Travel: From US 60, transition to Loop 202 North and take Exit 27, University Drive. Turn right on University and take the first left on Ellsworth Road. You will see the <PHOENIX sign on the south slope of Usery Mountain. Drive four miles north and turn right on Usery Park Road. Pull into the Nature Center for a map, bathrooms, and water. You may pay the fee at the Nature Center or at the entry kiosk. Continue south on Usery Park Road. Turn left on one-way Wind Cave Drive and pull into the parking lot. Overflow parking is along the road as you exit the lot.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 5.8 miles; 1,650 feet of climbing
Total Time: 4:00 to 5:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 2+ scrambling with very mild exposure; carry all the water you will need.
Map: Buckhorn, AZ 7.5' USGS Quad
Date Hiked: December 20, 2018
Quote: So this is where God put the West. John Wayne
The entire Pass Mountain ridge may be seen from the Nature Center. Pass Mountain South Peak is on the right. Pass Mountain is the rocky apex left of ridge-center.
Route: Walk east on the Wind Cave Trail. At trail's end climb on a social path to the south end of the ridge and scramble to Pass Mountain South Peak. Traverse the ridge for about 1.6 miles. Pass Mountain is a little more than halfway across. Descend on a westward ridge and intersect the Pass Mountain Trail. Walk south to close the loop at the trailhead.
From the trailhead at elevation 2,028 feet, head out on the Wind Cave Trail. The loop finishes on the Pass Mountain Trail.
Thriving Sonoran Desert flora rivals anywhere and anything in Southern Arizona. On the bajada there is ocotillo, palo verde, creosote, clumps of hedgehogs (I'd love to see them in bloom--so intense!), and prickly pear; and buckhorn, chainfruit, teddybear, and silver cholla. There are compass barrels in tight clusters and saguaros in every gradation of maturity and complexity. Even in mid-December, brittlebush and Arizona orange poppy bloom cheerfully. In this image a silver cholla cradles a nest and Pass Mountain looks like the stony knob that it is.
The totally buff trail is great fun. It weaves around weathered volcanic boulders and on top of bedrock slabs. The lower trail is composed of coarse-grain granitics, alluvium from adjacent rocks. Walk on exfoliated crushed and granular bits. The footpath pitches mildly to the base of a yellow wall at 1.3 miles. The Goldfield Mountains form the western perimeter of the Superstition Volcanic Complex. The geology is highly complex and dates back more than 25 million years. The wall formation is Apache Leap Tuff, a welded ash-flow tuff derived from the Superstition Cauldron.
The treadway makes a rising traverse to the south and before you know it, you are at Wind Cave, 1.6 miles, elevation 2,840 feet. The cave, simply a scoured aeolian depression, is located at the contact line between the tuff and granite. When I last visited some years ago, seeps harbored hanging gardens but in December of 2018, the cave was dry.
(Thomas Holt Ward, photo)
Pass Mountain South Peak (Point 3,127')
The next 2.3 miles are off-trail and should be reserved for experienced desert hikers. Exit the cave area and locate a social trail heading south through a vein of rhyolite, an extrusive volcanic rock. A sign warns that the trail is not maintained.
We didn't know what to expect and found the braided wildcat trail helpful. Walk south for about 0.1 mile on the contour. Then the path does a rising traverse to get through a weakness in the tuff. The whole scene is quite beautiful; saguaros keep company for the entire hike.
KJZZ featured the <PHOENIX sign some years ago. In the 1950s, a boy scout troop built the sign over a five year period hauling rocks from the side of Usery Mountain. The arrow was intended to help direct pilots to Phoenix Sky Harbor, 20 miles west. The sign is a whopping 1,000 feet long. Each letter is 100 feet high and 12 feet wide. Other scout troops have repainted the rocks to keep the sign bright white all these decades.
Above the tuff band the trail doubles back and approaches the precipitous cliff edge at the very southern end of the ridge. The trail multi-braids; find an ascent route that is comfortable for you.
We enjoyed a protected Class 2+ scramble right up the center of the ridge for the last 80 feet.
Alight on Pass Mountain South Peak at 1.9 miles. There are great views from this unranked prominence. (Not every point numbered on the topographical map is a ranked peak. For this summit to be legal it would have to rise at least 300 vertical feet above the Pass Mountain saddle.) The image below looks over the south ridge runout to the Superstition Mountains. (THW, photo)
The Salt River Valley and Four Peaks are in the north and the Goldfield Mountains continue flowing out to the east. (THW, photo)
While there is some evidence of use walking north on the ridge, you are essentially on your own. As with all ridge traverses, stay in the center unless forced off and then return at first opportunity. Below, the broad prominence is a false summit which we mistook for the real thing.
Plants are nicely spaced; it's never too brushy. There is some light scrambling on good rock. (THW, photo)
Having never been off-trail in these mountains, we weren't sure if we could even pull off the ridge traverse. The first obstacle looked a little troublesome. We were taken by surprise to find freshly painted white dots and arrows leading us between two outcrops. This is exactly where we would have gone anyway so the dots functioned as reassurance cairns.
The markers continue briefly down the other side and then disappear. The spine constricts and while I wouldn't consider it exposed, it might give some hikers pause. (THW, photo)
The ridge broadens significantly and cairns lead along a social trail. Or, freestyle to the crest of the false summit at 2.5 miles, 3,240 feet.
Descend the roller and stand on a tuff platform covered in yellow lichen. Walking back on the Pass Mountain Trail you will be able to identify this location from the valley floor. (THW, photo)
The trail flanks the next outcrop but why pass up a good scramble? Ridge purists will take this head on.
The backbone north of the outcrop is pretty narrow with mild exposure but then again, you may skirt it. Boulder your way to the zenith of Pass Mountain.
After a one-mile ridge traverse mount the small, boulder-capped crest at 2.8 miles. A chained ammo box contains an official-looking register. The last entry was three days prior. (THW, photo)
From this fresh perspective Weavers Needle is visible. The highest prominence in the Goldfield Mountains is Dome Mountain, 3,381', image-left.
Two ridges emanate from Pass Mountain. I'm curious whether there is a viable route through the cliffs on the east ridge down to the Pass Mountain Trail. But for now, we intend to run out the north ridge (image-center), just trusting we will find a weakness in the tuff.
North Ridge to Pass Mountain Trail
Over the top of the next roller, shown, the ridge cliffs out. Bypass on the west in loose terrain and then return to the ridge.
There is a shooting range west of the park managed by the Arizona Game and Fish Department. You will inevitably hear gun shots throughout the remainder of the hike.
Approach a rock outcrop with an apricot-colored foundation at 3.2 miles. We stayed high thinking we'd flank it on the west and return to the spine but the north ridge effectively terminates here in a precipitous drop to the Pass Mountain Trail. The fragmented social trail begins its descent in front of the knob following an accommodating west ridge.
At another drop, elevation 3,080 feet, we worked our way down through the tuff band. Stepping or scooting down the series of layer cake drops was delightful. Barrels and saguaros live on the ledges. (THW, photo)
The ridge subtly divides at the rock spikes, shown, elevation 2,860 feet. It is most efficient to go west here.
We played out the north option and were glad we did because of this spectacular view. But we ended up transferring over to the westward ridge.
The unmaintained trail is braided throughout the descent. It doesn't matter if you get off-track. Just bear west and you will intersect the Pass Mountain Trail. Footing is ball bearing slick. Our route fed us into a dry washbed, shown. We simply followed it to the Pass Mountain Trail, hitting it at 4.1 miles. Coincidentally, this is where the Maricopa Trail branches northwest. Turn left on the Pass Mountain Trail.
Note: If your goal is simply to climb Pass Mountain (image center-right), reverse this return route for the most direct ascent with minimal scrambling.
In 0.2 mile pass from the Tonto National Forest back into Usery Mountain Regional Park. Share the trail with mountain bikes and equestrians. A fence on the west keeps hikers out of the park's archery range. It is the only Five-Star rated range in the west. Now that you've been on Pass Mountain's stone summit you can identify it from the 7.5 mile circuit trail.
It is auspicious that the barrels and saguaros are thriving in this megatropolis/Sonoran Desert interface.