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.   

Packsaddle Mountain – up the easy way and down the hard way

On a whim, I made a right turn off of US 93 and up Big Wash Road. Signs indicated camping and hiking areas, about which I knew nothing. With some daylight left, I went north down the wide, graded dirt road to fill in that gap in knowledge. After about five miles of flat desert, the road starts to climb Packsaddle Mountain.

Packsaddle Mountain looms over Chloride, Arizona, a not-quite-ghost mining settlement northwest of Kingman AZ. The mountain is on the southern edge of the Cerbat Mountains, just southeast of the Mount Trimble Wilderness Area. 

The little post marks the wilderness boundary

The road abuts the wilderness areas for about four miles. There are no signs or formal pull-outs – you’d have to locate yourself on the map and find a place to park. But poking around wilderness areas  requires that level of self-sufficiency at a minimum. Mt Trimbul Wilderness has little water and zero services, but it does have a lot of elevation change. I had a couple of hours, not a couple of days, so I stayed on the road.

Big Wash Road, from this direction, remains wide and well-graded. You will appreciate high clearance, but you could get a passenger vehicle up as far as the trailhead (see below) with caution and nerves. You’d be hard pressed to get a trailer of any size up here. 

A campsite at Packsaddle CG.

At the top of the first good climb, about 8.7 miles in, I found Packsaddle Campground, which is marked by a vault toilet and an unlisted number of dispersed campsites. At 6000’ – the median elevation of the ridge that separated the “peaks” of Packsaddle – the site is a good 20F cooler than the desert floor below.  There is trash service here, but no water. 

There are no facilities with water until you get to Chloride – and even then, something would have to be open.

Windy Point campsite

I kept going along the ridgetop until just past the 10 mile mark, where I found the turn-off for Windy Point Campground.

Windy Point is a BLM fee area ($8/night, on the envelope and trust system). The fee, I suppose, is justified by the addition of picnic benches and fire rings, and even more spectacular views of the surrounding countryside than the campground just yonder.

Cherum Peak trail

Big Wash plows farther, past this turn-off, towards the marked trailhead for Cherum Peak trailhead, some two miles past Windy Point. The Cherum Peak Trail is three miles one way, climbing a thousand feet to the top of the peak it is named for – the highest point in the southern Cerbat Mountains. The views are reportedly rewarding. I had an hour of sunlight left, and passed on hiking it that day. 

Important: This is the turn-around if you do not have a high clearance vehicle and/or wish to have a pleasant, relaxing drive back down to pavement. 

The way down…
This was the nice part

I went forward – down the mountain on the eastern half of Big Wash “Road”. And while my Subaru Forester was up for it, she was just barely up for it, and this was downhill in the clear, dry afternoon. I would want no part of this in the dark or the rain. You will want a 4WD to go up from this direction.

Past the trailhead, the road beyond is rough, alternating from deeply rutted to a lightly graded landslide. To weave around the rocks and the ruts Ruby (the Subaru) was often obliged to make close friends with the brush crowding the side of the now narrow jeep trail. 

Friends, I took this route slow enough that bugs buzzed around my car. I spent the better part of an hour traversing a mere six miles.  The gate, and the mining ruins just beyond are just past the halfway point of the ugly part. I made it through with only a couple of sickening crunches, and only one part where I seriously feared I would tip the vehicle. 

Around the 16 mile mark, the road dumps into the wider, more civilized Mural Road, so named for the murals that cover some large rocks on the side of the road.

These are the Roy Purcel Murals – and not graffitti – but Art, and the sort of roadside attraction that Route 66 was once famous for. Roy Purcell took a break from pursuing his master’s degree in fine arts to work some nearby mines. While there, circa 1966, he painted The Journey,  this 2000 square foot wonder of color and imagery. 

My photo suffers from the setting sun putting the rocks into shade. The website above has better ones.

While you check that out, I’ll pull Ruby over and make sure she isn’t hemorrhaging vital fluids.

She neither limped nor bled, so on I went. 

Chloride was once a sprawling silver camp, and may be the oldest continuously inhabited mining settlement in the state. While it is a shell of its past, at about 350 residents, it is not a ghost town. It is not, in any way, bustling.

Mural Road dumps onto Tennessee Road – the main drag of Chloride, where I had to stop for local dogs, local people finishing their conversation in the roadway, and deer. In town limits I stopped to watch four deer cross the road. 

Tennessee Road morphs into County 125, which takes you back to US 93. 

The route I took.

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.