The reluctant history of Homolovi State Park

The San Francisco Peaks west of the state park

Before I get into this article about the ruined houses of native Americans, let me confess, for context, that I have long been bored with the subject. As a native (meaning born in Phoenix – not Native) and thereby a product of Arizona public education through the 1970’s, I joined my classmates as we were herded by busloads through the various ruins scattered around a two hour drive from metro Phoenix.

These are not hard as day trips go, and low-hanging fruit for educators: here are their mud and stone structures or pit houses – and they all used to live here and did things – some of which we know, the rest we guess about – and then they all disappeared – before white man arrived (they always add that) – and now we can look at their old houses from a respectful distance.

Just like the last ones we visited, only they are over here, and look like this. If the nerds in class are bored with this (and I was a poster-quality nerd), all of the kids are bored with this.

Consequently, as an adult, I swore off Native American ruins as a destination.

This lasted until I had kids and started dabbling in travel writing.

Another thing these places have in common is visitor centers with maps and bathrooms.

Bongo at the Homolovi AZ state park visitor center

I arrived at the visitor center at Homolovi State Park at 4pm – an hour before they closed their gates. The ranger their took my $7 entry fee, and said I probably had time to see the main ruins: Homolovi II at the end of a road winding through the dry prairie for about two miles north of the visitor’s center.

Of the five known sites, only two are open to visitors. Homlovi II is the larger of the two. Homolovi I is close to the campground – yes people camp here – all year. It’s $20/night for most spots. The campground has restrooms, and even showers, but, like the rest of this ecozone, zero shade.

I saw RV’s scattered across it in early February. I don’t know why.

The state park is a joint effort with the Hopi Tribe, whose reservation lies about 60 miles north of here, in the middle of the sprawling Navajo reservation. Neither tribe thought this was a good idea, and the Feds didn’t care. Thick books have been written on how this happened and why its stupid. I don’t have time to get into that here – but this guy took the time, if you care.

According to the state park website:

The Hopi people of today still consider Homolovi, as well as other precolumbian sites in the southwest, to be part of their homeland. They continue to make pilgrimages to these sites, renewing the ties of the people with the land. The Hopi tell us that the broken pottery and stones are now part of the land and are the trail the Bahana will follow when he returns. Therefore, these are mute reminders that the Hopi continue to follow the true Hopi way and the instructions of Masau’u.

https://azstateparks.com/homolovi/

The website does not go on to explain who or what the Bahana is, and while we can guess by context, it does not expand on the concept of Masau’u. None of which is surprising.

The Hopi Tribe is notoriously insular. They allow visitors to their reservation, but only in the approved hotel, and you cannot wander around, and not only is photograph prohibited, but note-taking is prohibited.

I think in 7th grade a public school teacher told us that every year evangelical Christians would send Christmas gifts to the Hopi reservation, and every year the Hopis would, “toss them over the cliff”. I don’t know if that still happens, or for a fact if that ever happened, but it sounds plausible that it happened at least once. I’m pretty confident, though, that you can replace the cliff part with a dumpster of some sort.

So those guys – those guys – partnered with white man (then Governor Bruce Babbit in particular) to preserve the dwindling remains of these sites, as pot hunters were starting to come in with construction equipment.

And having driven that road and walked along the couple hundred yards of sidewalk to and around Homolovi II I can report that those ruins are – unimpressive. A couple of small dwellings and one large ceremonial structure have been excavated so you can take pictures (that was part of the deal) and learn that they – favored rectangles.

Rectangles!

Full disclosure: I did not have the time to go through the interpretation displays in the visitor center – which take up slightly more space than the gift shop portion, nor did I download or otherwise listen to the interpretive audio feature.

As much as I claim disinterest, I did do some reading.

Somewhere in the 1200’s flooding along the Little Colorado (which marks, roughly, the western boundary of the park) deposited big piles of driftwood. Ancestral Hopi (I’m using a consensus term that is also easiest to spell) migrated out from the Mesas and used that driftwood for building and burning, establishing several villages along the river. They grew cotton and other crops in the alluvial soil until sustained drought in the 1300’s drove them back to the Mesas.

That same drought did in a lot of cultures around the southwest. I learned that in the 70’s.

Ancestral Hopi took the trouble to destroy their homes, particularly ceremonial sites, as they abandoned them. Vandals and looters also did their share of damage. Unlike the towering ruins at say Wupatki or Walnut Canyon, all the average eye will see is a pile of rubble of what was once a sizeable complex of structures. Except for the small portion the state park excavated so I could pose my plastic gorilla in front of them and take pictures.

The sidewalk to peace and quiet

I do not have Hopi ancestors to commune with. In fact, I have very little spiritual awareness – I don’t feel Vortexes around Sedona or any of that. I believe the spirit world is like the New Jersey mob: not a player, not a target. This buddhist has enough complications in his life.

I did feel the abiding peace that comes with those barren, rust-colored hilltops – near silent save for the wind. That may be typical of the whole region, but I paid my $7 – so I could feel this without trespassing.

Micah Loma’ovaya, an archeology student working on the site wrote this in Southwest Archeology in the Fall 2000 issue:

“Going home on the weekends allowed me to recount for my grandparents and other relatives our weekly discoveries. Many parallels between Homol’ovi and Hopi were found, and my learning expanded, not only in archaeology, but in my own culture as well. It seems that as Hopi have progressed along our cultural continuum, we have tended to lose focus of the true meanings behind our behavior. […]

“In Hopi culture, we understand that ancestral places were marked with footprints (ruins, artifacts, and burials), monuments to our prehistoric occupation, that would be attributed to us one day. Now we must participate in retracing those steps leading to Hopi society and be willing to acknowledge the fact that we have a history to share.”

Micah Loma’ovaya
Archeology Southwest, Fall 2000 pg 10.

I’ll leave on that, before the ranger closes the gate.

[Micah Loma’ovaya has gone on to become an archeologist and apparently a realtor. His Linked-in bio.]

Homolovi State Park is located just north of I-40 and Winslow on AZ 87.

Google map:

https://g.page/homolovi-state-park?share

The park is open year-round.

Day Use/Visitor Center/Exhibits/Park Store

8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. daily
Thanksgiving: 8:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
Christmas Eve: 8:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
Christmas Day: CLOSED

Park Entrance Fees

Per vehicle (1-4 adults): $7.00
Individual/bicycle: $3.00

The water works of Tres Rios

Photo from city of phoenix website

Tres Rios Wetlands Environmental Restoration Project is the outflow from the city of Phoenix water treatment facility that they have made into a public park. No – the water’s fine. It’s already treated before you can get anywhere near it. They won’t let you swim in it, but they will let you walk around (with a free permit) and fish (with a paid permit).

One path through here is a segment of both the Sun Circle Trail, a bike route that runs around most of the cities in the metro area and the Maricopa trail, which circumnavigates the entire metro area. [They have an interactive map!} Also, it is a local hike, and the day (30 Jan 2022) was great for local hiking.

My route would start at Tres Rios, then follow the trail past it, westwards along the Salt Riverbed to its confluence with the Gila river, near the Base and Meridian Wildlife Area. I would return the way I came.

Tres Rios has a gravel parking area, a single plastic outhouse, interpretive signage and large trashcans. There are no other services.  The large trashcans represent a futile attempt to keep fisherfolk from leaving their fishing garbage all over their fishing place.

The city says this of the project:

The lush and scenic Tres Rios is now home to more than 150 different species of birds and animals like muskrats, raccoons, skunks, coyotes, bobcats, and beavers. The beautiful cottonwood groves, willows, mesquites, and other desert shrubs around the reed-lined ponds and along the trail attract many migratory and wintering songbirds. By bringing the Salt River back to the condition it was in during the early 1800s, this project is repairing a natural habitat. 

The reclaimed water from the wastewater treatment plant is pumped over to the wetlands, and the plants and animals take what they need before it is discharged back into the river.

Like the 1800’s only now, and with more plastic trash

From the parking lot, three trails (wide graded dirt roads really) proceed westward in parallel. The center one, with the signs, if the official course of the Maricopa Trail. It also seemed the most crowded in the late morning, but also had the better of what scenery there was. To the north are the lagoons, and to the left, after the first half mile, is the mesquite bosque. The trail also passes the “waterfall” where the lagoons discharge into the Salt Riverbed.

The north track has those same lagoons to its south, and open farm fields to its north.

The south track had brush to the north and the normally dry portion of the Salt River to the south. It also features zero shade.

I had dutifully applied for my permit, and had it ready to show on my phone, but there was no evidence that anyone enforces that. All the numerous “No Trespassing” signs about the place – that means people without permits.  Or visiting after dark- park hours are dusk/dawn.

Several concrete causeways separate the various lagoons, and these can be crossed on foot. I’m not sure if you are supposed to, but fisherfolk clearly do this all the time. But beware, At least two spillways on each causeway guarantee a water hazard.

Past the lagoons, the north and center roads converge, ending in a turn-around marked by giant concrete pipes. To the north of these pipes, the Maricopa trail continues, intermittently following the remnant rod, or making its way as a dedicated footpath.

I dutifully followed the marked trail on my way in as it hugged the great wall of caged rock that marks the northern edge of the Salt’s flood-zone. I followed a series of dirt roads on my way back and found that I did not miss the trail at all.

The trail closes in on the riverbank just as you reach the boundaries of Base and Meridian Wildlife Area. B&M is primarily a fishing spot. It shares parking with the Phoenix International Raceway. From that parking lot, a bridge crosses a wash to land onto a paved road bisecting the riverbed. From this road all manner of dirt roads and trails fan out to various fishing spots.

Due south of the parking lot is monument hill, where the geo-marker forming the basis for the state’s survey lines is located. Alas, it is also possible to glimpse into the raceway from that height, so the hill is now fenced off. It’s not much of a fence, but you would be on your own with that. I tossed the garbage I had collected on the trail into the trashcans provided at the trailhead and turned back.

I found the actual confluence, where the Gila, maybe ten feet across at that point, burbles into the Salt, fattened to hundreds of yards across by the Tres Rios discharge.

One of the dirt roads bisects an island in the middle of what would not be the Gila River, and I was able to sit quietly on the bank and listen to one fisherfolks Tejano music battle with another’s rap music battle with oldie-rock being covered by whatever band was playing whatever even went on at the raceway.

Remember that you are, at either trailhead, walking distance from a convenience store. This will not be a wilderness experience.

Even so, I did find some measure of peace and quiet. On my return, following the dirt roads closer to the river, I encountered nobody for the better part of a mile, and was able to even sit by the river in peaceful reflection, doctoring a blister. That moment alone kinda made the trip worth it.

I did not bother to GPS this, but ten miles round trip feels right. You could probably do it in eight miles if you did not wander. I was on the trail about five hours.

Ten seconds of water in the desert

Chasing the ghost of Old US 80

After finishing day-job business early in Yuma, I realized that I did not want or need to take the [yawn] I-8 to AZ85 to I-10 back towards Phoenix.

Interstate 8 replaced the old US 80 through this part of the state. US 80 replaced the Butterfield Stage Route. The actual Butterfield stage only ran a few years (1857 to 1861), but their route held onto the name. It was the wagon route from Phoenix to Yuma.

Bongo in Wellton, AZ, on old US 80.

The stage route benefitted from the work of the Mormon Battallion who beat the path from Santa Fe to San Diego, including what had long been known as the Gila Trail to Spaniards and other locals.

It’s flat desert. Follow the river as long as you can until you have to cut across to the mountain pass. Not a lot of cause for innovation.

This obvious route became part of the Dixie Overland/Lee/Bankhead/Ocean to Ocean/etc. Highway by the 1920’s, when the Feds, finally taking an interest in highway construction, decided they needed numbers. The number for this jumble of routes was initially US 80.

As Us 80 meandered across the state, if followed the old wagon route (as did the railroad line) until around what is now Gila Bend, where it bent north towards Phoenix. The original stage route bent southeast towards Tucson. Phoenix was barely a settlement in the 1850’s.

Butterfield wagon ruts are long gone, but parts of actual US 80 exist, much of it as an access road along Interstate 8. We start along there.

At Telegraph Pass, I-8 winds through the Fortuna Foothills to descend into metropolitan Yuma. These mountains are prime habitat for both Border Patrol and the Arizona Highway Patrol. Just saying. US 80, as an actual paved road you can drive, starts on the east side of this pass at the Ligurta exit.

I had lunch at some small place in Wellton where I ate my fast-food quality sandwich while trying not to listen about the Local Loud Trumpster expound on his theories to two poor women listening politely. I was happy not be included in that conversation. (I have different ideas). I was happier to leave.

Parallel to I-8, US 80 is a two lane highway with a speed limit of 65-ish. To the south, train tracks and beyond, the mighty interstate. To the north, you can see what farming in the southwest desert looked like right before the water ran out. North of that is the zombie bed of the Gila River.

We didn’t write about this little landmark, but you can read about it here.

The quest for Wellton Pond

I came across a sign saying Wellton Pond 10 mi. Had a little fishing symbol. I was ahead on time, so I took the right off of Old US 80 on Avenue 45E and headed due north  for about 6 miles, crossing the Gila River bed. Following another sign, I took the right (east) on County 2nd Ave for another 5 miles until I found the pond at the junction of 2nd Street and Ave 50 East.

Wellton Pond is not on the map. Following signs as I did is about the only way to find it. It is a small hole full of water, choked by a wall of brush. I do not know who owns the property, but there were no barriers to access other than the brush. People clearly fish here. The farm field adjacent had an outhouse, for which they have my gratitude.

Once I had satisfied my curiosity with the pond (perhaps so you don’t have to) I continued east on 2nd Street until it bent south, becoming Avenue 52 E and, once back across the Gila, graded dirt until its eventual terminus with Historic US 80 just as that terminated back into Interstate 8 near the Mohawk rest area.

Bongo finds Wellton Pond so you don’t have to.

Sentinel

This is one restaurant that did not close due to COVID.

Sentinel proper is north of its exit from I-8, but the part I visited was to the south.

In truth, I wanted to see the Sentinel Plain Volcanic Field, but most of that is on the wrong side of the fence, inside the bombing range. You might be able to do this with a permit. I wasn’t that curious.

Back at the highway, though, you can see the remains of the Sentinel stage stop that once served bad food and brackish water to the brave passengers of the Butterfield Stage Line.

There is apparently more on this across the highway in Sentinel proper (which consists of like 6 buildings) but I had squandered too much time looking for a tiny pond.

US 80 north

Old US 80, as a separate highway, resumes on the east end of Gila Bend (past the Space Age Lodge), winding north along its original route west of the Gila River. Once again, you drive along the two-lane highway with the honor system as a speed limit, though pavement conditions will punish you if you try interstate speeds.

Not all the highway is original. At Rainbow Wash, I stopped to look at the bridge that once crossed the wash, back when this was a maintained coast-to-coast highway. That bridge is a hunk of concrete on one side of the wash. Beside it, the asphalt of “old” US 80 crosses the bottom of the wash, and if that’s flooded, you will have to go over to AZ 85 on the other side of the canals.

In the 1950’s, US 80 was re-routed to follow the route of what is now AZ 85, the connector highway between I-10 at Buckeye and I-8 at Gila Bend.

The road bends west until it crosses the Gila River (bed) at the historic Gillespie Dam Bridge.

The bridge

The Library of Congress notes:

Prior to completion of this bridge in 1927, traffic on the Pikes Peak Ocean-to-Ocean Highway at this point was often halted by flooding on the Gila River. The Gillespie Dam Bridge was this strategically important to Arizona transportation in that is finally allowed all-weather travel over this vital transcontinental route. Technologically, the bridge is noteworthy as one of the longest vehicular structures in the state. … In almost unaltered condition today, the Gillespie Dam Bridge is one of the most important examples of early bridge construction in Arizona.

In glory days.

https://www.loc.gov/resource/hhh.az0577.photos/?sp=4

And the dam.

Together, where the Gila goes to die.

To the north, as you cross, the ruins of Gillespie dam marks the spot where the Gila river, as an actual flowing river, dies. To one side, stern fencing isolated the ports where the water flows into the machinery of irrigation. No fence stopped me from exploring the partially ruined dam on foot, among the frogs and waterfowl.

The old Highway carries on, of course, hooking around to the east through various farming hamlets until it finally intersects with its replacement, AZ85, which takes you to the coast-to-coast highhway’s ultimate replacement, the mighty I-10.

SOURCES:

https://southernarizonaguide.com/butterfield-overland-mail-stage-route-southern-arizona/

https://www.loc.gov/resource/hhh.az0577.photos/?sp=4

https://azdot.gov/adot-blog/us-80-mother-arizona-highways

https://www.americanroads.us/ushighways/ushighway80.html

https://www.aaroads.com/guides/us-080-az/

Three distinct distillery tours

We can’t hike all the time. All three of these, though, involved some walking. And drinking. We do that too.

Recently I had the opportunity to tour and partake at three different spirit distilleries in and around Las Vegas. We’ll start simple, and let things escalate out-of-hand as they will.

Desert Diamond Distillery

Just outside of Kingman, AZ, towards the airport, you can find Desert Diamond Distilleries, [https://www.desertdiamonddistillery.com] which has a tasting room, distillery tours, and monthly dinners after which you taste whatever spirit the owners are most proud of that month.

The $7 tour is simple and straightforward: You learn how the bar came from a restaurant in Las Vegas, and the rat Pack leaned upon it, you see the giant copper still from Germany,  you see the warehouse.

Desert Diamond mostly makes rum and that rum is worth the journey. They want $20-50 a bottle, and you are getting that quality.

They have been dabbling in whiskey, and that is quite good, but still quite pricey. I felt I paid $75 for a $50 dollar whiskey. But it is, by a good margin, the best whiskey I’ve found distilled in state.

They make a cheaper corn whiskey, and a vodka, neither of which I have tried.

The owner pouring you one…

Across the river in Las Vegas, the distillery experience gets bigger and crazier and more expensive.

The Mob Museum Speakeasy

In the basement of the Mob Museum, [https://themobmuseum.org] they have a “speakeasy”. This is a real bar, but you can only get into it with ($30) admission to the Museum. OK – there is some side door that you can get in with a password from the website, but we had tickets, so you are on your own with that.  For an extra $15 you can sit in on the tasting and prohibition lecture. In that setting, we learned a little about the distilling process (they make some beer, moonshine and rum on site) and a good deal more about the birth of bootlegging in the US, and how this financed the first national crime syndicates. Or so I suppose. I couldn’t hear half of it over the music from the speakeasy next door.

The samples were microscopic, and unimpressive. Moonshine is just moonshine. The rum did not stand above any of its big-batch $20/bottle competitors. I’d tell you about how they tasted in the cocktails from the speakeasy, but we stood for 15 minutes without getting any staff attention and moved on.

Las Vegas has no shortage of places you can pay too much for cocktails. (We ended up at Circa where we were served within 5 minutes on a Saturday night.)

The museum (properly called the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement) itself is all kinds of clever, (it has won awards) but it is three stories (plus basement) of wall-wall crime and mayhem, and I burned out on which middle-aged white guy went to jail for shooting which middle-aged white guy.

Like most museums, the information comes in isolated paragraphs next to displays, but you can put together the narrative that Prohibition allowed street level gangs to become or become co-opted by national gangs, and how the feds ignored them until the 1950’s when congressional hearings (that’s the whole 2nd floor) forced them to do something. Portions of the Kefauver hearings actually took place in the very courthouse the central presentation is in. There’s a section on the mob in Vegas, and an equally large section of the string of cowboy sheriffs patrolling those same streets.  By the time Whitey Bulger was leaving a trail of bodies around Boston I had lost interest.

You can buy the moonshine for just over $20/mason jar in the gift shop. I did not.

Lost Spirits Distillery

On a brighter note, across the freeway inside Area 15, (which is an experience all of its own) you can tour the Lost Spirits Distillery [https://www.lostspirits.net ] which tries to make the distillery tour into a Disneyland experience. The problem is that they are still in a converted warehouse, and while they are clearly trying their best the compromises, like having to ride the trolley across the parking lot to the second building, are unavoidable.

They still want $55 a head.

Lost Spirits claimed to have found a method to age spirits without actually aging them through the use of light.  You can see on the tour the contraption bathed in the lights of what I happen to know are commercially made theatrical lights. However, I can’t say what sort of lamps they put in them, nor would they tell me. That’s the secret, I was told. You can also see more regular stills and get a sniff of the big barrel full of must that they keep in the open for visitors.

In addition to seeing some of the distillery equipment, there are themed rooms with tasting stations, where you can taste the various products, mostly high-proof rum. There’s a candle-lit forest, a Victorian “Dorian Grey” room, the Havana Hologram Lounge (which has some cool projections) and the submarine, which is legitimately a triumph of scenic design over budget.

Curiously, Lost Spirits does not directly sell the booze they just demonstrated on site.  They will ship bottles, when available, starting at $30/ bottle plus, plus.

Even though I am a fan of museums, scenic design and giant copper pots in all shapes, I wouldn’t repeat any of these tours again. I will assert that the distillery tour of the Mob Museum is over-priced for what it is. Lost Spirits is worth it once, as a strange date night activity.

Now, I’ve been back to Desert Diamond many times. But that is because they will actually sell me booze.

Desert Diamond Distillery

4875 Olympic Way, Kingman, AZ

The Mob Museum

300 Stewart Avenue, Las Vegas, NV

(A block away from Fremont Street).

Lost Spirits Distillery – Area 15

3215 S Rancho Drive,  Las Vegas, NV.

Check websites for times and prices.

All photos are from the websites of locations covered unless noted.

“We” for this article means Cheryl and myself. More on that on my personal blog: What Have We Learned? [https://padegimas.wordpress.com]

So, yeah, this might be becoming a more general travel site.

The Grim Beauty of the Granite Mountain Hotshot Memorial

Bongo at the trailhead.

A few weeks ago, taking the back way down from Prescott, I stopped at the Granite Mountain Hotshot Memorial off of AZ89. The State Memorial Park is located on the second serpentine wind down the mountain that separates Yarnell from Congress. It is most easily approached going south. AZ89 is split here, and you would have to U-turn past the site going north to come back and reach it.

There you will find parking for about a dozen cars and “restrooms”, meaning plastic outhouses.

Or you could take a map

The main trail is just shy of three miles one way winding up and around the desert ridges. You can expect all the low desert hazards and all the low desert heat. The grade is gentle but constant as the packed dirt path switches back and forth across the ridge, perhaps more times than is really needed. On occasion, stone stairs will help you up or down.

Along the way are shiny, stainless steel plaques commemorating each firefighter who died in this catastrophe, as well as plastic plaques explaining the history of desert fires in general, and the Yarnell Hill Fire in particular. There are also benches.

If you took a free map from the container at the trailhead, you can easily follow your progress up the 2.85 main trail by plaque. I’m not going to recount the well-known tale here. The park website repeats all the verbiage on the plaques.

If you need to know more right now, this article is a good over-view without being gushy local news or terse and technical fire-speak.  You could also read the actual report it references. Meanwhile, we are hiking.

View from the trail

Were it not for its grim purpose, the Hotshot Trail, as it is designated, would actually be a pleasant climb through a fine collection of rocks and cacti. Climbing up the ridge reveals consecutively grander vistas of the valley below. On my trip lizards scampered away from my feet as hawks circled overhead. But then I came to a glaring plaque (the afternoon sun makes them signal mirrors) and joy yielded to grim purpose.

The Yarnell Hill Fire ended for a generation the debate as to whether Prescott (where the GM Hotshots were based) and surrounding communities should publicly fund wilderness firefighting. There had been loud talk of leaving all of it to the feds. After the fire, state and municipal money carved this fine, if sad trail up the ridgeline.

The Hotshot Trail ends at an Observation Deck overlooking the site where the 19 men actually burned to death. A large plastic plaque explains how that happened. There is a bench and shade and a tribute wall decorated with a multitude of firefighter patches along with other mementos.

The much steeper Journey Trail continues from this point, tracing the route the Hotshots took down the ridge to their doom. It drops about 500 feet in one mile to reach the actual memorial. I was out of water at that point, so I turned around at the observation deck.

A week later, hand to God, I stumbled upon the movie based upon this group and their sad end, Only the Brave. It is actually well done.

If you visit this site, go in the morning and don’t go in summer. The desert wants to kill you even when its not on fire – don’t make it easy.

Sometimes it kills even the best of us.

West Pinto Creek – a journey without a particular destination.

Bongo near Oak Flat

West Pinto Trail #212 in the Superstition Wilderness is an easy (by Supes standards) hike into transition/riparian habitat without requiring expeditionary resources. It takes a bit to get to the trailhead, but that trip is actually (and literally) half the fun.

I included this trail in my book Day and Overnight Hikes in the Tonto National Forest, but that was over 10 years ago.

The eastern portion of the Superstition is the higher and more remote half. What it lacks in developed trailheads, crowds, cholla and mythology it makes up for with peace and occasional shade. I hiked this on an April Saturday, and passed some folks on the road, but met no-one on the trail.

To start with, US 60 east of Superior is one of the best drives you can take on pavement. Past Top-o-The-World (this is a town) a bridge crosses the deep canyon formed by our destination.  On the far side of that bridge to left turn lane leads to FR287. The pavement here soon turns to graded dirt as it wanders through active mining country en-route to the wilderness.

The mines move big piles of rock around all the time, and then re-direct FR287 around those. This leaves maps and directions useless. Google regularly suggested I turn left, which would have been over an embankment and into a steep ravine. The mines have marked any road you are no supposed to take. Go slow, follow the signs, you’ll make it with or without maps or directions or a patient voce in your dashboard suggesting trying to get you killed.

A Y intersection at about 7 miles in marks the transition from mine country to actual Tonto National Forest. Go right, across the narrow bridge to FR287A. A sign will warn about single lane with pull-outs. Yep. Go that way.

Transition to scrub

The road benefits from a higher clearance vehicle, but you will never use 4WD even as it winds around the canyon walls. Most of the way the road will be the same color as the cliff on one side, and the ravine to the other: red, grey, greenish grey, white. You will pass the transition zone between high desert and low scrub, with saguaros growing right next to juniper trees. The switchbacks mean you are close. That flat spot at the bottom of the canyon ahead is the remains of Miles Ranch. This is where 287A effectively dead-ends.

There are two effective trailheads at Miles Tarilhead, located among the remains of the old Kennedy Ranch. The official one is poorly marked. Look for the Superstition Wilderness wood-cut sign across the road from the Miles Trailhead sign.  The actual trail is just beyond, climbing the hills westward into the scrub oak. This wanders up and down the side of the hill until the junction with Bull Basin Trail.

Or you can pass by the shed (empty save for vermin dropping and a scattering of hay). Nothing will stop you from seeing that for yourself. Eventually some jack-ass will burn this to the ground because their special-ass needed a fire under the roof, but right now, there it still sits. A remnant road continues  westward on the far side of the gate, providing a shadeless march through the desiccated remains of the pasture. It joins the main trail within sight of the Bull Basin junction.

Bongo inthe shed that hasn’t burned down yet

The main trail is longer and has more up and down, but it also has shade.

West Pinto continues as a single-track up the canyon of its namesake. It is moderate. There were only a few places where I had to pay attention to the trail, rather than write articles in my head, and none of these lasted more than 15 yards.

Here my Tonto description remains accurate, except in 2021 there is less water. Other than isolated pools, I did not encounter water above my ankles. I was a mile in before I encountered any water at all. All the rain run-off from this spring has already sunk into the thirsty sands.

While my old warning about water level may have expired., these days you would actually worry more about fire than flooding, the poison ivy persists, so it is wise to watch your step.

In a couple of places the trail climbs abruptly up the ridge, presumably to avoid obstructions in the stream bank. I took these going in, but ignored them coming out, content to splash in and out of the stream with no undue hardships. This might not be the case if the creek ever has high water flow.

Oak Flat

At about two miles, a series of trail junctions (Cuff Button going north, then Spencer Spring going south) announce the proximity of Oak Flat, a sandy clearing filled with manzanita and surrounded by oaks. Mike book presented this as a destination, but it is really just a landmark. You can see how users of the campsite area would have to share with the large colony of red ants right near the fire pit. Across the clearing, West Pinto crosses the (dry) creek near its confluence with the (dry) Spencer Springs Creek and continues up that canyon.

I followed for a few miles up the steep canyon side, crossing a couple of saddles until I became hungry, and realized I did not want to fight the wind to eat lunch on the shade less slopes.  West Pinto continues to climb as it approaches Iron Mountain and points beyond, hitting the Reavis Trail about 9 miles from the Miles TH, but those were far beyond the distance I was prepared to hike that day. So I retreated back to Oak Flat, ate my lunch , and returned to my car.

West Pinto between Oak Flat and Iron Mountain

My total hike was 6.3 miles, which I did at a leisurely pace in just under 4 hours. My highest elevation gain was 3900 feet (the high saddle past Oak Flat) about 1100’ above the trailhead.

MAP

Up, Down and Around Picacho Peak.

Bongo on Hunter Trail.

The saddle-shaped Picacho Peak marks a long used pass now underneath Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson. It has been a state park since 1965, and you can climb it.

But you have to really, really want to.

The peak is a mere 1500 feet above highway grade, but the way is steep and only gets steeper. My route went up the north side, down the south, and then around the whole mountain to the west all on established trails.  This can be done in a half-day, but it will use all of that half day. I started at 2pm on a March afternoon and reached my car just past sunset.

The easist part of HUnter Trail.

From the Barret Loop parking area, Hunter Trail charges straight up the north slope of the peaks at stairstep grade through the creosote and saguaro and ocotillo. After about a half mile, it evens out for a hundred yards or so, and then it gets even steeper, and stays that way all the way up.

The trail proved surprisingly crowded for a hike so notoriously difficult. The difficulty is balanced perhaps by the shortness of the hike, 2.2 miles one way, and that it is located right off the interstate.

On this slope, you’ll encounter your first bit of wire rope. The signs recommend gloves (and I wore them because I had them). The wire, however, is tightly spun and in good shape. You have more to worry about from heat than splinters. Up the north slope they are a convenience. Further up they become a necessity.

Despite its shape, the peak is not a dormant volcano. It is a remnant lava flow which has eroded unevenly over the past 22 million years or so.

At just shy of a mile, and just shy of a 100’ elevation gain from the parking lot, Hunter reaches the saddle between the two main peaks. There is a sign and a bench. I made the saddle at 3:50. This is the turn-around for the moderate hike. Past here it is as much a climb as a hike.

You’ll hug the bottom of the cliff as you wind east towards the summit approach. Past the intersection with Sunset (which we’ll get to) you will find two “ladders”: straight-up vertical climbs with wire rope on either side, and footholds slickened by thousands of boots before yours.

You are not actually near the summit until you cross the plank. You’ll see what I mean.

We can thank the Civilian Conservation Corp for the summit approach route. They used it to build and service a 40-foot light beacon that was installed at the top of the peak for air traffic control in 1932.

At the top saddle, I did not climb the taller east peak because of other hikers. This was the tail end of Covid times, and there is only the one path. But I crossed the ridge to towards the west peak. I did not climb that all the way either because the turkey vultures, who, judging from the slicks of white slime decorating the cliff, spend a lot of time there. The top saddle would have to do.

Turkey Vulture

Vista to the south.
Vista to the north.

As I admired the vista in both directions, I also noted how low the sun had sank. So down we go.

Going up, the wire ropes were really more of a convenience. Coming down, which I often had to do facing the cliff, they were a necessity. I cannot say I would have attempted this without those ropes in place.

Imagine for a moment the guys who built these.

A rare easy part of Sunset Trail.

The hardest ladder of the journey was heading down Sunset Trail, which basically slows your tumble down the cliff. (Again, courtesy of the CCC). Once off the rocks, Sunset continues as a series of tight, rubble-filled, joyless switchbacks for another half mile.

Sunset levels out as it bends west to wander across the ridges and washes draining the southwest slopes of the peak.  It goes through private property through much of this passage, so stay on the trail.

Learn from my mistake: a liter of frozen water will not melt fast enough in March to keep you hydrated. I coaxed enough liquid out of it to stay out of real trouble, but not enough to be comfortable.

Cholla displaces ocotillo and crowds the trail in places with their spiky pods of ouch. The sun was low enough by now that small palo-verde trees were shading my passage on the trail.

The west end of Sunset Trail.

I reached Sunset trailhead at 6:20pm.  I found a welcome restroom at nearby day-use. I then marched through the twilight along the road, past the campground and eventually the (now closed) visitor center and back to my car.

The park gates are open from 5am to 10pm. Trails are open sunrise to sunset. It cost me $7 to drive into the park in my car. The visitor center promises exhibits but is really just a gift shop.

https://azstateparks.com/picacho

Ford Canyon is a good test without becoming a major expedition.

Climbing into Ford Canyon

If you wonder where you are in hike conditioning, the Ford Canyon loop we are about to describe will answer that question. Also, it will take you away from the city without forcing you to take an actual road trip.

I learned that I have, comfortably, an eight mile hiking range through mountainous terrain. The route I took covered ten miles. So, even though I limped to the car, I have no regrets.

To reach White Tank Mountain Regional Park, take Olive Road (Dunlap in Phoenix) west until it basically dead-ends at the park’s guard shack.  How you get to Olive Road is on you. One note: you would think that there would be an exit for Olive on Loop 303, but there is not.

Most of my information on this trail loop comes from my hike on 5 March 2021

White Tank Mountain Regional park is a Maricopa County park covering nearly 30,000 acres centered on the northern portion of the White Tank Mountains. This range rises from the 1100’ valley floor to 4000 foot peaks and separates the Salt River basin where Phoenix is centered from the Hassayampa plain to the north and west.

The park is open from 6am to 8pm, and entry at the gate is $7 per car.

Ford Canyon trail start to finish is 7.4 miles one way, but I skipped the first mile from the terminus (which is a dirt sidewalk through low desert scrub) to jump on at the sub-trailhead at Spot #9 on Ford Canyon Road. I then left the trail at its junction with Willow Canyon to head back down. That route, along with the lower portions of Mesquite Canyon Trail and towards the end Waddell Trail form the loop that led me back to my car.

I parked my car at spot #9. Like nost of the numbered spots in the park, this features a restroom and a scattering of concrete picnic tables. From the signed trailhead, the wide, packed-dirt trail quickly goes in and out of deep wash.

The lower portion of Ford Canyon Trail is a sidewalk of packed dirt across the arroyo. Besides the dirt track, signage looms plentiful and obvious. If you get lost through here, you should reconsider your form of recreation.

The desert welcomes you

Ford canyon early.

Memorial benches adorn every trail intersection. On my hike day, a proliferation of signage for some trail running event to be held the next day decorated the sides of the path. Teddy-bear cholla stands out as one of many spiny assailants awaiting anyone who would stray off the path as it winds over a low saddle and northwest towards Ford Canyon proper.

Just shy of 2 miles in (all distances are mine – from Spot 9) the warning sign announces that the trail from here – which narrows to a footpath immediately beyond the sign –  becomes hazardous.  

The sign does not lie. This section is on of the hardest trails in the metro area. Only Camelback Mountain and Goat Camp trail (in this very park)  rival it – at least for these next three miles. You will end up using your hands more than once.

The sign

The White Tanks are known habitats for javelina and deer as well as the usual low-desert critters, but the largest vertebrate I encountered on the hike were fat and brazen squirrels.

Much of the exposed granite through here has been whitewashed by the occasional tumult of rain run-off. In early March, some pools of standing water remained. These are, in fact, some of the white tanks that give the region its name.

Towards the top, even the goat trail disappears, and you will end up hunting ribbons along the wash. The route does indeed generally follow the wash. You are a ways from any path across the shoulders.

This is the way. Really.

Lower, you might have seen signs explaining how leaving the trail will increase the erosion. It is true that much of the Sonoran Desert is held together by a layer of microbes imbedded in the soil, and our boot-stomps harm it. Do not worry about that here. This is a wash. There is nothing but granite and sand. Whatever trail ran through here before was washed away by the last rain. Whatever path your footsteps help create will be washed away by the next rain. Choose your steps according to safe, forward progress, and finding the next ribbon. Worry about nothing else.

Somewhere in here, I got my foot stuck in crevace between rocks. I got it out, but not with much grace. It buggered my boots a bit, but I thought little else of it at the time.

That left boot sock had absorbed a good bit of blood by the time I got back to the car.

The old dam is about midway through the wash passage at 3.3 miles and an elevation of 2250’.

Bongo at the abandoned Ford Canyon dam.

At my 4.15 mile mark, a foot path finally appeared, climbing out of the wash. You are through the worst of it, but not yet halfway. The single-track continues through the shadeless slopes as wide switchbacks up the canyon wall, across a saddle and into the next canyon.

You cannot hear the city this far up in the White Tanks. You can, if you are still for a moment, hear the buzzing of insects, the scurry of lizards and the chirping of birds.

You can also hear on occasion the roar of F-18’s flying in and out of their nest at Luke AFB.

Bongo at MM6

The saddle with the 6 mile trail sign marked about 5 miles into my hike, and the half-way point of the route. This saddle stands at 2813’ and was the highest point I recorded on the route. A half mile beyond, the Ford Trail meets the Willow Canyon trail.

Ford Canyon trail goes on another three-quarters of a mile until it Y’s out into the Goat Camp or Mesquite Canyon Trails. I took Willow Canyon instead for it was shorter, easier and more scenic.

A quarter mile past the intersection, Willow Canyon crosses the wash near an old cattle-tank sight. Past this it climbs slightly but steadily even as the canyon floor sinks steadily below you. The footpath winds across the steep slope, revealing intermittent vistas of the west valley.

Willow Canyon Trail

At 7.2 miles, Willow Canyon T’s into Mesquite Canyon, near the bottom of Mesquite Canyon.

Here the path widens a bit as it switches back down the canyon. Go left (east) to climb out of this canyon, across a ridge, to switch back down a different, unnamed canyon to the south. As you approach the bottom of the switch-backs benches appear – signaling your approach to relative civilization.

Here is also where my feet, particularly my left foot transitioned from fatigue to pain. Constant downhill always brings out the worst in foot problems. So forgive my dearth of superlative language through here. I was just trying to keep going.

By the intersection with the Waddell train, the path has become a packed-dirt sidewalk once more. Take the left (north) up the Waddell Trail.

Waddell Trail which will eventually merge back with Ford Canyon. However, a mile before you get to that point, a short spur will take you to pavement a few hundred yards from Spot #9.

Full Hike = 9.88 miles. It took me 5.5 hours, but I took notes and photos, and covered the last two miles at a -er- measured pace.

I’d still do it again.   

Some Stupid Luck in the middle of nowhere.

I’m posting this here because the tale is too long for social media. 

On behalf of my dayjob, I journeyed deep into the Navajo Reservation (in NE Arizona) because I was “in the neighborhood”). A bit of remedial geography – no one is ever conveniently close to Dilkon Arizona, a crossroads deep in the Rez featuring a Basha’s grocery store, a gas station, and someday soonish a medical center.

There was a need for someone in our company to meet with someone working on that medical center. I was, that morning, in Flagstaff for a similar meeting that did not happen, and Those Above figured they’d never have anyone closer. So off I went in the 20 year old Dodge Dakota.

Bongo and Verity in Dilkon, AZ.

I had the Dakota (called Verity) because my Subaru Forester had a damaged suspension (likely from stunts like Packsaddle Mountain), and was in the shop that very day. 

I started and ended my day in Kingman AZ (where it was 28 F when I left my hotel room) on account of a third day-job assignment. 

On my way back, I stopped to manage some cabin logistics, and take some Bongo pictures for Instagram, because we are trying to build a little platform here. 

This photo appeared on Instagram. It’s still there.

The road is Tribal 15, which looks just like that most of the way.

This is the one I meant to post, but tapped the wrong one.

Friends, that was a $40 Instagram picture, and only that cheap because I got stupid lucky.

Took the photos, got back in the truck, tried to pull away, wheels spun. 

By spun, I mean the passenger rear tire buried itself in loose sand up to the axle. 

I did not take pictures.

Verity carries a shovel, and I had it half excavated when some locals stopped by to help. As sand filled back into the hole, they explained, and probably correctly, that I wasn’t going to dig myself out.  I would need a tow.

Happily, they had the means. Once we excavated the axe from the dry quicksand (this stuff was hour-glass quality,  flowing freely in a way that was both amazing and horrifying), they produced a rope, wrapped it around my front end, and we were able to free Verity from peril on the first try. 

A had a $20 bill in my wallet, and I gave it to the lead guy. Then I dug out another $20 bill when we had to cut his rope to free it from my truck. (I hide one in my wallet for just these occasions.)

When nerves allowed, I drove on to Kingman. That’s 470 miles round trip, part of the nearly 750 miles I drove over 3 days for my job. (I get compensated for that). That took the rest of the afternoon, during which I negotiated paying the mechanic for the Subaru. (Which is why you always want to get paid for mileage, not just reimbursed for gas.)

https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/embed?mid=1xSa0_UJ8H2FCwT7-CJNk1rQRKIjTsiIZ

Stay on the damn road on the Rez. Now we know. 

CODA:

Mohave County’s original county jail is one of the oldest still standing. It’s protected, so the county can’t tear it down.  I have no idea what they use it for now, but they are building the new courthouse addition basically around this structure. 

I was also in that neighborhood and have a couple of photos. 

Camping in Sycamore Rim Country

The end of the road…

My go-to spot for undesignated camping in the high country (in AZ that means higher than 5000’) is the north rim of Sycamore Canyon. The Sycamore rim marks the southern boundary of the Williams district of the Kaibab National Forest. It lies essentially 30-50 miles south by southeast of Williams AZ, which is about 30 miles due east of Flagstaff along I-40. 

The rim itself does not offer spectacular scenery. It offers a consistent expanse of rock-studded plateau topped with pine and oak stands separated by occasional prairies. It is plenty pretty to be sure. The  tall green grasses and flowers, towering fragrant pinon and ponderosa pines and gnarled oaks offer habitat for everything from turkey to elk. But this is what most of the Coconino plateau looks like when it hasn’t been paved over or grazed down to high desert. 

The only noteworthy vistas are views into and across Sycamore Canyon itself. 

This is a ten year old photo doctored with ten year old free-ware. Don't judge.
One of many vistas of Sycamore Canyon

Sycamore Canyon proper is a wilderness area (mostly within the Coconino NF) where Sycamore Creek and its immediate tributaries have cut steep slots into the plateau. The canyon often rivals Oak creek Canyon (to the southeast) for scenery, but is not nearly as accessible. Getting into the canyon is best approached as  a backpacking expedition, and well beyond the scope of this article. 

Ruby and company

(Although I wrote about those trails, and others I will reference shortly in 5 Star Trails: Flagstaff and Sedona, which I plug here to avoid a lot of repetition.)

What I like about it is the relative privacy. You will consistently pass the tribal compound of RV boondockers on the main roads just south of Williams. But go further south, on the thinner forest roads, and you can spend days at a time on your own part of the prairie, seeing no other people until you have to go back into town for more ice. I have accomplished this feat more than once. 

And when it’s just me…

To get real privacy, I had to bounce down some roads with long number designations until I was out of sight of the road that is actually on the map. This is undesignated camping, meaning you make your own campsite and provide your own services. If you need a toilet and a trashcan, you are better going to Whitehorse Lake Campground, which we will also get to. 

I have camped on the northwest rim (off of FR 110) on the north center rim (off of FR56) and the northeast rim in the Coconino NF somewhere off of FR 231. The experience was all the same. Though, in full disclosure, I haven’t been on the northeast portion since I wrote the hiking guide. 

All were about 6500’, hard-dirt prairie where I only had to wear pants if I wanted to. And bees – I had plenty of bees at all three sites. 

Whitehorse Lake Campground

Credit – Kaibab NF

White Horse Lake campground is the big campground on the actual rim. It features a mix of tent and RV sites (94 total) about half of which are reservable. Most are at least within sight of the 35 acre lake. You can’t swim in the lake, but you can putter about in non-motorized boats (some rentable on site – in non Covid years) and do a bit of fishing. The lake is also popular with frogs. 

The campground is a hosted fee area. (Fees vary – check the website). I visited the place on a Wednesday in August of 2020, and it was about ⅓ occupied. You would still want a reservation or an early arrival for a weekend spot. 

Also nearby, of course, are the Sycamore Rim and Overland Trail hikes (also in my book). I had assumed I blogged about these on the old site, but it seems I did not. So that comes next time. 

Next time…