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Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Scorpion Point


Tarantula Trail "bear" overlooks Cone Mountain

Scorpion Point doesn’t rise particularly high over the boulder-strewn flats of the far west sector of Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve.  Yet, even without cloud-scraping height, the weather-worn mound provides a platform for viewing a sprawling desert landscape and  a concentrated maze of tightly-woven trails favored by mountain bikers for their challenging turns and narrow passages.

Sweeping mountain views from Scorpion Point

Scorpion Point sits at the core of a vast field of granite boulders laid out in jumbled piles, fortress-like walls and isolated pinnacles.  Some have been shaped into bizarre, often amusing forms by millions of years of exposure and erosion. 

Watch for blind curves and oncoming traffic

Easily accessible by either the Brown’s Ranch or Pima Dynamite trailheads, a hike to the point unspools in an environment of rich botanical diversity and an outdoor museum of sorts with natural stone sculptures.  From the Brown’s Ranch trailhead, begin the hike on the Latigo Trail heading west. 
A stone "rabbit" on Tarantula Trail

From the start point, the trail dips into a largely shadeless expanse of desert where sun-loving plants like Christmas cactus, turpentine bush, jojoba, chuparosa, desert hackberry and desert lavender stand out over acres of prime wildflower territory.  With ample rainfall, this exposed tract produces carpets of colorful blooms in spring that creep up the slopes of nearby Cone and Brown’s Mountain. 
Desert lavender blooms along the route

At the 1.2-mile point, pick up the Hackamore Trail, hike 0.2-mile, and turn left onto the Tarantula Trail. The next half-mile is packed with whimsical stone sculptures. 
A tight spot on Dare A Sarah Trail

It won’t take too much imagination to spot lumps of granite that resemble a rabbit, hog, guppy, hippo and an enormous standing bear*.  Once through the rock art gallery, the trail encounters a sign warning of dangerous conditions ahead. 
Christmas cactus is a type of cholla

Chuparosa grows in crevices throughout the hike

This is the aforementioned bike maze where slickrock and blind curves warrant paying attention to footing and oncoming traffic.  Hikers will find the well-signed obstacles within the maze only moderately tricky.  Just follow the Dare A Sarah and Scorpion Trails to get to the point. 
Saguaros soar above the Hackamore Trail

Brown's Mountain seen from Latigo Trail

A short spur path leads to the bald lookout for unobstructed vistas that stretch all the way to the peaks of Tonto National Forest in the north to the familiar profiles of Pinnacle Peak, South Mountain and the distant Sierra Estrella range to the south.  
The route is well-signed and easy to follow

"Hippo" rock on Tarantula Trail

Make the Scorpion Point your turnaround spot or use the excellent preserve maps available online to build your own loop or car-shuttle hike.
"Hog" rock of Tarantula Trail

LENGTH:  5.3 miles round trip

RATING: easy-moderate

ELEVATION: 2,513 – 2,732 feet


Brown’s Ranch Trailhead:

30301 N. Alma School Rd., Scottsdale.

From Loop 101 in Scottsdale, take the Pima/Princess exit 36, and go 6.5 miles north on Pima to Dynamite Road.  Turn right and continue 2.7 miles to Alma School Pkwy., turn left and drive 1 mile to the trailhead.  To reach the start of this hike, walk 0.1-mile south from the parking area on Alma School (the road you came in on) to the Latigo Trail access point on the right near the pedestrian crosswalk.

The preserve is open sunrise to sunset daily. There are restrooms at the trailhead. There are no fees.

* Rock formation interpretations are my own and not intended to imply "official" moniker designations.


Monday, January 11, 2021

The Sun Corridor Trail: Concept to Reality

The Sun Corridor Trail: Concept to Reality

Maricopa Trail will be part of Sun Corridor Trail

There’s exciting news for Arizona hikers.  The Sun Corridor Trail, a planned 1,500-mile multi-use route that will run from Douglas, Arizona to Las Vegas, Nevada is gaining support and traction.  A new website with maps, plans and segment descriptions was rolled out last week. 
The route will run through the Mormon Lake area

The trail will incorporate.  The route will incorporate existing trails such as the Black Canyon Trail, Prescott Circle Trail, Flagstaff Loop Trail, Sedona Urban Trail System, Maricopa Trail, Central Arizona Project canal trails and Tucson’s Tribute Trail for an epic tour of the Southwest’s natural resources that include deserts, mountains, forests, grasslands and waterways. 
Prescott Circle Trail will be part of the route

The trail will run through the Huachuca Mtns

The project is a joint effort among city, county, state and federal agencies as well as non-profit organizations that work together to build support through marketing and public involvement while developing strategic plans that will connect communities, benefit economic development and provide nature-based tourism opportunities.

Sedona Urban Trail System will link with the route

The trail will tie in with the Black Canyon Trail

While parts of this epic route are open and ready to explore, the grand-scale plans have the potential rival world-class, interstate icons such as the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail. Check out the new website, spread the word and learn how to support its purpose and participate in its growth, construction and protection.  


Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Get Hooked on the Maricopa Trail in 2021


Beautiful back country on the Maricopa Trail

Sometimes, an addiction is a good thing.  Swapping a junk food obsession or a movie streaming fixation for a commitment to healthful foods and regular outdoor recreation are the kinds of addictions that improve quality of life.  Kicking bad habits isn’t easy, but hiking can help wean even the most devout triple-burger-with-the-works aficionados off the artery-hardening stuff.

The route crosses Cave Creek several times

That’s because, like eating potato chips, once you start, it’s difficult to stop.  And when you really get into it, you’ll be inspired to get fit to take on longer, more difficult treks.

A bird verifies Audubon Arizona important bird area

As with goals in general, it helps to have a plan. 

An old forest service sign on the Maricopa Trail

For Phoenix-area hikers, there’s a ready-made plan already in place. It’s called the Maricopa Trail.  The 315-mile route circumnavigates the Valley, connecting 10 county regional parks, urban centers, suburbs and national forest trails.  Outfitted with dozens of trailheads and community access points, the trail is easily accessed from anywhere in the Valley.  While the route is still expanding and improving, the main course is complete. There’s a beginning, middle and end which makes it a perfect choice for anybody who wants to earn the feeling of accomplishment that comes with completing a long-distance hike without committing to a months-long, non-stop journey. This one can be knocked off in approachable day hikes. 
The Maricopa Trail is 315-mile route

The route passes through a stony corridor

Of course, to get “addicted” it’s best to start with the juiciest segment.  While naming the “best” segment of the Maricopa Trail is purely subjective, the bit that goes from Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area in Cave Creek to the Skull Mesa trailhead in Tonto National Forest is as fine a candidate as any.

Rich in biodiversity, ecozones, history and scenic beauty, this short, easy hike is a great way to sample and possibly get hooked on the Maricopa Trail. Begin by hiking north on the Spur Cross Trail, an old ranch road that has been incorporated into the trail.  Right from the start, the hike embodies a remote feel as it delves into hilly back country along the leafy corridor of Cave Creek.  The waterway fosters a healthy community of cottonwoods, sycamores and mesquite trees where many species of birds thrive in the area that has been named an important bird area by Audubon Arizona. 

An abandoned corral on the Maricopa Trail

The Tonto National Forest boundary

After a mild uphill walk and a couple of usually dry creek crossings, the trail enters Tonto National Forest. Staying close to the creek bed, the last mile passes through rocky corridors and cliffs cluttered with enormous saguaros. A few creek hops later, the path meets the Skull Mesa trailhead where a vintage wood sign displays a map and key mileage notes.
Huge saguaros grow along the route

From this point, the Maricopa Trail continues on through one of its most remote, rugged and mountainous sections.  But for an introductory outing, the wood sign makes for a good turnaround point that will inspire you to come back for more.
Elephant Mtn is a dominate feature on the hike

LENGTH:  4 miles roundtrip

RATING: easy

ELEVATION: 2,263 – 2,407 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.


Monday, January 4, 2021

White Mesa Trail


 The view from the top of White Mesa

From the hyper popular Bell Trail, the imposing, vertical cliffs of White Mesa appear as an unsurmountable wall of stone. 

Hike goes to the top of the mesa:center horizon

Rising over 1,000 feet above one of the most heavily visited trails in Coconino National Forest 40 miles south of Flagstaff, the mesa is composed of colorful layers of red sandstone, buff-colored sediments and a cap of dark volcanic rock. 
Trail departs Bell Trail 1.7 mile from the trailhead

For those willing to make a detour from the water-centric trail that traces perennially flowing Wet Beaver Creek, the mesa’s secrets may be explored by way of the White Mesa Trail #86. 
The only tricky spot on the trail passes a rock jam

White Mesa towers over the Bell Trail

To get to it, first hike 1.7 miles on the Bell Trail.  Along this easy stretch that follows a wide dirt road that was once used to access mid-20th century ranch operations, keep an eye out for petroglyphs pecked into boulders on the north side of the road and foot paths that lead to icy pools in the creek.  The route enters Wet Beaver Creek Wilderness where the White Mesa trail departs the road at the head of Casner Canyon.  Leaving the leafy riparian corridor dominated by sycamore and cottonwood trees, the trail heads uphill on the western flanks of the canyon. While there are no switchbacks to ease the climb, the trail makes a constant but manageable ascent on a rocky single track.
The trail is clear and easy to follow

Like the Bell Trail, this one was originally used to move cattle to graze on high pastures.
  Its straight-up, edgy course passes through mostly shade less grasslands, cacti, rockfalls and the occasional mesquite tree clinging to steep slopes. 
A hiker nears the summit of White Mesa

The grassy summit of White Mesa

The trail is clear and easy-to-follow with only one spot where some hand-over-foot scrambling is required to get through a rock jam. 
A pastoral scene on White Mesa

At 3 miles from the trailhead, the path meets a barbed wire fence at the wilderness boundary that’s the official end of the trail. However, to enjoy the full experience of this hike, you’ll want to pass the gate (close it behind you) and continue on well-worn paths-of-use.
Part of the hike follows Wet Beaver Creek

The route tops out on a grassy, juniper-dotted plateau with excellent vistas all around.
Watch for petroglyphs on Bell Trail

Directly below, a dizzying gorge wraps around the mound of 5,131-foot Casner Butte.
The edge-hugging path climbs over 1,000 feet

To the northeast, the tip of 7,307-foot Apache Maid Mountain, Round Mountain (6,328 feet) and Table Mountain (6,197 stand out over rows of less prominent hills and mesas giving a birds-eye view of the wild landscape that surrounds this beloved Verde Valley recreation hub.
Casner Butte (left) stands out over Bell Trail

Vertical volcanic rock caps White Mesa

LENGTH:  6.5 miles round trip

RATING:  moderate

ELEVATION:  3,828 – 4,925 feet


From Interstate 17 north of Camp Verde, take the Oak Creek/Sedona exit 298. Head left (east) at the bottom of the off ramp and go 2.2 miles on Forest Road 618 to the main Bell Trail parking lot.

There’s a restroom at the trailhead. Forest Road 618 is maintained dirt and suitable for all vehicles.  There are no fees.


Coconino National Forest

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Heifer Pasture


Birds flock above the Heifer Pasture well site

The first bird barely caused a stir.  The single white-crowned sparrow alighted on a winter-bare mesquite branch, ruffled its wings and turned against the whipping prairie wind.  Moments later, a house finch with brilliant red chest plumage landed on the opposite end of the branch, initiating a sort of see-saw balancing act with its smaller companion.  Then, in a flurry, there were dozens. The mesquite tree was flush with birds hanging on every twig, sitting silently waiting for who knows what.  

Estler Peak (left) and Bradshaw Mountains 

The scene repeated on nearby junipers and catclaw shrubs.  Hundreds of birds alternately flocking, flying and perching on the sparce vegetation of Heifer Pasture.  
Cattle gather at Heifer Pasture well

Their sheer numbers and propensity to congregate in large numbers near where I was hiking teased of a crux moment in a Hitchcock film or maybe a nefarious carcass lying unseen in the drainage that paralleled my route.  Clearly, my film noir addiction muddled my perception, for birds behaving like this is the natural way of things on the high grasslands of Prescott National Forest. 
The hike follows Forest Road 9650R

Heifer Pasture is a quiet place. Other than the rustling of feathers and bellows of domestic cattle the stretch of hilly rangeland 3 miles east of Interstate 17 is as silent and peaceful and its pastoral name implies. 

Heifer Pasture well attracts wildlife and cattle

Birds perch in mesquites at Heifer Pasture well

 The pasture can be explored by way of a maze of forest roads that are used by ranchers, equestrians and ATV riders. But the rough dirt two-tracks are also great for hikers who appreciate solitude, far-reaching vistas and lots of avian company.  One easy route is Forest Road 9650R which spins off Dugas Road north of Cordes Junction.  Flanked by the imposing pinnacle of Estler Peak to the west and a bank of volcanic bluffs and mesas to the east, the road embarks on a mild uphill climb through breezy savannah dotted with low-growing trees and shrubs.  
A white-crowned sparrow rests on a shrub

At the 0.4-mile point, veer right at a major junction, pass an old gate and follow the disintegrating track northeast as it makes its way toward Heifer Pasture Well.  The 262 feet of elevation gain on this segment is barely noticeable, but as the vegetation gives way from scrub to yucca and cacti, views of the Bradshaw Mountain range to the west begin showing up in majestic style.  At the high point of the hike, the road is smothered in acres of knee-high, golden grasses.   From this vantage point, the sliver of Interstate 17 cutting through mountain passes is evident only by the glint of passing big rigs and motor homes. 
Bradshaw Mountains views doom FR 9650R

Rustic gate on FR 9650R

Off to the west, sunlight bounces off the blades of the Heifer Pasture Well windmill that’s tucked into a cleft between two prominent buttes.  The road makes a sharp bend and comes to a gate near Black Butte Tank which was dry on my recent visit.  The gate is secured with a rope and must be closed after passing through.  
Bucolic scene at Heifer Pasture well

A few yards beyond the tank, the creaky windmill pumps groundwater into a metal stock tank where cattle lap their fill and graze the collection of feed tubs scattered about.   
Domestic cattle roam in Heifer Pasture

The birds found this place too. Attracted by the water and free buffet, hundreds of birds of species beyond my identification skill set congregate in this idyllic setting. Their fluid areal displays are worth hanging around to witness. 
Black Butte tank near Heifer Pasture well

 Forest Road 9650R continues on beyond the well, passing corrals and more tanks before connecting with the Great Western Trail.  If you want to add miles to this scenic trek, consult the Prescott National Forest map to see the many connecting routes and exploratory options nearby.
Entry gate at Heifer Pasture well site


LENGTH: 3.6 miles roundtrip to the well and back

RATING:  easy

ELEVATION:  3,889 – 4,151 feet

GETTING THERE:From Interstate 17 north of Cordes Junction, take exit 268 for Orme/Dugas Road. Turn right at the bottom of the offramp and go 3.5 miles on Dugas Road (County Road 171) to Forest Road 9650R on the left.  Park in the turnouts a few yards in.  Dugas Road is maintained dirt suitable for all vehicles.