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Monday, January 7, 2019

The Back Roads to Tonto Creek

The Back Roads to Tonto Creek
The pebbly fringe of Tonto Creek north of Roosevelt Lake.
Occupying a few dusty acres between nowhere and Roosevelt Lake, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it community of Jake’s Corner is a popular waystation for outdoor enthusiasts.
A rustic gate along Forest Road 184D
It’s outwardly ramshackle appearance and come-as-you-are ambiance are big draws for anglers, hunters, boaters, bikers and ATV riders.  Sometimes, hikers find the place, too. 
Located 22 miles north of the lake along State Route 188 in Gila County, the iconic watering hole is the northern outpost of a string of RV parks, creeky-floor honky-tonks, bait shops and general stores.
The back roads around Jake's Corner are rough but scenic.
The scenic stretch of SR 188 runs through the Tonto Basin—a drainage gorge that separates the wilds of the Mazatzal Wilderness and the Sierra Ancha Mountains.  Dozens of creeks and streams in the area flow off the foothills into the major course of Tonto Creek which feeds Theodore Roosevelt Reservoir.  Although recreation in this hilly, watery back country usually involves a motorized vehicle, there are plenty of places to hoof it along dirt roads.
Paper Flowers bloom year-round above Tonto Creek. 
Tonto Creek
Other than the state-traversing Arizona Trail which makes a grueling climb through the mountainous terrain to the west, there aren’t many non-motorized routes nearby unless you go 20 miles north to Payson.  But, hiking on shared-trails can be just as enjoyable when common courtesy is applied.  Directly across from Jake’s Corner Bar, a maze of forest roads offer miles of boots-on-the-ground exploratory options.  Like the adjacent community, the walkabouts here harbor no pretense. They are simply-signed and retain a raw, non-nonsense air. Many of the routes are championed by the Tonto Recreation Alliance--a volunteer organization that works with government agencies to maintain and promote off-highway vehicle access and educate recreators about public access issues in the Tonto National Forest.  
Cacti and mesquite frame Mazatzal Mountains views.
One circuit to try is a rough-cut route to Tonto Creek.  From a dirt parking area a half-mile from the bar, follow Forest Road 184A a few yards, then head left at Forest Road 184D. The first mile is a wobbly trek through wide-open high desert with great views of the Mazatzal Mountains.  After a series of dips and climbs on choppy two-tracks, pass a gate at the one-mile point and hike up to a knoll where a faint road curves to the left.
Glimpse of Tonto Creek from the difficult downhill hike.
From this highpoint, head right and continue to the Forest Road 184D/951 junction.  Ahead, to the left, is “hell’s half mile”. 
Mazatzal Mountains on the western horizon.
Primitive FR951 descends nearly 500 feet with take-no-prisoners aggression toward the creek.  A hiking stick is essential to work through the loose rock and uneven trenches.  Expect to pick up some mud and grit on this half-mile plunge. There’s no mercy until the messy road meets the sandy edge of Tonto Creek.
Sycamore and willow saplings grow in flood plains.
Rapids in Tonto Creek.
Lined with cottonwoods, sycamores and willows, this beautiful bend in the creek features white-capped rapids, calm reflecting pools and optional miles of streamside exploring. 
Tiny waterfalls in Tonto Creek.
Take time to watch for waterfowl and spy the footprints of deer, raccoons and bobcats pressed into sandbars before heading back the way you came.
The descent to Tonto Creek is steep and rocky.
Short in miles but with an overall elevation change of 917 feet, the effort warrants a post-hike beer and burger reward at Jake’s. Dressed in dusty boots and trail garb, you’ll blend.
A calm bend in Tonto Creek
A snowy bank where FR951 meets Tonto Creek.
LENGTH: 4 miles round trip
RATING: moderate-difficult
ELEVATION: 2607 – 3101 feet
From State Route 87 (Beeline Highway) south of Rye just past milepost 235, go 3.2 miles south on State Route 188 to the community of Jake’s Corner.
Across from Jake’s Corner Bar, turn left onto Forest Road 184 (not signed) and continue 0.5-mile to Forest Road 184A (utility poles) and park.  Roads are paved and sedan-friendly dirt.
INFO: Tonto Recreation Alliance


Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Metate-Spur Cross Loop

Metate-Spur Cross Loop

Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area
Snow-covered Skull Mesa reflects in Cave Creek
A wet autumn and snowy start to 2019 has boosted the benefits of hiking in Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area in Cave Creek. 
Located just a few clicks north of Metro Phoenix, the 2,154-acre preserve has a surprisingly remote feel, a variety of hiking trails and a plethora of native vegetation that bursts with color when infused with a little extra precipitation.
Saguaros on the Metate Trail
The site, which is part of the Maricopa County parks system, bumps up against the foothills of Tonto National Forest where mountain-borne moisture flows through the area’s creeks, washes and drainages in year-round fits and spurts.
Tonto National Forest peaks seen from Spur Cross Trail
Spur Cross Trail
Sometimes the water arrives in a rage such as during spring snow melt season and monsoon rains, but mostly, the water that spills over the site’s hiking trails passes through in lazy trickles.  Getting around the water-centric park rarely means getting your feet wet, though. When water levels are high, the park ranger places plank bridges to assist crossings of Cave Creek.
Skull Mesa had a dusting of snow on January 1, 2019.
There's a bumper crop of wolf berries this season.
This year, ample moisture has coaxed out the greenery in a big way making a hike on the classic Metate-Spur Cross loop a botanical smorgasbord.  This short, moderate-rating hike is a perfect place to introduce winter visitors to area trails. Desert newbies will be awed by the medley of ecosystems and even locals will likely gain wider appreciation for the rare cocktail of vegetation living in this tiny plot. 
Although the preserve is the smallest of the ten county parks, it has the most diverse and profuse collection of Sonoran Desert plant species growing within its hilly space. 
Cave Creek flows across the Spur Cross Trail.
Recent storms have caused the desert to bloom.
To optimize the plant tour, begin hiking northwest (go left at the main trailhead kiosk) on the Spur Cross Trail.  The wide path makes a gradual descent among acres of brittlebush, jojoba and multiple species of cacti.  Most prominent here are wolfberry shrubs dripping in ripe orange fruits and a demonstration garden of agaves. 
Tiny Desert rock peas bloom along the trails.
In less than a half-mile, the ragged floodplain of Cave Creek hosts a riparian community of cottonwoods, willows and bunches of desert marigolds sprouting from the sandy corridor.  Cross the creek and head right on the Metate Trail for a walk through a massive saguaro forest and an enchanting mesquite bosque—a streamside gallery forest .
Wild cucumber vine on the Towhee Trail
Be sure to make a stop at the solar oasis, a wildlife water hole and an ancient Native American metate or grinding stone. A detour on the 0.2-mile Towhee Trail reveals a damp, birdy enclave entwined with wild cucumber vines and desert hackberry shrubs.
Plank bridges aid creek crossings.
After a second creek crossing, the trail heads up an embankment where ocotillo, cholla and prickly pear cacti dress the walk on a ridge high above the water while sweet views of New River and Skull Mesas stand as imposing bastions on the horizons.  
Brittlebush colors the Metate Trail
At the 1.3-mile point, head right on the Spur Cross Trail for the final leg back to the trailhead.  For a longer trek, consult the park website for maps or to join a ranger-led hike to the many hidden gems within the preserve.
Ancient Native American grinding stone (metate). 
New River Mesa seen from Metate Trail
LENGTH: 2.2 mile loop
RATING: moderate
ELEVATION: 2179 – 2250 feet
Spur Cross ranch Conservation Area:
37622 N Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek.
From Loop 101 in Phoenix, take Cave Creek Road north to Spur Cross Road (on the left just as you enter the downtown area) and go 4.5 miles north to the parking area. 
FEE: $3 per person daily fee. Bring exact change for the self-serve kiosk.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Indian Spring Wash

Indian Spring Wash
Indian Butte framed by last season's yucca sprouts.
By way of Forest Road 532, it’s a six mile hike from Bartlett Dam Road to the Verde River. The road is neither the most efficient nor the easiest way to get there, but it offers a pleasant backcountry trek over varied terrain with outstanding views.  The road is part of a cluster of recently restored shared-use routes in the hills between Horseshoe Reservoir and Bartlett Lake northeast of the Valley. 
The first mile is a sandy slog in Indian Spring Wash.
Overlooking the Verde River Valley
Open to ATVs, bikes, horses and hikers, the roads wind through a part of the Tonto National Forest Cave Creek Ranger District.   
Desert honeysuckle bloom in the wash.
A map at the trailhead gives an overview of the system, which at first glance, can be intimidating. However, Forest Road 532 is well-signed and easy to follow. The hike begins in the sandy spillway of Indian Wash. Deeply rutted and softened by motorized traffic and periodic flooding, the first mile is tantamount to walking on a beach. The washy walk dodges among giant granite pillars, sandbars and a 
robust showing of desert hackberry, mesquites, turpentine bushes, desert honeysuckle and blooming wildflowers. At the 1.9 mile point, the road moves out of the wash and into the hills as it head up to the saddle between Indian Butte (3745 feet) to the east and Saint Clair Peak (4230 feet) to the west. The first rise provides amazing vistas of landscape of rolling foothills trees, cholla, yucca and shrubs, but the big story here is the mountain vistas. Silhouettes of the Four Peaks, Sierra Ancha and McDowell Mountains form a seamless, peak-centric horizon.  The road tops out where Forest Road 1104 head off toward St. Clair Peak and FR 532 begins its 1500-foot dive down to the river. Take a moment here to scope out wall of wilderness peaks backing the Verde River Basin ahead. It’s a long way down (and it feels even longer on the way out) but the wide road mitigates the struggle with passes by rugged cliffs, scenic overlooks and reed-addled riparian areas down in the wash. 
Just beyond the 5-mile point, heavily-used Forest Road 42 bisects the route signaling the final approach to the river. The road ends roughly halfway between the two lakes near a primitive camping area called Devil’s Hole. If you didn’t pack for an overnighter or arrange to have somebody with an ATV pick you up, enjoy the sights before trudging back the way you came.
Point where the route leaves the wash.
Saint Clair Peak
McDowell Mountains on the horizon.
Forest Road 532 ends at the Verde River
Trailhead map shows the system of shared-use roads.
To the river: 5.8 miles one-way
To the highpoint: 2.4 miles one-way
RATING:  moderate-difficult
Trailhead: 2725 feet
Highpoint: 3303 feet
River: 1800 feet
From the Pima Road/Cave Creek Road intersection in Carefree, go 4.1 miles north on Cave Creek Road to Bartlett Dam Road. Turn right and continue 9 miles to the trailhead on the left where there’s a gate and map kiosk. There’s plenty of parking along the road.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Dawa-OK-Arizona Cypress Loop

The Freedom Tree: An Alternative Instagram Moment
The Freedom Tree

Take a drive up Sedona’s Dry Creek Road on any weekend between October and April and you’ll encounter hordes of pedestrians and a quagmire of vehicles packed in a haphazard, bumper-to-bumper mass that’s strung out for miles. This is the overflow parking from the Dry Creek Vista Trailhead located on adjacent Forest Road 152.
View from the Dawa Trail
Most of the vehicle occupants are going to Devils Bridge. 
Devils Bridge is one of hundreds of awesome natural wonders in Sedona’s red rock country.
Doe Mountain seen from the Ok Trail
The russet sandstone arch can be reached via the convenient (and notoriously crowded) trailhead and a moderate trek, making it one of the most heavily-visited destinations in the high-desert forests northwest of downtown.
Blue grama grass in a meadow near Dry Creek
For me-- a hiker who generally shuns crowds-- the Devils Bridge Trail has a claustrophobic feel. It’s just a scenic vista removed from the essence of a carnival ride where customers are herded through a turnstile for their shot at a three-minute thrill and a requisite yoga-pose Instagram moment.  No, thanks.
Why put up with this craziness when there’s another cool sight about a mile beyond the commotion where you won’t have to jockey for a parking spot to get a fantastic look-at-me photo. May I recommend a hike to the Freedom Tree. The tree is dead, and I made up the name, but the massive skeleton of what appears to have been a coniferous species, is a noteworthy feature in the Cockscomb Trail System.  Located in a quiet pocket of Coconino National Forest between the famous bridge and Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness, the system has dozens of miles of trails that wander along Dry Creek and its feeder washes. To get to the tree, begin at the tiny Dawa trailhead--really just a dirt turnout--on Boynton Pass Road. Hike a few yards and hang a left on the Ok Trail.
The red ridge of Mescal Mtn seen from the Dawa Trail.
This short passage features wonderful views of Doe Mountain to the west and Mescal Mountain to the north. In less than a half mile, head right at the Arizona Cypress junction. After and easy crossing of the usually dry creek bed, thick stands of cypress, junipers, yuccas and sycamore trees wrap the trail in greenery and shaggy bark textures. Soon, a gigantic, twisted snag appears where the trail makes another sandy creek crossing.  Soaring to perhaps 30 feet, the woody frame sprawls skyward.
The Freedom Tree stands at the edge of Dry Creek.
Its gnarled branches and dominating presence reminded me of the scene in the movie Braveheart where Scottish rebel William Wallace famously hurls his sword and arms toward the heavens while yelling, “freedom”.  The divergent narratives of Wallace and the tree both represent a departure from sacred norms and known places. 
The route crosses Dry Creek and feeder washes.
Although the tree appears well-grounded and able to remain standing for many years to come, both it and Devils Bridge will eventually succumb to the forces of nature.  Whether that happens in the next years or not for centuries, the demise of the bridge (hopefully when there are no hikers on board) will be headline news.
A sandy wash crosses the Dawa Trail.
The deceased conifer, though, will likely just fall over and join disintegrating log jams in Dry Creek, barely causing a ripple in the Instagram universe.
Arizona cypress trees sport shaggy bark.
To complete your visit to the photogenic tree, hike south to the Dawa Trail where you can hang a right and follow it back to the trailhead for an easy 2.7-mile circuit or create your own trip using any of the connecting trails that offer freedom from the masses.
A shady section of the Arizona Cypress Trail
Stay on trails to protect sensitive soils and emerging plants.
LENGTH: 2.7-mile loop
RATING: easy
ELEVATION: 4339 – 4485 feet
From the State Route 179/89A traffic circle in Sedona, go 3.2 miles west (left) on SR 89A to Dry Creek Road. Go 2.8 miles north on Dry Creek Road, veer left at the Long Canyon Road junction and continue 0.5-mile on Boynton Pass Road to the parking turnout on the left. A Red Rock Pass is not required at this trailhead.

Monday, December 17, 2018


Sutherland Wash in Catalina State Park
Amazing geology, abundant wildlife and a fantastic fusion of terrains are just a few of the many features of the Sutherland Trail in Tucson.
Views of Pusch Ridge and the Santa Catalina Mtns.
The 9-mile route that begins as a groomed path in Catalina State Park and ends near the top of Mount Lemmon where it intersects the Arizona Trail melds a collection of tame walks and grueling mountain climbs.  The trail’s dramatic mood shifts can be attributed to the contrasting ambiences of the park, Coronado National Forest, Pusch Ridge Wilderness and a protected Desert Bighorn Sheep Management Area.
Fascinating geological features are everywhere.
Water pools in Sutherland Wash
Looking west over the Canada del Oro channel.
Whether you’re interested in the full-strength trek or a mild sampler, Sutherland Trail adapts to fit.  The trail’s first 2.6 miles are within park boundaries and make for an approachable stroll with minimal climbing.  The well-signed route complements the park’s diverse repertoire of trails, offering a customizable, visually-rich journey.
The beautiful Santa Catalina Mountains.
An Arizona Ash tree frames a saguaro-cluttered ridge
Ocotillos front Pusch Ridge peaks.
The route departs the main trailhead, tracing the sandy course of Sutherland Wash at the base of the Pusch Ridge and the Santa Catalina Mountains.  Draped by mesquite trees and flanked by a wall of massive saguaros, this easy passage puts the granitic pinnacles and deep fractures of the Catalinas front-and-center. Soaring to over 8000 feet, the geologically complicated mountains are the result of millions of years of upheavals, volcanism and erosion that’s still shaping the landscape today. 
At the edge of the park boundary, the trail feels more wild.
Within a half-mile, the trail makes a dip into the wash where a smattering of velvet ash, willow and other riparian trees sink their roots deep into the sandy pediment.  During wet periods when water shimmies over the soft channel, hikers must use stepping stones and sandbars to hop the rivulets. 
Stream terraces seen from Sutherland Trail
A few steps beyond the crossing on a knoll above wash, a metal sign gives a fly-over explanation about the formation of the mountains seen across the wash.

For a more detailed account,  geek out over  A Guide to the Geology of Catalina State Park and the Western Santa Catalina Mountains by John V. Bezy.
Saguaros and riparian plants grown in close proximity.
It’s available as a free e-book on the park website.
Stepping stones and sandbars assist wash crossings
Just around the bend at the junction with the park’s 2.3-mile Canyon Loop circuit, the trail begins its uphill assault. 
Reflecting pool near the Canyon Loop Trail junction
The Sutherland Trail passes through bighorn sheep territory
For a shorter option, take the easy loop which gains only 300 feet of elevation as it crosses the wash several times on its way back to the trailhead. 
Chollas soak up sun in the savannah-like open range.
Many species of grasses grow along the trail.
From this point, Sutherland Trail ascends to a sunny grassland above the Canada del Oro--a natural, water-carved channel that carries runoff from the watershed of Mount Lemmon.  A short climb up a ridge on wooden steps opens up views of cobbled stream terraces and the Tucson Mountains to the west. 
Soaptree yuccas in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness Area
Replete with cholla, wild grasses and fruit-bearing shrubs, this open savannah-like segment ducks in-and-out of the wilderness and the bighorn sheep management area on a slender, meandering single track. Before roaming through the sheep recovery area, it's smart to read up on how to do so responsibly by visiting the Arizona Game and Fish Department website Also, as sheep are easily disturbed by dogs, please leave Fido at home. 
As it passes among jointed boulders stuffed with crystalized quartz, patches of mesquite, floodplains and soaptree yuccas growing from cracked, stone outcroppings, the route takes on a more primitive feel.   At the 2.6-mile point, it’s decision time.  To continue on Sutherland, head right at the Trail Link junction for a difficult ascent up toward Mount Lemmon. For an 8.8-mile loop, follow the link 2.2 miles, and take the 50 Year Trail south back to the park. Otherwise, retrace your steps and enjoy the tour in reverse.
LENGTH: 9.1 miles one way full trail or 2.6 miles one-way for the park segment
RATING: easy to difficult
ELEVATION: 2700 - 8560 feet full trail or 2700-3360 park segment
From Interstate 10 in Tucson, take the Tangerine Road exit 240 and go east to State Route 77 (Oracle Road). Turn left (south) and continue 0.7 mile to the park entrance on the left.
Pay fee at the gate and continue 1.4 miles to the trailhead.
DOGS: leashed dogs are allowed in the park but may not enter the Desert Bighorn Sheep Management Area.
FEE: $7 daily fee per vehicle.
INFO: Catalina State Park
Arizona Game and Fish Department, Bighorn Sheep information: