Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Peralta Trail, Superstition Wilderness, Tonto NF, Arizona

Distance: 5 miles (8 km)
Elevation: 2,400 - 3,760 feet (730 - 1145 m)
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Time of Year: October - April

If you are looking for a sweat-inducing spring hike in the Sonoran Desert, with a rewarding and spectacular view at the top, then the Peralta Trail may be just for you. Located on the southern slopes of the Superstition Mountains, it also offers some interesting ecological and geological features most people in the Phoenix area do not realize is right in their back yard.

To get there, take US-60 east out of Phoenix and drive past Apache Junction and then follow it as it curves southeast on its way to Globe. Look for the new developments of Kings Ranch and shortly thereafter look for Peralta Road. Take a left on Peralta Road. The road will pass another development and then heads off onto a well-graded dirt road which you will follow for 7 miles to the trailhead. 

Warning: This trail has been discovered, so get there early in the morning and avoid weekends if you want a parking spot or at least want to enjoy the view without throngs of people.

The trail follows a drainage filled with lush sugar sumacs and scrub live oaks. All along the slopes are hedgehog cactus with their beautiful magenta blooms in spring. The trail heads steadily, but relentlessly up slope on its way to Fremont Saddle. The trail weaves across the dry bouldery drainage and up onto typical Sonoran desert vegetation of saguaros, barrel cactus, and mesquite. As you move higher up out of the low Sonoran ecotype, the vegetation shifts subtlely to upper Sonoran types such as agave, sotol, and grasses.

As you ascend, you will see yellowish-pink rocks to the right and darker brownish colums on the left. You are hiking inside the core of an ancient volcanic caldera. The Superstition Mountains represent the remains of a large volcanic eruption about 18 million years ago. Much of the lighter material is welded tuff, which is volcanic ash that was launched into the air, but was still so hot that when it landed it melted together to form layers of rock. The dark materials are cooled magma that was not ejected.

As the magma cooled it formed columns underground and after millions of years of erosion, these columns have emerged from the surrounding rock in this organ pipe formation. The trail then crosses the drainage (may be flowing in winter and spring) and heads out on the light colored tuff, where it switchbacks several times until reaching Fremont Saddle.

The view of Weaver's Needle from Fremont Saddle
Lone Pine Overlook (far right) can be reached as a short side trip

At the saddle is a spectacular view of Weaver's Needle and the Superstition Wilderness beyond. The needle is an erosional core of the ancient volcano and really stands out. To the northeast (right of Weaver's Needle) is a large pine that stands out on the ridge. This spot is called Lone Pine Overlook and can be reached as a short side trip.

You may choose to continue on Peralta Trail down the slope to the base of Weaver's Needle. For the really adventurous souls, amazingly there is a way-trail that climbs up the slope of the Needle and accesses the summit of it without any technical climbing skills. We have no attempted that though. However, most people simply make Fremont Saddle their end point and return the way they came.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Estes Canyon-Bull Pasture Loop, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

Distance: 4.1 miles (6.6 km)
Elevation: 2,400-3,400 feet (730 - 1035 m)
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Time of Year: October - April

Looking for a great place to go for spring wildflowers? Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument might just be for you. Located on the Mexican border, this National Park Service site is one of the only places in the entire United States where the rare organ pipe cactus grows. Highly sensitive to freezing, the geographic range of this species almost completely mirrors the "frost line".

Reaching the top of Estes Canyon

Much of the park has been closed to the public in recent years due to Border Patrol issues. But, one area that remains open has probably the most spectacular trail in the park. This is the Estes Canyon-Bull Pasture Loop. With panoramic views of the lower Sonoran Desert, tons of wildflowers in spring, and lots of organ pipe cactus, this is a trail that can do no wrong.

Cactus in bloom

To access the trail, drive on the Ajo Mountain Drive off of Highway 85 opposite the park visitor center. The Ajo Mountain Drive is a well-graded dirt road that loops around some beautiful lowlands and up to the foothills of the Ajo range. The trail starts at the Estes Canyon Picnic Area.

The view from Ajo Mountain Road with organ pipe cactus scattered about

Follow the trail up through the Estes Canyon as it climbs following the dry wash. In spring, there should be lots of poppies, brittlebrush, and lupine in bloom. The first 1.5 miles is pretty easy until it climbs steeply up the south wall of the cliff. Here in the shade is a good place to take it easy and cool down if it is getting hot. Look for more frost-tolerant species here including jojoba and dodenea shrubs.

Look around in the understory
You might just glimpse a Gila Monster

As you emerge onto the plateau at the top of the canyon panoramic views of the entire national monument open up. At 2.3 miles you have reached Bull Pasture. This relatively flat basin contains some grasses that were used as pasture for old time ranchers.

If you are adventurous, you can scale to the summit of 4808 foot Ajo Mountain, the high point to the east of Bull Pasture, you can even make out the Sea of Cortez on a clear day.

The view from Bull Pasture

From Bull Pasture, you can take the Bull Pasture Trail, which will descend down the bajada back to Estes Canyon Picnic Area, to complete the loop. Make sure you bring plenty of water on this hike, since it can get surprisingly hot even in winter or spring in this neck of the woods. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is one of my favorite places in all of the Desert Southwest, especially from a botanical perspective. It is too bad so much illicit activity has resulted in much of it being closed. But, this place is still worth the visit!

Desert lupines in bloom

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Paisaje Lunar Loop, Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain


Distance: 6.3 km (4 mi) Loop - or 14 km (8.7 mi) for the extended route from Vilaflor
Elevation: 1710 - 2150 m (5605-7060 feet) or starting at 1602 m (5254 ft) from Vilaflor
Difficulty: Moderately Easy
Time of Year: Anytime

Some of the ash and pumice layers along the side of the trail

The Canary Islands are a geologic and ecological masterpiece. This volcanic island chain off the coast of North Africa is the result of a hot spot under the Atlantic Ocean that works almost exactly the same as the Hawaiian Island chain. Teide Volcano on Tenerife is in fact the largest volcano on earth outside of Hawaii, standing 12,198 feet above sea level, but over 24,600 feet above the ocean floor.

Hiking in the pine forest near the trailhead

Tenerife is a heavily visited island by Europeans because of its mild temperate climate and spectacular features, plus it is Spanish territory so it meets European standards for cleanliness, food, and currency (Euro). However, not many Americans make it there. Most people visit Teide caldera to see the high volcanic slopes. What is less visited are the interesting features on the outside of the caldera, such as the beautiful Paisaje Lunar. This area is called "lunar" because of the moon-like volcanic landscape.

A view of the snow-capped summit of Teide Volcano along the trail

The Paisaje Lunar is located just above the village of Vilaflor on the southern slopes of the island. It is located about 23 kilometers above the resort community of Los Christianos on the dry side of the island. But, at an elevation of over 6,000 feet, it is located in the Canary Island Pine band that encircles the island, and can often be shrouded in fog, especially in the morning. You can access it by driving to Vilaflor. For the extended route you can leave right from town on the PR-TF 72 trail. To do the shorter loop, drive about 9 km above the town and look for white signs for Paisaje Lunar. Then drive down this rough dirt road to the trailhead.

A view of the cloud shrouded island of La Canaria from the slopes
The trail starts off in a Canary Island Pine forest, amongst well drained cinders and lava rocks. This certainly isn't the densest forest on the island, but there are some enormous old trees scattered about. The trail will climb gently up to treeline where expansive views of Teide Volcano and the south coast will open up.

Approaching treeline

The Canary Island Pine is an interesting relict species. There are only scattered pine populations in the Moroccan Atlas Mountains 150 miles to the east and the nearest extensive pine forests are 850 miles away on mainland Spain. But, as it turns out, these pines are not related to the Mediterranean pine species. In fact, its closest relative is in the Himalayas! This certainly is an interesting biogeographical story waiting to be determined.

A view of the south coast of Tenerife

After crossing above treeline, you will come across the first "lunar" outcroppings. These are layers of ash and pumice laid down by eruptions of Teide Volcano. The trail will then reach a nice overlook before descending down the slope toward the "lunar" proper. In a gulch, erosion has revealed a number of columns, hoodoos, and rock formations in the ash and pumice.

The hoodoos of the Lunar

There are benches here and this is the halfway point, so it is a good place to rest and eat lunch. From here the trail just cruises across the pine forest lazily back toward the car. The best views were in the first half, but there are a number of good overlooks down to the south coast and across to the cloud-shrouded island of La Canaria across the wind swept Atlantic ocean.

An endemic lily along the trail

Just before getting back to the trailhead, there is a cabin and a particularly large Canary Island Pine. What a spectacular place to hike away from the crowds to get a nice overview of the geology and ecology of Tenerife.

Canary Island Pines have extra long needles to capture the morning mists and drip it onto their roots

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Spanish Firs of the Sierra de las Nieves, Andalucia, Spain

Distance: 14.3 km (8.8 mi) or 19.4 km (12 mi) with optional summit of Torrecilla
Elevation: 1191 - 1919 m (3906 - 6294 feet)
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Time of Year: March - November

A view of the summit basin of the Sierra de las Nieves

Located in southern Andalucia, near the city of Malaga, are the Sierra de las Nieves (mountains of the snows). This range rises from near sea level to over 6,000 feet in elevation. This range contains one of the last stands of the rare Spanish fir (Abies pinsapo) left in the world. Just above the forests of pine and fir is an alpine ecosystem unlike any I have seen in North America. This rocky landscape contains a "meadow" of spiky hedgehog brooms (Erinacea anthyllis) and large ancient gall oaks (Quercus lusitanica)

Village of Tolox at the base of the Sierra de las Nieves
From the summit area of these mountains, impressive views of the landscape of Andalucia unfold in a dramatic panorama. To get there, head to the small village of Yunquera on road A366 northwest of Malaga. From Yunquera, look for the sign for Puerto Saucillo to the left and follow this road up to the picnic area/viewpoint about 6 km above the town.

At the parking area, you will see a park map for the Parque Natural Sierra de Las Nieves
A young Spanish fir in the forest

The trail starts out in a forest of black pines (Pinus nigra). But, soon you will encounter those rare Spanish firs that sit in a protected drainage, particularly on the cooler north-facing slopes. These firs are relicts of the Ice Age and exist in only a handful of spots in Andalucia and two locations in the Rif Mountains of Northern Morocco.

As you move higher up in elevation and deeper into the basin, the forest becomes a dense stand of these medium-sized whitish-blue firs. Their needles are stiff and pointed and could be mistaken for spruces, except that the upright cones are unmistakable.

The last of the firs eeke out a living near treeline

It does not take long however, for the forest to disappear into an arid alpine scrub ecosystem. As you approach the back of the basin and begin to ascend to the saddle above, the forest thins, the views expand, and the landscape changes dramatically. The firs have been under assault for centuries by feral goats, frequent fires, timber harvests (particularly in the middle ages), and more recently global warming. Thus, their remaining range is small and at risk for elimination, even in this protected park.

As you rise above the treeline, other mountain ranges of Andalucia begin to poke out across the landscape. Soon you are in a landscape of dwarf hedgehog brooms, with their spiky balls defending themselves from the ever-present teeth of hungry goats.

Feral goats graze amongst a restoration project

While the park has been working on trying to restore the ecosystems of the Sierra de las Nieves, the presence of goats remains a major inhibitor since they will eat just about anything, can survive the heat and aridity of the Andalucian summer, and cause erosion to the already thin soils of this rocky environment. I don't know if they have done anything to try and remove these goats, but we saw lots of them in the area.

Four ancient gall oaks in a line. Did they grow on a nurse log?

Once you climb over the top of the ridge, you will come across a central basin at the summit area. This sheltered basin contains some small meadows of low-cut grass and wildflowers with scattered ancient gall oaks. These trees are native only to Iberia and Morocco and have been commercially harvested for their nutgalls for thousands of years. These nutgalls are created by an infection of gall wasps and are  used to produce brown and grey dyes for textiles.

Gall oaks with Torrecilla summit (1919 m) in the distance
About 1 km up from the trailhead in the fir forest and again in the summit basin are large stone pits called Pozo de Nieve. These are snow catchment basins and have been used for hundreds of years to collect and store winter snow. In the spring, people would come up to collect the snow, put it into backpacks and baskets and carry it down to underground ice rooms in the local villages called nevero artificial for storage of meat and summer treats like early forms of ice cream.

A pozo de nieve near the summit
As you walk along the northern edge of the summit basin, you will encounter a trail intersection. Heading off to the south is the trail to the summit of Torrecilla, which is the highest peak in the range. This adds approximately 2.5 km each way to the hike if you decided to go there.

A view to the north from the summit ridge (above the pollution line)

You can also continue straight until arriving at the west edge of the ridge. Here the trail will drop dramatically down toward the village of Quejigales. This overview spot would be an excellent place to turn around and head back to your car at Puerto Saucillo.

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