Saturday, April 23, 2016

Shaw Butte

The weekend finally rolled around, and I headed over to hike Shaw Butte in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve. There are several points of access for trail #306; I chose the North Mountain Visitor Center on N. 7th Street, just south of Thunderbird Road. From the visitor center, trail #100 (the Charles M. Christiansen Memorial) is the east-west route leading to Shaw Butte. I pointed my feet westward on the dusty trail, and before long found myself standing at the foot of the butte.

Traveling clockwise on the 306 loop from the visitor center, the climb up the side of the butte is steep. I kept my head down as I rose toward the sky, trying not to think about the distance remaining to the top. With my heart redlining and threatening to jump out of my chest, I achieved high ground, taking in the sprawling city stretched out in every direction beneath me while simultaneously taking in massive quantities of air. A breathtaking experience, for sure.

Looking across the way toward North Mountain

Rounding the bend, the trail leads to what remains of the old Cloud 9 restaurant, which burned to the ground in 1964. I had read about this abandoned site but didn't realize I would encounter it on this day. I was glad to have learned about the restaurant in advance; otherwise, I would have likely stayed true to the 306 without veering off to investigate the ruins.

Site of the erstwhile Cloud 9 restaurant

The city expands below the remnants of Cloud 9

Looking back at the former restaurant site

Leaving the concrete and stone remains of Cloud 9 behind, there was only one more section of trail to ascend before it began the slow wind back down the other side. The north side of the butte offers up a clear view of nearby Lookout Mountain and of the McDowell Mountains further off in the distance. I passed quite a few people were ascending Shaw Butte from the north. They were smart. Clearly, they had chose the easier of the two paths to the top, as this section of trail follows an old roadbed once used to shuttle diners to and from Cloud 9.

Lookout Mtn on the left; McDowell Mtns in the distance

Coming down, I came across a gentleman who had spotted a snake coiled up inside a rock opening adjacent to the trail. I never would have noticed this western diamondback rattlesnake hidden in the side of the mountain had it not been for this fellow hiker, who said his eyes constantly scan the landscape in search of snakes. I had read how the owner of Cloud 9 would take a stick to rattlers that slithered too close to his restaurant and fling them back down the side of the mountain, much to the delight and/or horror of his patrons. Fortunately, because this rattler was so content, I didn't need to look for a stick or, more accurately, take off sprinting in the opposite direction.

Western diamondback rattlesnake tucked in the rocks

For the remainder of the hike my eyes, too, were constantly scanning the landscape for snakes. I didn't see any, but I did catch a glimpse of a rabbit rubbing its head in the dirt much in the same way a dog will. I closed out the 306 loop and retraced my steps along the 100 trail back to the visitor center. Surprised at how quickly I completed the hike, I referenced my map at home and discovered this hike was only a shade over five miles in length. But what the Shaw Butte Trail lacks in endurance-related qualities, it makes up for on the aerobic side of the house. Whether for exercise or enjoyment, or both, Shaw Butte is certainly worth exploring.  

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Brown's Ranch

Last week I ventured into the northern reaches of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve to check out the trails of Brown's Ranch. I was drawn here by the two mountains, each in close proximity to the other, at the ranch: Cone Mountain and Brown's Mountain. Almost a Saturday morning ritual at this point, I awoke early and was out the door while my wife and kids slept. My reward was a wide open parking lot at Brown's Ranch Trailhead. After making time for a banana at the trailhead, I set out along the Upper Ranch Trail, a perfect warm-up trail splitting the two mountains to the north and west.

The Cone Mountain Trail

I circled Cone Mountain in a counterclockwise direction along the aptly named Cone Mountain Trail before crossing back over the Upper Ranch Trail and onto the Wrangler Trail. Cone Mountain hadn't looked very intimidating, but there was no trail to the top. A bit of a downer, yes, but the anticipation as I approached Brown's Mountain, knowing there was a spur trail to the summit, proved effective in driving away the disappointment of Cone.

Cone Mountain

Looking at side by side pictures of Brown's Mountain and Devil's Tower in Wyoming, I don't really see much resemblance. But on this particular day my mind made a connection between the two. As the mountain drew nearer, it dominated the skyline. There was something about how it rose 3250' into the air before stopping abruptly to offer what looked from the ground to be a smooth, level surface, perfect for landing, say, a helicopter. Or perhaps an alien spacecraft. I stared at the mountain to the point where I was now entranced by it, fully engaged with the huge mound of rock and earth, and entertaining notions of later paying homage by constructing a replica in my living room.

Me, if I had spent a few more hours in the sun

Brown's Mountain

Fortunately, passing clouds provided much needed shade and, after a gulp or two of water, I started regaining my composure. And just in time, too, as ditching the Wrangler Trail for Brown's Mountain Trail signaled the beginning of the slow ascent to the peak. This uphill section, save for the final 0.2-mile summit spur, wasn't very strenuous. It was interesting to watch the mountain change before my eyes as my perspective shifted following the trail up and around to its backside.

Brown's Mtn takes on a different look 0.2 miles from the top

I joined a few other hikers taking a breather on Brown's summit. After a snack and the obligatory picture-taking, it was time to head down and out. I completed the remainder of Brown's Mountain Trail and returned to the trailhead via the Upper Ranch.

View from Brown's Mtn. Cone Mtn is in middle of picture

This turned out to be a particularly enjoyable 7.7-mile hike. I say this not only because of the summit spur and the small crowds, but also because of the trail itself. Unlike many of the other trails in this area, which are frequently rocky and sometimes treacherous, the trails at Brown's Ranch are sandy smooth for the most part. With such an agreeable walking surface beneath my feet, the miles seemed to melt away like butter. Of course any trail easy on the feet also seems to attract scores of mountain bikers so keep an ear and an eye out for them, lest they run you over. Though bikers are supposed to yield to hikers, we all know that isn't always the case. So until next time, be safe out there and happy hiking!


Sunday, April 10, 2016

Deem Hills Recreation Area

I was up early last Saturday to explore the trails at Deem Hills Recreation Area. This park is in the Deer Valley section of Phoenix, on the other side of the freeway from the Phoenix Sonoran Preserve. There were plenty of open parking spaces at the 39th Avenue entrance. I enjoyed a banana in the car with Chicago playing on the radio before cramming a few snacks into my pockets and heading out on the Circumference Trail.

Circumference Trail - looking SW from park's northern edge

When I see trails that include descriptive text like "circumference" or "perimeter" in their moniker, I reflexively assign to them adjectives such as easy or boring and visualize them as being filled with large groups of slow moving hikers reluctant to yield right-of-way. But this was far from the case at Deem Hills. On this day, trail etiquette was the rule and the Circumference Trail, much to my delight, was far from boring. With a fair amount of twisting and turning and uphill/downhill, the trail also required more physical effort than is generally required from an everyday run-of-the-mill circumference- or perimeter-type trail.

Southern portion of the Circumference Trail looking west

With all but 0.59 miles of the Circumference complete, I decided I also wanted to walk the Ridgeline Trail. That's what I'd like to say, anyway. The truth of the matter is I wrongly interpreted the map and neglected to take the Ridgeline on not one, but two separate occasions in which I had the opportunity. Fortunately I had time and energy to spare, so I veered off of the Circumference and onto the Basalt Trail, where I joined with the Ridgeline Trail a third of a mile later.

Basalt Trail

By now it was getting to be mid-morning and activity on the trail was starting to pick up. I noticed, too, I was running low on water, which was now quite warm inside my plastic bottle. The Ridgeline, as you can imagine, given its name, offered some really nice views. Unfortunately, these picturesque images don't really come across in my photos. We don't judge books by their covers so please don't judge a trail by its pictures - certainly not mine, anyway. Not to sound like Kurt Russell in Used Cars, but trust me, come check this one out for yourself. You won't be disappointed.

Looking NW from the Ridgeline Trail

I came down the Ridgeline via a series of switchbacks before reconnecting with the Circumference. My last remaining swallows of water were unpleasantly warm, almost like shower water. I can see right now the notion of setting out on long hikes in the Phoenix summer is already a non-starter.

Looking back as I begin descending the Ridgeline Trail

The Circumference took me back to the Basalt, which led me again to the Circumference for the final 0.59-mile hike to close the loop at the trailhead. Based on the small number of cars in the parking lot, it was fairly obvious most people were using the trailhead off of 51st Avenue for access - something to keep in mind when planning hikes here in the future.

A final tally of my mileage revealed I hiked 8.83 miles, which was longer than I originally estimated, thanks to my poor map reading skills. The extra mileage didn't bother me one bit, however, as this is a great park with a well-maintained network of trails. The only trail I didn't take on this day was the Palisade Trail, which I expect to hike on one of my many return visits here.

Come explore Deem Hills Recreation Area

Friday, April 8, 2016

Quartz Trail

Easter Sunday typically means baskets full of colored eggs, Peeps, and other candies all piled on top of another on a bed of plastic grass. In Phoenix, like most weekends, it also means hiking. At least for me it does. This Easter we homed in on the Quartz Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

Heading into the mountains along the Quartz Trail

From the Quartz Trailhead parking, we walked across 104th Street to join the main trail via a short access trail. The Quartz Trail runs roughly east and west through here. Turn right on the trail and 0.7 miles later the Quartz terminates at its juncture with the WestWorld Trail. Turn left and the trail will take you 4.2 mile into the mountains before coming to an end somewhere in Box Canyon. We turned left, naturally, and began an easy, gradual ascent into the mountains.

Slight but steady uphill hiking along the Quartz Trail

The trail was quiet on this day. We saw a few other hikers and some mountain bikers but nothing even remotely resembling a crowd. I saw a white speck on the mountain in the distance and figured it to be the quartz outcropping from which the trail likely received its name. I don't know if it was the relentless desert sun or what, but for some reason Rodney Dangerfield's line from the boat scene in Caddyshack (Over there! I wanna go over there!) popped into my head. I'd read about a steep spur trail leading to this prominent outcropping, so I knew beforehand I was going to check it out.

Prominent quartz deposit on the mountain ahead

The spur to the quartz outcropping isn't marked, but at this point on the trail it's fairly obvious where the trail leads. In several other places where signage does not exist, however, it's easy to wander off the Quartz unintentionally. The last sign I can remember seeing was at the junction of the Quartz and Lost Dog Wash trails. That leaves two miles of official trail unidentified. And as the quartz trail winds through Box Canyon, the trail can be hard to follow. With no signs for guidance, determining what is and what isn't the trail certainly gets tricky at times. Someone before me recognized this navigational void by arranging rocks in such a way to indicate the direction of the trail in a couple of places where it is particularly confusing.

But before the confusion of Box Canyon, the Quartz Trail cuts a wide path straight and true underneath that large quartz deposit on the side of the mountain. I did of course turn right on the spur and, yes, it basically runs straight up the mountain. The good news is that it is not a very long hike - maybe seven or eight minutes, certainly less than ten. The reward is your view from the outcropping. I was surprised at how much elevation I'd gained.

Quartz Trail passes underneath the quartz outcropping

The quartz up close (with water bottle in foreground)

View from the quartz outcropping

Back down on the main trail, I continued to follow it deep into Box Canyon, paying careful attention as the path narrowed and blurred. According to the map, the trail dead-ends two miles after the junction with Dog Wash, and I reached a point where I kept expecting to see a sign indicating the end of the trail at every turn. I never saw this sign, and the trail - if it was still an authorized trail at this point - was becoming so overgrown that I finally just turned around, figuring I must be two miles down the trail from the Dog Wash by now.

Full steam ahead on the Quartz Trail until . . .

 . . . things began to get messy in Box Canyon

The hike out was the same hike in reverse and all downhill, which is the best way to end any hike. Save for the spur trail to the quartz deposit, this is a pretty easy walk in the desert. The map shows it having a 1,104-foot elevation gain, but it was such a gradual incline that it just didn't feel like that was even possible. The optional spur trail is always available if you are serious about your aerobic conditioning, which we all should be. So this trail has a lot of positives, not least of which is the fact that it offers ample parking without the daunting crowds. For sure, the Quartz Trail has earned our repeat business. We'll hike it again, and when we do, maybe we'll see you out there!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Sunrise and Andrews-Kinsey Trails

For the second consecutive Saturday, I headed to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve's Sunrise Trailhead. The first time around I arrived too late and was forced to make other plans, as there was no available parking. This week I made sure to arrive early and secured a spot in the nearly empty overflow lot.

It's a 0.2-mile walk from the overflow parking to the trailhead and another 4.2 miles to where the Andrews-Kinsey Trail crosses into Fountain Hills Preserve, the location of which would serve as my turnaround point. In between, there would be more than a 1,000-foot elevation gain. You're actually gaining elevation as you move toward the trailhead, but once you hit the trail itself it's game on.

Climbing through a sea of Saguaro

At the junction of the Sunrise Trail and the Sunrise Peak Spur, I could see and hear many other hikers already on the spur making their way to and from the peak. Because I had visited this same peak only a month or so prior, I decided to skip the view and stay straight on Sunrise. Past the peak, it's a short hike to the junction of the Sunrise and the Andrews-Kinsey. I headed north on Andrews-Kinsey in the direction of my planned turnaround two miles away. Now further away from the trailhead, the crowds really started to thin out. In fact, I don't recall seeing anybody on the Andrews-Kinsey Trail until I was well into my return trip.

View from the Andrews-Kinsey Trail

I stopped for a snack just inside the border of the Fountain Hills Preserve. I don't remember exactly when I first observed the two helicopters, one chopper appearing to hover while the other circled, but I don't believe it was long after my nutrition break. The helicopters would come in and out of my view for the remainder of trip, depending upon my location on the trail. At some point I was able to get a good view of the landscape beneath the choppers and could see traffic was backed up for what appeared to be miles. I feared there had been a tragic accident on the roadway. Selfishly, I hoped the wreckage would be cleared before I was down from the mountain.

Fountain Park in the distance, as seen from Andrews-Kinsey

As I drew closer to Sunrise Peak, I could again see and hear all the people. Again, I stayed straight on Sunrise and began the descent to the trailhead. I passed a lot of folks heading up the mountain and a few people who were making their way down. One thing I've noticed about some people is they're happy to take as much room as you're willing to give them. Move to the right and many people will stroll merrily down the middle of the trail, brushing shoulders with you as they pass. This goes for sidewalks, too, as I've observed this phenomenon on paved and unpaved trails alike. I especially like when two or more people are walking side-by-side and simply refuse to humble themselves to the point of walking single-file until the oncoming pedestrian traffic clears. Sometimes it feels like a game of chicken. But I digress - just an observation of mine and another reason I like to get as far away as possible from the crowds.

A splash of color on the last full day of winter

Ready for final descent, near the Peak Spur Trail

As I made my way back to overflow parking, I was closer than ever to the hovering helicopter. My chances of a leisurely drive home weren't looking so good. Heading west on Via Linda, I soon encountered the traffic jam, which, fortunately enough for me, was affecting only the east-bound side. I still didn't know what was going on, just that it had been like this for hours. Only later that evening did I learn Donald Trump had been campaigning in Fountain Hills and protesters had blocked the road. Politics notwithstanding, I was just glad to know there hadn't been some kind of horrible traffic accident. So, all's well that ends well, right? Nobody died and I turned in an 8.8-mile hike, breezed home with the top down on the open road, and made it to my daughter's soccer game on time. Another outstanding day in the Great Outdoors! 

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Ringtail Trailhead to 136th Street Trailhead

My plan last Saturday was to get up early and hike an out-and-back from the 136th Street Trailhead in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. The execution phase began without incident after waking up early enough to brew a pot of coffee. But something not completely unpredictable, yet not highly anticipated happened, causing the synchronicity between plan and execution to forever sever. Looking back a week later, I see the critical flaw in my plan was not building in enough time for a second cup of coffee. The quiet moments spent sipping a second cup cost me the opportunity to claim the last available parking space in the Sunrise Trailhead overflow parking. I missed it by 15 seconds.

If you're paying attention, you may wonder what was I even doing at the Sunrise Trailhead? Wasn't I going to the 136th St. Trailhead? Indeed I was, but the 136th St. Trailhead, unbeknownst to me, was closed for construction so I resorted to Plan B and the Sunrise Trailhead, where I watched the car ahead snag the only remaining spot in overflow. Just for giggles, I checked out the main parking area for Sunrise. Unsurprisingly, there was nothing available. After a final swing and a miss through the overflow lot, I realized I had no Plan C. Who has a Plan C for day hiking, anyway? By this point, you usually just go home and do something else. But because I was in the neighborhood, I thought I would drop by the Ringtail Trailhead off of 128th Street. When I saw there was plenty of available parking, I knew I had a Plan C in progress. I would figure out the hike on the fly.

Sunrise Trail

Moving north on the Ringtail Trail, I turned right at the junction with the Sunrise Trail and headed into the mountain range. After 1.5 miles of uphill, I reached the plateau where the 136th Street Spur joins the Sunrise. Though the 136th St. Trailhead was closed, the trail itself appeared to be open. I could stay straight on the Sunrise or head down the spur trail, which had been the main feature of my aborted Plan A. Taking the spur meant I would be taking a shorter walk (7 miles) than originally planned, but after reading the warning sign at the plateau junction, I knew I couldn't pass up the challenge. The 136th it would be.

Challenge Accepted!

From the plateau, the spur trail descends quickly into the wash below. The wash is where the trail becomes technical at times, as well as difficult to follow. The important thing to remember here is that as long as you're in the wash, you are on the trail. The first steep drop-off I encountered, I looked around for signs of a trail which neatly sidestepped it. When I didn't see one, I thought of the sign back at the junction and engaged all four limbs in safely making my way down the rocky drop-off. I was thankful to be wearing the Camelbak my wife had recently purchased so that my hands were free to assist in those instances when scrambling was necessary.

Scrambling is a must on the 136th St. Spur

The trail went underneath two overpasses before the boulders and rocks gave way to a sandy, beach-like terrain offering just enough resistance so that I was soon longing for those rocky drop-offs. After a short while, I realized I was standing at the closed 136th Street Trailhead. I verified this on my map and took a little nutrition break consisting of a granola bar and a small box of raisins before turning around to retrace my steps back to the Ringtail Trailhead.

Heading South on the 136th Spur

Sandy-like Conditions on the Southern End of the 136th

The hike back up the 136th spur wasn't as bad as what I feared, but of course I had already previewed it and knew exactly what to expect. A quarter of a mile prior to the junction with the Surprise Trail, the 136th St. Spur turns steep. It's no longer a technical trail at this point, but it is a heart-pounder, to be sure. Once atop the plateau, however, the hard work is over, as it is all downhill to the parking lot.

Beautiful views near the top of the 136 St. Spur Trail

The 136th St. Spur was a nice change-of-pace to the typical, everyday hiking. It is one of those trails you will look forward to visiting again and again, if you enjoy technical hiking. In retrospect, it made no difference that I drank that second cup of coffee. I still found my way to the trail I originally planned to hike and, though inconvenienced ever so slightly, persevered to have an exceptional outdoor experience. My lesson learned: always have a Plan C prepared beforehand or be willing to make one up on the fly. Until next time . . . happy trails!  

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Phoenix Sonoran Preserve / Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area

We were fortunate enough to squeeze in two hikes over a recent weekend, neither of which were very strenuous.  On a Saturday we visited the northern area of the Phoenix Sonoran Preserve for a six-mile hike, and the following day we walked 3.9 miles across a portion of the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area downtown near Sky Harbor.

From the Apache Wash Trailhead Saturday morning, we turned left on the Ocotillo Trail to begin a clockwise journey that would loop us through the desert valley before returning us to the trailhead.  At 0.68 miles, we headed north on the Ridgeback Trail. This is a fun little trail featuring a short spur trail to an overlook offering nice views in all directions.

Ridgeback Overlook

The Ridgeback Trail led us to the Sidewinder Trail, on which we headed east before turning south.  At 4.18 miles, I diverted onto the Apache Vista Trail for a quick .51-mile jaunt to a second peak. Returning to the Sidewinder, I was now less than a mile away from the busy trailhead full of hikers and mountain bikers.

Looking down in the direction of the Apache Vista Trail

The Apache Wash Trailhead, like many trailheads in and around Phoenix, is a popular place. There are a fair amount of parking spaces, but to fully enjoy the preserve, I would recommend arriving early. But if you want to sleep in and are worried about finding a place to park, you could head down to the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area. There was one other car at the 16th Street Trailhead when we arrived late Sunday morning, and I quickly began to understand why: the place just doesn't have much to offer, aesthetically or otherwise. The walking path is flat, the Salt River is non-existent, the scenery is industrial, and the airport is busy. The only item of any noteworthiness was the crane we saw in a small pool of water known also as the Salt River. My recommendation for this location: skip it.

Crane at the Salt River