was determined to fight it off and continue with the trip.

I made my hotel reservations in advance this time instead of randomly procuring a room along the way. I noticed that when I do that, I generally get stuck with a smelly, dirty motel for an inflated price, upwards of $80/night. Planning ahead, I can spend less money on a much, much better hotel room. The downside, as I learned this time, was that the money paid upfront for the rooms makes it harder to abandon a trip if needed. Still, I am going to continue getting my hotel rooms upfront.

Like all drives through middle America, it was boring as hell. I was coughing up a rainbow of colors the whole drive. I could hear fluid gurgling in my lungs when I took a breath. The expectorant wasn’t doing as much as I hoped. Not much I can do about it now, I’m already committed to this.

Along interstate 40, the landscape starts to change in the panhandle of Texas. This is where the drive becomes more fun. This was my first time in Arizona, and the immediately upon crossing the New Mexico/Arizona border the landscape changes again. Large red rock formations are all around now. The drive on hwy 260 into Payson was really nice. There was still quite a bit of snow high up in the mountains, which I was not expecting. Come to think of it, I saw snow in every sate I drove through on the way here… pretty amazing for March! The area near Payson was cool… very rugged mountains with lots of huge pines trees… again, not what I was expecting in Arizona.

When I got to my hotel in Payson, I had a decision to make: start my hike tomorrow as planned, or stay here in Payson for another day. Option 2 will shorten my hike by one day, but hopefully buy more time to get better. I decided to make the call in the morning… maybe one more night of sleep will help? Nope, my lungs are still gurgling. I also skipped the next day, but I came up with a modified, shorter route to attempt the day after.  My hike was now 4 days instead of 6. With that plan in motion, I decided to drive there and camp at the Canyon Lake Marina campground tonight.

The drive from Payson to the Superstition Wilderness, along hwy 87 and 88, was incredible. It’s hard to describe this landscape, it was just so cool to see for the first time. I had never seen a Saguaro cactus before, and they were everywhere.

Hwy 88 Superstition Wilderness Arizona

Superstition Wilderness from Highway 88

After arriving at the Canyon Lake campground, I set off to explore the area a little. Heading east on hwy 88, I soon arrived at Tortilla Flat. This was almost like a little town… there was a restaurant, a few shops, and ton and tons of people walking around in the street. I was not expecting a huge crowd of people to be here. Continuing east, a small stream crossings the road that you have to drive through. This is probably common in this area of the country, but that’s unheard of where I live. There was no danger to it, just a trickle running across the road. I’m sure it would be a different story after a rainstorm though. I drove a few miles and stopped for pictures along the way. Eventually, the road turned into a dirt road, and that’s where I turned around.

I had a low key evening. I wet to bed early and tried to rest up for the hike ahead, hoping I might feel better in the morning.

 

Day 1 – Thursday March 7th, 2013

Miles Hiked – 10.2

Route – Canyon Lake TH to Black Top Mesa. Boulder Canyon Trail to Second Water Trail to Black Mesa Trail to Dutchman’s Trail to Bull Pass Trail  to Spanish Hieroglyphics Trail

When I woke up this morning, I wasn’t feeling any better. I felt 85% of normal physically, but I was still coughing a lot. I could still feel fluid in my lungs, gurgling as I take a deep breath. After driving all this way though, sitting around doing pretty much nothing was getting old. I figured I have 4 days left, so I might as well go out there and just take my time.  However, I have been coughing quite a bit without doing any physical activity, so who knows what will happen when I get winded. Only one way to find out!

I brought my bathroom scale as I normally do to weigh my backpack after it’s all loaded up with food and water, but the parking lot was all dirt/gravel and was too uneven. I was pretty bummed about that because I spent a lot of time and money trying to shave weight off my pack before this trip and I was really eager to see the total number. With 4 liters of water, my best guess is 35 pounds. Not bad for me, I usually carry 45+ pounds.

superstirion wilderness boulder canyon trailhead

Boulder Canyon trailhead

I hit the trail around 9:30am. Exiting the Canyon Lake Marina, the Boulder Canyon Trail begins on the other side of Hwy 88, about 50 feet to your right. A big brown sign marks the trail. Shortly after leaving Hwy 88 behind, there is a smaller side trail to your left that splits off and goes up a hill, which is steeper than the main route. I didn’t even see it until I took this route on my way back. You’d be better off leaving this trail for your return to the car due to the elevation gain.

before descending to labarge creek

Overlooking LaBarge Creek

Almost from the beginning of the Boulder Canyon Trail, you can see Battleship Mountain and Weaver’s Needle in the distance. The trail gains in elevation fairly steadily from here. After going over just a few hills, the view of Canyon Lake disappears. No more man made objects in sight anymore, just other people. I saw maybe 35-40 hikers out on the trail today, mostly old people day hiking to the Battleship Mountain area. I am pretty sure I was the only person out there without an AARP card! I think it’s cool that they are out there still doing this kind of stuff though. But I didn’t see many other backpackers. I always like that because I know that when I get away from the trailhead area, I’ll pretty much be alone.

One thing I learned rather quickly is that the Superstition Wilderness has many more poking, stabbing plants than anywhere else I’ve ever been. After being poked by the first cactus, I became more aware of my surroundings. Still, avoiding them completely is impossible out here. One cluster of thorns got me above the knee. They don’t always stay together when you pull them out and often end up staying below the skin. After a while, I just rubbed the needles until they broke off instead of attempting to extract them.

saguaro cactus in the superstition wilderness of arizona
where saguaro cacti grows

One unique thing about this area though is the Saguaro cactus. I had never seen these until the drive south from my Hotel in Payson yesterday, so they were a new and interesting thing to me. When I got home from the trip I found the above map that shows where the Saguaro cactus grows. Now out on the trail, I had a chance to see them up close. These things are massive! I estimate the highest ones to be about 25ft. Really cool to see these things up close. Everything out here seems so foreign to me compared to Michigan, but that’s why I like coming to places like this.

northern superstition wilderness labarge

labarge creek overlook north of battleship mountain

LaBarge Creek below, Battleship Mountain in the distance

The trail wasn’t too difficult so far, but everywhere around me sure looked gnarly. Jagged rock cliffs, canyons, and thorny plants everywhere. After about 3 miles, I came to a great overlook point, making for good pictures of Weaver’s Needle and Battleship Mountain. In fact, when researching a place to hike on this trip, I saw a picture taken from this spot that pretty much convinced me to come to the Superstition Wilderness. This is probably where most of the old people I saw on the trail stopped. The trail which drops a few hundred feet in elevation from here before intersecting the Second Water Trail about another mile from here.

labarge creek in march near battleship mountain

larbarge trail supes

Once I dropped down to the canyon floor, I could see running water in LaBarge Creek. I had been told that water wasn’t going to be a problem on this trip due to recent rains, and I was glad to see that be true. From higher up, the water looked much greener. There wasn’t much of a flow, but at least there was water. I was able to easily hop rocks across this and every other body of water I encountered today. I didn’t need to filter water yet, but was confident that there would be water at my intended spot at Little Boulder Canyon Creek.

superstition wilderness indian dwelling ruins

Shortly after crossing LaBarge Creek, alongside the Boulder Canyon Trail I saw what appeared to be part of some type of old Indian dwelling. There was a flat area that had been shored up with large stones on the sides, and a large area chiseled out of rock to shield a fire from the elements. There was a narrow passageway between the rocks that led elsewhere, but I was moving pretty slowly as it was, so I didn’t stop to explore this too much. Pretty cool though. Knowing I wasn’t going to make it to Roger’s Canyon to see the cliff dwellings there, I should have stopped to check this out. But, I didn’t.

second water trail superstition wilderness march

second water trail near garden valley supes

Garden Valley

The trail became pretty steep after leaving the ruins behind, but fortunately it was short lived. Once at the “top”, I was awarded with one of the easiest sections of trail I can ever remember hiking. This section was the Garden Valley area, where the Second Water Trail meets the Black Mesa Trail. It was extremely flat and the trail was wide enough for a semi truck. In fact, it even looked as if there were ruts created from vehicles driving down it, although I can’t imagine how they would have gotten up here, as well as being illegal in a wilderness area. But it sure did look like an old dirt road at times.

weaver's needle in distance from black mesa trail

 

view from the black mesa trail in the sonoran desert

I hauled ass all the way to Little Boulder Canyon Creek, making great time along the Black Mesa Trail. The creek ended up being a pool of green water with all sorts of algae and insects in it. There was a slight flow to it but it looked really disgusting. This was where I planned to filter water, so time to get to it. This would be my first field test with my new Steri-Pen Opti Adventurer UV water purifier.

Little Boulder Canyon Creek in the superstition wilderness

filtering water from little boulder canyon creek

Unlike my MSR Miniworks water filter, the Steri-Pen Opti does nothing for the taste of the water, but it does purify the water and renders it safe to drink. It was slow going at first due to my bandana not allowing much water into the mouth of the bottle. I was using it to filer out any larger things like clumps of algae or an entire bug. I figured water would flow a little more freely into the bottle through the bandana, but the fabric was woven too closely together. I also carry one of those red cloth mechanic’s rags, so I tried that. Same problem. What I found out is that you need to squeeze the bottle while holding the rag over the mouth, forcing water in a little at a time. It takes about 20-30 seconds to fill the bottle in this way, whereas it would have taken 30 minutes letting the water seep in on it’s own. And the taste? Actually, I didn’t notice anything funky about it. I was pleasantly surprised, but still not a believer of the Opti just yet.

After filling my 2L bladder, another 2L platypus collapsible jug, and and 1 liter bottle, I was on my way. The land flattened out and had several intersecting trails and washes running through it. I could see how this area could be confusing to some. I saw two people on horseback in the distance on another trail. These would be the last people I see for two and a half days.

view from black top mesa

Once on the Bull Pass Trail, the trail starts climbing. Shortly after, another trail splits off and heads up Black Top Mesa, that’s what I was looking for. It was starting to get late in the day, probably after 5pm at this point. This was the final push to reach camp for today, but I was running out of gas. I coughed my way up almost a mile of steep trail before it finally began to level out. It was great to be done with the hard work for the day, now to find that campsite!

campsite on black top mesa in the superstition wilderness, arizona

I followed a faint trail to the Southeast end of the mesa and stumbled upon the campsite around 5:45. Damn, it was definitely worth the hike up here! The view of Weaver’s Needle and the rest of the Sonoran Desert was awe-inspiring. I could not have imagined a better place to camp for the night. There was plenty of space for my one man tent on level ground about 30ft from the cliff’s edge of the mesa. There was a nice fire pit up here and even some wood. After getting my tent up I got a fire built and ready to light when it became dark.

The sun was going down quickly, so I didn’t manage to get very many photos tonight. No big deal, I thought. I’ll get some good sunrise pics in the morning. I could see some clouds accumulating in the distance, but they didn’t look too menacing. I knew there was an 80% chance of rain tomorrow, but that’s all I knew. Then I got the fire going and began to think about dinner. I wasn’t too hungry which is really strange for me. I know I need to eat, so I cooked a few hot dogs over the fire anyway. I was only able to eat a few bites. Not good. My appetite had been greatly diminished over the last few days traveling to get here, but nothing like this. Things I normally love to eat just didn’t taste good, nor did I feel hungry at all. As much as it hurt me to do it, I threw my dinner in the fire and went to bed shortly thereafter.

I was eager to get to sleep and rest up for tomorrow. I tried to set the alarm on my watch but the battery died. This seemed like the tuning point of the trip, looking back on it. From here on out, it seemed like nothing went right. After not being able to sleep for about 45 minutes, the wind started to kick up. It was pretty exposed up here on this mesa, so the wind rocked my tent. My Tarptent Moment has an optional pole that helps with wind stabilization that I left behind to save weight. This was the first time I’d ever gone without it, and also the first time where I actually needed it.

Not long after the wind started howling, the rains followed. After several hours of rain, the ground beneath the tent became saturated. I had to pound the tent stakes into the ground using a rock, but now the soil was so wet that they could no longer hold the tent up in these high winds. Whooosh!! There goes the tent. One end of the tent was still staked down, and I was holding on to the other end as it flapped in the wind. I had to get out of the tent to put it back up, and didn’t have time to put on my rain gear, which was really just the jacket, no pants. Didn’t think I’d need ’em this time. So, I went out in the rain in just my boxers. No sense of getting all my clothes wet and having no way to dry them. I don’t know how cold it was, but my guess is low 40s, with winds gusting to maybe 40 mph. I had to hunt for some large rocks to put over the stakes in order to prevent them from pulling out of the ground. After 5 or 10 minutes I had the tent back up and reinforced, ready for another bout with the storm.

Back in the tent, my sleeping bag was partially wet along with half of my stuff. Fortunately for me it was almost all in dry sacks. I was cold and wet in my bag, and just when it matters most, my new Klymit Inertia X-Frame sleeping pad got a rip in it on it’s very first use. I don’t know how it happened, I assume it was from tossing and turning in the night somehow. The ground below was not sharp. So that sucks, because now I have no insulation from the ground, which was very cold. I eventually warmed up enough to maintain an occasional shiver throughout the night.

 

Day 2 – Friday March 8th, 2013

Miles Hiked – 0

Well, I’d like to say I woke up this morning, but I didn’t really have sleep to wake up from. I got an hour or so throughout the night, but tossed and turned as daylight finally broke. It was still stormy, with dark cloudy skies all around. It was still raining here and there and the winds were still very strong. At some point early this morning I remember seeing a few snowflakes. At times, Weaver’s Needle was completely engulfed by dark clouds. Very cool thing to see. Then it rained some more. Winds were still strong, and they ended up blowing the same side of the tent over again. I went outside again in my boxers,and spent about 10 minutes in the freezing cold rain further reinforcing my tent stakes. Awesome.

dark clouds over weaver's needle

I was still sick, and still coughing. My chest was beginning to hurt a lot when I coughed, and sometimes when I took a deep breath. With the weather being so terrible, not having the proper rain gear, and the fact that I just didn’t have to get somewhere in order to stay on schedule meant that I was just going to call this a zero day.

I spent most of the day in the tent. Today sucked. It was better than last night, anything was better than that. Once I realized my tent was not going to blow over any more, and had it pulled taut enough to stop flapping around, I was able to get a little sleep. I just couldn’t get comfortable laying directly on the ground. One of my extremities was constantly falling asleep, forcing me to toss and turn every few minutes. But it was rest nonetheless.

superstition wilderness break in the storm

black top mesa campsite, weavers needle in background

It didn’t stop raining until about 6pm today. I got out of the tent around this time and saw the sun peak out of the clouds for about 15 minutes. I grabbed my camera and took a few pictures. It was nice to be able to leave the tent and walk around for a while. But eventually the sun went away and it was just dark and cloudy once again. Back to the tent.

I barely ate anything today, maybe 1000 calories. That’s crazy low for me, as I usually eat 3200+ calories a day at home. I simply had no appetite. Also, everything I ate tasted bland. The food I did eat, I couldn’t even enjoy. I was also pretty dehydrated, my pee was a very dark yellow, almost brown. I was trying to conserve my water as there were no sources up here. I would have tried to collect rain water had I known I was going to be staying an extra day, but had no idea the storm would last so long.

stormy sunsdown in the superstition wilderness

As the sun went down, the weather still looked like it had potential to be nasty. Winds and rains were much less in frequency and intensity, but still the threat lingered. I hunkered down for another night, hoping the storm was over.

 

Day 3 – Saturday March 9th, 2013

Miles Hiked – 5.5

Route – Black Top Mesa to Boulder Canyon Campsite. Spanish Hieroglyphics Trail to Bull Pass Trail to Dutchmans Trail to Boulder Canyon Trail

morning day 3 superstition wilderness backpacking trip

The weather was still completely overcast and raining on and off. The winds were much less at this point. Still feeling like crap, I went back in the tent to try and sleep some more. After the weather remained fairly calm all morning, I decided to start heading back towards the trailhead. It was about noon now. The plan is to spend one more night on the trail, wherever I make it today. Then hike the rest out to the trailheead tomorrow, should be about 5 miles. I looked at the map and realized I had two routes I could take to get back. The first route was the Black Mesa Trail, which I took to get here. I’ve already been through there so I wanted to take a trail that I haven’t hiked yet. This trail was not originally part of my plan, but I decided to take the Boulder Canyon Trail because it was shorter.

trail on blacktop mesa winding towards weaver's needle

heading down black top mesa

It was nice to be heading down off the mesa. I needed water pretty badly, my pee was very dark. I was worried about the water level in the creeks though. With all the rain I was expecting the worst. Now down in the canyon floor, I could see that the little streams I crossed a few days earlier were now raging torrents, just as I feared. I topped off my water supply and rehydrated at the first creek crossing as I scoped out the water levels. This first crossing I was able to do by hopping rocks, as with the next several crossings.

crossing a creek in the superstition wilderness after heavy rains

water flowing faster after the rain

little boulder canyon creek area

As I made my way downstream along the creek in Boulder Canyon, the hopping rocks at the crossings was no longer possible. From here on out, the water was a bit deeper and I had to use my water shoes. The deepest water I crossed today was knee deep, and fast flowing in spots. After another several water crossings, I just kept the water shoes on while I hiked instead of switching from boots to water shoes every time. The crossings were just too frequent. There were about 30-40 creek crossings throughout the day. Had I known there were going to be this many water crossings, I would have just taken the Black Mesa Trail back.

I made it most of the way through Boulder Canyon before calling it quits. The light was starting to fade in the canyon, and I found a decent campsite. There were few campsites anywhere along the trail today, so I figured I’d better not push my luck and go farther. I set up camp quickly and purified more water from the creek. There wasn’t much to see here in this canyon, and I didn’t feel like making a fire tonight. I tried to eat a little and went to bed

I was not physically tired, surprisingly, but just mentally exhausted. Mostly, I was frustrated and disappointed at how my trip turned out. I put a lot of time into planning this trip, and I was really looking forward it. I rarely get sick, so this was really hard for me to accept.

 

Day 4 – Sunday March 10th, 2013

Miles Hiked – 5

Route – Boulder Canyon Trail to Canyon Lake TH.

superstition wilderness backpacking night 3 boulder canyon camp

Last night was nice. It was very calm and the sky was clear. Finally, I saw a few stars. It was cold though. My tent was drenched with condensation, and it was raining down on me occasionally throughout the night. I have the optional condensation liner for my Tarptent Moment, but opted to leave that at home this time to save some weight. I did not expect to have to deal with condensation in the desert, as it’s (normally) so dry. The sun doesn’t reach down into the canyon until later, so it was still quite cold as I packed up camp. After eating a quick nibble of breakfast, I was on my way.

boulder canyon creek morning day 4

superstition wilderness boulder canyon

The skies were blue and sunny, and it looked like it was going to be a beautiful day. About 2 minutes down the trail, I encountered the first water crossing of the day. I put on my water shoes and kept them on for the rest of the water crossings. Only about a 12 mile north of my camp, I passed a few other hikers still in camp. These were the only other people I saw camping out here, and the first people I’d seen since day 1. We exchanged nods as I hiked past, on a mission to get to my car.

tree in labarge creek

superstition wilderness battleship mountain from labarge creek

view of canyon lake from he trail

There were about 8 creek crossings this morning before I was sure I had crossed the last one, at La Barge Creek. Finally, I was hiking up out of Boulder Canyon. Only a few miles left. I was expecting to see a bunch of day hikers now, but I didn’t see a soul until 3/4 mile from the trailhead. Looking at the peaks to the north, which I believe were Four Peaks, they were all snow capped. I am pretty certain that they did not have snow before the storm a few days ago. The elevation in the Four Peaks is a few thousand feet higher than where I was.

view of arizona's canyon lake from hywy 88

canyon lake in arizona's superstition wilderness

I made it back to my car around 11 or 12. After washing up in the bathroom at the marina, I changed into some fresh clothes and hit the road, beginning the long 30 hour drive back home. The drive on hwy 88 and 87 was awesome, certainly my favorite part of my entire drive across country. Highway 260 north of Payson is a cool drive as well.

snow capped Four Peaks mountains in march 2013

Throughout my drive home, I pulled cactus thorns out of my arm and side of my knee. In fact, I still had thorns in me a few weeks after the hike!

 

Final Thoughts

Well, I’m sure you can see where this is going. I was really looking forward to doing a monster hike in the ‘supes, but sickness and weather conspired against me. I should have stayed at home on the count of the sickness, but after all that time planning, what would you do? I really can’t believe how good I felt physically, despite barely eating or drinking anything. I was certainly not feeling 100%, but I normally don’t function well when I’m very hungry. My bag of food was about 3/4 full after I finished the hike. Normally, I eat every damn thing in the bag!

The vegetation here is very thorny. Almost every single plant here wants to stab you, so hiking off trail would be a nightmare. I’m glad I brought my water shoes, as I almost left them behind. I wasn’t counting on a huge rainstorm hitting the desert.

Being sick took all the fun out of this trip, but the weather was the icing on the cake. Gear failures also added to the misery. Nothing went right for me on this hike. Despite all the mishaps, I’d love to come back to the Superstition Wilderness someday. In fact, I can’t think of anything better than getting a second chance to complete this hike, exactly as I planned it: 88 miles in 6 days though the Superstition Wilderness, solo. I will do this again someday, but for now, this trip will serve as a reminder that things don’t always go as planned in the wilderness.

For more pictures of this hike, check out the complete Superstition Wilderness Photo Gallery.