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Monday, October 25, 2021

Bushnell Tanks Road


First crossing of Sycamore Creek is sort of tricky

Sometimes, surprisingly fine escapes can be found just steps from busy byways in right-under-your-nose places.  Bushnell Tanks Road, located off the Beeline Highway roughly halfway between Mesa and Payson is one such find.

Rustic corral site is a highlight of the hike


Much of the road parallels part of the course of the Pine Mountain Passage 21 of the Arizona National Scenic Trail using backroads above and through the corridor of Sycamore Creek and Colcord Canyon.

Sprawling grasslands dominate the high ridges

It’s a rugged, undulating road hike in Tonto National Forest that’s packed with creek side sycamores, a rustic corral, stunning desert vegetation and huge mountain vistas. 
Buffalo gourds dangle from a mesquite tree

The moderate hike is also a great who-knew way to view breath-taking late autumn foliage. 
The rocky second crossing of Sycamore Creek

The hike plan is simple, although roads and junctions are not signed, so paying attention to landmarks is key to staying on track. 
A mix of riparian and desert trees shade the hike

From the trailhead, hike down the main gravel road which is Bushnell Tanks Road, Forest Road 22.  At the 0.3-mile point, the road meets the turn off for the Arizona Trail connector. 
Devil's Claw blooms through October

Stay on the main road as it descends to the first of three gorgeous crossings of Sycamore Creek.  The first crossing is a little sketchy. 
Mount Ord stands out over rangelands

The road goes straight across the braided and bent waterway, but getting through requires some creative rock hopping over the flow which varies in depth and speed with the seasons. 
An old corral complex in Ram Valley

The creek crossing is shaded with enormous sycamores and a few cottonwood, willow and alder trees that show off in shades of yellow and russet browns from late October through December. 
Hikers follow an unsigned road in Tonto NF

Once over the water, the road shimmies through a mixed bag of live oak patches and golden pastures bolstered with views of Mazatzal mountain peaks including Mount Ord, Crabtree Butte and Cypress Peak.  The road continues through a continually-changing landscape bright with wildflowers and native food plants.
Hikers approach the third crossing of Sycamore Creek

Lots of ups-and-downs and two more leafy creek hops land hikers at an unsigned road junction on the right at the 2-mile point near a rusty corral complex. 
The hike has lots of ups-and-downs

The corral makes for an interesting exploratory side trip.  Encroached with weeds, tangles of buffalo gourds and bits of frayed ropes, the maze of metal fencing, feed troughs and a newish-looking water tank sit at the core of scenic Ram Valley.  When done investigating the corral, backtrack to the road junction and follow the steep, rutted path up a catclaw-riddled ridge. Long pants, folks.
Hike gives an alternative look at AZ fall foliage

Concrete tank marks the hike turnaround point

The unforgiving haul unpacks spectacular views with every foot of elevation gained.  Peaks and buttes circle an environment of sprawling rangeland, deep valleys and tree-lined creek channels. 
Hikers on one of the hike's high ridges

At the top of the first rise, the road begins a relentless series of ascents and descents through open grasslands.  At the 3.9-mile point, on a bald high-point, a concrete stock tank off to the right sits among a ring of mesquite trees and low-growing cacti.  This makes for a good turn around point. 
Sycamore seed pods

For a longer trip, consult the Tonto National Forest map to scope out other routes that wind through the hills and connect with the Arizona Trail.
Extend the hike on AZT or other forest roads

Better yet, check out the Arizona Trail website ( for more ways to experience this beautiful slice of Central Arizona. 

FR22 traces the course of Sycamore Creek

Arizona Trail association members also get special access to maps, data and privy to dozens of loop hike options using the 800+-mile, state-traversing trail.
Desert hackberry shrubs clutter in a wash

LENGTH: 7.9 miles roundtrip

RATING: moderate

ELEVATION: 3,320 – 3,817 feet (1,720 feet of accumulated elevation change)


From Loop 202 in Mesa, take the State Route 87 (Beeline Highway/ Country Club Road) exit 13.  Go 41 miles north on SR 87 to the turn off for Bushnell Tanks near the community of Sunflower.  Park in the gravel lot near an “area closed” sign and a large Arizona Trail kiosk.  The area is open to non-motorized use.


Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Black Hill Trail


Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve

Mount Ord seen from Black Hill trail

Desert mountains everywhere.  That’s the atmosphere on the Black Hill Trail. 

Cholla (L) and Granite (R) mountain

Tethered to the recently upgraded Fraesfield trailhead in the north sector of the Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve, the smooth and easy path is steeped in mountain views both near and far.
Bees gather pollen from a buckwheat shrub


The 1.9-mile route, which also part of the 315-mile Valley-circling Maricopa Trail, takes off from a shaded trailhead rest area where an artful metal sign identifies the many peaks, mesas and buttes visible from the trail. 

Black Hill trail traces Fraesfield Mountain

Take a moment to appreciate the landmark names and their places in the landscape.

Once something has a name, it’s no longer just an inconsequential encounter or a hazy outline on the horizon, but a real thing-- a character per say-- in your personal explorations. 

Desert marigolds add pops of color to the trail

They become like good friends you’re always happy to meet again and again.
Yuccas are plentiful along the route

Like all trails in the 30,580+-acre north Valley preserve, Black Hill is well-signed, immaculately maintained and designed to guide trail users through some of the area’s most gorgeous vegetation and geological formations.  The 4-mile out-and-back hike begins with a brush by a chain of rounded flanks that comprise 3,055-foot Fraesfield Mountain. 

Saddle Mountain (C) stands out on the horizon

Following an old dirt road, the trail wanders through classic Sonoran Desert vegetation dominated by turpentine bushes, cholla, yuccas, mesquite trees and colorful spots of wildflowers. 
A "Mushroom rocks" sculpture galley

Following a short traipse through sunny rangeland, the route makes a mild uphill climb to where views of distant mountain ranges and peaks appear over acres of palo verde trees and enormous saguaro cactuses. 
Four Peaks viewed from the trail

Look for the familiar forms of Four Peaks (7,657 feet), Weaver’s Needle (4,554 feet), The Flatiron (4,656 feet), Mount Peeley (7,011 feet) and Mount Ord (6,529 feet) as well as other landmarks named on the trailhead interpretive sign.  
Remnants of defunct ranch operations line the route

The far-off stony peaks are countered with equally impressive, trailside rock formations. The mini massifs---often called “mushroom rocks”-- take on bizarre shapes with chock stones and slipped slabs heaped in a sort of natural outdoor sculpture gallery.
Trailhead signage names distant peaks

Black Hill trail is also part of the Maricopa Trail

Throughout the hike, the craggy heaps of Cholla and Granite mountains hover to the north with acres of green desert flora huddled at their bases.  The Black Hill trail ends at the junction with the popular Granite Mountain trail where it’s easy to pick up a connecting path to extend the hike for more mountain immersion and a chance to test your peak-naming memory.

A giant saguaro stands sentry over the trail

Paper flowers bloom sporadically year-round

LENGTH: 4 miles roundtrip

RATING: easy

ELEVATION: 2,514 – 2,667 feet


From Loop 101 in Scottsdale, take the Princess/Pima exit 36 and go 6.5 miles north on Pima to Dynamite Blvd./Rio Verde Dr.  Turn right and go 5.6 miles to the trailhead on the left.  There's a restroom but no water at the trailhead. Preserve hours are sunrise to sunset daily.



Monday, October 11, 2021

Miller Canyon


Miller (L) and Carr (R) Peaks seen from Miller Canyon

Arizona’s isolated mountain ranges known as “sky islands” are like no other places on earth.  Whether explored by car, like a drive up the Swift Trail to Mount Graham in the Pinaleno Mountains near Safford or a by foot in the Santa Catalina range in Tucson, the vertical journeys take travelers from sweltering desert valleys to cool alpine climes over just a few, very steep miles.

Oaks arch over the lower end of Miller Canyon

Some of the most interesting sky island destinations are in the Huachuca Mountains located near Sierra Vista in the Coronado National Forest in southeastern Arizona. 

Aspens glow in autumn gold below Miller Peak

Rich in both biodiversity and human history, the chain of ragged peaks and crests that jut abruptly from the desert floor are laced with dozens of hiking trails that wind through breezy grasslands, streambeds, canyons, mineral-imbued escarpments and exposed pinnacles for myriad exploratory opportunities.
Hike is in the Miller Peak Wilderness area

One of the easiest to get to is the Miller Canyon Trail No. 106.

Massive boulders line the trail in Miller Canyon


The 3.5-mile route begins by circumventing a slice of private property before heading out on a former mining road.  Within a few yards from the trailhead, views of the San Pedro Valley and the Mule Mountains around the town of Bisbee peek out from a fringe of oak trees and high desert scrub and cacti.

View of the San Pedro Valley from the trail

Pines and Douglas fir trees shade the upper trail

 This little tease of vistas is the last glimpse offered before the route enters the Miller Peak Wilderness area and slips into a riparian zone at the head of the canyon. 
Trail climbs from desert scrub to alpine aspens

Shaded by gigantic sycamore and walnut trees, the green oasis is fed by an intermittent stream that flows from springs and runoff originating high in the hills above.  The path gradually leaves the high desert vegetation zone and moves into a wetter, canyon-bound corridor of big-tooth maples and soaring canopies of arching oaks. 
The area has dozens of connecting trails

The trail crosses the streambed several times as it works its way uphill, hugging the edge of the sliver-thin canyon cluttered with flood debris and boulders. 
Bigtooth maples clutter a drainage

Some of the crossings expose rusty 19-century pipes that were once used to funnel water to nearby towns.  As the trail gains elevation and contracts from wide dirt road to thin footpath, pine and Douglas fir trees dominate the forest, keeping the trail nice and shady for a good part of the way.
Desert and forest biozones collide in Miller Canyon

The climbing is steady but not too difficult until around the 1.5-mile point where the first set of switchbacks herald the start of the serious lung workout ahead.  This is about where relics from defunct mining operations begin showing up in oxidized heaps off the trail. 
The trail crosses several drainages

Look for gears, a boiler and miscellaneous parts disintegrating among abandoned digs. 
Climbing gets steep on the switchbacks

A second set of switchbacks make a final, more aggressive ascent, passing by distinctive Bathtub Spring to meet the Crest Trail No. 103 on an aspen-dotted ridge between Carr and Miller Peaks.
Defunct mining equipment decorates the trail

Now clear of the thick tree cover and confines of the canyon, hikers get a second shot at gorgeous mountain and valley vistas. 
Looking into Mexico from Miller Peak summit

The Crest Trail marks the end of the Miller Canyon Trail, however, it also provides access to the spur trails that ascend both peaks.  
Sycamore trees shade the lower trail

From the junction, it’s another 1.3 miles to 9,230-foot Carr Peak or 2.3 miles to 9,466-foot Miller Peak. Miller Peak, which is located just 4 miles from the Mexico border, holds the distinction of being the southernmost high peak in the United States and is a must-do for mountain-obsessed Arizona hikers.

LENGTH: 7 miles round trip

With Miller Peak: 11.4 miles round trip

With Carr Peak: 9.4 miles round trip

RATING: difficult

ELEVATION: 5,750 – 8,525 feet, Miller Canyon Trail only.

5,750 – 9,466 feet with Miller peak

5,750 – 9,230 feet with Carr Peak


In Sierra Vista, go 9 miles south on State Route 92 to Miller Canyon Road (Forest Road 56) on the right.  Continue 2.5 miles on FR 56 to the Miller Canyon trailhead at the end of the road.  Forest Road 56 is a narrow dirt road with some rough spots.  While carefully driven sedans can get through, a high-clearance vehicle is recommended.  Hike begins near the stop sign.


Coronado National Forest

Learn more about sky islands: