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 four mile climb up the 2,000 foot eastern Superstition Wilderness bajada and escarpment consumed the morning and much of the afternoon. It was the 80 pound backpack that did it. Ten days of supplies, tent, equipment and 3.5 gallons (28 pounds) of water; enough food for a trek across the Superstition Wilderness, water enough for two days. One day in, one day out if the water could not be replenished. Mine was a water commitment, enough water storage to allow two days to trekking to another source.
Here the canyon rim view from atop the escarpment…..
…over trail 122, the Tule Canyon Trail, looking out from the wilderness. Tule Canyon trail is very lightly used and only present in the form of occasional cairns. There is a red rock cairn in the midground. Theodore Roosevelt Lake of the Salt river is in the distance, as is the dirt road to the trail head. A settlement is visible, on the right.
A rancher formed a cattle watering hole by damming an ephemeral stream and that day the pool held some water. Shortly after a rain a large mountain lion had approach the pool for a drink, leaving a footprint in the now dry mud.
I knew a mountain lion attack was improbable: I ran more risk of being run down on a New York City sidewalk by a madman or, even more so, of having a heart attack. Still, during my brief lunch I faced east, looking over Apache Lake for the possibility of a cat leaping up from the canyon. On all other sides was an open area until, a quarter-mile uphill, there was a thick growth of Manzanita reaching to the ridge.
After that climb to the escarpment rim I was in a race to reach a safe campsite at an unknown location, the other side of Two Bar ridge, before sunset at 6:46 pm mountain time. Yes, the time was exact to the minute. If sunset found me on the mountain side or ridge, rapid fall of darkness would force me to set camp.
The following photograph was taken the winter of February 2006 from a campsite below Castle Dome on Reavis Ranch Trail. A red line, starting to the left, is Trail 119, my path along Two Bar mountain ridge, beneath the mountain peaks, with switchbacks into a nameless canyon.
Ahead of me was a 400 foot ascent in a half mile to Two Bar Ridge, two miles along the glorious ridge providing endless views to the west and northwest. An 800 foot descent to a nameless canyon below Two Bar Mountain. This left no time for photography!!
This photograph, taken 4 miles to the west and 10 months later, is similar to what I enjoyed, and dreaded, that day. A flowering century plant stalk grows at the end of the plant’s long life, usually 10 – 30 years. After death, the plant is reborn through suckers from its roots.
My hope was to find some flat terrain in that canyon, for a camp site. If only there was time enough to reach it. My progress was bedeviled by sudden gusts of wind, grabbing like a large cat, throwing off-balance.
The west wind was whipping the bushes as I entered the Manzanita. Here is a photo of the plant from a later backpack to the Rincon Mountain Wilderness. Yes, the trunk is a dark, rich red. “Manzana” is apple is spanish, the plan is named “Little Apple” for the small green fruits much loved by bears.
Manzanita leaves were thick around me snapping in the wind, making it seem at all moments a large creature was moving. The trail was difficult and several times I needed to turn back to find it, all the while climbing continuously.
On ridge was the highest point for a hundred or more miles to the west, so the wind was free to run which it did in huge gusts. You can get an idea of the openness from the Superstition sunset photo. For awhile the Manzanita acted as protection, then I descended along the west face of the Two Bar Mountain ridge.
My hat tie-down were tested on that two miles of ridge, the brim was molded around the right side of my head. The backpack acted as a sail so that it was taken in the wind gusts, affecting my balance.
On mountain trails the path is full of stones of all sizes and, aside from the occasional rattlesnakes, critter scat or, at lower elevations, Gila monsters, it is the rock that forces hikers to look four steps ahead, planning moves carefully to avoid falls. The 80 pound backpack, wind, rocks, high perch and, not forgetting the prickly pear cactus and jumping cholla, all slowed me to less than a mile an hour. I was jumpy walking through that Manzanita and this slowed me down more.
Trail 122 joins Trail 119 on Two Bar Ridge. On the ridge a substantial barbed wire fence separates federal land from the working ranch. Where the trails crosses, the fence has a break. The hiker needs to wend through a simple maze impassable to cattle.
Of all the trail, this is the most clearly marked. Fences have deep historical significance for the western United States. Range wars were fought between men who had different beliefs about land use and ownership. Many historians associate the building of barbed wire fences with the passing of the Old West.
Up until the fence, cattle grazing visibly damaged the land and plants. After the fence, the land was free to become as it was since the beginning of time. Up here, there’s wonderful grass that was, in this season after heavier than normal winter rains, was lush and green.
The trail followed the fence for a ways, then descends steeply into a fold of the land, leaving me in shade as the sun, low in a cloudless sky, raked over the mountainside with a brilliant golden light. The Two Bar Mountain and Ridge with Moon photograph, above, gives an idea of the effect.
Below, the canyon floor seemed a mass of prickly pear cactus groves. I decided the lower canyon wall was the best choice for camp…as unlikely as that sounds.
Here, the trail was anything but straight and almost invisible, descending in looping curves called switchbacks.
Here’s a photo from the following morning. I found a small shelf on a ridge overlooking the canyon floor, amongst wonderful shrubby Juniper trees. Tiny hedgehog cactuses were covered in lavender blooms. There is a decrepit stalk of a Century (yucca) plant lying over the rock.
On approaching the shelf, the air turned suddenly cold as the sun fully set and the wind gained even more in strength flowing up the canyon and over Two Bar Mountain. Stony ground made it impossible to stake the tent, instead I used small boulders to fix the corners and sides of the tent. Once inside, I was grateful for an excellent mat to protect me from the small jagged stones at one with the ground. The tent walls held back the wind. I forgot to back an excellent sleeping bag for the trip. Instead of buying one in Phoenix, my sister lent me a light waffle weave blanket. “What was I thinking???” It was a restless, cold night. The sun was very welcome the following day.
The Rincons are one of 42 Sky Mountain islands isolated from each other by the gradual warming and drying climate changes since the last ice age, 10,000 years ago. While this marvelous environment of oak and pine forests only accessible with much effort on foot, it is literally visible from every point of the Tucson valley and million human inhabitants.
Rincon is Spanish for corner, the mountains are called that from their shape enclosing a space on the west, northwest until recently used for ranching and is now falling into use for tract housing. The mountains themselves are reserved as wilderness, parts in the Saguaro National Park and the Coronado National Forest.
In the past 44 years I was lucky enough to visit the Rincon Wilderness interior three times, shouldering different style backpacks onto the mountain, walking different boots. The first, during college the 1970’s, a party of six left from the end of Speedway, up the Douglas Springs trail. The climb was an exercise in desert survival that several friendships did not survive, replace by new friends met on Mica Mountain. I have no photographs from that experience, only memories and the backpack.
Reconnecting with Arizona in 2004, thirty one years after that first experience, I took no chances. My first attempt on Rincon Peak was a success. Risk and effort were reduced, not eliminated by hiring a guide for the four day trip. We made it to Rincon Peak via the Turkey Creek Trail out of Happy Valley, climbing a mountain buttress, views ever widening and lengthening.
These are some photographs from that experience and a landscape photograph of the peak at sunset, taken the following year.
Sego Lilies bloom among a stricken oak and drying grasses on the Turkey Creek trail. This is an overview of the environment, it is the winter rains that trigger the bloom.
We paused while I unpacked my gear to capture Sego Lilies growing along the Turkey Creek Trail.
Deer Head Spring, at the top of Turkey Creek Trail was a moist spot with no accessible water when we reached it April 27, 2004. With the remains of a gallon of water each we needed to press ahead to Heartbreak Ridge and climb into Happy Valley Saddle were, thankfully, the creek was low and full of algae but usable. Here are my first views of Rincon Peak, looking across the aptly named Heartbreak Ridge and Happy Valley Saddle.
The view to south from Rincon Peak. The white rocks at lower right forms a Valley of the Moon wall. San Pedro River valley at the root, Mae West Peaks at left margin, Dragoon Mountains with Cochise Stronghold center. Taken around 12:30 on April 28, 2004 as a thunderstorm approached.
The Rincon Peak view looking south, southwest over the Valley of the Moon to the eastern Tucson Valley and the Sky Islands the Whetstone Mountains (Apache Peak), behind are the Santa Ritas. The works of man are overpowered by sky, rock, distance.
We made a hasty departure in front of the thunderstorm. It was a touch and go decision to attempt the peak that day, we made it with moments to spare.
April 29, 2004 the morning after reaching Rincon Peak I set up the tripod near our Happy Valley Saddle camp to capture Rincon Peak in early morning sunlight.
The day we descended to the X9 Ranch via the Rincon Creek trail. My guide’s grandfather had a homestead at the X9 and his access to the trailhead through private lands opened this route for us. This is a photograph of sunset on Rincon Peak from the X9 ranch. I am looking east from the Rincon (Spanish for corner) made by the massifs Rincon Peak, Mica Mountain and Tanque Verde ridge.
The evening of November 2, 2006 I climbed the Saguaro National Park, East, Tanque Verde trail for about 30 minutes to reach this view of Rincon Peak and waited until just before the sun set behind the Tucson Mountains for this shot. Then hiked back to the car in twilight. In my hurry, I tripped on a stepped turn and dove headfirst into a large prickly pear. It was a very painful experience and I regretted damaging the cactus and the loss of and good hiking shirt. There were large spines in my face and tiny, pesky spines covered my chest and back. The large spines are not barbed and come right out. I needed to visit a physician to remove them.
Copyright 2017 Michael Stephen Wills All Rights Reserved