Saturday, December 7, 2019

Yellow Peak, 3,061'; Black Top Mesa, 3,354', Superstition Mountains

Essence: The Superstition Wilderness within the Tonto National Forest was designated in 1939 and expanded to 160,200 acres in 1984. Approximately 180 miles of trails range from buff to rugged and obscure. The basic loop portion of this hike from First Water Trailhead is a Superstition classic. Yellow Peak is a straight-forward, off-trail climb complicated only by spiny vegetation and minor scrambling. A secondary trail ascends Black Top Mesa. The views from the suspended landform are superb of nearby Weavers Needle and the surrounding wilderness. Marvel at the convoluted topography and captivating features forged by volcanism. 
Travel: From the intersection of Lost Dutchman Boulevard and Apache Trail (AZ 88) drive north along the western front of the Superstition Mountains. Pass the Lost Dutchman State Park turnoff at 2.8 miles. A brown sign for First Water Trailhead precedes a right turn at 3.2 miles onto First Water Road, FSR 78. Reasonable clearance is needed on the lumpy dirt road. There are several wash crossings; do not attempt when flowing. Park at 5.8 miles. The large lot fills on weekends. Pit toilets, no water, no fees.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 13.6 miles with 2,750 feet of climbing for the hike as described. Mileage will vary depending on your route up Yellow Peak. The classic loop alone is 9.2 miles.
Total Time: 6:30 to 8:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 2+ on Yellow Peak; no exposure; carry all the water you will need and wear long pants; avoid searing summer months.
Map: Superstition Wilderness, Tonto National Forest, US Department of Agriculture; Goldfield, AZ 7.5' USGS Quad
Latest Date Hiked: December 7, 2019
Personal Note: My first hike in the Sonoran desert was from the First Water Trailhead. In 2001, I made a big loop through Boulder Canyon and did the spur to Black Top Mesa. Sonoran flora and the polychrome volcanic mountains were bewildering and wondrous. To this day they leave me spellbound.
Quote: Omne ignotum pro magnifico est. (Everything unknown appears magnificent.)

From Yellow Peak colorful Black Top Mesa, Weavers Needle, and Palomino Mountain are muted beneath a brooding winter sky.

Route: From the First Water Trailhead walk east on Second Water Trail and then southeast on Black Mesa Trail. Yellow Peak is a northerly, off-trail climb from Black Mesa Trail. Return to the treadway and walk southeast. Upon reaching Dutchman's Trail head east and divert onto the Bull Pass Trail. From Bull Pass take a secondary path southeast to Black Top Mesa. Retrace your steps to Dutchman's Trail and return to the trailhead by hiking west over Parker Pass. Note: this topographical map has 20 foot contours.

The Classic Loop Clockwise
At the First Water Trailhead, elevation 2,280 feet, sign the register and then step into a chaotic, volcanic wonderland on the Second Water Trail. The Sonoran grassland ecosystem is lush and mesmerizing with signature saguaro; teddybear, chainfruit, and buckhorn cholla; barrel, hedgehog, and mammillaria cactus; ocotillo, and pricklypear. Rabbitbrush and sage, jojoba and mesquite, ironwood and palo verde, aromatic bursage, ubiquitous brittlebush, ancient creosote, symmetrical agave, all thrive in abundance. Just a smattering of plants were blooming in December.

The Superstition Mountains were constructed by volcanic activity 25 million years ago. The welded tuff formation seen north of the trail is volcanic ash cemented under extreme heat. The trail travels over weathered tuff for much of the hike. It is a welcome feature on the otherwise rocky, babyhead surface. The tuff is coated with brilliant lime, ocean blue, and orange lichen. This crusty, branching plant brushes the mountains with vibrant hues.   

At 0.3 mile reach the prominent junction with the Dutchman's Trail, our return route. Stay on Second Water Trail. Cross First Water Creek at 0.4 mile. On this day all the waterways were flushing recent rains from saturated soil. The path climbs softly and at the top of a rise turns southeast to track above another fork of First Water. What is going on here? Incised canyons appear almost illogical in their formation. I haven't spent a lot of time in the Superstitions and the landscape feels almost overwhelming in its complexity and extent. This is a good deal of its charm but also poses a challenge to off-trail navigation.

At 1.1 miles cross a fork of First Water and then start up a wash that hung a U-turn off Black Mesa. Watch for appropriately shinny black stones in the creek bed while proceeding north. Emerge in Garden Valley on a refreshing soft dirt treadway. Perhaps the haven was named for the exceedingly large chainfruit cholla and prickly pear. The Goldfield Mountains arise in the west.

Leave the Second Water Trail in the Garden at 1.8 miles and turn right on the Black Mesa Trail. The footpath bears southeast hugging the base of Black Mesa. Rising above the strong population of saguaros is the lengthy Superstition Mountain ridgecrest concluding abruptly at the Flatiron.

The pathway comes to its highpoint on a flat at 2,750 feet. At the end of the platform begin the descent into the Boulder Canyon watershed. From here you can see Black Top Mesa left of Weavers Needle.

Yellow Peak
For hikers who enjoy hiking off-trail Yellow Peak is a true pleasure. Somewhat atypical of mountains in the region it is not terribly distinctive and that is what makes it so approachable. The namesake cliffs are clustered on the south side. Avoid them and you're good to go.

At 3.9 miles the trail swings northeast and runs alongside a south fork of Boulder Canyon. From here you are looking right at the west slope of Yellow Peak, seen below. Pause and decide on your approach. The easiest route may well be my return route--stay on the trail as it straightens itself out, for another 0.1 mile, and then head up. I wanted to see more of the mountain so I went downstream to the north.

It was slow going in the boulder-filled streambed and I got all tangled up in catclaw so I gave up on my plan to climb the length of the north ridge. Instead, at 4.4 miles, 2,450 feet, I began the climb aiming for the first saddle north of the peak. I was able to utilize a thread of open grassy slopes, seen below. It was fairly steep but worked well enough.

I hit the ridgeline in 0.2 mile having climbed 430 feet. It was fun scrambling to the crest on dark and shiny boulders. Where did they come from? Geologists believe that during an eruptive period three million years ago, lava flowed from fissures depositing the black basalt.

The highpoint is at the south end of the ridge. I topped out on the summit platform at 4.8 miles after 1,230 feet of accumulated vertical. Fans of the Superstition Mountains will be incredulous at the vista. The east slopes drop headlong 1,000 feet into Boulder Canyon. Rising up to the northeast are Battleship Mountain and Geronimo Head. The Four Peaks are off in the distance.

Mighty Malapais Mountain composed of thick bands of welded tuff is nearby in the east.

To descend, you could drop immediately west but I liked the feel of the south ridge. My next quarry, Black Top Mesa, was in clear view as well as Weavers Needle, the uncontested landmark, and Palomino Mountain.

At 2,900 feet I cliffed out so I tracked west until I could descend unimpaired. If you'd like to try the south ridge approach, reference Hike Arizona. I had a great time walking down the more open (I could dodge the plants.) and relatively shallow west slope. The trail is visible in the image below.

I hit the trail at 5,2 miles, 2,550 feet. Again, reverse my descent track for the most efficient ascent route. 

Continue southeast on the Black Mesa Trail, crossing from Maricopa County into Pinal County as you do so. Upon entering Boulder Basin pay close attention to remain on the primary trail. Loose ends spin off, waterways cross and run down the path.

Black Top Mesa
I reached the junction with Dutchman's Trail at 6.1 miles. Your mileage will likely vary but you can reference mine to calculate distances between points. Black Top Mesa is nothing short of glorious and there is a fine trail all the way to the far end. However, if you'd like to return to the First Water Trailhead on the classic loop, hang a right on Dutchman's Trail. For those going on to the mesa, it is 3.2 miles out-and-back with 1,100 feet of vertical. Allow 1:15 to 2:00 roundtrip.

Turn left on Dutchman's Trail. It tracks beneath the formidable north face of Palomino Mountain seemingly all towers and blocks. Equally stunning is the armored escarpment of Black Top Mesa.

The Boulder Canyon Trail branches left. I don't know what shape that trail is in today but in 2001 it involved a three-plus mile boulder hop that required patience. At 6.4 miles, leave Dutchman's Trail and bear left on the Bull Pass Trail. Cross East Boulder Canyon and initiate the climb at 2,250 feet. In 2001, this treadway was "sketchy" and overgrown. In 2019, it was in great shape and highly picturesque passing by a tuff boulder garden, shown. The ramparts of the mesa pinch at the north apex. Look over your shoulder to see Aylor's Arch on the summit ridge of "mystical" Palomino Mountain.

The beautiful footpath is tucked beneath the east barrier wall.

Top out on unsigned Bull Pass at 6.9 miles, 2,750 feet. (Continuing on, the trail drops down the other side and rejoins the Dutchman's Trail which swings around the south end of Black Top Mesa.) A cairn marks the secondary trail up the mesa. In 2001, the trail was very faint and hard to track in the grass. It was well-defined in 2019 up to the backslope where you must pay a little more attention. The track bears southeast below the broad ridge and gains the crest 100 vertical feet off the summit. From this vantage point swing around to see Yellow Peak, Boulder Canyon, and Battleship Mountain.

The trail weaves around eponymous basalt boulders and great stands of pricklypear to reach the highpoint at 7.7 miles. After 18 years away, I am astonished at the panorama the mesa affords of much higher peaks. Bluff Spring Mountain to the southeast is especially enthralling.

Petroglyphs are carved into boulders on the southeast rim. The sunburst image seen below depicts rays beaming from concentric circles.

Carefully step around to the cliff side of the boulder cluster to see another purposeful symbol. Small wonder the chosen location, so gorgeous and suspended over the greater landscape. Please, do not touch the rock art and do not deface the stones with marks of any kind. This rock art is the equivalent of finding the elusive gold in the Superstitions.

Dutchman's Trail Back to First Water Trailhead
Retrace your steps to the Dutchman's Trail and Black Mesa Trail junction, 9.3 miles. The hike on this highly popular trail continues to astonish as it meanders through seriously wild country. There is something new everywhere you look. Most impressive is the west face of Weavers Needle. Mountain Project, the technical climbing website, notes that the Needle is named for Army scout and mountain man Pauline Weaver. "The peak is the remnant of a huge stack of fused volcanic ash that eroded to form the pinnacle."

Pass by a bubbly tuff wall. Then notice how ash-flow tuff crosses the trail. Mount unsigned Parker Pass after minimal effort at 11.1 miles, 2,630 feet. Now back in the First Water drainage the path fords creeks several times. The fantastical jutting towers are rhyolite, extrusive igneous rocks associated with vulcanism.

Water-smoothed walls speak to the carving power of First Water Creek.

Close the loop at 13.3 miles. Approaching the trailhead I noticed a bobcat slither silently across the path. Earlier I'd seen a javelina and signs of them rooting around. I look forward to further exploration in the Superstition Mountains. Some day familiarity may dull astonishment but will surely sharpen the appeal of this magnificent landscape.