Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Destination: Superstition Mountains

Weavers Needle
Superstition Wilderness. Weavers Needle in the distance.
Arizona’s aptly named Superstition Mountains conjures up more tales of woe and images of yesteryear than any locale west of the Mississippi. It is a place mired in myth and legend… and history. In ancient times, the Hohokam and Salado peoples eked out a living in this desolate landscape, leaving behind haunting ruins carved from cliff walls, and impressive petroglyphs depicting the many desert animals that roam these mountains. During the “old west”, the few who settled here lived a harsh existence. Homesteaders like Elisha “Old Hermit” Reavis farmed and hunted in the eastern Superstitions until his body was found “half eaten by coyotes” in 1896. The Superstation’s real claim to fame however is the tale of the Lost Dutchman’s gold mine. Every year fortune seekers venture into the Superstitions hunting for the lost gold mine, and many have died in the desert sun, thirsty and hot… and broke.

The Superstitions (or “The Supes” as the locals say) isn’t just a great place to explore the past, it’s a great place to explore. From jagged volcanic peaks to haunted canyons, to the myriad of flora and fauna, the Supes have something for everyone, and at less than an hour drive from Phoenix, is easily accessible.

Lost Dutchman State Park
Superstition Mountain in Lost Dutchman State Park
Camping
Check out Lost Dutchman State Park for easy car camping in classic Sonoran Desert terrain. Lots of big Saguaros at lower elevations. Trails from the campground provide easy access to the tallest peak in the range, Superstition Mountain (5059’). Feeling ambitious? Take the Siphon Draw Trail all the way to the Flatiron on top of Superstition Mountain. This ball-buster goes straight up the mountain, gaining nearly 3,000 feet in 2.5 miles, so you better be in shape. Much of the route is a scramble so expect to use your hands. The payoff? A jaw dropping 360 degree view of the Sonoran Desert. Feeling adventurous? Bring a tent and camp at the top.

Backpacking
The Superstition Wilderness boasts over 170 miles of trail within its 160,200 acres. With all that space, the Supes cater to a variety of experience levels. Want to explore the past? Overnight in a canyon near ancient cliff dwellings in Angel Basin, or sleep in the shade of apple trees after you explore the ruins of Reavis Ranch. Feeling ambitious? See them both on a 3-day 24-mile loop starting at Rogers Canyon Trail. Be sure to have a high clearance vehicle as the 17 mile boulder-strewn forest road to the trailhead is not maintained, and can be impassable after rain. Be sure not to disturb any historical sites and leave any artifacts you find alone.

Rock Climbing
With so many cliff-faces and rock-walls, the Supes is a playground for climbers. Try the iconic Weaver’s Needle. This famous peak plays a key role in the Lost Dutchman legend, as the shadow it casts at a certain time of the day is said to reveal the location of the lost goldmine. The 1,000 foot high rock column is a class 5.6, and will reward you with amazing views of the Superstition wilderness. If you’re looking for more variety, try the 300 foot Bark Canyon Wall. Rockclimbing.com says it offers “some of the best multi-pitch climbing in the Phoenix area.” Just remember, bolting is strictly forbidden within the wilderness.

Backpacking in the Superstitions
Flora and Fauna
Expect to encounter a variety of cacti from the vicious jumping cholla to the iconic giant saguaro. These and other desert plants can make foot travel a challenge, but are beautiful when admired from a distance. Because of the variety of prickly plant life, hike in pants, even when it’s hot. You won’t see many trees except in the eastern Superstitions where cactus meets juniper and ponderosa pine. The area hosts a surprising variety of animal life as well. Expect to encounter several lizard species on the trail. If you’re lucky you might see a desert tarantula, which look scary but are very slow moving and therefore easy to admire. Watch out for rattlesnakes and scorpions, especially under rocks or in woodpiles. If you are really lucky you may see a Gila monster. These large lizards are extremely venomous but very slow, so don’t panic. Just take a photo and move on. Javelina are also common. These pig-like peccaries travel in herds but are usually bedded down during the day.

A Word of Caution
Water is extremely scarce in the Superstitions. Be sure to contact the ranger station for the latest water report before any hike. Shade is often hard to come by, so protect yourself from the sun and stay hydrated. Finally, DO NOT attempt to hike and/or backpack in the Superstitions during the summer months. YOU WILL DIE.