Thursday, November 30, 2017

Apache Peak, 7,711'; French Joe Peak, 7,675'; Whetstone Mountains

Essence: The Whetstone Mountains are a compact fault-block range about 15 miles long located southeast of Tucson. Apache Peak is the highpoint of this sky island, one of many in southeastern Arizona. The arduous and tedious drive to the west side of the peak is followed by a rugged, brush-covered, off-trail hike. Begin in riparian Apache Canyon. The ridge climb is open to expansive views. Exposed limestone houses a variety of fossils. The small crest is a remarkable vantage point. Adjacent French Joe Peak is not a legal summit and getting there is a bristly sufferfest but it offers the only scramble of the day, more fossils, and an extraordinary cristate cane cholla.
Travel: The Whetstone Mountains are south of I-10. From Tucson, in a 4WD high clearance vehicle, drive east on the interstate to Vail. Exit onto State Route 83. From here allow 1:40 to 2:00 to the end of the road and beginning of the hike. Driving south on Highway 83, pass the right turn toward Madera Canyon and proceed through a check point (operational in 2017) and up a hill. Just past mile marker 40 (18.7 miles from I-10), turn left at a brown sign for Empire Ranch Historic Site and zero-out your trip meter. From here, the going is slow and sometimes confusing. We went off on the wrong track more than once. I attempt to give accurate mileages but yours may vary. Find a map of our road track at the end of this post. The road is paved at first but soon turns to dirt. Further on it is impassible when wet. Enter the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, a wildlife refuge.
3.1 (miles) Stop sign at T junction. Turn left on Bureau of Land Management Road 6901 toward Oak Tree Canyon. Roll through open grassland and a mesquite bosque. Cross Cienega Creek.
7.5 Hook a sharp left. This keeps you on 6901.
8.6 Y intersection, go left staying on 6901. The road rises on a ridge. At the next T junction turn right.
9.6 Go under power lines and left down a hill. Cross Wood Canyon and then crisscross a (hopefully) dry wash several times in the next annoying and rocky three miles. Climb out of the drainage.
12.8 Turn left at another T intersection notable for a large, water-filled round concrete trough. The track descends and then degenerates while crossing a wash with large stones.
14.4 Stay straight at the signed left turn to Apache Spring.
16.2 Open and close a gate.
17.5 Open and close a second gate
18.3 Caution! The track abruptly ends at a small berm protecting a dropoff. This is the end of the road and the parking area.
Distance and Elevation Gain: Apache Peak is 4.8 miles roundtrip with 2,400 feet of climbing. Add French Joe Peak and it's a total of 6.3 miles with 2,960 feet of vertical.
Time: 6:30 to 8:00 for both prominences
Difficulty: Off-trail; navigation challenging; Class 2+ scramble on French Joe summit block; no exposure; protect against brush; rocks roll under foot much of way making it more rugged than the stats would indicate.
Map: Apache Peak, AZ 7.5 USGS Quad 
Date Hiked: November 30, 2017
Quote: I pace the shallow sea, walking the time between, reflecting on the type of fossil I’d like to be. I guess I’d like my bones to be replaced by some vivid chert, a red ulna or radius, or maybe preserved as the track of some lug-soled creature locked in the sandstone--how did it walk, what did it eat, and did it love sunshine? Ann Zwinger

The limestone summit block of French Joe Peak is a fun scramble. South are the Huachuca Mountains and further off is Mexico. (THW, photo)

Route: From the parking area, elevation 5,400 feet, drop into Apache Canyon and walk east. The dry creek branches twice; we went right both times. We essentially went due east, climbed out of the drainage, and gained the southwest ridge of Apache at 6,400 feet. It's a straight shot up the ridge to the peak. To reach French Joe Peak, follow the south ridge of Apache.  

The image below was taken from the end of the road. Study the terrain and plot your course before commencing. There are other routes to the peak but ours was direct, protected our elevation gain, and stayed mostly in the grass. Within Apache Canyon we went right at two forks. We climbed out of the creek bed and went up the golden slope, right of image-center. It steepens and gets a little greyer before joining the southwest ridge. We moved up the spine, passing the knob, image-center, where we saw Apache Peak for the first time.

Locate a social trail off the left side of the berm. It dives down into an intimate dry waterway lush with mature riparian vegetation: sotol, beargrass, clematis, massive alligator junipers, an Arizona oak draped over the canyon, Mexican piñon...and poison ivy. All the living things were clearly happy on the canyon bottom.

At 0.2 mile, the drainage divides at two falls, each about ten feet tall. We scampered up the barrier on the right because it looked much more appealing. (The jump on the left was choked.) As it happens, this choice served our route well.

One of my companions is a geologist and he was somewhat baffled by the rock. There are bedding planes with fossilized mud tracks in sandstone, indicating sedimentary formation. And yet there are also fine-grained igneous intrusive rocks.  

At half a mile the wash divides once more and we bore right. Brush wasn't a problem and we made good progress. At 5,560 feet, 0.7 mile into the hike, we climbed out of the canyon bottom, still bearing east. We scaled a rocky grass slope troubled with catclaw mimosa. Gaining elevation, the piñon-juniper woodland included spherical one-seed junipers. We were directly south of the east fork of Apache Canyon and a symmetrical hill, elevation 6,220 feet.

The land flattens ever so briefly at 6,060 feet, shown. There's no way to avoid a tangled northwest-facing oak-juniper slope that rises steeply for 340 feet to join Apache's southwest ridge. Baby heads have a tendency to roll underfoot. (THW, photo)

This image looks back on the route thus far from the southwest ridge at 6,400 feet.

An historic and picturesque barbed-wire fence runs up the ridge clear to the summit. Juniper stakes and large stone weights keep it in place. This image looks west to Mt. Wrightson.

Structurally, the Whetstones are relatively simple, consisting of a westward tilted fault block of monoclinal Paleozoic strata. Permian limestone occurs on the west flank of the mountain The oldest rocks are low on the east flank. For example, Kartchner Caverns exists entirely in the older Mississippian period.

First we happened upon calcite rhombohedrons within the limestone formation. Then small fossil nodules. And then this perfect nautiloid fossil.

Further along we found a brachiopod fossil.

This stone holds a horn coral and crinoid fossils.

At 7,100 feet, a ridge joins from the north. This is one of the documented routes up Apache. On our return we debated descending this ridge and going over the aforementioned 6,220 foot hill, but the route looked even more choked and we'd have to give up some elevation.

At 7,200 feet, crest the knob identified from the parking area. It presents as inconsequential but here the summit is revealed for the first time. The subsequent slope is loaded with fossils.

Vegetation on the ridge includes mountain mahogany, cane cholla with yellow fruits that look like flowers, Engelmann prickly pear and shin daggers, Schott's agave. Southeast Arizona is considered Chihuahuan Desert so we thought the daggers might be lechuguilla. And while lechuguilla is an indicator plant for the Chihuahuan Desert, it doesn't grow in Arizona. At 7,500 feet, we spied this sunny yellow Schott's agave, a late bloomer. (THW, photo)

Reach the hard-fought summit of Apache Peak at 2.4 miles; there was a peak register in 2017. This small zenith, topped with a little pile of limestone chunks and graced with astonishing views, is the highest prominence in the Whetstone Mountains.

Southern Arizona is basin and range topography. The valleys tend to be wider than the sky islands. Water on the east side of the Whetstones sheds into the San Pedro River; east of the river are the Dragoon Mountains. You can see Mount Glenn, the highpoint, and Rockfellow Dome. Runoff on the west side drains into Cienega Creek. Mount Wrightson dominates in the Santa Rita Mountains to the west. The Rincon Mountains reside to the north and the Huachuca Mountains (and Mexico) are south. Other note-worthy prominences are Baboquivari Peak, Mt. Graham, and the Chiricahua Mountains.

There is only one hiking trail in the Whetstone Mountains. It is accessed from Kartchner Caverns State Park in the eastern foothills of the range. It tops out at 5,620 feet. 

Looking northeast from the summit, note the tilted up bedding planes. Some are favorable for vegetation growth, others not. This creates a visually striking ric-rac pattern, shown below. 

French Joe Peak
Most hikers will wish to turn around at Apache Peak. French Joe is not a legal summit and the tangled mass of vegetation between the peaks is irritating. Even so, I'm glad I bothered because French Joe has its charms. It is 0.7 mile between the peaks and adds almost 600 feet of vertical overall. This image was taken from Apache and shows French Joe and a broad southern swing. (THW, photo)

On the south side of Apache the limestone is thickly decorated with fossilized nodules and worms, lending a fascinating texture. Just before the 7,460 foot saddle is a cristate cane cholla, a first for us. It is a true anomaly.

Pass through "French Joe Park," which features an ancient symmetrical alligator juniper. The abundance of fossils continues.

Your reward is a class 2+ scramble up the limestone summit block.

Crest French Joe Peak, 7,675 feet, at 3.1 miles. We might have considered hiking to Granite Peak, right of image-center, to see more of the Whetstones but continuing on from here looked undesirable, if not impossible.

This image looks from French Joe to Apache. On our return we contoured around the west side of the peak at 7,600 feet and intercepted our upcoming track.

Birds in Las Cienegas
My friend the geologist is also a serious birder. While we were driving through Las Cienegas National Conservation Area at the end of November, he identified the following birds: northern harrier hawk, meadowlark, loggerhead shrike, Cooper's hawk, canyon towhee, Mexican jay, and blue-gray gnatcatcher.

I'd like to thank John Bregar, geologist, ornithologist, and naturalist, for bringing to light and identifying the natural treasures of Apache Peak.

4WD, HC Road from Hwy 83 to Apache Peak Parking
Click to enlarge image.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Perins Peak, 8,346'; and Peak 8,682' (North Perins Peak)

Essence: Well-established trail adjacent to town. Playful features and wild creatures make this an engaging hike for children. Pleasant grade through Gambel oak and ponderosa pine habitat. Grassy ridge tops out at the peak. Scramble down boulders to the cliff edge for jaw-dropping views of Durango and the La Plata Mountains. Perins Peak is oft forgotten because it is closed eight months of the year. The path is drenched in bird song and peaceful solitude. New in 2017: hike off-trail to North Perins Peak. Both mountains are ranked summits.
Travel: From Main Avenue and 25th Street in Durango, go west. Pass Miller Middle School and in two blocks, turn left on Clovis Drive. Go up the hill and enter the Rockridge subdivision. Drive just under a mile and turn right on Tanglewood Drive. Cross a small bridge and take an immediate left. The parking area is on the right.
Distance and Elevation Gain: Perins Peak is 6.0 miles, with 1,600 feet of climbing. Add North Perins Peak (summit only) and it's 10.0 miles with 2,300 feet of vertical. The blue-line route to North Perins and the Stone Boy, exclusive of Perins Peak, is 9.5 miles with 2,200 feet of vertical.
Time: 2:30 to 4:00; add 2:00 for North Perins Peak
Difficulty: Perins Peak: trail; navigation easy. North Perins Peak: off-trail; navigation moderate. Both have precipitous exposure on the cliff platforms.
Map: Durango West, Colorado 7.5' Quad or Apogee Mapping
Latest Date Hiked: August 26, 2023
Closure, December 1 - July 31: Seasonal closure in the Perins Peak State Wildlife Area provides winter shelter for deer and elk. The closure is extended through spring and early summer to safeguard peregrine falcons nesting and raising their young. This brings the Colorado Parks and Wildlife property into compliance with statewide BLM peregrine falcon regulations.
Quote:  I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.  Frank Lloyd Wright, 1966

Perins Peak is a distinctive natural landmark rising west of Durango. North Perins Peak is to its right.

Route: Perins Peak is the black-line route. From the Rockridge Trailhead, elevation 6,880 feet, walk southwest up a drainage before winding up a northeast-facing slope. Walk east on the rolling ridge to the peak. Continue to the cliff platform. Retrace your steps to the trailhead. To reach North Perins Peak follow the blue-line route north to the summit, described at the end of this entry. Visiting the stone boy (cairn monument), is an optional side trip.

Perins Peak
The peak trail is within the 13,442 acre Perins Peak State Wildlife Area managed by CPW to maintain wildlife and habitat conservation.

Pass the placards at Trailhead 6,880', bear left, and immediately cross Dry Gulch. The thin trail skirts the Rockridge subdivision in a grassy field framed with piñon-juniper.
Enter dark and mysterious woods. On north-facing slopes and along the banks of a tributary of Dry Gulch are cottonwood, Douglas fir, and soaring ponderosa pine. Steaming piles of black bear scat will be on the trail in the fall. Watch for deer, elk, and the rare cougar. Squirrels scurry all about. 2022 Note: In late May, 2022, the Perins Peak Fire ignited in the draw about a mile up the trail. It burned 106 acres on the north side of the mountain, terminating on the peak. The fire is concentrated for a short stretch beside the trail where old-growth timber was incinerated.(THW, photo)

Traverse atop and balance along humongous logs.

At 1.3 miles, the track begins climbing in earnest up a hillside crowded with scrub oak, mountain mahogany, and chokecherry. Splendor aflame in autumn, many locals make an annual trek to Perins Peak to experience the brilliance of color. (THW, photo)

Look north and the horizon is spiked with the Needle Mountains, including inseparable Pigeon and Turret Peaks. In contrast, in front of these behemoths lies the relatively flat summit plateau of Mountain View Crest.

If kids are going to falter, it'll be on this steep and open hillside. The path soon comes to a welcome patch of pine, aspen and snowberry, a good place for revitalizing snacks and water. The pitch softens as the trail emerges from the woods. Wade through tall grasses watching for the slithering neon, smooth green snake. Listen for the western rattlesnake. (THW, photo)

At 2.2 miles, 8,000 feet, just after a fallen structure on the right, the trail splits twice in rapid succession. The subtle junctures may be marked with cairns. Turn left/southeast. If the La Plata Mountains are in your viewfinder, turn around! Note: in June, 2017, the Lightner Creek Fire burned 412 acres in this area. All that remains of the structure is roofing material. The two-track was widened for firefighting equipment.

Go east up the broad ridge.

The treadway climbs another 350 feet to the soft, grassy highpoint. The peak is named for Charles Perins who laid out the Durango townsite for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. A peak register is tucked under the cairn celebrating 8,346 feet. Smelter Mountain and Lake Nighthorse are to the south. The view of Durango only gets better.

Pass by two drive-in movie screens, actually, a microwave reflecting facility. Turkey vultures like to hang out in droves on these structures. You are sure to see peregrine and possibly prairie falcons circling above. Beefy, short-horned lizards thrive here.

Descend gently as the ridge narrows to constrict the passage. At 3.0 miles the earth suddenly falls away. Those with a fear of heights can take in the panorama, compromising little, from this back-from-the-edge overlook. The brave will find a scrambler's route down through gigantic boulders. Be mindful of the exposure. The east cliff face formation is Point Lookout Sandstone.

Kids love messing around in the boulders. Young ones need constant supervision in this precipitous area.

It is a thrill to approach the abrupt edge. Perins Peak is seen from all over Durango so naturally the vista from this lookout is unbeatable. To my right is the Hogsback. Fort Lewis College is on the plateau across the river valley.
(Chris Blackshear, photo)

Children need a spotter while going both down and back up through the boulders. (THW, photo)

Most enthralling of all is Perins Perch. From here, look down on town or west to Silver Mountain in the La Plata range.

Return as you came, passing the microwave reflectors.

At 3.8 miles, don't miss the two essential right turns. (THW, photo)

This hike is suitable for children aged seven and up. They especially like all the wild things, playing in the boulders, looking down on town, and non-stop trail conversation. Bring jackets, hats, treats, and water.

North Perins Peak
The most dramatic view of North Perins Peak is from the Dry Gulch Trail which heads northwest from the Rockridge Trailhead. The sandstone promontory is the goal of this venture for scramblers.

For those who first climb Perins Peak, pause on the highpoint and plot your course. Informally named North Perins Peak is at the far north end of the cuesta. You will be walking up the west side.
Return to the junction with the exit trail and continue north-northwest on an old road. In just 0.1 mile the road splits. The left branch, the more obvious track seen below, goes to the Perins City mining camp ruins. Bear right on a two-track. It is pretty clear at first but soon becomes hard to follow. Just stay west of a large ravine.

The backslope of the cuesta is sparsely forested with ponderosa. Weave around patches of Gamble oak. Toward the west side is a cluster of unusual, magnificent pines with multiple trunks.

Travel is easy up the grassland tabletop, open to excellent views west and east.

In two miles the slope comes to an abrupt fall-away escarpment. The peak register was placed by Mark Ott of Mancos in 2014. According to the log this mountain of solitude is visited but once or twice a year. Views are absolutely unique. Immediately west, Barnroof Point is slightly higher. Swinging clockwise, the La Plata Mountains make a signature statement throughout the hike. Mount Eolus dominates in the San Juan Mountains. Nearby, are Missionary Ridge, Animas City Mountain, and Turtle Lake, shown. Durango is wide-open. Perins Peak has a subdued shape from this location.

Most hikers will turn around at the summit. It is possible for scramblers to continue out the north ridge, dropping 200 feet in 0.25 mile. There is a faint social trail slightly off the east side of the precipice. The oak brush is thick and annoying but affords some safety. Get right back on the ridge and do a low Class 3 drop to a mid-level platform, shown.

To reach the very end of the point, back up a few paces and plunge down a shale slope for 40 feet on the east side of the ridge. Skirt along the base of a small cliff band and then return to the spine. Below, climbers perch on the airy and exposed end of the prow.

A seemingly bottomless crack severs the sandstone blade. There are big drops on three sides creating a spectacular vantage point.

After clawing your way out of there, retrace your steps to the junction with the Perins Peak trail. Or, extend your hike by visiting the cairn monument.

Stone Boy
As indicated on the map above, we walked east along the platform to another overlook. It afforded a view back at the suspended peninsula. The ring of stone that flows out to the blade is Point Lookout Sandstone. Overlying it is the Menefee Formation. While the Menefee is primarily shale and coal there are sandstone beds, the short cliffs we scooted beneath. The cuesta top is upheld by Cliffhouse Sandstone. Look about and you will see yellow rocks on the surface that are characteristic of this formation. (THW, photo)

From the eastern viewpoint analyze the landscape. The cuesta is divided by two ravines. To find the stone boy walk down a broad ridge between the drainageways for a little under a mile. You will find him out on a point. The nine-foot-tall cairn monument was probably crafted by sheepherders to while away the time while tending their flocks. It is a stunning yellow edifice built with Cliffhouse Sandstone.

From here we were able to weave our way west without getting too tangled in oak. Even in the thickest thickets the plants are well spaced. So descend west into the ravine and climb back out to rejoin your incoming route on the cuesta top.

The North Perins cuesta is big empty country and illustrates the enormity of the American West just steps from home.