First Water trail head is the most used access point to the Superstition Wilderness, being the closest to Phoenix and its satellite cities and suburbs. For day hikers there are ample and interesting route choices as all foot trails of the west side terminate at First Water making for a variety of loops and incredible views. For horse people there are facilities to park huge trailers.
The ready access from Mesa, where my sister and husband had their home, was the primary reason I planned to finish my cross wilderness hike on the Dutchman Trail. Named for Jacob Waltz of the fabulous legend of the Lost Dutchman mine, the inspiration for The Searcher’s Superstition Wilderness expeditions and, ultimately, why he and I met and my change of plans.
On our ride over from Roosevelt he told of his difficulties building a home in Apache Junction, sleepless nights spent guarding building supplies from thieves. He looked forward to moving day.
This photographic record of five days in the wilderness would be much different without that meeting yet, there I was that afternoon with plenty of time for photography during the golden hours of late afternoon as I wandered the desert gardens until my sister arrived.
The long distant ridge beyond the rugged near hills is the backbone of the famed “Superstition Mountain.” On the far right are hoodoos, appearing as so many teeth on a jaw. Gorgeous saguaros in the foreground.
Weavers Needle is the distant peak, 5.5 dry miles away in this view to the west / southwest.
I’ve always been partial to how the dense spines of cactus catch the evening light. These staghorn chollas are in front of the same ridge of the Superstition Mountain. A famous formation, “The Flatiron” is visible on the far right.
The road to the trail head, Service Road 78, winds through 2.6 miles of hills. Here is another overview of Sonoran desert life.
You might remember hedgehog cactus blossoms from my posting “A Dry Piece of Paradise”. The following are from the large hedgehog cactus in the foreground of the preceding photograph.
During the drive back with my sister, Diane, we talked of plans for returning to the Reavis Ranch together, as a backpack expedition. In coming days I met with The Searcher to explore possibilities for a horse expedition and, three years later, these plans came together for a trip kicked off from this same First Water trail head.
Here is a gallery of the same photos. It is fun to flip back and forth with me disappearing from the scene.
The Searcher arrived after breakfast. My camp was bundled up to join the rest of The Searchers equipment and supplies on Colorado’s panniers that replaced the saddle where I sat, and was dumped from, yesterday. This fifth morning of the adventure, I was to have the experience of a light pack for the 4.7 mile trail from Pine Creek to Campaign Creek, past the Reavis Mountain School of Self Reliance.
First, there was the climb to the edge of Pine Creek canyon where we, for the last time, enjoyed the view to the north of the Arizona Trail and, in the distance, the Four Peaks Wilderness.
At Reavis Gap we took a rest before the 1500 descent to Campaign Creek on a trail rated as so difficult backpackers go miles out of the way to access Reavis Ranch.
I split an energy bar and took a swig of water before setting up the tripod to capture the following view of our path. The ridge, hazy in the distance of 22 miles, is Apache Peaks, the near descending ridges an improbable green after a wet winter. In the previous photograph, “North from Reavis Gap” you can clearly see the transition from the desert to a grassland biome as the elevation increases.
On this, the southern shoulder of Two Bar Mountain, we enjoyed desert grasslands almost the entire length, starting with this unlikely oat field. The higher, eastern Superstitions are the western and northern-most Sky Island of Southern Arizona: rising from the desert as isolated mountain systems, catchments for passing storms, with life zones progressing with altitude, the highest typical of Canada. As with oceanic islands, each is a haven for life with potential for evolution of unique species from the isolating effect of the surrounding desert.
These oats are domesticated grain spilled from a horse or donkey pack to thrive in the decades since, sprouting into this spread of light green after a wet winter, ripening, then turning gold with the summer, the grains falling to wait for the next opportunity. This green hue is my first impression of Reavis Gap, see my post “Two Meetings” for a video of the morning breezes rippling along the hillside.
The camera sweeps 180 degrees for all the views from this spot, including prickly pear cactus among the grasses, a butte-like formation to the west, as in the following photograph.
Upper Horrell, the end of the beginning.
We passed the length of the Reavis Mountain School of Self Reliance, the Reavis Gap trail is 100 feet or so higher on the north side. The name “Upper Horrell” is attached to this location. Reavis Gap trail used to start at a ranch house, part of the “Upper Horrell Ranch.” Horrell is the family name of the former owners.
Upper Horrell is a fortunate location for the school, with the perennial Campaign Creek flowing parallel to their 13 acres on which is a large garden, many fruit trees, livestock and poultry. The school provides lodging and classes throughout the year.
The Searcher initiated his time in the Superstitions with wilderness survival classes and they allowed him to park is horse trailer and pickup outside the gates. We were loaded and out of there with a stop at Roosevelt, population 28, where we were the only customers for mesquite grilled hamburgers and french fries. We talked about the potential for future trips and I took him up on an offer to store my stuff until then. In the following years I did more Superstition Wilderness day trips, backpack expeditions, some with my sister Diane, and one horse expedition with The Searcher and a friend.
Here is a gallery of this post’s photographs, for you to flip through.
Nugget and Colorado had eaten their fill of the rich early spring grass of the apple orchard, The Searcher pulled together the pair for the return to Pine Creek. Perched on Colorado, the lead held by The Searcher, I listened as he shared survival facts remembered from Peter Bigfoot’s desert survival course. The Reavis Mountain School of Self Reliance, founded 1979, is along same Reavis Gap Trail (#117) we traversed. After descending to Pine Creek and up to Reavis Gap (where I first met The Searcher), it descends to meet Campaign Creek where the survival school is located.
He pointed out on the many flowering Century Plant stalks along the trail. “These are great to roast when young, just as the stalk starts to bud from the center, before it starts to lengthen.” By the time the stalk flowers, as in the following photograph, it is quite tough.
At the base of boulders, shaded from the sun, the ridgeline fern takes hold. Surviving on seasonal water seepage, it dries out during dry spells to later revive and reproduce via spores. As I recall, the dry or fresh form is useful as an analgesic.
An absolute necessity for bushwacking (walking off the path), a pair of rattlesnake proof boots were worn on every expedition. These rose to mid-calf with a layer of lexan, the same as used for bullet proof glass.
Swept from the Saddle
We passed the time in this way, me holding on to the saddle horn bouncing and shifting as Colorado negotiated the rough and steep path down to Pine Creek where the vegetation changed from very sparse to the thick growth you saw in my post “A Peaceful Day at Pine Creek”. On the east side of Pine Creek a trail, unmarked on the maps, follows the creek bed uphill north towards Mound Mountain. In 50 feet or so we passed the side trail to my campsite, our destination was The Searcher’s campsite. I was not paying near enough attention to the surroundings when I looked up to see an Arizona Oak limb headed to my chest. With no time or space to negotiate the obstacle I was left to grab hold and hang on to be swept from the saddle. The branch held my bulk for, at most, a second before giving way.
In bending flexibly before breaking the live Oak wood and centuries of soil underneath the trees softened my fall enough so I was badly shaken and unhurt. Falling a foot or so in any direction would have resulted in serious injury or instant death. Colorado stopped, looking briefly back as I slowly came to my feet. After taking account and letting the circumstance wash over me, I got up and proceeded slowly while we both contemplated my miraculous survival.
I now took up the rear as in a few hundred yards the valley wall rose on both sides of the Creek to form a short, narrow pass. The walls fell away just as quickly, the valley floor leveled out and we came to The Searcher’s camp. The bear shelter stood out right away. This was a ten foot high teepee of 4 – 6 inch diameter tree trunks tied with rope, within was a hammock . The three foot wide opening left only one unprotected side while he slept, offering some protection from the all too common roaming bears, most commonly from September to November when mazanita fruit ripens.
Well stocked in every respect, for a wilderness camp. In the following years of roaming the wilderness the camps of other horse people were similar in this way: stoves, comfortable cots, radios, pots and pans all fit into panniers. As a noun pannier is seldom used in the singular because there are always two, one on each side of the horse for balance. I sat on the wide top of one enjoying a cold beer pulled from a bed of ice.
We discussed the benefits and drawback of horses for exploration. I required a gallon and a half of water daily and in the desert wilderness provided for storage of three days, 4 and a half gallons. At 8 pounds each, that is 36 pounds!! Starting out, my pack weighted 90 pounds with a camera and tripod.
There are benefits to having a mode of transport that thinks for itself and drawbacks. Each individual has its own personality and horses do try to get away with what they can. It is wise to limit your dependence on a horse until you know each other well. In retrospect, I was “out on a limb” riding Colorado modified by being led by someone the horse knew well.
It was soon time for me to head back to camp. We set the agenda for the next day, an early start for the hike out. Colorado was to be fully loaded so my riding was not an option, just as well. It was possible to lighten my pack to almost nothing and I looked forward to that.
I took some time before dinner to set up the tripod for a self portrait on my last full day in Pine Creek. The view is northeast from the Arizona Trail near my camp, the ridge overlooks Reavis Gap. I did a version of the view with an without me.
Hitching the saddled buckskin and lightly packed pinto onto trees on the trail, The Searcher came up to my camp for a visit. I started water for tea and soon we were chatting. Right from the start The Searcher asked for privacy. Devoted to searching the Superstitions for the gold of the “Lost Dutchman Mine”, he assembles his expeditions from a staging point near Phoenix and spends about 60 days a year in the wilderness. Part of his preparation was a desert survival course provided by the Reavis Mountain School, conducted by Peter Bigfoot.
An Invitation from The Searcher
The Search described a place near Pine Creek, he called it “Circlestone,” a large almost perfect circle, of precisely constructed stone wall, on the slopes of Mound Mountain above the headwaters of Pine Creek. My sister, Diane, and I found Circlestone on backpack expeditions March and November 2006.
Here is a panorama from March 2006, southwest from the forests of juniper and pinion on the slopes of Mound Mountain.. The southern tip of Reavis Valley is to the right, from there Arizona Trail lead to White Mountain in the distance. It was taken on a later trip, in November of 2006 when my sister, Diane, and I visited Circlestone.
Click any photograph for a larger image.
The Searcher also told of Elisha Marcus Reavis, who settled the Valley west of Pine Creek in 1874. At one point, a band of Apaches planned to kill Reavis, but were respectful of his reputation as a rifle shot. They were waiting him out across from the his dugout, when Reavis stripped naked and with wild hair and a flaming red beard charge their camp, knives in both hands. The Apaches rode off, wary of his insane behavior, and never bothered him again.
We talked about my prospects and plans when The Searcher offered to take me to the Reavis Valley the next day, on horseback. There is a large apple orchard there and, this being April, we’d be treated to masses of apple blossoms. The day after Reavis Ranch, I could pack out with him down the Arizona Trail, past the Reavis Mountain School, over Campaign Creek and drive back to the Lost Dutchman Park. I readily agreed.
To Reavis Ranch on Horseback
The following morning dawn rose from colorless darkness, thin birdsong and brightening high clouds. When the Searcher arrived around 8 am he was leading the pinto, introduced as Colorado, equipped with a western saddle instead of a pack. As an absolute novice trail rider, the Search would hold Colorado’s lead. The reins were wrapped around the saddle horn, leaving me to hang on and “enjoy the view” and swishing tail of the buckskin, named Nugget.
The 2.5 mile trail to Reavis from Pine Creek is typical of the eastern Superstitions, minimally improved, dramatically uneven with large and small boulders to navigate. From Pine Creek there’s a climb of a 631 feet to 5,278 foot elevation, where it meanders beneath a dramatic red cliff with a view of the pinyon/juniper forests on the slopes of Mound Mountain. As he picked our way, The Searcher pointed out the sights. “Circlestone is somewhere over there, a ring of stones overgrown with Alligator Juniper.” I was able to do little more than observe, photography was out of the question.
A cliff along the trail to Reavis Ranch offered cover and the flat perches preferred by cougars. It was not an issue for us in daytime and attacks against horses are very rare. The most either of us ever saw of the cat in all our time in Arizona was the tip of a tail slipping behind brush. This was a lush April after a “wet” winter, so small game was plentiful. Only a sick cat would be hungry. The worst case scenario is for a cougar to meet and become infected from a rabid animal at a water source and we did not linger on this thought.
Eventually, the cliff descended with the path, steeply, to Reavis Creek, the valley floor and the intersection with the Reavis Ranch trail. Heading south the Reavis Ranch trail passes the site of a long abandoned ranch. What’s left of the adobe and stone ranch house is on a level valley elevation overlooking what used to be the corral and a large open expanse.
Apple trees in bloom from the former site of the ranch house. There used to be a pond near this spot. With a little imagination, the trail from Pine Creek can be seen on the far ridge.
The US Forest Service razed the building after it “burned to the ground” around Thanksgiving 1991. I would not call what is left “a foundation,” it is a platform where the house stood. You can see for yourself in this photograph what was once was a homey tile floor. I’ve seen old photographs of the structure with a large pond to the left of this view, a door and simple porch face east and the pond used to hold irrigation water.
Turn around from this ruin and a platform comes into view. Built on the west valley slope, overlooking the ruined house is a hexagonal foundation of adobe bricks. We are looking here across the Reavis Ranch trail. My opinion about this structure rests on an examination of the land to the south, there is excavation of a shallow canal and this was the way water was captured from the upper Reavis Creek or tributary and directed to this catchment basin where it was then directed for storage or irrigation. The spot enjoys clear views of the central valley, an excellent place to enjoy the fall of evening.
The Searcher led me to a place a few hundred yards south, in a narrowing of the valley, where he let Colorado and Nugget roam free. The horses appreciated the level, open spaces and I enjoyed the Ponderosa pines on the west valley slope. We sat on the smooth trunks of fallen trees, 4 feet in diameter, near Reavis Creek.
Colorado took this opportunity to bolt, headed south. We took off after him into and through a thicket of locust trees where The Searcher cornered Colorado to regain control. “He was abused by his previous owner and is difficult at times,” was how The Searcher put it.
We were close to the end of Reavis Valley where Reavis Creek originates from the drainage of White Mountain, to the west.
We headed north here, back to the ranch house site, to the lush new grass of the apple orchard.
Nugget grazed unfettered. Colorado was tethered with plenty of slack for grazing. This photograph of the pair shows their personalities, Colorado edgy, Nugget content to feast while the grass is available.
Apple Orchard in the Wilderness
The Reavis Valley was long a site of agriculture, starting in the 19th century with Elisha Reavis, who passed away in 1896 and is buried on the slopes of White Mountain, and continuing with a series of ranchers and entrepreneurs into the 20th,,,,,,,
My third wilderness evening was unlike the others. I rested with an unhurried exploration of the camp area. Underfoot was a scatter of dry oak leaves, acorns on hardened desert soil not much softer than the numerous lichen encrusted boulders, all of which formed a bench above Pine Creek.
Pumping a gallon of drinking water though the ceramic filter takes more time than meal preparation. The four gallons I packed up were almost used and I enjoyed the luxury of pumping two days supply, 3 gallons in all and planned to down a quart or two of “gator aid” before dinner with the luxurious enjoyment of a flowing Pine Creek for company.
Pine Creek is the most common type for Arizona, recurring. To recur means to happen periodically or repeatedly and, for streams, this means for part of the year no water flows. For these days the flow was low, the water clear, what was left from the plentiful winter rains of 2004/2005.
The wind gently rustled the manzanita and the sun just above the western cliffs as I settled on a boulder to enjoy a quart of fluid. I mulled over my next steps.
Initially, the plan was to walk across the Superstition Wilderness, starting on the remote eastern end and emerging on the populated west side, in the Lost Dutchman State Park. My sister expected me there on day 10, but today was the end of day three. I didn’t know at that time the climb on my second day was the steepest of the wilderness and the way forward was much, much easier.
Before a decision could be reach, my thoughts were broken by a different sound from the manzanita: several horses approaching on the trail.
Here is a photographic recap of the previous Superstition Wilderness postings as a gallery. You can page through the photographs.
Wednesday afternoon this week my exercise was a 4 mile hike around the Taughannock Falls Gorge on the north and south rim trail. I parked at the Overlook and took in a view of Taughannock Falls in the gorge below.
The video and pics are from my Apple IPhone.
I then headed south on the North Rim Trail. It was slow going because the trail was solid ice in many places. Throughout the walk was evidence of the great work of the park maintence crew preparing for spring.
A bridge over the creek transitions from the North to South Rim trails. Here is an overview of the dramatic site below this bridge.
The trail ice forced me off onto the Gorge Road that parallels the trail. Even without the ice, a portion of the trail is closed for the winter due to dangerous conditions. There are interesting sites along this road.
Walking downhill only this medium-sized bark is visible, the road curves around to bring into view a tiny farmhouse, now abondoned, dwarfed by the barn.
I took a detour to explore a small cemetery just off Gorge Road on a shelf above the Taughannock Farms Inn.
The lower falls is another worthy detour before I rejoined the Rim trail to climb up the north side of the gorge.
In this approximate 4 miles there is a 2088 foot change in altitude (1044 up and down). I took my time for an enjoyable 2 hours.
Compare these Arizona Sycamores with the struggling specimen from the last chapter, “A Peaceful Day at Pine Creek.” Many Sycamores such as this one flourish along Reavis Creek, a perennial stream of the eastern Superstition Wilderness. The drainage that feeds Pine Creek is far less acreage than that of Reavis Creek and, when the Pine Creek flow fades in the driest seasons, plants go into survival mode and halt growth and may even slough off limbs to conserve water.
These Sycamores grace a stream that seldom stops flowing, even in the driest of seasons. I had the good fortune to visit the Reavis valley of the Superstition Wilderness in November 2007, when these trees were at peak autumn foliage.
The tree requires a supply of water to thrive. This specimen demonstrates the species growth habit growing multiple trunks with a shape driven by water availability and the environmental context. The multiple trunks may be a desert survival mechanism. In dry periods a trunk or trunks are sloughed off to reduce moisture loss. This is why the Sycamore of “A Peaceful Day at Pine Creek” has a single trunk.”
To encounter a riparian space of the Arizona desert is a revelation, to progress from Sonoran desert spaces assailed by the breath of dry wind, to see the first signs of water in the distance as a welcome fluttering of leaves, to feel a welcome odor of water.
Yes, the first effect of a riparian space on the senses is the smell of water. Let’s finish this post with limbs of the Reavis Creek Arizona Sycamore reaching for the sky.