Thursday, March 29, 2018

Quartz Peak, 4,052', and Butterfly Mountain, 4,119': Sierra Estrella

Essence: Sierra Estrella (Star Mountains) is southwest of Phoenix and highly visible from the metropolis. The range runs northwest to southeast with Quartz Peak on the ridgecrest just south of the mid-point. Perhaps the entire range was named for the small prominence that blazes star bright in twilight. Yet, in its presence white stone is cool to the touch, reflective as the moon. The Quartz Peak Trail is the only pathway in the range and it is extraordinary. Contrary to warnings on the web, it is easy to follow. The final 0.6 mile is Class 2+. Quartz is a subsidiary of Butterfly Mountain. Only those with considerable experience hiking off-trail in the desert should tackle the one-mile traverse to the East Wing. The ridge is brushy and the scramble up the summit block is exposed. The West Wing must be protected. The Sierra Estrella Wilderness (managed by the BLM) is bounded by the Gila River Indian Community on the north and east; BLM, state, and private lands lie west and south. The long, rugged drive to the trailhead on the west side of the mountains assures solitude.
Travel: Take I-10 west out of Phoenix. Leave the interstate on Exit 126, Estrella Parkway. Drive south through the town of Goodyear. The parkway begins as a 3-lane with palm trees in the median. At 5.2 miles, cross the Gila River and enter the foothills. There is a major housing development in the once tiny town of Estrella. Go through a rotary and at 8.6 miles, turn right/west on W Elliot Road at a signal. Cross creosote flats and at 11.3 miles, turn south on Rainbow Valley Road. Go east on Riggs Road at 20.9 miles. You are now driving toward the range through irrigated cropland. Cross a wide wash at 23.3 miles and intersect Bullard Avenue at 25.0 miles. Jog about 20 feet to the right and then left/east onto a dirt track. Pavement ends and there are patches of soft sand. The road parallels a power line. Cross a cattle guard at 26.0 miles. Periodic trail signs point the way. As you approach the base of the mountains, cane cholla is in its Sonoran homefront and proudly crowds the road. Come to a major transmission line at 30.5 miles and turn south on the powerline road. Go left under the line at 32.5 miles. Park in a large lot at 34.4 miles. There is an outhouse and picnic table at the trailhead but NO water. 4WD with decent clearance is required for sand. Allow 1:00-1:15 from I-10 to the trailhead.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 6 miles RT to Quartz Peak; 8 miles RT to Butterfly Mountain. 2,600 feet of climbing for Quartz; 3,300 feet of gross vertical for Butterfly.
Total Time: 3:00-5:00 for Quartz; add 2:00-3:00 for the out-and-back to Butterfly.
Difficulty: Trail to Quartz; off-trail to Butterfly; navigation easy to Quartz and moderate to Butterfly; no exposure to Quartz, moderate exposure on the East Wing of Butterfly with Class 3 scrambling; long pants for those going on to Butterfly. Carry all the water you will need.
Map: Montezuma Peak, AZ 7.5 USGS Quad
Date Hiked: March 29, 2018
From the desert low
We ply the rocky ridge on high
To speak with the star and the butterfly.
Thomas Holt Ward

Visiting Quartz Peak is a celebratory celestial experience. Aptly named Butterfly Mountain rises a little higher over moon-white boulders. (THW, photo)
Route: The Quartz Peak Trail bears essentially north-northeast to Quartz Peak. Leave the trail and walk east on a ridge to Butterfly Mountain. The East Wing is accessible for scramblers. The West Wing is a technical climb. 

The Quartz Peak Trailhead is located on the floor of Rainbow Valley at 1,560 feet. According to the map placard, Congress designated 14,400 acres as Sierra Estrella Wilderness in 1990. The registration box is a few paces up the trail. This image looks back on the trailhead.

Quartz Peak
Walk northeast up a wide track. The twin summit on the horizon is Butterfly Mountain. The trail turns to the northwest, cairn stacks leading the way. A quartz boulder, blasts of mica light--the trail is positively shining. The pathway rises up the side of the first ridge, pictured. Begin the climb at 0.4 mile on a well-engineered platform dug out of the slope. Already there is a sense of remoteness. Our only company on this day is the Sonoran plant community and mind-blowing rock.

Gain the first of two access ridges at 0.6 mile, Benchmark 1,852'. Having climbed many desert mountains off-trail, the superbly constructed linear treadway with stone steps and retaining walls feels luxurious. The trail favors the west side of the ridge when it is not right on top. Start hiking in the early morning and you will be shaded from the powering up sun. Teddybear cholla crowd saguaro, ocotillo throw flames, a coyote is yapping away. The image below looks back on the first ridge, the parking lot visible. Southwest is Sevenmile Mountain, Peak 2,948' jutting sharply.

At 1.0 mile, elevation 2,290 feet, transition onto the second access ridge. Quartz Peak may be briefly glimpsed.

The ridgeline constricts to 15 feet, the treadway hemmed by boulders as it works both sides of the ridge. Trail builders had an eye for mythic beauty and Sonoran splendor.

At 2.0 miles, Benchmark 3,092', Quartz comes into view once again as the trail transitions onto the south-southwest ridge of the peak. Ascend a rocky outcrop on miniature switchbacks. 

The West and East Wings of Butterfly Mountain are often visible from the trail.

Trail engineering ends on Point 3,523 at 2.4 miles. From here, follow plentiful cairns as the route snakes around on the spine, never straying more than a few feet from the ridgecrest. The challenge increases from Class 1 walking to Class 2+ with very light scrambling. Quartz floaters lie on the surface as the route takes us right under the south-facing summit block. (THW, photo)

Luminous quartz boulders extrude from bedrock. Walk on the path of light.

There are multiple scrambling routes up the east side of the summit.

The rock is highly textured and embedded with mica mirrors.

Pass through white blocks adorning the crest.

The peak is a jumble of pure quartz boulders. From afar the crown looks like a star. But in its presence, stones are moon-white. Albedo renders their surfaces cool. Judging from the joyful mood conveyed in the summit register, people draw genuine happiness and elation from this particular place. Having grown up in the Sierra Nevada, quartz defined my childhood world. But I had never seen anything like this. (THW, photo)

Montezuma Peak, 4,354', is in the southeast quarter of the range.

It is 3.0 miles with 2,500 feet of vertical to Quartz Peak. Most visitors turn back here, and they should. Butterfly Mountain is a commitment well beyond the requirement of the Quartz Peak Trail.

Butterfly Mountain, East Wing
Quartz is not a ranked summit because there is only 275 feet of relief from the shared saddle with Butterfly, not the requisite 300. Allow at least one hour for the traverse from one mountain to another. Looking at the image below, downclimb from the summit block and skirt the first rock outcrop on the south before returning to the ridge.

The ridge looks rather intimidating from afar but is relatively friendly up close. Work the spine as you please, either right on top or just off on the south side. There is mild exposure in places.

At 3.3 miles, go over a knob. A new segment is revealed. Looking at the image below, on our way to Butterfly we skirted the ridge on the south side. Click on this image to see a tempting game trail (which soon disappears). On our return we stayed on the ridge, bypassing a couple of gendarmes. It took slightly longer but was more playful.

At 3.7 miles there is a boulder ball so massive you could mistake it for a butterfly wing. Walk along the southern base of this great feature.

There is little information on climbing Butterfly Mountain so, of course, we just assumed we'd be climbing both wings. But access up the West Wing did not look promising.

The west wall of the wing is well armored.

We circumnavigated looking for a route. The north side is thick with brush and the wall is sheer. The south side is the better route around the wing. We did not locate even a Class 4 scramble option. However, the East Wing looked appealing and well within our abilities.

It is a Class 3 scramble up the East Wing on solid rock with excellent holds. The exposure near the top is moderate. The wing sheers off sharply on both sides. My hiking partner is nearing a false summit.

Mount the East Wing. Fluttering over the diminutive summit were, appropriately, yellow butterflies.

The view was muted by haze and my unfamiliarity with the Phoenix region. To the east, the Gila River is very near the base of Sierra Estrella. Next is South Mountain, the highrises of downtown, Piestewa Peak and Camelback Mountain, and Four Peaks.

The image below looks back on the West Wing and Quartz Peak. The highpoint of Sierra Estrella is the red summit, image-right, Peak 4,512'. Locals refer to it informally as Hayes Peak. Ira Hayes was a Pima Native American and a member of the Gila River Indian Community. As a United States Marine he was one of the six flag raisers in the photograph taken on Iwo Jima during World War II. Hayes Peak (and Montezuma Peak) are on tribal land and permission must be obtained before climbing. "The Community is a closed-reservation which means the land is not open to the outside public. Right-of-entry permits are not issued for hiking." (From the tribal permit application.)

For the return, after passing the boulder ball stay on the lumpy ridge as best you can.

After skirting the rock outcrop, shown, you may forego Quartz, of course. We were compelled to go up and have another look around.

The descent on this particular trail is an unusual pleasure because you can see the footpath winding down the ridgeline well below.

A star and a butterfly are a most unusual pairing. But in the Sierra Estrella they commune together upon our sun-breathing Earth.

The winter of 2017-2018 has been historically dry. In March, wildflowers would normally be competing with rocks for our attention. Sadly, other than the Ocotillo torches, we saw one lupine, one wild hyacinth, and shrubby deervetch blossoming in the shade of the boulder ball.


  1. Nice report....Great looking hike. Thanx Debra and Tom

  2. Amazing pics and interesting climb notes, I found it astounding. the presence of so much quartz in one place. it is unique and breathtaking. I also wonder, have you thought of assisting to preserve the quartz?? I think the range this particular mountain, Quartz Peak, has special qualities. take a look at all angles of the particular Mountain, you will see it. it is unique. and you have traversed it. that is Unique. Mexicans will try to touch you.

  3. those are amazing images. Thank you for posting them!

    1. You're welcome. Thank you for reading and appreciating. Our Earth is wondrous. Debra