a conversation with the earth guidebooks + guided hiking

Posts categorized “Hiking/Trekking Arizona”.

“Hiking the Grand Canyon was Like Contracting Giardiasis: The Bug Lives On Inside Me”

Like sandpaper, the gritty details of daily life grind down our memories’ sharpest edges. How else to explain the surprise and wonder we feel when repeating a momentous event that we thought we recalled vividly?

Kath and I have backpacked in the Grand Canyon more than a half dozen times. We’ve rafted the Colorado River through the Grand.* Its been just two years since we last hiked in the Grand (North Rim to Thunder River). And still we were startled to once again peer into this great gash in the Earth.

Hiking there last week was as grand and deep an experience for us as it was the first time decades ago. Perhaps more so. Our ability to notice and appreciate detail seems to be growing. (A sign of maturity?) But it’s also the canyon itself. The more scenic wonderlands we witness, the more we marvel at this one.

Kath believes ingesting the beauty of this mile-deep canyon by hiking it, she contracted the emotional equivalent of giardiasis. The bug lives on inside her, she says. The symptoms disappear, but not forever. Eventually they recur, nagging her until she comes back for treatment: another Grand Canyon sojourn.

What neither of us can comprehend are North American hikers—particularly those living in the West, within a couple days’ drive of northern Arizona—who assume the more distant a hiking destination is, the more compelling it must be. We know such people. They’ve trekked in Ladakh, summitted Kilimanjaro, but express no interest in the Grand Canyon. Overawed by the exotic, they ignore the nearby.

Despite the noise (see our previous post regarding scenic overflights), the backpack trip we completed last week in the Grand topped any we’ve ever done—anywhere. It was a mere three days, two nights, but every step was captivating. From Hermit’s Rest, we descended the Hermit trail to the Tonto trail. The first night we pitched our tent at Monument Creek. Next day, we followed the Tonto back across Hermit Creek and continued west to our second night’s camp at Boucher Creek (pronounced Boo-SHAY). Finally we ascended the Boucher trail up and out of the canyon, back to Hermit’s Rest. (See distance and elevation details below.)

Camping at Hermit Creek is vastly more popular than camping at Monument Creek. But we find Monument a more impressive setting: a broader drainage where the canyon’s soaring walls are visible.

Most people who carry backpacks down the Hermit trail also ascend the same way. But looping back via Boucher, as we did, makes the journey a little more adventurous and a lot more scenic.

The Tonto trail, which runs much of the canyon’s length, contours along the Tonto Plateau, just above where the Colorado River—architect of the Grand Canyon—surges through the sheer-walled, inner gorge. The most exciting section of the Tonto is between Hermit and Boucher creeks, where the trail hugs the edge of the precipice, grants frequent views of the river directly below, and affords constant vistas up and down the canyon.

It’s actually surprising the National Park Service (whose concern about visitor safety is, to put it mildly, extreme) keeps this airy section of the Tonto trail open to the public. We found it thrilling, but there’s little room for a misstep. As for the Boucher trail, the NPS describes it using the words “climb” and “exposure.” They exaggerate to dissuade the inept. Much of the trail is a steep, rough route requiring strength, endurance, and confidence born of experience. But there’s no climbing required and no exposure. A few sections qualify as scrambling, but they’re easy and short. We enjoyed the Boucher trail immensely. In comparison, the broad, dusty, Bright Angel trail, which accommodates tourist-laden mules, is dull.

Ascending the Boucher trail (much easier and more fun than descending it), the way forward is not always obvious, which makes it intriguing. The terrain changes rapidly and abruptly, from constricted gullies, to broad benches, to narrow ledges on nearly-vertical walls. Ultimately the trail provides a startling, aerial perspective of the Hermit Creek drainage and much of the trail we hiked on days one and two.

An adrenaline rush at a walker’s pace? Yes. Certainly in the Grand Canyon. Definitely on the Boucher trail. The misconception that “hiking is boring” is perpetuated by the lazy and incurious who’ve waddled into a soporific forest, seen nothing of note, and haven’t ventured beyond pavement since. Granted, some trails are boring. And some hikers are bored even amid stimulating scenery, so they either zone out or chat nonstop with companions. But the Boucher trail has the power to grab most hikers by their sternum straps, bringing their distracted minds to heel in the here and now.

Hikers who reside in Canada and the northern U.S. will appreciate that the optimal time to backpack in the Grand Canyon is late fall / early winter (November) and spring (March through mid-April), when the weather at home is no longer, or not yet, conducive to hiking. Last week, the nights were chilly (near freezing) on the 6900-ft (2104-m) canyon rim. But the daytime highs ranged between 70° and 80° F in the canyon at 3000 ft (915 m). It was even warmer, of course, on the canyon’s 2300-ft (701-m) floor, near the river. Perfect for hikers. By late spring (May), it’s too hot for most of us to comfortably backpack in the Grand Canyon.

A cautionary tale…  Two years ago, while we were backpacking off the Grand Canyon’s North Rim en route to Thunder River, I (Craig) stupidly ignored my own symptoms and succumbed to heat exhaustion. By doing so, I ruined our trip and risked my life. It was mid-May. The temperature was 100° F at 6 p.m. on the slickrock Esplanade within the canyon.

By 7 p.m. we’d completed about three-quarters of the 4800-ft (1463-m) descent. Suddenly, nausea and dizziness forced me to slow, stop, sit. Minutes before, I’d been hiking briskly. Now I was prostrate on the trail, vomiting. What motivated me to continue, and what saved my life, was that we were within 30 minutes of where the Thunder River originates, blasting out of the canyon wall.

I staggered and stumbled the final distance. Kath pitched our tent on a ledge beside the torrent. She doused me with frigid water late into the night. The vomiting continued till morning. I spent the next day alternately dozing in the shade and shivering beneath a small cascade, letting the icy water lower my core temperature. I ate nothing, because I couldn’t, but I sipped electrolyte-rich Emergen-C.

Though I was terribly weak, we knew I’d soon be too weak to hike out, so we packed and began slowly ascending at 7 p.m. We continued into the dark. We made it to the Esplanade at 10:30 p.m. By then I could nibble on a PowerBar.

That night, our second in the canyon, was gorgeous—clear and still—but difficult to appreciate. I seemed to be recovering but now Kath was feeling weak. She vomited. We were both unnerved knowing this was a medical emergency and our self rescue required another day’s effort we were unsure either of us could muster.

We packed and were hiking before our enemy, the sun, pounced on us again. The water we’d cached on the way down was now more vital than we’d imagined possible. What we didn’t drink we poured over our heads and down our backs. We ascended at a plodding pace unfamiliar to us. For me, it was “the march of repentance.”

Upon arriving at our car on the North Rim, we were exhausted, grateful, wiser. We’d written about heat exhaustion, warning others to avoid it, but now we fully understood how stealthy and overwhelming it can be. Kath—who never sleeps while I drive because she’s constantly studying maps and guidebooks—slept for most of the six-hour drive to my parents’ home in Scottsdale, Arizona. I continued feeling strangely, deeply fatigued for several days, which suggests I’d been dangerously close to heat stroke.

So this year, we hiked into the Grand Canyon much earlier: the end of March. It was ideal timing. True, the upper reaches of the South-Rim trails can still be snow-covered in March (requiring hikers to use traction devices on their boots for the initial descent), but the Hermit and Boucher trails gave us a snow-free welcome.

Spring hiking in the Grand Canyon is not only more comfortable and safer, it’s the optimal time to appreciate the desert’s botanical diversity, which far outstrips that of mountain environs. From a distance, a green hue washes across the Tonto Plateau. Leafy, blossoming trees give the drainages an oasis appearance. Flowers—purple, lavender, white, yellow, red—add bursts of vivid colour to the infinite canyon-rock palette of reds, browns, oranges, mauves, tans, mustards, maroons…

Many trails plunge below the Grand Canyon’s soaring-beyond-comprehension cliffs. We’ve hiked most of them: Bright Angel (from the North and South rims), South Kaibab, Hermit, Tonto West, Tonto East, Boucher, Grandview, and Tanner. We’ve also hiked into Havasupai Canyon—a tributary of the Grand, far to the west. All are marvelous, inducing a constant “how can this be?” state of mind. Yet some are even more engaging than others. Here are our recommendations:

Backpack Trips

(1) From Hermit’s Rest, at 6650 ft (2027 m) on the South Rim, descend the Hermit trail. Intersect the Tonto trail and follow it around to Monument Creek. Next day, retrace your steps on the Tonto, then continue past Hermit Creek and along the Tonto Plateau to Boucher Creek. On day three, hike the Boucher trail back up to Hermit’s Rest. Circuit: 26.7 mi (43 km). Descent and ascent: 4500 ft (1372 m).

(2) From Monument Point, at 7200 ft (2196 m) on the North Rim (west of Jacob’s Lake), descend to the Esplanade. Cross it, then continue down to Thunder River. Camp in Upper Tapeats Gorge, at 2400 ft (732 m). Return the same way. Round trip: 18.4-mi (29.6-km). Descent and ascent: 4800 ft (1464 m). From camp, it’s 2.2 mi (3.5 km) farther to the Colorado River at 1950 ft (595 m).


(1) From Grandview Point, at 7399 ft (2256 m) on the South Rim, descend the Grandview trail to Horseshoe Mesa. Continue to the end of the mesa’s left (west) arm, at 4923 ft (1501 m). Return the same way. Round trip: 8.4 mi (13.5 km). Descent and ascent: 2476 ft (755 m).

(2) From the South Rim, at 7240 ft (2207 m), descend the South Kaibab trail to the Tonto trail. Go west, contouring to intersect the Bright Angel trail near Indian Gardens. Ascend the Bright Angel to the rim at 6860 ft (2091 m). Ride the Park shuttle bus between trailheads. One-way trip: 13.6 mi (22 km). Descent: 3440 ft (1049 m). Ascent: 3060 ft (933 m).

(3) From Hermit’s Rest, at 6650 ft (2027 m) on the South Rim, descend the Hermit trail. Turn west onto the Dripping Springs trail, then hike the Boucher trail generally north to 5429 ft (1655 m) on Yuma Point. Round trip: 8.2 mi (13.2 km). Descent and ascent: 1579 ft (481 m).

(4) From Hopi Point, at 6095 ft (1858 m) on the South Rim, hike the Rim trail generally west, past Mohave Point and The Abyss, to Monument Creek Vista. Ride the Park shuttle bus between trailheads. One-way trip: 2.8 mi (4.5 km). Elevation change: negligible.

Visit the national park website (www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/overnight-hiking.htm) to read more about the trails, view a map showing backcountry campsites and trail distances, and download a backcountry-permit request.

If you intend to camp on the canyon rim before or after your backpack trip, stay in Mather Point Campground. Generators are prohibited on the Pine Loop, so campsites there are quieter. Reserving a site is necessary in summer but not during spring or fall.

*Rafting the Colorado River is a thrilling adventure. Kath has done it three times, Craig once. We urge you to do it, too. Sure, it’s expensive. It’s also priceless. If you’re a hiker, choose a company offering a trip catering to hikers. It will afford numerous opportunities for two- to four-hour dayhikes into fascinating, tributary canyons that you’d never otherwise see.

Join us—in person, or in print:

Winter Camping and Hiking in Arizona’s Lower, Right-Hand Corner

Greetings from southeast Arizona—land of furtive, illegal immigrants, brazen drug smugglers, grotty taco shops, sad, sun-beaten towns, swarming U.S. Border Guards, stealthy free-campers, and sky-island mountain ranges where the winter hiking is superb.


Since leaving Catalina State Park, just north of Tucson, we’ve yet to find a campground where we could settle in for a week or more. Catalina is close to numerous trailheads as well as a wealth of urban amenities. It lofted our expectations too high.

For nearly a week after departing Catalina State Park, we free-camped. In good conscience we cannot tell you precisely where. We don’t want to anger permanent residents and land-management officials by initiating a steady stream of free-campers to any one location. We mention this only to encourage you to sniff out your own free campsites.

If you’re patient, savvy and discrete, you can find places surprisingly close to Tucson where you can sleep—free of charge—in your van, trailer or camper, and where you can comfortably remain all day without anyone taking notice of you—as long as it appears you’re simply parking. In other words, don’t deploy your folding table and chairs, fling your frisbee, fire up the barbecue, and act like you’re entitled to camp there.

The free campsites we found were quiet and beautiful. At both, we worked for a couple consecutive days on our book projects—jamming away on our computers, which are powered by the solar panel atop our trailer. And at both sites we were surrounded by saguaro cacti and enjoyed an expansive desert view.

Since our last free camp, we’ve stayed at three campgrounds:

We winced when we arrived in Benson. Actually we left immediately, drove to nearby Kartchner Caverns State Park, balked at the $25-per-night fee, shivered due to the higher elevation, then winced again upon re-entering Benson thinking “We can stand this for a couple nights.”

Hundreds of northerners beach themselves and their behemoth RVs in this depressing town every winter. Benson is crowded with “RV resorts.” The one we chose was small, cheap, cheerful. Others are sprawling and—to our astonishment—nearly full.

Why all these seniors choose Benson, we have no idea. Perhaps because it’s as sunny as other Arizona towns yet less expensive? Or is it the recently renovated Safeway that stocks Villa Dolce Gelato and hormone-and-antibiotic-free bison meat?

We stayed in Benson only because it’s central to some of the trails on our must-hike list. Yet our fellow Bensonites were obviously not hikers. And Benson itself is utterly nondescript. It was originally settled because of its proximity to several mines. The town is still staggering (forward?) because it’s beside a major railway and highway, and because all those seniors now moor themselves and their land yachts there.

From what we’ve observed, most RVing seniors who decamp to Arizona for the winter are absolutely satisfied if they have (1) reliable TV reception to keep them sedated during the chilly nights, and (2) lots of other RVing seniors to yak with while lounging during the perpetually sunny, toasty days. You could yak your life away in Benson. Many people are doing precisely that.

Cochise Stronghold
Hunkered into the east side of the Dragoon Mountains, the Forest Service campground at Cochise Stronghold is perfect. It’s small, embraced by the topography, beneath a canopy of trees, far from the lights and sounds of civilization. We wanted to stay several nights. But there’s only one trail there, and we recommend only a 6-mi (9.7-km) round-trip hike. As a basecamp for hiking elsewhere in the region, Cochise Stronghold is awkwardly located. Ambitious hikers will probably camp only one or two nights there, then regretfully leave.

Bonita Canyon
Chiricahua National Monument is astounding, for its bizarre natural features and for how accommodating it is to visitors—motorists, yes, but hikers even more so—thanks to the masterful work of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Bonita Canyon campground, built by the CCC, is similar to Cochise Stronghold campground but slightly larger and a bit more comfortable (heated toilet blocks with flush toilets, for example, instead of unheated pit toilets). Entering the forested Chiricahuas after driving across the barren desert seems a miracle. Avid hikers will, if they slow their pace, enjoy three days of hiking in the Chiricahuas, so we suggest camping three or four nights at Bonita Canyon. The atmosphere at Bonita is so soothing that even non-hikers agree it’s a camping haven. As a base for hiking elsewhere in the region, however, Bonita Canyon is much like Cochise Stronghold: inconvenient.

Where Not to Hike
Being opinionated hikers, we occasionally warn our fellow hikers away from certain trails. Here in southeast Arizona, however, the U.S. Border Patrol has warned us away from certain trails, including some we’d been keen to hike. The reason? Though illegal immigration declined along with the U.S. economy, the percentage of illegals smuggling drugs has increased. Drug runners are desperate, therefore dangerous. Many are armed. Meeting an armed, Mexican, drug runner in backcountry Arizona is, to our minds, a more threatening prospect than crossing paths with a grizzly bear in the Canadian Rockies.

While returning to Benson from one of our hikes, we stopped at the Chipotle Mexican Grill in Sierra Vista. Several border guards were eating there. When they left, I followed them out and asked if they’d mind a few questions about hiking trails. They were glad to help but began by querying me.

“Do you carry a gun when you hike?” one of them asked. “No,” I said. “You probably should,” he responded. Our conversation was off to an alarming start.

Here are the trails they said we should avoid—even on a dayhike—because they’re frequented by Mexicans illegally entering the U.S. on foot:

Sycamore Canyon
The canyon actually crosses the border, not far from Nogales, which makes it a virtual highway for illegal immigration.

Atascosa Lookout
“One of our agents was shot and killed there,” one of the border guards said.

Joes Canyon
Another natural funnel for Mexicans seeking illegal entry to the U.S.

Chiricahua Peak
Judging by the map, it’s an invitingly gradual hike along a mountain crest. According to the Border Patrol, it’s equally inviting to illegal immigrants.

Miller Peak Wilderness Area
The border guards told us not to backpack there. They thought dayhiking was reasonably safe but said we should be out and gone by evening.

“I’ve been in those mountains at night,” said one of the guards, “and you can hear illegals all around you. The forest just comes alive after dark. They hole up during the day and move on after sunset.”

I wanted to ask why they thought we could safely dayhike there, but I’d already detained them too long. Besides, the Miller Peak area is where Kath and I had hiked all day prior to meeting the border guards that evening.

No doubt there are several other hiking trails in southern Arizona that are unsafe. Ask before you hike. Our experience is that the Border Patrol is the only source of accurate information. We visited a Forest Service office where we were told, “Oh, you should be fine hiking in Joes Canyon. I haven’t heard of any problems down there.” Then we met the border guards who adamantly said “Stay away.”

Southern Arizona is swarming with border guards, so you’ll likely encounter one in circumstances where you can ask for information.

Where to Hike
In addition to the southern Arizona trails we previously blogged about, here are several more we enthusiastically recommend. The Border Patrol told us we could hike them without concern, and our experience corroborates that.

Wasson Peak
West Unit of Saguaro National Park
8-mi (12.9-km) round trip
1837-ft (560-m) ascent
A mildly engaging approach to a summit that affords a startling view of Tucson, the Santa Catalina Mountains, Picacho Peak, Avra Valley, the Central Arizona Project Canal, the Tucson Mountains, Kitt Peak, Mt. Wrightson, and much more.

Tanque Verde Ridge
East Unit of Saguaro National Park
14-mi (22.5-km) round trip
2900-ft (884-m) ascent
Though the trail climbs over Tanque Verde Peak and continues into the Saguaro Wilderness, we suggest turning around shortly before Juniper Basin, which is at 7 mi (11.3 km). You’ll follow an airy ridgecrest the entire way. Views are constant—of sprawling Tucson and sprawling Mt. Lemmon.

Cochise Trail
Cochise Stronghold, Dragoon Mountains
6-mi (9.7-km) round trip
1100-ft (914-m) ascent
Enter a hidden world of salmon-tinted granite stones leaning in to one another: huddling, whispering, consulting, strategizing. This is the stronghold from which Cochise and his warriors battled the invading U.S. Army for a dozen years.

Ramsey Canyon / Huachuca Crest
Huachuca Mountains, Miller Peak Wilderness,
14-mi (22.5-km) circuit
3000-ft (914-m) ascent
Exotic birds, thus birders as well, annually flock to Ramsey Canyon. But few birders wander far up-canyon beyond the visitor center. On this ambitious circuit you’ll go all the way to and along the crest of the Huachucas, where the westward view is vast.

Chiricahua National Monument
Chiricahua Mountains, Chiricahua Wilderness
round trips, one-way hikes and circuits of varying lengths
elevations ranging from 6870 ft (2094 m) at Massai Point to 5400-ft (1646-m) at the Visitor Center
Truth is stranger than fiction. And the stone-hard reality of the Chiricahuas is stranger yet. Here you’ll see naturally-created statuary in an infinite variety of complex shapes. Equally fantastic is the trail network leading you into and among the rocks. The Civilian Conservation Corps built it in 1934. It still serves today. The engineering is brilliant. The craftsmanship superb. We marveled as much at the trail work as we did at the natural formations.

Rincon Peak
Rincon Mountains, East Unit of Saguaro National Park
16.4-mi (26.4-km) round trip
4242-ft (1293-m) ascent
The trail climbs through a chaos of gorgeous, granite boulders: cream and rose. It pierces a forest of God-like ponderosa pines, alligator junipers, and Douglas firs. Then it gradually ascends a mountain so high (8482 ft / 2585 m) and isolated (rising abruptly from the desert) it grants a commanding view of every major mountain range in southeast Arizona. The night after we summited, I dreamt—for the first time in my life—of piloting an airplane.

Join us—in person, or in print:

Don’t Waste Your Time in Winter: Hike Southern Arizona

The intent of our website posts are to inspire you to hike and camp by providing you with specific, practical suggestions based on our ventures, many of which are beyond the scope of our guidebooks.

This winter, we migrated south to Arizona, where we’re camping near Tucson, beneath the Santa Catalina Mountains. When not working, we’re hiking. Even in mid-January—the heart of winter—the weather is sufficiently warm in southern Arizona that we can stride all day in T-shirts and shorts.

So far, we can strongly recommend several hikes in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness:

• a 17-mi (27.4-km) round trip gaining 3200 ft (975 m) to Romero Pass via the Romero Pools in Romero Canyon

• a 10-mi (16.1-km) round trip gaining 4000 ft (1219) to Mt. Kimball via Five Finger Canyon

• an 18-mi (30-km) loop gaining 1600 ft (488 m) up Sabino Canyon to Hutch’s Pool, then returning through Bear Canyon past the Seven Pools

• the 6-mi (9.7-km) Phoneline trail gaining only 600 ft (183 m) while traversing the east wall of Sabino Canyon between the visitor center and the final tram stop (end of paved road)

And—presuming you’re a camper, not a hotel softie—we can say with certainty that the ideal place to base yourself here is Catalina State Park, in Oro Valley, just off Oracle Road. It’s big, well organized, not overly refined thus reasonably priced, and located at the mouth of Romero Canyon, where a trail network begins at the campsites.

Catalina State Park is also a short drive from a dizzying array of shops and restaurants, which to us seems bizarre but is, we confess, convenient and enjoyable. Whole Foods Market, and Sprouts Farmers Market, Trader Joe’s, all of which are natural-foods grocery stores, are nearby.

Mexican food, our favourite cuisine, is ubiquitous, excellent, and temptingly affordable. After a big day hiking the Catalinas, we beeline-it to a unique Mexican grill called Chipotle (www.chipotle.com), or to a contemporary tacqueria called Rubio’s (www.rubios.com). Winter hiking can be such a hot, sweaty activity here, we’ve even patronized Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt.

You’re a fellow Canadian? We urge you to consider a mid-winter vacation to this exotic land of saguaro cacti. It’s dreamy this time of year. Hiking opportunities are abundant and superb.

Join us—in person, or in print:

Winter Is Optional: Hiking Arizona’s Superstition Mountains

In the Canadian Rockies, winter is a malicious brute. And here he is again, barging back into our lives, obviously intending to stay a while and rough everybody up. For the next week, the forecasted high temperatures in Canmore and Banff are approximately -20°C. The lows will plunge to -30°C.

Even if winter isn’t quite so brutal where you live, we urge you to run for it. Because it’s surprisingly easy to escape. You don’t have to go far to find sunny skies, warm temperatures, and an abundance of hiking trails accessing exotic, spectacular wilderness.

Our recommended destination for winter hiking: Arizona’s Superstition Mountains, a mere 45-minute drive east of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. If you’re a keen hiker, the Superstitions are worth a two-week vacation.

“The Supes,” as we call them, comprise 160,000 acres (646 square km) of snow-free, desert mountains and canyons. Summers there are too hot to safely enjoy hiking. But late October through April, the days remain warm enough that you can often comfortably stride in shorts. We’ve backpacked in the Supes in January, when daytime temperatures averaged 21°C. After twilight, however, heat always dissipates rapidly in arid lands, so be prepared for freezing nights.

From Calgary or Vancouver, Westjet and US Air fly to Phoenix. Round-trip fares start at about $350. Within the States, US Air offers inexpensive fares to Phoenix. Renting a car at Sky Harbor might cost as little as $20 per day.

If you arrive in Phoenix in the morning, that afternoon you can begin sampling the Supe’s extensive trail network. You’ll hear the satisfying sound of gravel crunching beneath your boots. You’ll be surrounded by bizarre cacti: writhing ocotillo and statuesque saguaros. You’ll see monolithic cliffs, sharp pinnacles, plunging, boulder-strewn ravines. Tilt your head back, and you’ll likely be staring into a brilliant, blue sky. Not only will you see the sun, you’ll feel it massaging the muscles that just hours ago you’d held taut against the onslaught of winter. Only on weekends, on certain trails, might you encounter many Phoenicians. Tranquility reigns in the Supes.

Trails Illustrated Map 851 “Tonto NF Superstition and Four Peaks Wilderness Areas” is adequate for dayhiking. If backpacking, get the USGS 1:25 000 topos so you can pinpoint springs, which will be your only water sources.

These are our favorite hikes in the Supes:

Siphon Draw
Drive the Superstition Freeway, then Hwy 60, east to Apache Junction. Turn left (north) off Hwy 60 onto Idaho Road. Set your trip odometer to 0. In 0.6 mi (1 km) turn right onto Hwy 88. At 6.2 mi (10 km) turn right into Lost Dutchman State Park, at 2080 ft (634 m). This is a very appealing campground.

The trail leads to the mouth of Siphon Draw, where a steep route ascends 2470 ft (753 m), culminating at 4550 ft (1387 m) just below the summit of Flatiron where you’ll enjoy a vast, aerial panorama. Time it right, and you’ll see the sparkling lights of Phoenix on the western horizon while you descend.

LaBarge Creek / Boulder Canyon
Drive the Superstition Freeway, then Hwy 60, east to Apache Junction. Turn left (north) off Hwy 60 onto Idaho Road. Set your trip odometer to 0. In 0.6 mi (1 km) turn right onto beautiful, winding Hwy 88, known as the Apache Trail. Drive northeast 14.5 mi (23.3 km) to Canyon Lake. Park at the marina, then return to the trailhead opposite the marina entrance. The trail initially climbs above an arm of the lake, then enters a dramatic desertscape. Most people will want to return the same way rather than loop back northwest through boulder-strewn LaBarge Creek Canyon.

The trail climbs above La Barge Creek 1 mi (1.6 km) to a ridgecrest, then descends into LaBarge Creek drainage at 2.5 mi (4 km). Turn around anywhere along here for a fulfilling, half-day hike.

Strong hikers who examine the map will see they can continue south to 7 mi (11.3 km) where Trail 104 splits into east and west forks. Go right (west) briefly, then right (northwest) on Trail 241 to pass beneath Black Mesa. Loop right (northeast) on Trail 236 back to Battleship Mountain at 13 mi (21 km). Then rejoin the Boulder Canyon trail and you’re on familiar ground for the final 3.5 mi (5.6 km). Total circuit distance: 16.5 mi (26.6 km).

Fremont Saddle

From Idaho Road in Apache Junction, continue east 8.5 mi (13.7 km) on Hwy 60. Pass King Estates. Turn left (north) at the sign for Peralta Trailhead. Follow FS Road 77 (unpaved but graded) north 8 mi (13 km) to the trailhead at 2400 ft (732 m). This popular trail leads 2.5 mi (4 km) to 3766-ft (1150-m) Fremont Saddle and a startling view of the Supes’ most famous sight: Weaver’s Needle. Elevation gain to the saddle: 1440 ft (439 m).

Swift, eager hikers will continue, descending the far side of the saddle, proceeding northwest of the Needle to a junction at 5.5 mi (9 km). Go right (south, then southeast) beneath Black Top Mesa. At the 6.5-mi (10.5-km) junction, go right (south) on Trail 234 to 3410-ft (1040-m) Bluff Saddle. Bear right on Trail 235 in Barks Canyon to return to Peralta Trailhead. Total loop distance: 11.5 mi (18.5 km). Map: USGS Weavers Needle.

West Boulder Canyon to Siphon Draw via Superstition Crest
This 8- to 9- hour, one-way traverse is for athletic hikers who are competent, cross-country navigators and have either a second vehicle or a willing shuttle slave. The USGS topo maps Goldfield and Weavers Needle are required equipment for this long, highly scenic route linking the east end of the crest with Siphon Draw in the west. The distance, a mere 12 mi (19 km), sounds relatively easy but isn’t. Though the route is distinct the entire way, the terrain is rough, going astray is a constant possibility, significant ups and downs are frequent, and the elevation gain and loss totals about 5000 ft (1524 m).

In winter, it’s essential that you start hiking by 8 a.m. because the sun will set at approximately 5:30 p.m. If you think you’ll be too pressed by the limited daylight, consider hiking out and back. Start at the east-side trailhead and go only as far as the cluster of pinnacles on the ridge near 4300 ft (1311 m). Well before reaching the pinnacles, you’ll attain an impressive view of Weaver’s Needle. The ridge climaxes at 5057 ft (1541 m).

To reach the West Boulder Canyon trailhead, follow the above directions for Peralta Trailhead. About 1.2 mi (2 km) shy of Peralta, just before the road dips into a wash, park in the unsigned but obvious trailhead on the left.

Begin hiking the rocky road (chained to block vehicles) north-northeast. Ahead you’ll see two drainages. Your trail will ascend the one on the right. Soon reach a fence where you’ll pass through a hiker’s maze. About 1.5 hours from the trailhead, surmount a pass. Bear left here. The trail contours briefly. Do not descend right into West Boulder Canyon. Further directions should not be necessary if you have a compass, the topo maps, and the requisite experience.

Tortilla Flats / Upper LaBarge Box / Peters Mesa
For a superb two- or three-day backpack trip, drive Hwy 88 to Canyon Lake marina (described above for LaBarge Creek / Boulder Canyon). Set your trip odometer to 0. Continue past the tourist hamlet of Tortilla Flats. At 8.6 mi (13.8 km), immediately after milepost 221, reach Tortilla Flats trailhead on the right.

Ascend FS Road 213—a rough, 4WD route best traveled on foot. Gain 350 ft (107 m) to a pass.  Follow the road southeast, descending 200 ft (61 m) to the wilderness boundary at 3.2 mi (5.2 km). You’ll pass a windmill and watering hole. Hike the JF Trail 0.75 mi (1.3 km) southeast on a rocky hill to a junction. Turn right onto Hoolie Bacon Trail 111.

At 8.5 mi (13.7 km) reach the east side of Upper La Barge Box and possible campsites. Exit the west side of the Box at 10.25 mi (16.5 km). At the junction with Whiskey Spring Canyon, go right (northwest) toward Music Canyon. Another good campsite is at 13.5 mi (21.7 km), near Charlebois Spring. Go right on Trail 105 over Peters Mesa, then generally northeast via Kane Spring to Tortilla Flats trailhead. Total loop distance: 20.5 mi (33 km).

Further Information

There are several guidebooks on the Superstitions. None is exceptional. All will suffice. In addition to describing the trails, they explain the intriguing legend of the Lost Dutchman Mine. Supposedly, enough gold to finance a life of luxury awaits you at the tip of the Weaver’s Needle shadow. Precisely where the gold is buried along the arc of the shadow is the question that remains unanswered.

Join us—in person, or in print:


Hiking and camping in the wilderness can be dangerous. Experience and preparation reduce risk but will never eliminate it.

Information published in a book or on a website—regardless how authoritative—is not a substitute for common sense or sound judgment. Your safety is your responsibility. The unique details of your specific situation and the decisions you make at that time will determine the outcome.

When hiking, threats to your wellbeing are unpredictable; you must always be aware. In the backcountry, risk is subjective; you must gauge it for yourself. Away from civilization, small mistakes can have severe consequences; you must vigilantly prevent injury and avoid becoming disoriented.

Never hike alone. Before setting out, check the weather forecast and current trail conditions; adjust your plans accordingly. Always carry a map and compass, a first-aid kit, extra clothing, a personal locator beacon, plus enough food and water to survive an emergency.

If you doubt your ability to negotiate rough terrain, respond to wild animals, or handle sudden, extreme weather changes, hike only in a group led by a competent, licensed guide.

The authors and the publisher disclaim liability for any loss or injury incurred by anyone using information published on this website or in the books presented on this website.