Thursday, December 20, 2018

Pass Mountain Ridge Traverse, 3,312', Usery Mountain Regional Park, Goldfield Mountains

Essence: This loop hike combines popular, superbly crafted trails with an off-trail, scrabbly traverse over the Pass Mountain ridge. The namesake peak is the highest prominence on the ridgeline and the westernmost point in the Goldfield Mountains. Visit Wind Cave and then leave the crowds behind. Navigation is relatively straightforward. There are continuous views of mountains ringing the Phoenix metropolis from the ridgetop. The Sonoran Desert is exceptionally lush with barrel cactus and saguaro families ranging from very young to regal and ancient. Most of the hike is in the Tonto National Forest. It begins in Usery Mountain Regional Park managed by Maripopa County Parks and Recreation. The park is north of US 60, east of Mesa and west of Apache Junction. 
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)

Pass Mountain 
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. 

Monday, December 17, 2018

Forest Hill, 6,114', Via Hidden Pasture, Little Rincon Mountains

Essence: Forest Hill is the highest peak in the Little Rincon Mountains. The range is 15 miles long and eight miles wide trending southwest to northeast. The central block of the Rincon Mountains is to the west in Saguaro National Park and the San Pedro Trough is to the east. The landscape and topography are enchanting. Travel amongst weathered granite boulders, along two softly sculpted waterways, and through Hidden Pasture to the fine little mountaintop. This is a route; not a well-trodden trail. A very old footpath is now obscured by vegetation and disuse. Both navigation and passage are difficult. Interwoven in the narrative are thoughts and images pertaining to the unconventional scramble directly up the streambed to Hidden Pasture. This hike is within the Coronado National Forest.
Travel: From I-10, take Exit 297, Mescal Road. Measure from here and drive north on Mescal Road, a paved two lane. Pavement ends 3.2 miles from the interstate. Transition to FSR 35 at 4.3 miles. It is a graded and wide roadbed prone to washboard. Wind up Ash Creek which drains the Little Rincon Mountains on the east and the Rincon Mountains to the west. Pass Ash Creek Ranch at 7.2 miles. Ford Ash Creek two times. The first and deepest crossing at 8.1 miles may require 4WD with high clearance. Hang a sharp right into a circular parking area west of Ash Creek 10.1 miles from I-10.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 10.0 miles; 2,700 feet of climbing
Total Time: 7:30 to 9:00
Difficulty: A sparsely cairned, barely visible trail to Hidden Pasture, then off-trail to the peak; navigation challenging; Class 2+ scrambling and bouldering; no exposure; stream is intermittent and contaminated so carry all the water you will need.
Map: Galleta Flat West, AZ 7.5' USGS Quad
Latest Date Hiked: December 17, 2018
Quote: The path is made in the walking of it. Zhuangzi, b.369 BCE

The spheroidal nature of granitic boulders, rock stacks, towers, and walls is the compelling feature of this challenging hike.

Route: Navigate northeast on a disappearing trail, primarily on the southeast side of an unnamed northwest tributary of Ash Creek. There is a mile-long stretch of streambed walking. Upon reaching Hidden Pasture climb north to Forest Hill. Return as you came. 

To Hidden Pasture
From the parking area at elevation 3,980 feet, walk up the track a few paces under sycamore trees and towering mesquite. Ranching is widespread in the region--damage and water contamination from cattle is extensive. Cross Ash Creek on boulders as best you can. Then, find any passage through the thorny brush while ascending about 60 feet up the hill to a fence line. Outdated websites reference a trail up the slope but it has disappeared. Follow the barbed-wire fence north keeping it on your right. There is a rough fence line trail. (Note for the return: this tempting trail will not lead you back to the parking area.) Pass through a gate at 0.2 mile, 4,040 feet. It is essential that you locate this gate for the old trail leads on from here.

Enter a spheroidal world. Raised up 30 to 40 million years ago the Little Rincon Mountains expose a melange of geological formations. While there is some surface schist, the weathered rock is composed of a range of granite suites. The igneous granitics include coarse grained intrusive rocks. You will find multiple scatters of large quartz nuggets.

The lower vegetation zone is Apache Highlands Grassland. Hidden Pasture and Forest Hill are within the Evergreen Oak Woodland zone. Typical vegetation includes dyebush, mammillaria cactus, yucca, cholla, shindaggers, sotol, resurrection moss, and ocotillo. There are unavoidable nasty thorny shrubs so wear long pants. The recent invasion of buffelgrass, a non-native noxious weed, has contributed to the demise of the trail.

Given the name Hidden Pasture I wondered whether the route was once an established stock trail but I couldn't find any history on that. If you know, please comment. Be intently watchful for cairns, typically just one stone on a boulder. Thankfully, someone went to a lot of effort to mark the route all the way to Hidden Pasture. There are trail fragments associated with some cairns.

Ascend to a shelf southeast of the canyon. Go up a shallow draw at 0.4 mile. The string of pinnacles and stony knobs on the opposite side of the canyon is the undulating southwest ridge of Forest Hill.

The trail hangs above the canyon at 0.6 mile. It is a dramatic spot with a view of Rincon Peak so far above and the tank-filled waterway cutting a sharp curve below.

The first barrier fall encountered by those hiking up the creek is depicted below, image-center.

Streambed Alternative
In February, 2014, my partner and I didn't know about the standard route so we attempted to reach Hidden Pasture by scrambling up the canyon bottom. There is no trail, it's boulder hopping all the way. If you intend to follow the streambed to Hidden Pasture, from the parking area make your way up Ash Creek to the confluence with the tributary and enter there. The canyon is an exquisitely beautiful and profoundly rewarding stone corridor. The one caveat is an abundance of vicious, shredding catclaw. This image is unusual because it shows the one and only saguaro in the entire region east of the park. (That I know of.)

Here is an image of the fearsome-looking pouroff mentioned above. Bypass upcanyon-left. (THW, photo)

The top of the dropoff is white granite, smooth and still.

Standard Route
The rim trail descends to the canyon floor at 0.8 mile and crosses the creek. The route follows the stream for just 0.2 mile before climbing out of the drainage. Pass a classic barbed-wire fence at 1.3 miles. It is no longer maintained and the gate is open. (THW, photo)

At 1.7 miles, 4,400 feet, the path intersects the creek again. It took us about an hour to cover this initial segment. Memorize the configuration of this location so you don't blow by it on the return. This image was shot looking back at the trail and a couple of short-stack cairns, image-left.

Beside the stream is a distinctive water pocket surrounded by stone sheets exfoliating in unusual flaked scallop patterns.

Work your way up the creek on either side for the next mile. In 2018, the impacts of cattle left the water with an orange-tinge, a bad smell, and choked with algae. Still, sculpted bedrock makes this passage a delight.

Ribs of granite run horizontal to the flow. Multiple generations of Tertiary faulting caused significant tilting of rocks. (THW, photo)

We followed adult cougar tracks all the way to the bypass where we lost his prints but happened upon piles of recent bear scat. We saw no footprints, not even old ones, on the entire hike. If you are looking for solitude, this is the ticket. (THW, photo)

The blade pool. (THW, photo)

Cairns lead out of the wash on the southeast side at 2.7 miles, elevation 4,600 feet. This 1.1 mile bypass runs all the way to Hidden Pasture. This is the most challenging segment of the hike to navigate through boulders and towers, and ridges of rock. Climb a hill and on a knoll there is an old fence and a fallen gate. Notice the handbuilt wall crafted with massive blocks. In the canyon a natural wall spans the chasm. This is the second pouroff encountered on the inner canyon hike. There is a big pool at its base. (THW, photo)

Streambed Alternative
A reflection pool is located between the first and second waterfall.

The second pouroff may be bypassed without difficulty upcanyon-left. (THW, photo)

Standard Route
The trail drops slightly and comes very near the third and final cascade. Every once in awhile, my navigation fails me. In 2014, I didn't have a map or a GPS to help locate Hidden Pasture. After hiking for 2:40 we came to a lovely flat little valley and assumed incorrectly that we were in Hidden Pasture so we turned around there. Rather, it was 0.2 mile above the second fall and quite near the third pouroff, shown below. I can't promise you will be able to negotiate the last barrier fall but it looks simple enough. If you get foiled, just hop on the nearby standard route.

The bypass continues traversing beyond the third fall overlook. Then it drops slightly into a side ravine, turns sharply east and pitches up a draw to get around a substantial stone uplift. There are monster spheroids, pinnacles, and blocks on hiker's left. It is powerful and pleasant. Walk in front of the slab, shown center-right. See the feature photo for another perspective on this location.

Stay dialed on the single-rock cairns and finally pass by a blade where the route tops out at 4,960 feet, 3.3 miles.

Here's another perspective on the blade. The route makes a tight turn to the north at the blade and holds this bearing all the way to Hidden Pasture.

The image below was shot on the return and looks back at the stone ridge. The blade is at its left end in the middle distance. Heading north to the Pasture, walk down the slope and mount the rise from where this photo was taken.

At the top of the rise, Forest Hill is visible for the first time, image-left.

The canyon opens into Hidden Pasture, a broad bowl of grass and oak. It is cradled between the two blocks of the Little Rincon Mountains. Forest Hill, image-center, is north of the Pasture and North Star Peak is south. Ironically, there is no evidence of cattle in the Pasture.

Arrive at the sandy wash on the valley floor at 3.8 miles, 4,900 feet. Elevation gain to this point is 1,200 feet. No matter how strong a hiker, it takes a good amount of time to pause and decipher the route. It took us almost three hours to reach the Pasture. We shaved a good 20 minutes on our return to the trailhead. There was still a lot of hesitation and searching around for cairns but the trail was slightly more obvious returning in better light. Plus, we were getting the hang of it. (THW, photo)

Forest Hill
Roundtrip to the highpoint is 2.4 miles and will take two to three hours. Aim north-northwest for the high saddle just west of the peak. The two rocky knobs west of the saddle are troubled. There are many possible routes up through the jumbled and complicated terrain. Going up we stayed to the right of the side creek but the hillside is boulder-filled and the grasses and brush were so thick we couldn't see our feet.

Our return route, depicted on the map above, is more aesthetically appealing and fun. A significant side drainage comes down from the saddle. It is choked at the bottom so head up through the grass on either side and once it's clear, dive into the drainage.

Work up through the boulders and scoured bedrock slabs staying in the watercourse as much as possible. This route is one of the finest features of this hike. Bypass a couple of impassible pouroffs upcanyon-right. (THW, photo)

Coral bells tucked in protective rocks bloom in mid-December.

Southwest coral bean is a thorny shrub that blooms spring to late summer. The flower is bright red and showy. The poisonous seeds within the legume pods are the same color as the blossom. (THW, photo)

Emerge from the drainage and onto an open slope at about 5,400 feet. Climb another 500 feet with decent footing to the saddle.

Hop over an old fence tracking the ridge and gain the saddle at 4.8 miles, 5,900 feet. My partner climbed the pink knob, shown. He said there are two good routes on the west side, a Class 3 and Class 4 option. The climb is almost vertical but the holds are good all the way up. The little ridge going west from there is problematic.

The pink knob affords the best vista of Forest Hill. For perspective, I am standing at the base. (THW, photo)

The pitch up to Forest Hill is the most enjoyable climbing of the day with light scrambling. It is a relief to pass through a piƱon and oak forest. Is the peak named for this stand of trees? I researched the history of the rather odd name but came up empty. If you know, please comment. Crest the highest point in the Little Rincon Mountains at 5.0 miles after 2,480 feet of vertical. The sweet summit is topped with a five-foot block. There are good sitting rocks but no peak register. (THW, photo)

Rincon Peak, 8,482', with its pyramidal apex and landmark status dominates the westward scene.

However, Mica Mountain, 8,664', is the parent summit. Other notable mountains off-image include Bassett Peak in the Galiuro Mountains and Mount Graham. (THW, photo) 

We intended to climb North Star Peak, shown, on this day but this hike took considerably longer than we anticipated and the Winter Solstice approached. Perhaps in the spring. South of North Star is Apache Peak, the highest prominence in the Whetstone Mountains. This photo is actually a good shot of Hidden Pasture and the bypass.
(THW, photo)

We look forward to further exploration in this neglected little range. We'll be creating our own pathway through irresistible stone as we walk. As you complete the trek Rincon Peak will be resting under its sky in afternoon light. (THW, photo)