Water & Fire
Water—too much or too little—has always set the tone for our 14 backpacking trips in the Superstition Wilderness.
After summer drought aided Woodbury Fire of 2019, then months of cool wet weather, our March 2020 visit to check out the burn area was quite wet. We made multiple crossings of high, muddy Campaign Creek. When the canyon narrowed for deeper crossings, we soon left via Reavis Gap Trail, dropping planned loop via Campaign and Fire Line Trail to Reavis Ranch. The Arizona Trail was a boggy track, climbing then dropping to Reavis. A tantalizing green meadow high on hillside above Campaign turned out to be non-native invasive wild oats, common sight throughout our trip. We stopped short of planned camp at Reavis Ranch, reluctant to cross deep, fast Reavis Creek at dusk, camping in remnant oak on mucky clay.
High water has dominated many visits over 40 years.
Our first was part of a Christmas trip to the Southwest to see my family and escape Oregon rain—or so we thought. We hiked sandy washes below rock pinnacles under bluebird skies and warm sun; enjoying trails designed for stock winding over passes and passing Garden Valley, Music Mountain, La Barge Box and Red Tanks seeing just one group. Only negatives: spaghetti cow trails in Boulder Canyon and cow pies near Charlebois Spring.
Then winter rain hit. We fled rising water in LaBarge Wash over Peter’s Mesa, skirted a raging torrent in Tortilla Wash, and hiked jeep road and State Route 88 back to our vehicle.
In December 1992,we awoke to sleeping bags bloated from water seeping in from the tent floor. On the 3-mile hike out Boulder Canyon, incredible waterfalls flowed down every side canyon. In December 2008 a trip in from Tortilla Ranch was turned back at Rogers Canyon; too much water made trail impossible to follow. In 2013 we were delighted at deep pools in the Red Tanks area (often dry) after November snows and rains in the West.
Only once did we run dry—in December 2016 we spent a thirsty night in Rogers Canyon; with Angel and other springs dry. A day later, we awoke to heavy rain in Reavis Valley.
Unseasonal rainfall may have indirectly fueled Woodbury Fire. Heavy rains in October 2018 and January-February 2019 created a bright grass carpet in range country, most non-native. Red brome (possibly planted for earlier cattle use) dried out in late spring and fueled the largest wildfire in recorded history of the Superstitions. Started in late June 2019 by human ignition on south wilderness boundary, the fire burned most of the wilderness. Then a late September storm brought extensive floods and washed out SR 88 between Tortilla Flat and Lake Roosevelt. It’s still closed.
Superstition Wilderness is a winter favorite that we have visited 14 times for backpack trips since 1978; it’s a large wilderness with about 180 miles of trail. This post covers three visits: our March 2020 “recon” trip to Superstition eastside and crest after 124,000-acre Woodbury Fire summer 2019, a short December 2019 eastside visit and a long 2016 westside loop before the fire.
Woodbury Fire is most recent of changes observed over 40 years: although black has washed off, eroded trails and muddy high-water creeks were issues of post-fire trips. In past years, we saw cattle eventually replaced by crowds where trails were good, and there were vegetation changes. Large size of Woodbury may have been indirect result of extreme climate variation and past grazing; more about this below.
Post-fire backpacking presents new challenges since fire burned all but the far westside of wilderness. Damaged trails, high waters and poor information on road closures impeded our most recent eastside visit and attempts to view Reavis Falls during unprecedented high flow. Was even harder to gather information since many offices were closed. Many hiking guides and posts have been written on this area, but should be updated to be useful.
Our March 2020 eastside visit included partial loop from Tule Trailhead taking a wash to Campaign Creek and up via Reavis Gap (Campaign Creek high water nixed plan to hike entire creek trail), an overnight out & back Reavis Trail to the Reavis Falls route, and return on AZT/Tule Trail. A second attempt to visit the falls from Reavis Trailhead was thwarted due to road closure and trail damage; we got to Reavis Creek but did not see the falls!
Our December 2019 eastside visit was mostly in unburned area from Haunted Canyon except day hike up West Pinto Creek—wide, muddy and unusable for drinking—and ridge up from Oak Flat finding the trail mildly eroded but soon to be clogged by re-sprouting acacia.
Our December 2016 westside visit before the fire covered much territory from our many previous hikes and went from dry to cold wet conditions after a big storm moved in near end of trip.
2020 visit statistics: 7 days, 63 miles at 1.8 miles per hour, and average elevation change of 475 feet per mile.
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 2020, 2019, and 2016 detailed daily routes, mileages, elevation changes, and photos; also photos from 11 previous visits.
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, 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 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. The “Lost Dutchman’s Mine” search has inspired many books and maps.
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 cool weather and adequate water.
We saw few people in the 1970s; in the 1980s, vandalism threatened parking at remote trailheads. Cattle numbers were reduced. But the big trails network 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 hikers and weekend users from Peralta and First Water trailheads near Mesa and Phoenix. Stock (horse) overuse reduced some trails into rocky rubble; campers replaced cattle trashing areas near springs. The overwhelmed Tonto National Forest had difficulty maintaining trails in 1990s and early 2000s although recently has been aided by adopt-a-trail groups and active AZT volunteers.
I had my own painful experience with trail overuse in March 2017. Jogging down Peralta Trail from Fremont Saddle, I slowed to turn on a switchback, and braced my foot against a rock. Slick and polished from thousands of boots, rock was like black ice. I fell and broke my arm.
Our March 2020 trip included two failed efforts to hike to Reavis Falls, downstream from Reavis Ranch and reached by a steep route from the Reavis Trail (old Windy Gap Road). First, we hiked down from Reavis and camped halfway but had to turn around at falls route to get back to camp before dark, slowed down by washouts on the badly burned old road.
Next, we tried to hike in from Reavis Trail after finishing our loop. We were told SR 88 was open to Reavis turnoff. It wasn’t. We parked at road closure by Apache Lake Viewpoint and followed improvised GPS route up a steep wash to Reavis trailhead, cutting off 5+ extra road miles. But it cost us an hour and the road through burn was slow going in places, as was the 3-mile route to falls. This time we made it down the steep route as far as Reavis Creek—still three-quarter mile short of the falls and just enough daylight left to get back to Lime Mountain where we left packs for camp. You can still hike in the burned area—but it’s slow going.
(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)