Friday, February 26, 2010

Cochise Stronghold, Dragoon Mountains, Coronado NF, Arizona

Distance: About 6 miles (10 km)
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation: 5100 - 6000 feet (1555 - 1830 m)
Season: Most of the year (watch for snow in winter and monsoons in summer)

The Dragoon Mountains are one of those spectacular Madrean sky islands located in southeastern Arizona. Not as high as Mount Graham, the Chiricahuas, or the Santa Catalinas, it more than makes up for that with spectacular granite formations that rise above the paper-flat Sulphur Springs valley below.

The area in the center of the range is called Cochise Stronghold, because it is in this labyrinth of granite formations that Chief Cochise and his Chiricahua Apaches hid and survived during the many years that the U.S. Army tried to capture and destroy the band. Once driven from the Dos Cabezas and Chiricahua range, these mountains provided what they needed. Yet, when Army platoons would enter the range looking for them, they would fade away into the rocks. Eventually, Cochise negotiated a peace settlement and the tribe was moved to the Apache reservations to the north. However, Cochise was buried in these mountains, but his grave has never been found.

The trail starts near Sunsites, AZ are spawling development of scattered retirement homes along the Willcox Playa about 35 miles southwest of Willcox, AZ. There are brown signs that show where to go from I-10 and all other routes along the way. The trail starts at the Cochise Stronghold campground at the end of the road.

The trail starts on the "nature trail" in a mixed oak-pinyon pine forest. There is beargrass, yuccas, and sotols all along the way. The trail follows effemeral Cochise Creek, crossing it several times. The trail rises ever so slowly with granite walls rising on both sides.

After approximately 1 mile the trail reaches Cochise Spring, now just a green algae filled pool next to the creek. The trail then goes along a beautiful slot canyon and then begins climbing. At the 2 mile mark you will reach Half Moon Tank, where a dam on the creek created a muddy pool and cottonwoods line the banks.

Less than a mile later at the top of the hill, the most spectacular view of all comes into focus. Between two amazing sets of granite rocks is a view into the Sulpher Springs valley. Further up, as you approach the saddle at the 3 mile mark, you will arrive at Stronghold Divide and another view opens up to mountains in the distance.

There is a fence here and this is a great place to turn around. You can continue down the otherside, where it meets a jeep track in 1.75 miles.

As you return, you will start to notice amazing rock formations you missed on the way up!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Madera Canyon Loop - Mount Wrightson Wilderness, Coronado NF, AZ

Distance: 6.2 miles (10.0 km) roundtrip
Elevation: 5400 - 7080 feet (1646 - 2160 m)
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Season: Year Round (watch for snow in winter)

The Santa Rita mountains, located near the border with Mexico in SE Arizona, are one of the famous Madrean Sky Islands, whose dense conifer forests float above a sea of hot, lowland desert. Madera Canyon, which cuts right into the heart of the range is world famous for its birding, as several Mexican species of birds make their only homes in the United States in these and a handful of other mountain canyons along the border. Birds such as the elegant trogon, painted redstart, Mexican junco, and many others are found here.

Perhaps not as charasmatic and sexy as a bird, the Santa Rita mountains also contains some tree species that just barely make an appearance in the U.S. including the Arizona madrona, Apache pine, Chihuahuan pine, and Arizona yellow pine. Several other species are near their southernmost extremes in these mountains including quaking aspens and Douglas firs.

There is a wonderful loop hike that allows visitors to climb through the Sonoran life zones into the high conifer forests, a chance to see some of these rare birds in the sycamore-lined canyon, and just enjoy the cooler climate that this mountain sky island has to offer.

The loop hike begins at the Madera Canyon parking area at the end of the Madera Canyon Road. There are two trail options, but I would start at the "Old Baldy Trail" because it makes a steeper (and more shade covered) ascent to Josephine Saddle, while the return on the "Super Trail" is more gradual on weakened knees.

The Old Baldy Trail climbs from 5400 to 7080 feet in approximately 2.5 miles. It is steep, but definitely not overly so. It is a nice reasonable climb in a dense conifer forest of Arizona and Chihuahuan pines, Silverleaf and Emory oaks, and some huge Arizona madrona.

From the saddle, there is a route that climbs an addition 2400 feet to the summit of 9400 feet Mount Wrightson in 3 miles. But, as you can see in these pictures, conditions were definitely not right for that summit attempt today. The Super Trail then descends down a more open, mostly southwest facing slope of oaks and yuccas for 3.7 miles back to the parking area.

We did the hike in late February the day after a snow storm. Temperatures were in the 50's at the parking area and 30's at the saddle. But, what a winter wonderland to enjoy. However, this is an El Nino year. In a dry winter, it is quite likely you would encounter no snow on this hike. But, April is probably the best month to do this hike, since that is when the trogons return, the wildflowers start blooming, and the temperatures are more moderate!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Wasson Peak Loop, Saguaro National Park - West Unit, Arizona

Distance: 8.1 miles

Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous

Elevation: 2850 - 4690 feet

Season: October - May

Wasson Peak is the highest peak within Saguaro National Park's West Unit just west of Tucson. At nearly 4,700 feet it is located at the upper edge of the Sonoran life zone and provides spectacular views of the entire Madrean Sky Islands region of southern Arizona.

The trails that leave from adjacent Tucson Mountain Park and through Saguaro National Park offer the chance to do a wonderful loop with several Sonoran microclimates, multiple geological settings, and amazing views. Since you will be climbing nearly 2,000 feet and this IS the desert, be prepared with lots of water and get an early start, even in the relatively cool winter months!

The route begins across from the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson Mountain Park west of town. The initial route is called Kings Canyon Trail and follows an arroyo into the national park and up to Mam-a-Gah picnic area about 1 mile into the park. From there, take continue on Kings Canyon Trail for 1.4 miles until reaching a saddle with the first views over the ridge and down to Tucson below and the 9,000 foot Mount Lemmon beyond.

Here you will arrive at the intersection with the Sweetwater Trail. Follow the trail north straight up the ridgeline. The trail is not overly difficult, despite the 1,000 foot ascent, but it could be strenuous, particularly if it is getting hot! The trail will switchback a few times and then reach an intersection at the top of the ridge. There is a 0.3 mile spur to the summit of Wasson Peak.

From the summit, the entire Southern Arizona expanse is visible. To the east is Tuscon and the snow and conifer covered Mount Lemmon. The Biosphere 2 is also visible just north of the mountain. Just south of Mount Lemmon is the broad 8,000 foot dome of Rincon Mountain and the pointier Mica Mountain within Saguaro National Park - East Unit.

To the south is 9,000 foot Mount Wrightson in the Santa Rita mountains, the broad expanse of the Santa Cruz valley down to Nogalez, the broad rising bajada and dome of Sierrita Mountain and across the Tohono O'odham reservation to the Baboquivari Mountains with the 7,000 foot pinnacle of Baboquivari Peak to the southwest and Kitt Peak with its astronomical observatories.

To the north, Picacho Peak is visible, while northwest contrains the Ironwood Forest National Monument, Silverbell Mountains, and the flat-topped Table Top Mountain in the distance.

On the return, take the Hugh Norris trail for 1.9 miles along the ridgeline overlooking the northern section of the park. On this north-facing slope, the saguaros and other low Sonoran vegetation is gone and is replaced with more frost-tolerant species of yuccas, sotols, acacia, and jojoba.

The other thing that is really interesting is suddenly the geology changes from rough, rocky sedimental and metamorphic rocks to granite. The smooth rounded granite boulders and soft granite sand on the trail is a welcome relief to the eyes and feet!

The trail slowly descends down the ridge until reaching a saddle. Take the turn to the left down the Esperanza trail for about a mile until reaching some old mining shafts. Just below the shafts turn right and follow the Gould Mine Trail 1.1 miles back to the trailhead to complete this wonderful loop!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Saddle Mountain Traverse, Bureau of Land Management near Tonopah, Arizona

Distance: About 5.5 miles (9.0 km)
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Elevation: 1600 - 2400 feet (490 - 730 m)
Season: October - April

This hike does not follow established trails. Rather, it makes a wonderful loop through the heart of Saddle Mountain across the terrain. The trail begins in a short ironwood-palo verde filled canyon up to a saddle, then descends into the highly dissected core of the mountain into a deep wash, up to another saddle and down into a second canyon. Following that wash out of the mountain, you then arrive at an old washed out dirt track that will take you back to your vehicle.

To access the beginning of the route from Tonopah, AZ take the Salome-Buckeye Road and then turn left onto Courthouse Rock Road. A couple of miles down the road look on the left for dirt tracks leaving toward Saddle Mountain (which is clearly visible). The first dirt track has a sign posted. But, head to the 2nd dirt track (BLM road 8210) which is unsigned. Follow that road all the way to its end at the base of Saddle Mountain.

There is a small sign that says "Canyon Trail" where you can park. Walk up the hill and towards the canyon to the southwest. The trail looks obvious at first, all nicely lined with rocks. But, that is an illusion. Soon enough you are finding your own way through the ironwoods and palo verde thickets up to the saddle above.

The saddle provides an outstanding view into the highly dissected core of the mountain. You will notice a dirt track directly below you along the wash. If you descend to the wash, you can follow the dirt track out of the mountain and back to the abandoned BLM road 8209 for a small loop.

For a more enjoyable larger loop, continue up the opposite ridge to the next saddle clearly visible to the west. From that saddle you can see another beautiful large wash below. It is lined with lush ironwoods, palo verde's, and lots of cactus.

Descend the old game trail down to the wash and then simply follow the sandy wash out of the canyon (approximately 1 mile out). Eventually, the wash will exit the mountain and meet up with that same BLM road 8209.

Turn right and follow that road approximately 2.5 miles until reaching the 8210 road you drove up on. 0.5 miles later and you are back at your car.

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