Saturday, March 9, 2013

Hiking In Tonto National Wilderness

A daily hike in the desert is one of the activities we really look forward to each day. Just east of Phoenix is the Tonto National Forest, one of the largest National Forests in the United States. The forest comprises vast stretches of mountains and canyons that provide ever changing vistas of incomparable beauty. 

Due to recent near record rainfalls, the desert is exceptionally green and wildflowers are beginning to adorn this rugged landscape. Each cactus and bush has its own shade of green, from the pale needles of the Chain Fruit Cholla that seem to glisten in the sun to the deep dark green of the Creosote bush. Together, all these lush verdant landscapes belie the harsh and scorching season that soon will follow. For now, though, we are enjoying the clear skies, mild temperatures and stunning scenery.
Many shades of green and delicate yellow flowers

Sarah and I studied the forest map we purchased when we arrived at Lost Dutchman State Park. We selected a hike for each of the next three days we would be here.
Beautiful Stream on the Black Mesa Trail

The first trail we took was the Black Mesa Loop trail. Getting to the trail-head required just a short ride east of the park. We were surprised at the number of cars parked in the parking area. There were at least 20 cars in the lot, we got one of the last parking spots. A volunteer park ranger greeted us and gave us advice on the trail we had chosen, the Black Mesa Loop. He suggested going in a clockwise direction because it would put the hardest and steepest sections first giving us an easier walk at the end. We took his advice and were happy for it when, nearly four hours and 10 miles later, we were getting more than just a little tired. 

Hiking in the desert is especially enjoyable. Here, exceptional vistas are continually in sight due to the lack of trees that obstruct the views. Every step along the trail rewards one's efforts with a feast for the eyes. Great rock formations in varying colors can be viewed from across deep canyons. We are so fascinated at the different types of rock and their positioning that we have purchased a textbook and are taking an online geology course.

Next on our hiking list was the Hieroglyph Trail. The name of the trail suggested that petroglyphs  would be seen here. Petroglyphs are a must see for Sarah. Finding the trail-head proved to be a little bit tricky for this one. The Tonto National Forest Map and Google Maps differed on where the roads actually were. Our first route brought us to a dead end in a new housing development, our second one ended up at a trail-head that seemed very popular, but was not the correct one. Fortunately, we met someone there who gave us directions to the Hieroglyph Trail-head. Even with good directions, we had doubts about finding it. 

The Hieroglyph Trail is short, only 1.5 miles. But, it is all uphill, with an altitude gain of just over 400 feet. This trail starts in the foothills of Gold Canyon and at this lower elevation and on the south side of the Superstition Mountains, the wildflowers were especially abundant. The trail follows a ridge that drops away steeply on both sides revealing the beautiful natural landscaping in the canyons below and on the opposite walls. 
These dusty pink flowers became increasingly fragrant as the temperature increased.

At the top of the trail we found a small waterfall and pools of clear water above which, on the stones were hundreds of petroglyphs. Sarah and I had lunch while enjoying these old stone etchings. We couldn't find any information about the age of this art, but comparing the discoloration of the original petroglyphs with nearby graffiti, I guessed them to be about 300 - 400 years old. 
Clear cool water in the desert
Look closely to see the petroglyphs
Close up of the petroglyphs

Our campsite at Lost Dutchman has a brand new grill that we decided would be perfect for roasting a small chicken we had. We could have used our generator to run the convection oven, but with the new grill and abundant mesquite dead wood just beyond our campsite, the decision to roast it over the open coals was easy. Coated with a little olive oil, fresh rosemary from our portable garden, salt pepper and a lemon inside we prepared our bird. Together with roasted asparagus we had a fine feast for dinner.
After a sound sleep, we awoke to sun streaming into our bedroom window and the promise of another day of fine hiking. We had to drive north and east on Rt 88 for about 20 minutes to reach the trail-head of the Boulder Canyon Trail. While we usually prefer to do loop trails, that can be difficult in these mountains. Many of these trails are designed for backpacking on foot or horseback rather than day hiking. However, we find that returning on the same path we often see things we missed on the way in. This trail and the one the previous day were no different. 
A beautiful field of Mexican Gold Poppies among Teddy Bear Cholla

The Boulder Canyon Trail is a spur that leads to the Second Water Trail. It continually gains altitude for nearly 1,000 feet as it leaves the trail-head at Canyon Lake. Except for the protected south facing dips in the trail, the wildflowers at this elevation and predominantly north facing slope were not yet as numerous as they were on our previous hikes. This did not detract from the beauty. We found the variety of rock here very interesting. As usual, the we enjoyed the continually changing magnificence of the landscape presented to us. 

Sarah found a small geode and a small vain of fire agate near the summit of our climb. Fire agate is a gemstone found in only a few locations in the world. Sarah was nearly giddy with her find. 
Delicate flowers


We relaxed for the rest of the afternoon at our campsite and once again made a mesquite fire. This night we had freshly made sausages to put on the grill. With the addition of some simply spiced pinto beans, we enjoyed our last evening meal at Lost Dutchman State Park. The weather forecast for the next two days was rain. Since we couldn't hike, we decided to use the rainy day to travel so as not to waste the good weather driving. We made reservations at the RV Park in the town of Superior, just about an hour to the south east. Stay tuned

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