Mount Wrightson Wilderness, 2018

Backside Wrightson: Scenery and Solitude

In January 2018, we visited Mount Wrightson Wilderness—designated in 1985 with 25,260-acres of soaring peaks, deep canyons, grasslands and dozens of trails. From Cave Creek we took the Arizona Trail (AZT) south, swung up Temporal Gulch to a saddle west of Wrightson, dropped into Madera Canyon and back up around the north side of the peak, along ridges and out Sawmill Canyon trail/road for a four-day, 46-mile trip.

I first hiked Mount Wrightson in 1973 before it became a wilderness—my first backpacking trip in Arizona. In 1974, I repeated the trip on a foggy day with a friend—now husband & hiking buddy. These overnight trips from Florida Canyon trailhead included day hikes to 9,453-foot Mt. Wrightson for a panoramic view of Southern Arizona “sky islands”: Santa Catalinas, Rincons, Huachucas and Chiricahuas. During my University of Arizona years, I hiked them all.

In 2013 we repeated the Florida Canyon trek. However, the Florida Fire of 2005 consumed mixed-conifer forest and most of the ponderosa pine—once a highlight of this hike winding to the top of a sky Island. Trail was eroded and rocky and Florida Spring was gone; but young pine trees were reclaiming the area after fire. We met many day hikers on the peak, up from Madera Canyon. Some things had not changed.

In 2018, we found most mid-slope forests were intact, not affected by the fire that burned on top. We also had solitude—except near Madera Canyon.

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Water was first surprise. With Arizona in a dry cycle and one small storm since September, we had filled two Platypus (folding plastic) water bags and other bottles for two-gallon capacity in case of dry camp. But every spring was running except for frozen ones on north slopes.

Then, stunning views. AZT follows an old ditch constructed to carry water from Bear Spring to a tunnel into Gardner Canyon for mining; across the canyon towered golden green limestone pillars. After crossing the Bear Spring rivulet in oak woods, the trail raced up to a ridge with views of soaring Mt. Wrightson and Josephine Peak. From Walker Basin mining area we slid down a steep road slippery from ATVs on dry soil. Copious cow pies on the roadside and in Temporal Gulch indicated unmanaged grazing. Lower gulch was gold and red rock. We followed a rough trail half a mile upstream, climbed a side canyon to a piney ridge and kicked away a few dozen cow pies for camp. Nice sunset, rowdy morning wind. The route through narrows became needle carpet trail through pines. Leaving the gulch, it contoured along oak-brush slopes of Mt. Wrightson rounding many side canyons. This well-designed old trail had not been cleared in years; hand clippers helped. We filled up at lovely McBeth Spring in a ponderosa nook and rounded on to Josephine Saddle.

Old Baldy and the Super Trail from Madera Canyon intersect here. Mt. Baldy was renamed Wrightson for a miner killed by Apaches in 1865. Old Baldy Trail, built in 1928, climbs 4,345 feet in 5.4 miles. The Forest Service later built the 8.1-mile Super Trail with long switchbacks and a contour around Wrightson. I had done the Baldy-Super Trail loop in the 70s. We would camp at Josephine, visit Agua Caliente saddle on west side and descend to Madera on Vault Mine Trail

It was only 4 p.m. I suggested a hike to Mt. Wrightson. Old Baldy Trail was a nice surprise as it traversed unburned west slope. But slow, steep ascent gained moonscape Baldy Saddle just before sundown, where gale winds and encroaching darkness discouraged a peak ascent. We headed down the Super Trail for a contour to camp. Not so “super” anymore. Burned in Florida Fire, the once pine-carpeted trail was treeless, rocky and washed out, barren on top and brushy below. North slope was snowy and tramped into ice by hikers. Wind blew cruelly. Some visual joys on this death march: sunset colors and lights of Patagonia below, bright blaze of Nogales and more-distant towns. We rejoined our packs four miles and two hours later. After dinner, David passed by, tripped on my foot, caught and broke the stove cable. Last hot meal.

Voices at 7 a.m.: first day hikers. We heard/met two more pairs as we turned off on Agua Caliente Trail to round Jack Mountain, pass by route to Mt. Hopkins (site of Fred Whipple Observatory), turn back after saddle and drop two miles into upper Madera Canyon. Steep trail wooded and not too slick. Pools in the canyon. Probably 40 vehicles at Madera Canyon trailhead—maybe 70 percent out-of-state. Seniors and young families. October-April use is mix of out-of-state visitors and snowbird retirees from Green Valley (reports Nogales Ranger District). Even on a weekday, Wrightson drew crowds.

We hiked down the road and David got water from Madera Creek. A turnoff towards Kent Springs Cabin (for rent, see link) restored solitude. Graded road to the modest cabin, then steep ‘spring road’ carrying pipe from top. We crossed a stream produced by a spring near Super Trail above us, and the brimming Sylvester Spring box. The Kent Springs box on shady north slope was frozen, but David found water in the creek bed. The road ended and a trail up from Bog Springs went on up the mountain. We met a lightly clad day hiker up from the springs with her dog starting her loop back down steep road in cold canyon. We took trail up to a ponderosa grove on the edge of Florida Fire wasteland. A few survivor pines roared in gusty ridge winds above our tent. Fiery red sunset outlined lights of the Mt. Hopkins observatory and golden glow of Green Valley. We dined on Cliff bars.

Next morning, decent trail after circumventing big downed logs. It contoured through grassy slopes and a few remnant pines in cold morning shade to a sunny saddle. A cold descent through burned basin to frozen Armor Spring. We soon rejoined the Crest Trail, with new downed logs, icy stretches and no trail work since the fire. (A Forest Service trail crew was scheduled to work on it in March 2018 so may be improved now).

From Florida Saddle, Sawmill Trail climbed a peak then dropped down into more burn. Gentle broad switchbacks were cloaked in post-fire sharp needle gray thorn and new growth pine.

Last drop to Sawmill Spring was better trail but steep and tough on knees. David filled up at the spring box. We climbed onto a sunny ridge for a late cold breakfast of oatmeal, coffee and chocolate. Not bad with dry peanut butter, blueberries and nuts. Trail down was pretty good. We soon met two exuberant day-hikers with two small dogs. The men had “jeeped” up to the trailhead. After a lovely amble down pine and oak in Sawmill Canyon, our trail left the drainage and wandered down a dry hillside to Aliso Spring in shady forest. The day hikers had each driven a jeep from Tucson. Their vehicles passed us, clawing up the steep grade out of Aliso drainage. Unlike them, I found no joy in the rocky roller coaster track. We finally crossed Cave Creek and reached an oak forested flat where our vehicle awaited. Only 9.8-mile day but my knees attested to elevation change: 1250 feet up and 3,950 feet down.

Would we do it again? Maybe out Agua Caliente to see the western end of the wilderness or perhaps try climb up Cave Creek. But no more jeep roads!

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