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Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Black Canyon Trail: Biscuit Flat Segment



Wild burros on Biscuit Flat

Wild burros make lots of tracks--and lots of little burros.  That’s a concern for hikers and land managers because overpopulation can lead to problems like overgrazing, negative impacts on native wildlife, and public safety issues around roadways. 

New River Mesa viewed from Biscuit Flat

With few natural predators and a law that protects them from human hunters, the sturdy African imports that are the descendants of escaped or released pack beasts used by the military, ranchers, Spanish explorers, and miners dating back to the 1500s, the herds can become hordes.

The route follows single and double track paths

The free-roaming, prolific breeders adapted to the Sonoran Desert and other areas in the Western states. Herds quickly grew to the point where they exceed the land’s capacity to support them.  The 1971 Wild-Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act states that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service are responsible for managing and protecting herds and their rangelands as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”  

Wild burros cross the Black Canyon NRT

To thin the herds and maintain their health here in Arizona, the BLM uses fertility control and vaccine programs along with periodic “gathers” where burros are helicoptered out of congested public lands and either put up for adoption or transferred to Midwest off-range private pastures where they are taken care of for the rest of their lives.
Biscuit Flat is surrounded by mountains

Cholla line the Black Canyon NRT

The four-legged “spirits of the West” can be observed wandering in several Arizona ranges including the Lake Pleasant Herd Management Area, a 103,000-acre space located 25 miles northwest of Phoenix.  The Biscuit Flat segment of the Black Canyon National Recreation Trail provides non-motorized access into the heart of burro country.

The sandy floodplain of New River


Like the burros that average 400 pounds and 48-inches high, the roughly 100-mile-long historic trail is very much a spirit of Western heritage.

A cactus wren alights on a BCT sign post


It runs from Carefree Highway in Phoenix to the Town of Mayer and has recently been extended into the Verde Valley with new construction.  Following a mashup of ancient travel corridors, wagon roads and livestock tracks that pre-date Interstate 17, the route traverses mountain passes, valleys, sprawling rangelands, defunct mining operations and heritage sites that date back thousands of years.  The 5.9-mile Biscuit Flat segment is, well--flat. 

Signs guide hikers through the New River channel

It’s the first stretch of the route that begins at Carefree Highway and makes a straight shot north to the Emery Henderson trailhead on New River Road just 3 miles west of Interstate 17.
Crossing the New River channel

The utterly pancake-level expanse registers like a mood board for a Martian landscape--that is if Mars had cactus, creosote and an ephemeral river running through it.  Resembling images sent back from Mars landers, the place is a massive basin surround by volcanic mountain ranges.
Gavilan Peak (2,980 feet) on near horizon


The thorny plain is dressed in scuffed shades of green muddled with dusty earth and course, dried forbs. Like the Native inhabitants and pioneers that wandered through, this place cut its teeth on surviving in the unforgiving spillway of a desert river.

Green sign posts mark the trail

Emery Henderson trailhead on New River Road

Without obvious lures, the vultures come anyway. Riding up drafts, the carrion-eating scavengers make lazy loops and investigative swoops often enough to suggest, something below is dead.  Maybe a javelina, rabbit or coyote. 

An uncommon white burro on Biscuit Flat

What’s alive are the burros, expanding suburbs, a widening interstate, shooting range, prison complex, fairways, a municipal transfer station and the massive semiconductor manufacturing plant rising from desert that surrounds the dusty trail and its relics of the past.
Hikers must watch for toppled signs

Beginning at the north end of the segment at the Emery Henderson trailhead, the path heads south on a mix of singletrack, two-track and dirt roads.  The trail is signed throughout but is crisscrossed with trampled paths made by the burros and fading dirt roads that can be confusing. 

Cave Creek Mountains viewed from Biscuit Flat

Bradshaw Mountains on the north horizon

Hikers must take care at intersections to spot the next sign to stay on track. (Some signs were down at this writing but did not present a navigation problem).  At about the 2-mile point, the trail enters the sandy floodplain of New River and makes a rocky crossing through a tamarisk-choaked channel.
Mountain vistas on Biscuit Flat

Old trough on Biscuit Flat

Signs anchored by rock piles guide the way through the weedy waterway.  On the south bank, the trail heads up an embankment, passes a gate and begins a shade less walk through open desert.  The pop-pop of pistol fire from the nearby Arizona Game & Fish Department-managed Ben Avery Shooting Facility grows louder where the trail briefly shares space with the Valley-circling Maricopa Trail and crosses Deadman Wash.  The south trailhead is little more than a dirt pullout and gate along busy Carefree Highway. 
Saguaros on Biscuit Flat

If you parked a shuttle vehicle here, be sure to close the gate behind you to keep the legacy burros from wandering into 21st-Century traffic.

LENGTH: 5.9 miles one-way

RATING: easy

ELEVATION: 1,598 – 1,878 feet


NORTH: Emery Henderson Trailhead: From Interstate 17 in north Phoenix, take the New River Road exit 232 and go 3.1 miles west to the trailhead on the right. The large parking area has space for trailers. There’s a restroom, but it was out of order at this writing.

SOUTH: Bob Bentley Trailhead: From Interstate 17 in north Phoenix, take the State Route 74 (Carefree Highway) exit 223 and go 1.8 miles west to the trailhead on the right. No facilities.

INFO & MAPS: Black Canyon Trail Coalition



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