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.   

Checklist for Hikers (and hiking guide authors)

Items that pertain to normal people are written normally.

(Items that pertain only to guidebook authors are in parentheses).

 

AT HOME:

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One possible resource for researching a trail. Just saying…

  1. Pick a hike. Don’t just drive somewhere and hope for inspiration.
  2. Pick the best hike feasible. Never skip a good hike for a mediocre hike thinking, “I’ll get to that other hike soon enough…” Weather/health/family/jobs sabotage hiking opportunities all the time. (If you haven’t prioritized your hike list by coolness vs accessibility, go do that now.)
  3. Do a little research. This, of course, depends on how comfortable you are with uncertainty. Some hikers like to know everything before they go (for which guidebook authors must be grateful). Some just want to know how to get to the trailhead, and let everything else be a surprise. At a minimum, though, you should know what the weather’s going to be like, and the water or fire conditions.
  4. (Learn something about the history, geology and ecology of your hike destination – so you know what to look for on the trail. Yeah, you can do a lot of that afterwards, but why work harder?)

 

PACKING THE GEAR

 

  1. Get a map. Bring it with you. Your GPS does not count. (Print an extra one for your significants – so they can refer to it when they call the emergency response team later)
  2. Gather your essential survival things. (Have these in a kit ready to go, and keep that kit in your vehicle, so your son does not plunder it).
  3. Calculate the most water you could possibly consume on the hike, and put at least twice that amount in the car.
  4. Don’t forget lunch!
  5. Make sure your GPS, flashlight and camera are charged.
  6. (Make sure your GPS has memory left.)
  7. (Make sure your flashlight actually works.)
  8. Make sure you camera has memory.
  9. (Clean the lens on the camera.)
  10. (Bring a notebook and a working pen – because bad things can happen to digital recording devices in the wild).
  11. If the hike is more than 10 miles round trip, or you know you won’t make the trailhead until after 11 am, pack extra batteries for the flashlight, and bring an extra layer of clothing. At ten miles or more, or a noon start or later, you are one wrong turn from looking for the trailhead by moonlight.
  12. Gather this stuff the night before if you can.

 

AT THE TRAILHEAD

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  1. Turn on the GPS, and let it find the satellites while you do the rest of your things.
  2. Finish your coffee. It won’t taste good when you get back.
  3. Now drink something else – don’t start the hike dehydrated.
  4. (Write down the GPS coordinates of the trailhead. Don’t just recite them into the DVR – write them down! Remember altitude.)
  5. Top off all the water containers.
  6. If there is some sort of toilet – use it. Especially if there are a lot of other cars at the trailhead. I don’t have to explain this logic – right?
  7. (Test the recording devices. Get the date and start time in the first recording, so you can use it on your blog seven months from now.)
  8. (Take a Bongo picture at the trailhead.)
  9. Lock the car.
  10. (Catch up with your companions who grew weary of your fussing and have already started the hike.)

 

Hualapai Mountain Trail System

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Hualapai Mountain towers over Kingman and surrounding parts,; an island of pine forest in a high desert sea.  High on the slopes, at about 6000 feet, sits Hualapai Mountain regional (county) Park, featuring campgrounds and a trail system wandering around the peaks.

There are several access points, one being right in the campground, but I started from the actual trailhead – and had the place to myself.

From the trailhead (with vault toilets tables and trash-cans) the approach trail follows the wash, past the buried remains of the Silver Bell Mine and finally across a cute little wooden bridge, and up the mountainside.

Hulapai trails 2
The only reason to take the trailhead spur

That leg took me to the campground trailhead, and honestly, unless you are hankering to see a mostly buried silver mine, you can start here and miss nothing. The meat of the hike is the Potato Patch Loop which starts in earnest a hundred feet up the dirt road from the secondary trailhead.

Now, let’s pause a moment and consider that all I had was the free trail guide they gave me at the campsite HQ. Which, so you are warned, is next to worthless. Oh, sure, it has colors and illustrations and explanatory text about the various ecosystem stratas and how regions got their name. But the scale is so small, it is useless as a means to track where you are hiking.

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Don’t hate me because I’m pretty. Hate me because I’m useless.

A common topic of conversation with my fellow hikers – many of whom seemed more experienced than I – was “where do you think we are?”

I went clockwise around that loop. My first stop was Staircase Lookout, named for the CCC built stone stairs that lead up to that lookout point. That would be the last landmark I could properly identify until I hit Camp Levi, which we will get to.

 

 

Hulapai trails 24

 

Between those two points, the trail winds around the slopes as a mostly obvious single-track affording views of the high desert vistas (mostly to my left) and cool forests and giant boulders of the mountainside (mostly to my right). The whole loop is around 10 miles, not counting spurs to summit trails. Hualapai has four summit trails, and you would be on your own with any of them.

Everyone gets lost at Camp Levi. This is a Boy Scout camp, and therefore riddled with trails that look official and well made, but really just loop back to camp for whatever reason. I would love to give you solid guidance on how I found my way out of that maze, but really I just kept trying trails in and out of the Valley of the Porta-potties there (there are like twenty spread about) until one of those trails just kept going.

 

The actual trail will have orange reflectors nailed to trees – though not through Camp Levi – but that’s the true sign you must seek.Then it was more wandering through shady forest around staggering boulders separated by high desert vistas.

Hulapai trails 37
The true sign of the actual trail

The hike is at serious altitude – meaning it will be blessedly a good ten degrees colder than nearby Kingman, but will also work your lungs harder. So while the trail is Medium with pockets of Hard, it will feel like a lot more Hard than it is unless you are accustomed to the lower oxygen ratios.

 

You can do this hike in tennis shoes. There were some families with kids chased horned toads. I hit some clots of people on a warm Sunday afternoon, but few do the whole circuit. I had the more distant slopes largely to myself.

 

I clocked a good thousand feet of overall elevation change across the 6 or so miles of actual hike. Most of this was accomplished via switchback.

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Eventually, I came back to where I started, and followed the spur back to my car.

 

My tent site cost $17 a night, but a day pass to the park costs $7 per vehicle. Yes – they will check.

Hulapai trails 34

Willow Creek (whatever)

The city of Prescott has three man-made reservoirs in or about city limits, and Willow Creek is the most accessible, and arguably the most scenic. While you can float a non-powered boat on it, and fish and bird-watch, or even peer into the excavated homes of the long-gone natives if you time it right, the attraction – at least for me -is as a hiking destination.

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There are three trailheads, and I picked the only one with a parking fee – City-run Willow Lake Park on the north side.

Let’s stop here and clarify: the body of water is called Willow Lake, Willow Creek Lake, Willow Creek Basin or Willow Creek Reservoir depending on what source you look at. It is all the same body of water.

willow_lake_loop_trail_map

The city park is the most developed site, with the boat launch and the well-guarded aboriginal ruins. They were closed when I was there, and thus we skip right past them. The park asks for a $3 fee paid by an honor-system kiosk. Or you could park at the ball-fields of adjacent Heritage Park – as I did, and hoof in for half a mile extra.

The lake, and the 6 mile trail that wanders around its perimeter can be accessed by the Jim McCasland Willow Creek Park, which has a ball-field and a dog park, on the east shore, and some undeveloped gravel parking areas on the south shore. McCasland, for your planning convenience, also has restrooms and water fountains. The south lots have only trash cans.

Back on the north shore, the city park is adjacent to a trailer park and a campground, and a number of social trails connect the two. I went clockwise, past all of these and into the portion of the Granite Dells, a large, relatively famous jumble of granite boulders and mounds that line the north and east shores of the lake.

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Like all trails through this terrain, the path has a lot of up and down and round and round and is often a scramble over granite marked only by spots of white paint.

In the NE corner, some side trails loop further into the Dells, but I skipped these, to budget time and energy. Originally, I was just going to go to the dam, and then turn back. Past the junction with the loop trails, heading south through the boulders, you can look for the red bridge, though if you take the offshore leg of the loop you could miss it, before you wind down into the valley behind the dam.

I have been through this valley both wet and dry. Dry is far more likely, but trails exist which will get you across when the water is spilling out from the concrete barrier.

On the south wall of this valley are the stairs, rail-road tie stairs, which will march up 200’ in elevation to the last leg of the journey south through the Dells.

Here I reasoned, correctly I still believe, that retracing the just under two-mile journey from the city park to the top of the stairs would consumed as much energy as continuing along the remaining four miles ahead of me, and I decided to press forward around the lake.

Another half mile of big boulders, including a close encounter with the edge of the lake, that required a bit of rock hopping, separated the stairs from more open terrain. You can avoid the edge of the lake via a loop I did not take.

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Both will dump you into the shadeless, swamp-grass covered expanse of the south-eat edge of the lake, The map claims this part of the trail could be submerged, but this is rare. When I traveled it, it was a dry dirt track through the tall grass and swarms of insects that live there. This turns west and rises into the hard-pack of the southern shore. Power lines and an intermittent fence-line separate the trail from Willow Road to the south. Past the gravel parking areas, and across a wooden bridge, the trail wanders away from the road, and skirts some low granite formations before turning north along the east shore.


forklift stuntsIt will dip in and around some wooded washes before reaching McCasland Park, where I found the water and restrooms nearly life-saving. Past there the trail wanders through scrub along the shore, passing Embry-Riddle University on the far side of the road, and finally back to the city park sprawling along the north shoreline.

I did the trail in about three hours. The Dells are Hard, the rest of the trail is easy, but the Dells are the worthwhile portion in my opinion. These Dells would be a premier destination for burning off the energy of junior high boys. Even as an adult, this hike remains a good way to kill a few hours if you happen to be in Prescott, in good weather, with time on your hands, and reasonably sturdy shoes.