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Saturday, January 3, 2015


Near Buckeye
Robbins Butte 

Occasionally, some of the best hiking can be discovered where there are no trails. This is true of the Robbins Butte Wildlife Area located south of Buckeye.  The Arizona Game and Fish Commission manage this 1,681-acre swath of riparian-desert upland ecosystem for the preservation of native animal habitats and enhancement of wildlife-oriented recreation.  Except for a short accessible trail built by the Boy Scouts in 2008, there’s not a traditional hiking trail to be found in the astonishingly varied terrain.  Instead, hikers can explore along dirt roads and hunter paths that lead to cattail-lined wetlands along the Gila River, mesquite forests and sandy washes running through expansive rangelands of creosote and cholla. The property is designated an Audubon Important Birding Area and is one site in their annual Christmas bird count. At any given time, thousands of white-wing and mourning doves can be seen feeding on the crops that are planted here to attract and sustain them. Besides the familiar trill of doves taking flight, there are chirping quail, squawking water birds and, in winter, a bevy of raptors like bald eagles and red-tailed hawks inhabit the affluent land. Determined bird watchers may also spot rare species like the Western yellow-billed cuckoo and Lark Buntings.  I was fortunate enough to view a pair of Cooper’s hawks sparing above a rogue cottonwood tree.  This free-form hiking excursion can be experienced from any of the 6 designated parking areas along the 2-mile main access road. Just step out and wander at will. I hiked along the roads and footpaths for 7 miles and barely scratched the surface of sights to be seen in this extraordinary public land preserve.
LENGTH: variable on roads and hunter paths
RATING: easy, exploratory
ELEVATION: 578’ – 820’
FACILITIES: none. No fees.
From downtown Phoenix (I17 and 7th Ave.), go 30 miles west on Interstate 10 to State Route 85 exit 112. Head 8 miles south on AZ85 to the signed turn off on the right for Robbins Butte and follow the dirt road 0.3 mile to the parking area on the right just before the road fork.  The main road (right at fork) leads to 5 additional parking areas and is sedan-friendly dirt, while the road to the Butte (left at fork) is washboard rough, sandy and better suited for high-clearance vehicles.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Anthem-Lake Pleasant

With the New Year comes the anticipated completion of the Valley-circumnavigating Maricopa Trail. Its 240-mile circuit connects county parks, open spaces and suburban communities.  Most of the trail is already cut, signed and ready to explore with the gaps to be bridged in 2015. One interesting, close-to-town section runs for 16.2-miles from Lake Pleasant to Anthem. Beginning at the Agua Fria trailhead that was dedicated in 2011, the route roughly parallels Highway 74, turns north to connect with the Black Canyon Trail then heads east under Interstate 17.  Near the lake, the path scoots around and above the Beardsley and Waddell canals, Camp Dryer Diversion Dam and the massive wall of Carl Pleasant Dam.
The route can be a bit confusing at the beginning.  To stay on track, go east (right) on the dirt path for 0.1 mile to where it comes out on the access road.  From here, continue hiking on the road, cross the canal bridge and look for a Maricopa Trail sign on the right where the road curves to the north at 0.2 mile from the trailhead. From this point on, the route is marked with signs and cairns where it gets sketchy in washes.  In addition to the reservoir features, the trail also passes through an ironwood-lined gully, and crosses a flat plain of creosote and cholla before encountering a RV park near 87th Avenue.  As the trail moves east, the sound of gunfire from Ben Avery Shooting Range heralds the approach to Interstate 17 and a traipse into the Anthem community.
LENGTH: 16.2 miles one way to Anthem
Option: 2.7 miles to 87th Ave
Option: 3.7 to New River Road
Option: 9.3 miles to Black Canyon Trail
Option: 11.5 to I-17
RATING: easy
ELEVATION: 1100' - 1737'
From Phoenix travel north on Interstate 17 to Carefree Highway/State Route 74 exit 223. Drive 9 miles west (toward Wickenburg) to Beardsley CSR, turn right, go 0.1 mile and make a U-turn to the trailhead parking area.

Sunday, December 28, 2014


Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area

Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area is a pristine swath of preserve snuggling up to Cave Creek. It's got everything you'd expect of a Sonoran Desert hiking destination with some unexpected extras to boot. Complementing a community of gigantic saguaros, skulking coyotes, mesquite bosques and  fragrant creosote are a smattering of Native American archeological sites and ruins of mining operations that are best explored via regularly scheduled guided hikes.  With so much to see and do within the Ranch, it can be difficult to decide where to start.  That's where the popular Tortuga-Spur Cross Loop hike comes in handy. Along its 3.6-mile circuit, the trail samples both the rough terrain round the base of Elephant Mountain and the slinky, fresh-cut tread of Spur Cross Trail. A moderate uphill slog on an old 4x4 road leads to a crest overlooking water-scoured gorges, cacti-cluttered cliffs and the riparian wonders of the Jewel of the Creek Preserve. From here, a barely discernable maze of trails braided through surrounding hills and valleys belie a bevy of connecting routes that link the park with adjacent suburbs and the wilds of Tonto National Forest. 
LENGTH:  3.6 miles
RATING: moderate
ELEVATION:  2,200' - 2,800'
FEE: $3 daily fee per person.  Exact change is required for the self-pay station
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 to the parking area.
INFO: Maricopa County Parks & Recreation