Monday, January 10, 2011

Butcher Jones Trail, Saguaro Lake, Tonto NF, Arizona

Distance: 5 miles roundtrip (8 km)
Elevation: 1506 - 1900 feet (460 - 580 m)
Difficulty: Moderately Easy
Time of Year: October - May (avoid summer heat)

The Butcher Jones Trail is not the kind of hike where you will exert a great deal of effort to climb to a mountain summit or where you will see unique cultural sites or endemic species. But, it is an excellent lesson on the ecology of the Sonoran Desert, as the trail winds its way sinuously around the lakeshore across north-and-south facing slopes. It is also a really nice trail that allows residents of the Phoenix-Mesa area, or winter snowbirds like us, a great opportunity to get out outside on a warm winter or spring day into the Sonoran Desert to do some bird watching and offering a rewarding panoramic view of the Four Peaks at the end.

Rhyolite Tuff lines the shoreline from the ancient volcanoes of the Superstition Mountains

To access the trail hop on Ellsworth Road from East Mesa and take it over Usery Pass and down to the Bush Highway, where you turn right. You can also access Bush Highway via AZ-87 leaving from North Mesa. Once on the Bush Highway, follow it past the Salt River Recreation Area and the Saguaro Lake Marina until you see a sign for Butcher Jones Recreation Area. Turn right and follow this road 2 miles to the end. You will need a Tonto National Forest Pass or an Interagency Pass to park here.

Coots and Ruddy Ducks leisurely bob in the coves of the lake

The trail begins to the left of the beach and for the first half mile, you will see lots of people fishing from the platforms and shores of the lake. Saguaro Lake is the lowest of a series of four reservoirs formed by dams that supply power and water to Phoenix on the Salt River as it crosses the Superstition Mountains. Along the shores, you will see lots of coots, western and pied-billed grebes, ruddy ducks and goldeneyes, and various other waterfowl.  After passing the last of the fishing platforms, the trail follows the contour of the lake in a narrow cove and then begins to ascend up to the top of a hill.

Moss-stabilized terraces on the cooler north-facing slopes

As you wind around the north-facing slopes, you will notice the temperatures are significantly cooler on these shady slopes. Here, additional moisture allows for the growth of surprisingly luxuriant mosses. These mosses hold the soil and stabilize it, allowing for the creation of mossy terraces. These terraces hold moisture better than steep slopes and thus allow for grasses to grow on them. You don't see anything like this at all on the sunny and drier south-facing slopes.

At the top of the big hill is the first of two major panoramic vistas where you can see the lake from the dam and marina area to the west up the river until it disappears behind a peninsula to the south.

Panoramic vista from the hilltop with basin below

The trail then descends into a basin with lots of shoreline access for fishing and to a sign which indicates Burro Cove 3/4 mile. As you descend watch for the numerous pincushion cactus that apparently really enjoy this hot south-facing slope. At this stage, you have come 1.75 miles.

Continue on the trail toward Burro Cove as you ascend up to a saddle to the east. At the top of the saddle a panoramic view of the Four Peaks Wilderness opens up in front of you. Below you several hundred feet is Burro Cove and its cattail-lined shores. The Four Peaks are a prominent landmark for residents of the Phoenix Basin, as they rise to over 7,000 feet elevation and often have snow on them in winter.

Four Peaks towers over Saguaro Lake

Not a bad day for hiking in it?

The trail continues down to a small beach and marsh area on the cove. We saw lots of waterfowl and a heron in the marsh below. But, just before the descent is an excellent rocky area to enjoy lunch and the excellent views. Once you are done, just return the way you came.

A little wren came by to visit while we enjoyed the view

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