Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Camelback Mountain - Echo Canyon Summit Trail

In Tennessee, the Fiery Gizzard is the trail against which all others are measured.  It was years before I made the drive to Tracy City to experience first-hand the legendary trail featuring waterfalls, boulder hopping, a steep gorge-to-rim climb, and even rumors of black bears.  In Phoenix, the crown jewel is Camelback.  Whether it's a still shot or a live feed from the local traffic helicopter, I see its image on television daily.  It's peak, centrally located, stretches 2,704 feet into the air and, much like the Hollywood sign, is never out of sight for long.  The undisputed champion of all things hiking - at least as far as the local convention and visitors bureau is concerned - is surrounded by million-dollar homes and swamped by hoardes of visitors (hundreds of thousands annually) who are drawn to Camelback for its ruggedness, convenience, and iconic status.

Hiking this mountain had been a priority for me, although I figured it was highly unlikely it could live up to all the hype.  John Stanley with the Arizona Republic calls Camelback the Mount Everest of the Valley.  Maybe it was because we had just watched Everest two nights prior, but suddenly I had the urge to get up close and personal with the reigning king of the Seven Summits of Phoenix.  And so there I was early one recent morning, full of gusto and raring to go, standing at the foot of Camelback's Echo Canyon Summit Trail.  It hadn't taken several years as it had in Tennessee for me to finally make time for the Fiery Gizzard Trail, but it did take almost six months to get here.

View from the Echo Canyon Trailhead
The city's parks and recreation website says a fit hiker can reach the peak in 45 minutes and descend in the same amount of time.  I found that to be right on the money.  Echo Canyon is a short trail, merely 1.325 miles long, but it also climbs about 1,200 feet during that brief span and requires that hikers traverse slippery stone and long sections of boulders tilting toward the sky.

Be prepared to scramble in places

Scrambling is good idea, if not outright necessary, in some instances.  Other areas offer handrails to help safely navigate over beds of slick rock found on particularly steep grades.  Landscape timbers anchored into the ground serve as stairs to assist the hiker up and down the mountain along what would otherwise be another treacherous stretch.

Wooden steps make it easy for hikers

Reaching the top was somewhat anti-climatic.  Maybe it's because I've seen similar views of the city from other area peaks or maybe it was the large group of hikers assembled there who appeared in no hurry to move.  Either way, even though it was a new summit, it felt as if I was watching a movie I'd seen before.  I took of couple of requisite pictures and, after about five or six minutes of rest, headed back down the mountain.

Two views from Camelback's peak

I found the trail to be pretty easy to follow.  It seemed adequately marked and if any question as to trail location had arose, there was always a fellow hiker either up ahead or behind who could provide guidance.  Compared with other area trails, I would consider the signage along the Echo Canyon Trail most acceptable.

Sign shows the way

Hiking Camelback makes for a terrific workout.  Some folks go up and down the mountain every day.  Some run the trail (where running is possible).  And the mountain is for all ages.  There were small children as well as retirees on the trail.  I encountered a 68 year-old and a 71 year-old, both of whom were moving up and down the trail with relative ease.  All, it seems, are drawn to Camelback.  Come see it for yourself.  It's the Camelback Experience, and you won't soon forget it.

Tip: Echo Canyon Trail is shaded in the early mornings



Monday, June 13, 2016

Piestewa Peak and Two Bit Peak

Unbelievably, we experienced a high temperature of 77 degrees in Phoenix on the first Saturday in May.  Because these temperatures simply do not extend further into the spring here in the Valley of the Sun, I decided to make what might be this season's last hurrah a big one.  After giving it some thought, I turned my attention back to the Phoenix Mountains Preserve and zeroed in on Piestewa Peak.

I approached Piestewa from the 40th Street Trailhead.  I parked my car and inadvertently stepped onto the wrong trail.  Instead of trekking down trail #8, I was merrily strolling along what appeared to be an old jeep road.  The road narrowed to an ordinary foot trail and proceeded straight up a mountain.  Seeing no alternate routes, I kept going, figuring this must be the way to Piestewa.  The trail became steep and steeper still.  As I continued scaling the mountain, I remember thinking this couldn't be the correct path.  Either the map was incorrect or I made a wrong turn at Albuquerque.  When I made it to what I would later learn was Two Bit Peak, I was rewarded with magnificent views in all directions.

Piestewa Peak, as seen from Two Bit Peak

As strenuous as the ascension was to Two Bit Peak, I hadn't been on the trail long and still wanted to summit Piestewa.  I scanned the landscape below and spotted the trail I needed to take in order to reach my destination.  After retracing my steps down the mountain and onto the old jeep road, I kept my eyes peeled and spied a trail connecting with trail #8, which I missed earlier during my approach from the other direction.

Trail #8 hands off to #304, which leads to the 302 and, ultimately, the 300 Piestewa summit trail. From where I was now, Piestewa Peak was 4 trail miles away.  Considering I'd already climbed the 887 feet to Two Bit Peak and back down, there was no doubt this was going to be a laborious hike.

Lonesome Looking Stretch Between Two Bit and Piestewa

It felt like a long haul getting to Piestewa, and I was glad I'd brought more water than I thought necessary, which is never a bad idea when doing any kind of hiking and an especially good idea when hiking in the desert.  The summit trail up Piestewa was busy but not crowded.  The ascension was rigorous and the views spectacular.

Sitting atop Piestewa's Summit

I was exhausted by the time I reached the peak, and I still had one heckuva hike back to the car.  My left knee started causing me some pain on the way down and by the time I reached the 304, I was feeling it in both legs from my hips down.  As lengthy a hike it had seemed getting to Piestewa, the return seemed even longer.  I was also running low on water.

Small hills felt more like mountains on the return trip

Level stretches of trail were a sight for sore eyes (and legs)

I do not believe I was ever so relieved to reach my car as I was on this day.  Out of water and flat-out exhausted, I had hiked 11.5 miles, including two summit peaks representing approximately 2,100 in elevation change.  While I do plan on returning to Two Bit and Piestewa again, I have no plans to summit both on the same day.

This hike would indeed be a last hurrah of sorts, as I abstained from hiking for a period of five weeks as the outdoor mercury climbed.  But on June 13, taking advantage of a day off work and a relatively cool morning, I was back in the saddle, this time navigating the famed trails of Camelback Mountain.  Stay tuned - full trail report to follow soon.

Camelback Mountain, as observed from Two Bit Peak


Sunday, June 12, 2016

North Mountain

Back in April, before the 100-degree weather set up residence for the summer, I visited North Mountain in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve.  Just as I'd done one week earlier for my Shaw Butte hike, I parked at the North Mountain Visitor Center and headed west on Trail 100.  At 0.7 miles the 101 joins with the 100, which leads to Trail 44 and North Mountain.  So this would be my route.  Though a fairly short 4.2 round trip hike, it still proved to be a fairly good workout.

View from North Mountain

Ascending North Mountain from the north was easy enough.  The south side would be a more strenuous hike.  You realize this right away on the descent, which is rather steep and rocky.  I followed Trail 44 down the mountain to its southern terminus inside North Mountain Park.  Here I rested at a pavilion for a few minutes while snacking on a box of raisins and a granola bar.

Southern Terminus of Trail 44

My second climb to the North Mountain peak did, in fact, require significantly more effort than the first.  Not coincidentally, the hiking population on this side of the mountain was nearly non-existent.  Because of this, I made good time.  I was breathing heavy by time I reached the summit, but it was, as they say, all downhill from here.

The South Side of North Mountain

The hike down the north slope to Trail 101 was swift and easy.  I was moving fast when I saw a couple of kids were stopped and looking over to the right.  They had spotted a rattlesnake just off the side of the trail.  It was stretched out with its head facing away from us and motionless. That is, until we got a little too close for its comfort.  It slithered away just a tad before neatly coiling itself and squaring up in a defensive posture to meet us head-on.  Our curiosity was satisfied.  Nice snake.  Bye snake.

Later, Big Guy

After that encounter, the remainder of the hike felt as if I was just playing out the string, much as a 20-game below .500, cellar-dwelling baseball team must feel like come September.  But I added North Mountain to my ever-growing list of places to visit again.  Once the summer heat subsides, or about the same time those players on that last-place team scatter in 40 different directions, I'll be ready to trek back up North Mountain. 


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!