WATER: Scarcity and Over Abundance
in the Superstition Wilderness
Nano warned me to stay out of the Superstitions.
As we traveled along Highway 60 towards Miami, she pointed out the red-walled mountains along our route. Having lived 50 years in this small Arizona mining burg, my grandmother was well-informed on local legends.
“They say 100 men have died there,” Nano intoned. “Some were killed by renegade Indians or poisoned by alkaline springs. Some disappeared and never returned.”
I could hardly wait to visit.
Now 50 years and multiple visits later, I realized I could be the very next victim of the Superstitions. We had just committed the ultimate desert hiking blunder: arriving at camp short of water, assuming a spring would be running. It was dry.
We had arrived late in the day at Angel Basin, a favored campsite on many blogs/websites four miles down Rogers Canyon from the Rogers Trough Trailhead and about 30 miles into our loop trip through the Superstition Wilderness.
Using GPS, David led us on a brushy hike up Angel Canyon to locate the spring. Dry! I ranged up Rogers Canyon half a mile in the dimming light of a December evening while David went down stream. Many campsites but not a single pool. Crisscrossing the rocky, sandy canyon, the trail was too rough to hike in the dark. I met David where we had dropped our packs. “We’ll have to dry camp tonight and head down canyon,” he said. “I hope one of the several springs shown on the map is running.” Between us, we had about 1.5 liters of water.
Water has defined most of our winter Superstition visits over the decades; often too much. From various places we’ve lived ̶̶ ̶̶ Oregon, Utah, Colorado, Indiana, Washington, DC ̶̶ ̶̶ we’ve returned to the Southwest for Christmas family visits, often ending with a trip to the Superstitions. December can be rainy in Arizona. Many of our 11 backpacking trips were accented by lush green grass and deep pools in the canyons, product of the winter rains.
Twice we were rained out.
Our first visit in 1979, we hiked over Peter’s Mesa to avoid rising waters in the usually dry LaBarge Wash but found a raging torrent in Tortilla Wash, fed by two solid days of rain. We skirted the wash on a sideslope, hiked Tortilla ranch road out to Highway 188, followed road and a powerline shortcut route to Tortilla Flat, removed boots to cross deep water where the wash crosses the highway, then hiked switchbacks to our vehicle parked at Canyon Lake Marina.
One December morning in 1992 we only made it three miles in. We had not taken the thickening cirrus clouds seriously the night before and pitched our tent in a soft sandy depression near a riparian area in lower LaBarge. We awoke the next morning in bloated sleeping bags with water seeping into our bags from the tent floor. Rain had started about midnight and continued. We hiked out the Boulder Canyon Trail burdened with heavy, wet packs, bags and clothes but treated to incredible waterfalls and flowing side canyons on the normally bone dry hike along ridges above LaBarge. Driving to Apache Junction, we dried everything out in big laundromat dryers and spent the night in a motel. The storm cleared off the next day so we tried a day hike from First Water trailhead, fording running washes as we picked our way through the area. A couple backpacking out told us they were stranded all night camped on an island between two flooded washes after deciding not to cross second wash after narrowly escaping disaster on their first crossing. When the waters subsided, they hiked out.
One of the oldest and largest desert wilderness areas, the Superstitions were made a primitive area in 1937 and designated in the original Wilderness Act of 1964. They now encompass 160,236 acres of red rock desert, canyons, and piney mountains on the Tonto National Forest east of Phoenix. Elevations range from 2000 to greater than 6000 feet. Used lightly by early cliff dwellers and Apaches, the Superstitions were used by miners and later cattle ranchers providing beef for miners in the late 1800s throughout the 20th century. Many trails and springs are named for early settlers or cattlemen. The Dutchman Trail was inspired by German immigrant, Joseph Waltz, who claimed to have found gold in the rugged mountains. Searching for his Lost Dutchman’s Mine is a favored pastime; there are many books and maps on the subject. The Superstition Mountain Museum in the town of Apache Trail at the foot of the Superstition mountains ( http://superstitionmountainmuseum.org/ ) is a great source for books, artifacts and stories.
Other than floods, we found few perils during hikes in the late 70s and 1980s. The extensive trail system allowed big loops from the canyons of LaBarge and Boulder up into piney areas of Reavis Ranch (a farm along Reavis Creek whose owner grew and sold vegetables) and across Coffee Flat to Miners and Weavers Needles. We met large backpacking groups along the popular Dutchman’s Trail. Abundant canyon pools, riparian areas and large mesquite shaded areas were heavily overused by cattle. In fact, our first trip into upper Boulder Canyon was more or less a cattle drive through a maze of trails.
Many changes by late 1990s and new millennium included few hikers on long treks, but multiple day hikers and weekend campers near popular trailheads of Peralta and First Water closest to Mesa and Phoenix. Vandalism plagued trailheads on our 1980s visits. We once switched a planned trip entrance from Tortilla Ranch Trailhead while loading up our packs when we observed a vehicle with particularly “clear windows” that had been neatly shattered. For many years we only parked at Canyon Lake Resort and hiked up Boulder Canyon Trail #103 as our main access route. (The resort, a boating concessionaire with Tonto National Forest, offers free overnight parking in a gated area for wilderness users.)
Over time, the huge network of Superstitions trails became less pleasant hiking cloaked with more thorny desert scrub. On the positive, we saw fewer cattle. On the negative, weekend overnight use showed a poor land ethic; with heavily overused campsites and often, piles of toilet paper or worse.
Our 11th visit in December, 2016 was one of the driest of winter trips. We planned a 9-day loop up Boulder Canyon, LaBarge, Peter’s Mesa, Tortilla, Rogers Canyon, Reavis, Red Tanks, LaBarge Box and ending on popular trails near Peralta Trailhead to our favorite camp below Weaver’s Needle, a prominent red soaring tower visible throughout the area.
For our first few days, we were joined by my cousin, a former Phoenix veterinarian and avid hiker. He arranged his schedule for Thursdays off. In the spring, he would watch Maricopa rainfall totals, “and when they got to 3 inches I would head to the Superstitions.”
My cousin thought this was the driest year he had seen. On a Sunday afternoon, we hiked up Boulder Canyon and camped near the junction with Second Water Trail. There were pools up Second Water Canyon. The second short day took us up Boulder, Calvary and Dutchman trails to Charlebois canyon where we found big pools. While the guys pumped water and made camp above LaBarge, I hiked to the next junction. Pushing through trees and brush in LaBarge wash, I found small pools where Oak and LaBarge springs showed on the map. On the return trip, high on the hillside, I saw a huge pool in LaBarge near a junction with Music Canyon. So far, so good.
The next day we wore ourselves out hiking the steep, rugged but well-cairned and brushed Peter’s Mesa trail. (Thanks to outreach efforts of the Mesa Ranger District, volunteers now adopt/ brush and put rock cairns on many old trails, although heavy trailwork is rare). After a nasty descent off the mesa, we found pools at Kane Spring above Tortilla Wash. We had hoped to camp at Clover Spring, a few miles above Tortilla, where water was uncertain, so we filled up at Kane. But after the descent and multiple crossings of sandy Tortilla Wash, it was near sunset by the time we got to an old tank and a depleted windmill ̶̶ ̶̶ all that remains of the Tortilla Ranch. We hiked another mile up JF Ranch Trail and made a dry camp at the Hoolie Bacon junction. A grand choice for wonderful sunset and full moon rise but far short of Clover.
The next morning my cousin hiked out to his vehicle we had left along the Tortilla Road on Sunday hidden from view up the 4-wheel drive road just in case any vandals still frequented the main road.As it turns out, he missed the adventure.
The JF trail climbed steadily a few miles, then crossed the nice basin around Clover Spring. Even a few pools off-trail. But we had ample water for the day and kept walking. Bad move.
The hike to Tortilla saddle was circuitous, rough, with lots of ups and down. At 3 p.m. we had lunch at the Tortilla Pass junction where JF trail drops down. We continued over a small pass and then on a long descent to Angel Basin. A much-improved new trail added long gentle switchbacks but also extra mileage and time. It was about an hour before dark when we got to the basin. Camp time.
After our vain search for water, we set up the tent. We each ate a power bar and took a swallow of water, and went to bed. Next morning we got up at daylight, packed and hurried down the trail, breakfasting on power bars and sips of water. The map showed five springs enroute to Reavis Ranch where Reavis Creek is usually running. But we were not sure of anything except Reavis Creek by evening. The climb out of Rogers would be hot and dry.
The first hour was discouraging. David kept dropping off the trail into the canyon to search for water. Nothing at the first spring. Then he found a small pothole full of water; with careful effort we pumped just over a liter of water. Well, we would make it for the day! About two miles down the canyon, David spotted a pool or mirage from trail and brief trek back up the wash from trail crossing found a beautiful deep water hole appropriately named “Hole Spring.” Our brief brush with mortality was over! I enjoyed cooked breakfast and bath afterwards.
Hole Spring in lower Rogers Canyon ended our 18-hour water shortage.
All the other springs appeared dry on the climb up to Reavis Saddle ̶̶ ̶̶ Frog Tank, Cimeron and Plow Saddle ̶̶ ̶̶ although we did not look for all for possible pools. We found nice pools on Reavis Creek and made camp among large juniper, live oak, sycamore and possibly Arizona cypress.
That night, a storm moved in.
We broke camp in rain, hiked along Reavis Valley in rain gear with with periodic showers, then spent a cold cloudy afternoon hiking over the divide and gentle trail down to the Rogers Canyon junction then up another canyon to Rogers Trough traihead. We met a few weekend backpackers heading up to Reavis. Wanting to avoid the busy trailhead, we hiked up the Pinto Creek trail to official Rogers Trough on somewhat breezy sunny hillside to set up camp and dry out. Trough was dry but a few hundred yards above it, a cut pipe from the spring was running. Grey clouds were mounting and we expected more rain for the evening.
David set up the tent, staked it securely and we dug trenches around it. I hiked to the West Pinto divide just at sunset, and hurried down as thick clouds rolled in.
The storm almost let us finish dinner before it arrived in a fury with high winds, driving rain, thunder and lightning.
Around midnight David had to don rain gear to “rescue” our backpacks, tossed around by the gale. My boots, tucked under the fly, were soaked by driving rain. I wondered how the campers were doing at Reavis, 1400 feet higher.
Next morning was clear and cold. We hiked down a road into cold wind, then on Woodbury Trail, an eroded jeep road littered with cowpies, to an old windmill and two tanks at Reeds Water. At the head of Fraser Canyon, a running windmill, sturdy corrals and a nice ranch house of JF Ranch just outside the wilderness boundary.
A boundary fence, cow trails and many manure piles in Fraser Canyon indicated continued cattle grazing. We missed the Coffee Flat-Red Tanks trail junction in the cow trail maze but ended up on the right route up Randolph Canyon. David stopped to pump water at some pools in Randolph; a lightly-laden backpacker overtook us. He’d come in from Peralta Trailhead late morning and got delayed by a cow maze on Coffee Flat; he planned to camp “somewhere on the red rocks” around Red Tanks Divide. We didn’t see him again.
The trail was well marked and rocky rough but not as brushy as our earliest hikes. It climbed along Red Tanks Canyon with many drops and climbs across side canyons.
It was slow going with packs. Criss-crossing upper Red Tanks in fading winter sun, we passed a few campsites. But I pushed on for Red Tanks Divide-wanting to camp above cold air drainage the first clear cold night after a storm; most likely to be very chilly. We got there just at dark and found a flat spot for camp. While I cooked dinner, David made a fire and we kept adding agave stalks and mesquite as the temperature dropped.
Next morning was coldest on the trip; probably mid-20s with water bottles icy in the tent. We arose early and headed down trail with plans of making breakfast in the sun later in the morning. I passed white frosted grass on the trail and frozen pools of water in upper LaBarge Canyon.
The rest of our loop through the Superstitions was drama-free. After a warm sunny breakfast in Upper LaBarge, clambering down the rugged trail through LaBarge Box, passing golden cottonwoods at Whiskey Spring, and a steady climb to a saddle with amazing views of Miners and Weavers Needle(s), we cruised by Bluff Spring and followed the Terrapin Trail to camp among heavy vegetative growth below Weaver’s Needle. This area used to be so open we camped here with 20 people in the 1980s but this time we had to carefully inch through cactus openings and clear dead branches for tent and cooking area ̶̶ ̶̶ branches provided welcome fodder for another fire.
The last day we completed our loop with the rough canyon crisscrossing Boulder Trail, back over the rugged divide into LaBarge Canyon, the heavy washed out climb above the wash and the long trail looping through side canyons to a final mesa with a scenic view back to Weaver’s Needle, then the steep drop to Canyon Reservoir just at sunset. We found good trails around Peralta Trailhead with a few dayhikers. After the storm we found every spring with ample pools although washes were dry.
David stopped to fill up at every waterhole-just in case.
Superstitions Revisited: A bone-breaking return March 13, 2017
The Forest Service calls Peralta Trail “one of the most heavily used trails in Arizona.” This proved my undoing during a short jog on the trail March 13.
Peralta overuse met us directly in the form of multiple cars already coming back from a morning hike by noon on a Monday, cars parked along the road, and numerous hikers still on the 3 trails that depart this trailhead. We took Peralta for the steep 2-mile jog to Fremont Saddle and view of Weaver’s Needle. Trail was rougher than I recalled and rocks slick and polished from thousands of boots.
Heading back down the trail, I braced for an abrupt switchback, pushing my foot against a rock ̶̶ ̶̶ it slid like black ice and I flew down the trail, landing on my right arm which made a funny angle just above the wrist. David made a splint from two pieces of dead agave and tape from a kindly hiker’s med kit so I could walk out. 45 minutes up, 2 hours down. Wednesday I had surgery to realign distal radius bone broken in 3 places. My hiking season was over.
Since we usually access the Superstitions from more obscure trailheads, Peralta gave me a different wilderness experience ̶̶ ̶̶ and another warning not to take this rugged wilderness lightly.
Perhaps my grandmother was right about the Superstitions.
Author contemplates trip ahead into the Superstition Wilderness with Weaver’s Needle beckoning beyond.
Rock formation at Angel Basin, dry camp on our Superstition trek.
Hiking out of LaBarge Canyon in 1992: driving rain, waterfalls on usually dry side canyons..
Deep pool at Charlebois Spring.
Making camp at Hoolie Bacon intersection, with full moon and colorful sunset for scenic backdrop.
Cautiously hiking down into Angel Basin.
Packing up at Angel Basin to hike down canyon seeking water.
Hole Spring in lower Rogers Canyon ended our 18-hour water shortage.
Breaking camp at Reavis in the rain.
Miserable rain hiking in full gear.
Reavis Creek running on trail
View of sunset and storm clouds from West Fork Pinto trail near divide above Rogers Trough.
Cow pies litter Woodbury Trail.
Making way down steep eroded trail on Upper La Barge Box
Weaver’s Needle in early morning sunlight.
Camping in the trees below Weaver’s Needle
The same sugar sumac for Cindy’s camp in 2016 framed 26 friends camping below Weaver’s Needle in 1979. The large open area is now heavily vegetated with little room for camping.
Cindy shows off broken arm splinted with agave at Peralta Trailhead on edge of Superstition Wilderness.
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