Saturday, February 21, 2015

Ragged Top, 3,907', Silver Bell Mountains

Essence: Small in stature, imposing in nature, this acicular, cliff-riddled mountain offers an enchanting half-day hike north of Tucson in Ironwood Forest National Monument. Scale volcanic rock riddled with climbing features up a steep prominence with a generous, flat top. Unsullied view of the Sonoran from this little sky island, an outlier in the Silver Bell Mountains.
Travel: From Tucson, drive north on I-10 to the town of Marana and take Exit 236, Marana Road. Zero-out your trip meter at the bottom of the exit ramp and turn left. The road curves to the south. Immediately, turn right/west on Marana Road. While driving, see the peak draw ever closer. Cross the Santa Cruz River in a broad S turn. Marana becomes Trico-Marana Road. At 6.1 miles, turn right on Silverbell Road. Enter Ironwood Forest National Monument at 9.6 miles. Pavement transitions to dirt at 13.9 miles. Stay right at the first fork. At 17.0 miles, cross a pipeline and at 17.6 miles, turn left onto an unsigned track. It is narrow and curvy but not rocky. Brush will scrape the vehicle. The Sonoran is especially beautiful here, the road wending through saguaros. Park in a generous lot at 18.9 miles, 30 minutes from the freeway. 2WD with decent clearance should be able to reach the trailhead.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 3.0 miles; 1,663 feet of climbing
Time: 3:00 to 4:00
Difficulty: Off-trail; navigation moderate; short stretch of Class 3 scrambling with mild exposure
Map: Silver Bell East, AZ 7.5 Quad
Latest Date Hiked: February 21, 2015
Quote: Desert bighorns may bring you to places where they live, but they may not show themselves to you. This does not matter. What matters is this: Look. Ellen Meloy, Eating Stone

Solitary Ragged Top stands guard over an intricate and abundant world of flora and fauna flowing out in all directions. There is so much to see!

Route: A clockwise loop utilizes a sequence of three primary gullies and three saddles. A short, steep spur scales the peak.

From the trailhead, visually locate the saddle between Wolcott Peak, shown, and Ragged Top. Walk southwest, briefly on an old road. Cross an iron fence and head cross-country. There are stray fragments of social and game trails, but no standard treadway.

Cross several small ravines, the ground littered with granitic boulders. The plant community is diverse and its own pleasure. In February, we identified 30 flowering species, listed below. We passed two packrat middens made from thousands of teddybear cholla babies, shown. Ironwoods are characterized by blue-green leaves, gray bark, and purple blossoms in springtime. They are a legume with hard and heavy wood; trunks can persist for up to 1,600 years! All the while, ironwoods provide nursery shade for baby saguaros and other flora.

I have crossed the ridge between Ragged Top and Wolcott in three places. The standard route gains the low point in the saddle between the two peaks. However, it is great fun to play around in the rock outcrop located to the right of the saddle (left in the image below). Or, there is an easy gully just right of the rock outcrop. Take your pick: all three routes are shown on the map above. Reach the ridge at about 0.7 mile. At this elevation the rock is volcanic, Ragged's primary formation.

From the southeast ridge, locate the south ridge saddle, shown below. Walk west, giving up some elevation. Do a descending traverse in broken and awkward terrain. Game trails are scant help. Eventually, get into the gully proper where sections of bedrock assist.

In February, the declivity was aflame with hummingbird bush. Nearing the saddle, watch for a barely visible track leaving the left side of the gully. Crest the prominent south ridge of Ragged Top at 1.14 miles, 3,270 feet. Further south, the ridge is peppered with appealing rock spires. The image below shows the towers and people approaching the saddle.

This image looks back on the saddle between Ragged Top and Wolcott and the terrain rising to the south ridge.

Locate the prominent south gully, the next objective, shown in the very center of the image below. The easiest way to gain the gully is counter intuitive. Turn north and climb the rock outcrop as these friends are doing. The passage leads to a shelf that transitions into the left side of the rift. There are no cairns. While the gully looks somewhat intimidating from the saddle, it is straightforward, a Class 2 ascent on talus. Brush is of little concern.

The uncommon, chlorophyll-lacking desert broomrape, is growing in a few clumps at the base of the gully.

At 1.4 miles, 3,670 feet, reach the third saddle, really a notch between the south and north gullies. From here, locate a social trail heading east. It swings into a northeast weakness. The material is rather loose, a potential hazard for large groups. However, there is plenty of stable rock in this Class 2+ section. In the image below, hikers have left the notch and are moving east.

The Class 3 scramble begins fifty feet below the summit. Free-climb up solid rhyolite loaded with features and firm holds. This is by far the most jubilant part of the climb. It is over way too soon.

Reach the surprisingly broad and welcoming summit at 1.5 miles. While Ragged Top is not the highest peak in the Silver Bell Mountains (shown), it certainly is the most beguiling. Typical of well-situated western peaks, gaze into extreme distance to the true horizon. Or content yourself with the familiars such as Pusch Ridge or Baboquivari Peak (center, below). The peak register was always amusing. Sadly, in 2015 it was missing. Judging from the lack of cairns and sparsity of footprints, solitude is virtually assured.

Return as you came to the notch between the south and north gullies. Enjoy the downclimb, picking your careful way on trustworthy rock.

Climb over the stony hulk in the center of the notch. From the west side of the saddle, locate a safe passage into the north gully. We found bighorn sheep scat carpeting this breach. The Silver Bell Mountains have a substantial resident herd. Be watchful; perhaps they will show themselves to you.

While we did not see sheep, we did find this nest protector: Anna's hummingbird.

The north gully crashes steeply down the mountain in its direct manner. (If this does not appeal, return as you came via the south gully.) There are several drop-offs to negotiate in this restricted area. This image looks up at a challenging boulder.  We dropped through the tunnel in the rock.

The gully widens toward the base of the cliffs. Still well above the valley floor, at about 2.7 miles, pick a pleasing descending traverse, working your way around to the east/right. Expect to cross a few shallow ravines. At this elevation, granite dominates, out-shown only by teddybear cholla. A birthing area for this endearing plant, little cholla balls cover the ground. Shortly, you will see your vehicle.

Flora: Typical Sonoran flora flourishes on the flanks of Ragged Top along with a robust ironwood forest. Naturalist John Bregar identified the following blooming plants in February: filaree, brittlebush, fairy duster, yellow trumpet bush, buckwheat, triangle leaf bursage, jewel flower, desert gilia, sand lacepod, jojoba, wolfberry, Mexican gold poppy, rock hibiscus, phacelia, desert globemallow, shrubby deervetch, Texas stork's bill, desert chicory, blackfoot daisy, trailing-windmill, rosy desert beardtongue (penstemon), creosote bush, verbena, hummingbird bush, desert broomrape, ragged rock flower, bedstraw, larkspur, fiddleneck, windflower, and the sweetest smelling of all, brownfoot.

Birds: John Bregar identified 12 birds: ash-throated flycatcher, Anna's hummingbird, black-throated sparrow, canyon wren, rock wren, black vulture, white-throated swift, common raven, red-tailed hawk, house finch, gilded flicker, and a large falcon species.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Dos Cabezas Peaks, 8,354' and 8,357', Via Cooper Peak, 7,950'

Essence: High point of the Dos Cabezas Mountains. Distinctive, twin stone monoliths protrude mightily from the small, wooded range. A long climb requiring almost continuous effort culminates in an ecstatic, classic scramble, one of the best in the whole state. This no-red-tape route does not cross private land. Bonus! Approach from the east, summiting Cooper Peak in both directions.
Travel: From Tucson, travel east on I-10 to Bowie, AZ. Take Exit 362. The road loops over the freeway and heads east. Zero-out your trip meter at Apache Pass Road and turn right/south at a sign for Fort Bowie Historic Site. The two lane goes back under the freeway. At 4.5 miles, turn right on Happy Camp Canyon Road. The dirt road is smooth and wide, suitable for 2WD. Pass Indian Bread Picnic Area at 7.5 miles. (Camping allowed: shade cover, picnic tables, outhouse, friction climbing on spheroidal boulders, but no water.) Continue straight for a 4WD, high clearance, beefy tire adventure. At 8.8 miles, take the right fork. The road gets rowdy with boulders in the track. Pass a water tank with a windmill. At 9.5 miles take the right fork down into the wash for 100 yards. The road is tilted in places. Brush will scrape the sides of the vehicle. Park at a rusted water tank at the end of the road at 10.1 miles. 
Distance and Elevation Gain: 14 miles; 5,750 feet of climbing
Time: 9:30 to 11:00
Difficulty: Mostly off-trail with one short 4WD road stretch; navigation considerable and crucial; Class 4 scrambling with significant exposure; carry all the water you will need. We each had four liters and wished for six on a humid day in the 70's.
Map: Dos Cabezas, AZ 7.5 Quad
Date Hiked: February 19, 2015
Quote: If we all did the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves. Thomas Edison

The long, grinding approach is soon forgotten. The enjoyment of climbing this stone coupling, indelibly etched.

Route: This route avoids the hassle of obtaining permission to cross private land and it throws in Cooper Peak. Head southwest and then west up a delightful ridge to Cooper before giving up elevation to meet the standard route southeast of Dos Cabezas. Scale North Head and then South Head to avoid downclimbing Class 4 pitches. Return as you came, back over Cooper, avoiding the annoying ridge we used as our descent route, noted below.

Climb Cooper Peak: At TH 4,640', there is abundant evidence of cattle grazing, past and present. Fences are in need of mending all the way to the base of Dos Cabezas. Barbed wire is scattered on the ground; be watchful. Walk through an opening in the fence and onto a horse/cattle trail that runs along the valley bottom. Rummage around and find the faint track for it is a great assist all the way to Cooper's east ridge. Enter the Dos Cabezas Mountains Wilderness.

Walking west up-valley, avoid the first ridge that heads west-northwest, shown image right below. At 1.5 miles, pass a crumbling adobe home with a ripped up tin roof sheltering a kitchen table, and refrigerator. Soon after, reach the base of Cooper's east ridge, just left of center below. Cooper Peak is the highpoint at the culmination of this ridge, visible in this image.

These climbers have just left the cattle trail and are starting up the ridge.

We wondered whether bush-whacking up this ridge would foil our plan to reach Dos Cabezas at a reasonable hour. Luckily, the ridge afforded exceptionally easy passage. Mostly clean underfoot, we passed prize-winning alligator junipers, including a massive and stunning double. Overall, the ascent is gradual. The final 300 feet to Pt 6,681' is rather steep. From here at 2.6 miles, we got our first good look at Cooper. The ridge pitches up near the crest. We reached the summit at 3.73 miles, 3,310 feet of relief from the trailhead. The mountain doesn't enjoy many visitors. The summit register was placed in 1991, the most recent entry, a year ago. If this is as far as you get, it is nice enough with good sitting rocks and an expansive vista. Twirling around, see the Chiricahuas, Cochise Head (shown), Dragoons, Rincon Peak, Winchesters, Galiuros, Mount Graham, and, of course, the high point of this little range, Dos Cabezas Peaks.

From Cooper to Dos Cabezas: From the summit drop steeply down the west ridge. It is rocky and brushy but quickly improves. The ridge swings northwest and encounters an abandoned road at 4.0 miles. From here it is a quick descent to the saddle southeast of Pt 7,780'. Walk down the old track and join the established 4WD road (shown) for an easy descent to 7,240'. Leave the road and go straight over the top of the 120 feet rise. (Contouring around took longer.) Reach Saddle 7,200' where another track joins from the north at 5.7 miles.

Leave the road, going through a break in the fence and find the Fence Line Trail. This steep, rocky, social trail is a great assist. Follow it to the radio facility noted on the topo and seen in the image below.

The trail tops out at the radio facility, 7,880'. Walk across the beautiful and peaceful park where Dos Cabezas presides in its compelling manner. From here, there are no trail remnants and no cairns. Mount the two rises seen in the image below. Although there are large boulders, the mountain mahogany scramble is the biggest obstacle.

The terrain flattens and butts up against the wall of South Head. Study the map below. If you want to climb both peaks, begin with North Head. As explained in detail below, scramble around the east side of South Head and up a gully with a Class 4 move. Climb the west side of North Head, return to the notch, and scale the northface of the South Head with two Class 4 challenges. Descend south. This route attacks the most difficult and exposed pitches while upclimbing.

For those who want to avoid Class 4 scrambling altogether, you can climb South Head, the highpoint, by going up and back via the south wall. There is one Class 3 pitch. The image below shows the proper route, the only reasonable approach. Thank you, John Bregar, for this photograph with your hand-drawn route lines, and for guiding me up Dos Cabezas. The route is out of view where dashed. (John Bregar, photo)

North Head of Dos Cabezas: Descend east about 100 feet and begin a Class 3 traverse to the north. There is some exposure and slick spots. You will love this rock. It is intrusive igneous, solid and reliable. The way is not obvious; essentially hang on to the contour until you reach the gully between the two heads on their east side, shown below. (THW, photo)

Climb the approach gully, holding to its left side. It is steep, rocky, and brushy with some deadfall. The Class 4 pitch is vertical but not exposed. Go straight up the rock as this woman is doing, or slightly left. It is Class 4 either way. It is easy to spot, holds are good, and the stone is accommodating and dependable. Gain the notch between the two heads.

Walk to west side of the notch where an ample tree secures the base of the south wall. Climb small ledges on wonderful rock. The tree provides helpful hand holds.

Scramble up the west side of North Head. The rock is so good for this segment of Class 3 scrambling the exposure is hardly noticed.

The way is intuitive. The image below of North Head was taken from the northface of South Head. As you approach the final summit mass, enter the rift on the left that rises vertically to the horizon. Squeeze between a wall and staunch shrub. Emerging, scramble to the right and soon the head rounds off. (THW, photo)

After a super delightful scramble, the exhilarating summit is surprisingly roomy with big sitting blocks. Reach it at 6.94 miles. The summit register is in a large, well-sealed canister. The vista is expansive but South Head is the attention grabber. The ascent route is almost vertical. It begins at a weakness in the the center of the northface and then mounts the angled crack on the right. The descent route, peels off the crest into the notch on the east/left. My gratitude, and that of climbers who follow, to John Bregar for this image and the hand-drawn the route line. Descend North Head as you came. (John Bregar, photo)

South Head: The northface climb is more dangerous than anything else on the mountain. Back in the notch, facing South Head, move to the left to find the starting point. Climb the central weakness. The first low Class 4 move has some exposure. Use a spotter. Then scramble 50 to 60 feet up a steeply rising traverse to the right, shown below.
(THW, photo)

Locate a crack on the right that cuts left across a slab. This is the Class 4 crux. The holds are good at first but they become meager. It is not a place to hurry; exposure is grave. Below, the author is on the crux. (THW, photo)

This image looks down on a climber scaling the crux.

The scramble up South Head is the most enthralling part of the day. Past the crux, continue steeply, mostly straight up. It is challenging all the way on solid rock. This climb would be dangerous in the presence of ice or snow. Top out at 7.32 miles and relish your crowning achievement. The summit is covered in fractured boulders. Below, my climbing companion is trying to cypher which head is taller.

Historic inscriptions, one dating to 1908, are etched into a slanted rock. It has been definitively established that South Head stands three feet taller than North Head. Find the peak register in a rock jumble.

To retreat from the crest, drop east about 40 feet into a notch. Then turn south to begin the final Class 3 scramble at a chockstone. Corkscrew down through the tunnel underneath the wedged boulder. (THW, photo)

Then, make a descending traverse west across the south face of the head. An off-camber staircase with good holds and giant steps leads to the bottom of the wall. So fun! Very shortly, close the loop. Note: for people doing only the South Head, you must locate this stepped passage for a successful ascent.

Back To The Trailhead: Return as you came, re-climbing Cooper Peak and descending the east ridge to the valley floor. As indicated on the route map above, we decided to explore the northeast ridge beginning at the saddle southeast of Pt 7,780' at 9.8 miles. It looked appealing but decidedly, it was not. We thrashed through thick scraggly brush and tripping vines to a drainage and continued on an easterly traverse to reach the ridge at 10.7 miles. We climbed over rollers to Pt 6,806' at 11.4 miles. Here, we turned sharply east and steeply down. Tall grasses obscured broken and rolling rock. We intersected our incoming cattle trail on the valley floor at 13.1 miles and reached the trailhead at 13.9 miles. There is nothing to recommend this ridge. The image below shows Cooper from the saddle. Cowboy up and re-climb the peak.

Birds: John Bregar identified the following birds: Gambel's quail, white-winged dove, dark-eyed junco, house finch, rock wren, red-tailed hawk, golden eagle, common raven, ruby-crowned kinglet, spotted towhee, canyon towhee, canyon wren, pygmy owl, and prairie falcon. 

The day before the Dos Cabezas climb we hiked Chiricahua Peak. Driving back that evening, I snapped this image through the windshield while rolling. It's fuzzy but it does show Dos Cabezas and Cooper Peak from the west side of things. The excitement I felt then was well justified. I'm quite happy to walk all day for a couple hours of intense pleasure on two obelisks sculpted from perfect stone.





Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Castle Rock, 10,441', Via Elbert Creek Trail, Hermosa Cliffs

Essence: Four-season, half-day hike north of Durango to the top of a spectacular 800 foot precipice, jewel of the "beautiful" Hermosa Cliffs. Comfortable, relatively short ascent on a historic trail, following the footsteps of legions. Emerge at a dramatic and thrilling place. Enjoy a feeling of accomplishment while soaking up the riveting, unobstructed view.
Travel: From the US 550/160 intersection in Durango, drive north on US 550 for 24 miles. Turn left at Needles Country Store, Mile Marker 46.2. Gas, water and snacks are available. Trailhead parking is at the south end of the commercial cluster, just north of a corral. Allow 30 minutes from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 5.6 miles roundtrip and 1,650 feet of climbing; the optional loop extension adds 0.8 mile and 100 feet of gain
Time: 3:00 to 4:30
Difficulty: Trail most of the way; navigation moderate; no exposure prior to precipitous clifftop
Map: Electra Lake, Colorado 7.5 Quad, or Trails Illustrated: Durango, Cortez #144
Latest Date Hiked: February 10, 2015
Navajo Prayer: 
In beauty may I walk
With beauty before me, may I walk
With beauty above me, may I walk
With beauty below me, may I walk
With beauty all around me, may I walk
In beauty, may my walk be finished.


US 550 traverses the base of the Hermosa Cliffs. Morning color flames the flanks of Castle Rock in autumn. In winter, the cliffs are framed by white aspen trunks. In all seasons, handsome Hermosa is a powerful, magnificent beauty.

Route: Elbert Creek Trail #512 wends up the east-facing slope of the Hermosa Cliffs, staying north of the drainage. The Castle Rock route leaves the trail at two miles and moves northeast on a well-established social trail. Finally, climb the gentle, west flank of Castle Rock. Walk east along the south cliff edge to the high point. Return as you came or extend the trip with an optional loop, shown.

This image of Castle Rock and Needles Country Square was shot from the trailhead parking area.

The multi-use trail welcomes hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians.

From Trailhead 8,800', walk west along the north side of a working corral. The Forest Service issues grazing permits in the summer. Close the gate behind you. In February, 2015 the San Juan Mountains were suffering from a dry winter. We carried snowshoes and used them near the top. Start out in the morning when the mud is frozen. More normal for February would be a snowshoe hike in deep snow.

The track crosses Elbert Creek at 0.3 mile. While the stream is typically under snow in winter, the crossing is tricky when the water is high. The trail makes two long traverses as it switchbacks up the east-facing grade. Aspen are sun worshipers so naturally they predominate; this is the most dazzling autumn hike in the region. In winter, pass through a monochromatic lower story world of perfectly vertical white trunks and long, slender shadows. The ceiling contrasts with ravishing Colorado cerulean.

At 1.2 miles, the path rounds the corner and gradually climbs a south-facing slope. Hear the turbulent creek plunge down the ravine. On this warm aspect, a few Douglas fir and Rocky Mountain juniper hang on while aspen thrive. As the drainage narrows and shade thickens, so do Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir.  A spring trickles out from under the trail and down a wooden flume, forest gives way to meadow, and a perfectly placed, historic line cabin is reached at 1.8 miles, 9,800 feet. The chinked log building is the property of the San Juan National Forest. It is locked and not open to the general public. Range riders sometimes stay here in the summer. For the rest of us, the front porch offers protected bench seating.

Continue past the cabin in the open valley to a fabricated post at two miles. Leave the Elbert Creek Trail, hooking a sharp right onto a well-established social trail that climbs northeast up a south-facing hillside, shown below.

Note: The Elbert Creek Trail, an east/west lateral, carries on until it intersects the north/south Hermosa Creek Trail #514, eight miles past the cabin. Elbert Creek Road #581 is one mile west. A right turn on #581 leads to Durango Mountain Resort. The road is open to 4WD traffic in the summer.

The trail transitions from the open slope into a deeply wooded, often chilly drainage at 2.2 miles. Climb 300 feet over 0.2 mile. The pitch softens and the thick forest abruptly gives way to a pastoral valley. As soon as you are in the open, start looking for a cairn that marks a faint track to the right/southeast. In winter the cairn is not visible but snowshoe tracks frequently show the way. 

Ascend the west flank of Castle Rock. The woods are a little tangled in here but after about 100 feet of climbing and 0.2 mile, you will pop out on the abrupt, south rim of the escarpment. The unforgiving aerie is sure to leave you breathless and backing away from the drop.

Geological note: According to John Bregar, geologist, probably several times during the geologically recent Pleistocene epoch, ice in the glacially carved valley, over 1,600 feet below, thickened to reach nearly to the top of the cliffs. The Hermosa Formation dates to the Pennsylvanian period, approximately 300 million years ago.  The cliffs consist of alternating beds of limestone (deposited when sea levels were high) and sandstone (deposited when sea levels were low) with intervening layers of silt and shale.  The sea level fluctuations correlate with glacial and interglacial episodes, similar to what occurred in the Pleistocene.

Walk east, round the corner to the north, and reach Castle Rock at 2.8 miles. The San Juan Mountain celestial skyline is as sweeping as it is startling. To the east at center, Pigeon Peak and Turret Peak upthrust in their jaggedly way. The bulkier Twilight Peaks in the West Needle Mountains are on the left. Mountain View Crest contrasts with its visually flattened top on the right. Highway US 550, of course, runs along the base. East of the road is Electra Lake which drains into the Animas River.

There are pleasant sitting ledges back from the no-nonsense, 800 foot cliff face. You needn't to be as daring as these two. The integrity of the rim rock is inconsistent so settle onto a comfortable picnic perch. 

Return as you came or proceed north 0.5 mile, paralleling the cliff edge at a serene distance to arrive at another promontory with a striking look back at Castle Rock. Engineer Mountain and Potato Hill, "Spud Mountain," frame the north, as seen in the image below. Until 2014, there was a memorial in the depression between the two high points commemorating Joe Ehrich, 37. On April 21, 1986, Joe tragically fell 800 feet to his death when he drove his snowmobile over the cliff. The two friends accompanying Joe speculated that the sun's morning reflection gave him the illusion there was a clearing through the trees ahead. In reality, the snowfield was thin air.

To complete the small loop, walk west on a social trail for 0.1 mile into an open valley. As shown on the map above, turn left/south on a social trail to rejoin the incoming path. Animal tracks imprinted in snow are easy to identify. I have seen elk, deer, lynx, squirrel, snowshoe hare, grouse, and turkey.

In summer, red columbine and heart leaf arnica bloom beside the lower trail; lupine are lush around the cabin; and the charmed will find fairy slipper orchids living in the shady, moist woods. While this hike is popular and wondrous all year, many locals make an annual pilgrimage in autumn.