Change is a constant in this wilderness
As a young girl, I was allured by the Superstitions.
As we drove from Phoenix on Highway 60, taking my grandmother home to nearby Miami (“My-am-uh”), she told me many fables about the red wall of mountains looming to the north. “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.
When I first did in 1978—and in a dozen more trips over 40 years—I found none of Nano’s hazards—but some weather-related drama in this rugged desert mountain wilderness.
Our first was part of a Christmas trip to the southwest to see my family and escape Oregon rain—or so we thought. For first few days we hiked sandy washes below rock pinnacles under bluebird skies and warm sun. Traversing above Boulder Canyon, we got our first glimpse of Weaver’s Needle, a thousand-foot rock column prominent from many places. After rough rocky trek up the canyon, we enjoyed good stock trails following washes and winding up over passes and features like Garden Valley, Music Mountain, La Barge Box and Red Tanks. We saw only one group. The only annoyance was cattle; a spaghetti system of cow trails in Boulder Canyon and disgusting cow pies near Charlebois Spring.
Winter rain hit midway through our trip. We hiked over Peter’s Mesa to avoid rising waters in LaBarge Wash and found a raging torrent in Tortilla Wash. We skirted the wash on side slope, and hiked Tortilla Ranch Road out to Highway 188 for a long hike back to our vehicle.
Rain found us again in December 1992. We awoke to bloated sleeping bags with water seeping into our bags from the tent floor. On the 3-mile hike out Boulder Canyon, incredible waterfalls flowed down every side canyon.
In December 2008 we crossed running water in Rogers Canyon. But in December 2016 we spent a thirsty night with no water in Rogers and a dry Angel Spring. A day later, we awoke to heavy rain in Reavis Valley and had ample water the rest of the trip.
Superstition Wilderness is a winter favorite that we have visited 13 times for backpack trips since 1978; it’s a large wilderness with about 180 miles of trail. This post covers two visits: a 2016 westside loop and a short 2019 eastside visit that worked around the 124,000-acre Woodbury Fire of previous summer.
We have observed much change over 40 years: fewer cattle, less trail maintenance until recent Forest Service volunteer trail maintenance efforts, and many more visitors where trails are good. Also, we wonder if large size of Woodbury Fire might be indirect result of extreme climate variation and past grazing; more about this below.
Post-fire backpacking will present new challenges since fire burned all but the far westside of wilderness with possible long-term damage to trails and water sources. Information gathering is a haphazard process of querying Internet posts, local managers and interest groups. The Arizona Trail (AZT) website offers information on east side where AZT passes through. Many hiking guides on the area are available on-line and at outdoors outlets but need a post-fire update.
Our 2019 eastside visit included 4-mile venture into burn to assess riparian flooding and heavy sediment deposit and wind up a ridge to near 5,000 feet elevation. Findings did not look promising for backpacking. Although West Pinto Creek was running well, the brown water would quickly plug a water filter and new sediment deposit may greatly alter springs, seeps and pools for some time in burned drainages that are now sandy washes. Trails outside of flood damage in creek were okay except for accelerated erosion in places plus rapid growth of re-sprouting Acacia that seems poised to quickly clog trails.
2019 visit statistics: 4 days, 31 miles at 1.9 miles per hour, and average elevation change of 425 feet per mile.
2016 visit statistics: 9 days, 83 miles at 2.0 miles per hour, and average elevation change of 375 feet per mile.
See map below for 2019 and 2016 detailed daily routes, mileages, elevation changes, and photos; photos from 11 previous visits also posted.
The Superstitions were designated Primitive Area in 1937 and wilderness in 1964. They encompass 160,000 acres of Sonoran Desert, riparian canyons, oak-juniper woodlands, and some pine at highest elevations and feature interesting rock formations from volcanic processes.
Used lightly by early cliff dwellers and Apaches, the Superstitions attracted miners in the 19th and 20th century followed by cattle ranchers selling beef to miners. Reavis Ranch sold produce to miners from a vegetable garden and orchard. (Reavis’ gravesite is on the AZT north of Rogers Trough trailhead.) Springs and trails bear names of other stockmen. The popular Dutchman Trail was inspired by a German (“Dutch”) immigrant who claimed to have found gold. Searching for his “Lost Dutchman’s Mine” is a favorite pastime with many books and maps on the subject.
With elevations from 2000 to 5000 feet, the Superstitions often boast high temperatures and dry conditions and are best visited in winter or spring for cooler temperatures and adequate water. Almost all of our visits have been in December.
We saw few people in the 1970s; in the 1980s, vandalism threatened parking at remote trailheads. Cattle numbers were reduced. But the huge network of trails became less pleasant as thorny desert scrub encroached lesser-used areas, maybe from reduced grazing after heavy use for many years. Many more visitors in late 1990s with day hikers and weekend campers from Peralta and First Water trailheads near Mesa and Phoenix. Stock (horse) overuse reduced some popular trails into rocky rubble; visitors replaced cattle in trashing flat areas near springs.
The Tonto National Forest, overwhelmed by increasing Superstition popularity, had a hard time maintaining trails in 1990s and early 2000s. But in recent years the Forest Service has made progress through volunteer adopt-a-trail groups as well as active AZT volunteers. Volunteers also meet visitors at heavily used campsites during the popular winter and spring hiking months.
In March 2017, I had a damaging encounter with trail overuse. Jogging down Peralta Trail from Fremont Saddle, I slowed to turn on a switchback, bracing my foot against a rock. The rock was apparently slick and polished from thousands of boots—I slid on it like on black ice, flew down the trail and broke my right wrist.
Oddly enough, extreme winter rainfall—culprit in many early Superstition misadventures—may have been the indirect cause of the latest challenge to Superstition hiking: fire. Since 2000, many Southwest wilderness areas have experienced a large fire. The Superstitions had not—up until 2019—perhaps because minimal forest offered little fuel.
The Woodbury Fire of 2019 had a new fuel source. Unseasonal heavy rains in October 2018 and January-February 2019 created a bright carpet of new green grass in the Arizona range country—which delighted us in an overnight visit to the Superstition eastside in February 2019. But most was invasive. Waves of red brome (possibly related to earlier cattle use) dried out in late spring and fueled the Woodbury, largest wildfire in recorded history of the Superstitions.
Started in late June 2019 by human ignition on south wilderness boundary, the fire spread rapidly, burning piney Reavis Valley, pinyon-juniper mesas west to Upper La Barge Canyon and most of the eastside. Based on other wilderness fires, damage will continue for years.
Fire did not impact the heavily used trails between Second Water and Peralta trailheads. But long loops in the Superstitions may be difficult for some time to come.
(Click upper right box above map to “view larger map” to see legend including NAVAGATION INSTRUCTIONS; expand/contract legend by clicking right arrow down/up)