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.   

The Road through Bloody Basin

My son bought himself a 2008 Jeep Liberty, the newest vehicle he has ever owned, and was desperate to get it on some dirt. So he took my advice, and we went down the Bloody Basin Road through the Agua Fria National Monument, and then kept going on Cave Creek Road, aka Seven Springs road, aka Forest Road 24 all the way back to civilization.

This is not a serious 4×4 route, though you will benefit from high clearance. People do this in passenger cars, but that is a slow and bumpy journey. Some clearance makes it more recreational. Any SUV will suffice.

Bloody Basin Road, for our purposes, starts at Exit 259 from the I-17, north of the Sunset Point rest stop, but south of Cordes junction. The sign says Bloody Basin Road. Once you are off the highway, you will not see consistent pavement again until nearly Carefree. For us, that was a feature of the journey.

Bloody Basin used to be called Turret Wash until the 1873 Battle of Turret Wash where 27-60 Apaches were killed by US Cavalry forces. The Apache warband, renegade from the reservation, had tortured and killed some nearby ranchers, and then hung out at the creekside, thinking they were in the clear. Cavalry scouts tracked them easily, and troops surrounded them in the night, assaulted at daybreak, routing them with no US casualties.

Historian Zeke Crandall’s account of the incident summarizes the aftermath:

“The bodies of these renegades that rotted on that lonely ridge in Bloody Basin were the same ones that so cruelly killed Swaim, Taylor and McDonald and when the word spread through the territory it sent a major message to the rest of the Apache’s that they were now in a battle with an equally nasty bunch of Army soldiers that would treat them the same way they treated the whites. “


http://arizonatales.com/bloodybasin.pdf

So: Bloody Basin. And now you can casually drive your SUV through the same territory so many many died painful deaths over.

Bloody Basin Road will wind through some low, rocky hills, until it crosses the Agua Fria River near some grandfathered private ranch land. Just past that point you will hit a pull-out with a informational sign and, more importantly, a vault toilet.

On any weekend with good weather, such as the one we chose, many ATV’s will buzz around you. Bloody Basin is the main highway connecting the maze of dirt trails these things were built for.

It then winds up to the top of the mesa to cross a flat of desert grassland.

We pulled off on a side road here as an excuse to test the jeep’s 4WD. We didn’t really need it, but my son had yet to put the jeep in that mode, and it did make some patches easier. Our “primitive”  road was a straight shot across the plain, terminating just shy of a canyon dropping back towards the Agua Fria. The sign read Route 9022, but the map has it as 9202.

The high desert here has all the high desert critters, including scorpions and rattlesnakes. If you get far enough away from the ATV traffic, you might encounter deer or javelina or even desert bald eagles.

Also common across the monument are native American artifacts, ruins and petroglyphs. According to BLM:


Archaeologists call the late prehistoric people who lived on the mesas between A.D. 1250 and 1450, the Perry Mesa Tradition.  It is estimated that at least 3,000 people inhabited settlements in areas that are now visited only occasionally by ranchers, hunters and hikers. Remnants of stone pueblos, some containing more than 100 rooms, represent a system of communities with economic and social ties. Pueblo la Plata, a large settlement of 80 to 100 rooms, attracts many visitors.

One of the reasons behind the establishment of the monument was preserving these remains.

We visited none of them. We kept going south into the Tonto National Forest.

Bloody Basin Road continues into the Tonto and down to Sheep’s bridge, a narrow bridge across the Verde River built for exactly what you suppose. That last part is bumpier than most of the trail before,  and worth it even so, but we didn’t go there either.

The road Y’s near the boundary, the spot marked by a kiosk at about 22 miles from the I-17 exit. . We went right at the Y onto Forest Road 24, AKA Seven Springs Road, AKA Cave Creek Road. We had some time constraints. I wanted to be in a bar in Cave Creek before halftime of the AFC Championship game. That was part of the deal.

The other part was my filling his gas tank, and covering his bill at the bar.

FR24 bounces over and around the ridges, circumnavigating Pine Mountain wilderness, and down towards Cave Creek the creek.  Mid-way through the journey, you encounter the Seven Springs Recreation Area which features a day-use picnic area, a trailhead, and a campground all with a mile of each other, all built or at least started by the CCC back in the 1930’s.  The trailhead has a vault toilet. The campgrounds are a fee use area. The picnic grounds are not accessible by car because the road kept washing out, so they stopped building one.

I spent a lot of time here writing my hiking guide for the Tonto National Forest.

From here you follow well graded by paper-clip turns through the hills and into the lower desert,  finally reaching pavement, passing the ranger station, and hitting city limits of Carefree Arizona. Cave Creek road continues through the bars of cave Creek AZ, and across the low desert into Scottsdale and then Phoenix. It terminates at 7th Street and Dunlap, marking the center of Sunnyslope, for the geographic completists.

We didn’t go that far either. We stopped at a bar in Cave Creek, where the game went into overtime, and I had a few too many drinks as a consequence. But I wasn’t worried. My son was driving.

Exploring the abandoned Black Canyon City Dog Track

There’s an abandoned dog track in Black Canyon City north of Phoenix. Abandoned means abandoned here: while there’s nothing to stop you from exploring it, there is also nothing that says that’s OK. So if you follow my footsteps here, you do so at your own risk. Or, you can just read on and take my word for it.

BCDT from track
The main building from on the track.

 

A few years ago, I had an offer to write a book about strange things to do in and around Phoenix.  That fell apart, but before that could happen I made it out to the Black Canyon Dog Track to see how much of the rumors are true.

Again – this is a legal grey area, and if you go – YOU GO AT YOUR OWN RISK. This is an abandoned building on what is presumably private property. There are no barriers to trespass – no signs, fences or doors. Someday, some insurance firm will notice this and do something about it, but for now it’s just there.

To get there, take I-17 north from Phoenix to Coldwater Canyon (Exit 244) which is on the north end of Black Canyon City. Head west along Cold Canyon to Maggie Mine Road. The pullout on the NW corner of that intersection is as good as spot as any to park the car.

BCDT exterior OH
Wear sturdy shoes.

The site has basically four features: The main grandstands, an adjacent restaurant, the overgrown track itself, and the distant kennels. Of these the stands and the restaurant are the most interesting. The kennels are a row of empty sheds. The dog track is exactly what it looks like from the stands.

 

Wear sturdy shoes. The insides floors are covered with broken glass and exposed nails. The outside is choked with cactus. As we walk through the non-extant doors of the stands, I remind you one more time:

 

EXPLORING THIS SITE WOULD BE ENTIRELY AT YOUR OWN RISK – and this risk is not inconsiderable. Aside from the broken glass and timbers, the walls are crumbling, and full of mold. the extant counters are covered in vermin droppings, many surfaces (particularly upstairs) are unsafe to walk on. All of that in addition to the normal proviso about poisonous insects and snakes. There is no one to sue if you get hurt. And if you find someone, they are going to use the word trespassing – a lot.

BCDT interior typ.JPG
Seating might be limited.

And that’s in the daylight. This site is clearly a habitat for drunken teens and their angst, and visiting at night might add whole new layers of unwelcome excitement.

Besides leaving beer bottle and the like, the alternate visitors have decorated. Every flat, clear surface has graffitti ranging from the hatefully ignorant to the deeply artistic, to the oddly profound.

BCDT graffitti.JPG
The locals have decorated.

There is not as much trash as you would expect. Most of the debris is left from the dogtrack itself. The scattering of beer cans and paint bottles are the exception. So there’s a mystery:  Who picks up the trash?

Can you climb up on the roof and reach the “press boxes”. Yes. Should you? No. Did I? No comment.

BCDT press box.JPG
No comment.

The facility opened in 1967 and operated as a dog track until 1982, and then intermittently as a swap meet site further into the 1980’s. It has not hosted a public event since 1988.

 

Built and originally operated by the Funk Family, and later included in the Western Racing chain which operated dog tracks across several states. The business history is more legend than fact, as these businesses are not known for their transparency.

 

While the wild rumor about a mass murder at the track that you could find on Redit and other sticky places on the web is certainly fabricated, the Funk Family was closely associated with the Emerson group which operated Phoenix Greyhound Park. Both of those outfits were associated with organized crime.

BCDT track itself.JPG
Here you can follow the ghostly steps of underfed greyhounds.

Their names come up in the 1976 murder of Arizona Republic investigative reporter Don Bolles. In the vague yet convoluted fallout from that, the Funk family was obliged to divest itself of racing interests in Arizona.  Sportsystems Incorporated ran the track to its last race, but apparently, with honest accounting and changing tastes in gambling, the dog track business was not what it used to be.

BCDT restruaunt.JPG
Still better than Cracker Barrel

Thirty years and counting of disinterest have followed. And you can poke around in crumbling remains of how men once made money from shadows by getting dogs to run around a track as fast as they could. But watch your step.

Watching your step is good advice from any era.

I plan to add a video to this subject, but in the meantime, the one below is relatively recent, and really well done.