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.

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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