Summit an ancient caldera remnant in the "Tucson Mountain Chaos" just south of Saguaro National Park - just be careful of the "jumping cholla".
Related: Tucson Mountains Tour: Golden Gate Mountain, Bobcat Ridge, and Little Cat Mountain
Elephant Head Peak - Santa Rita Mountains, Southern Arizona
All Arizona Hikes
We started on the Yetman Trailhead, not far from Golden Gate Mountain, instead of the Sarasota Trailhead which is closer to Cat Mountain so we could spend as much time as possible walking through this beautiful Tucson Mountain Park encompassing much of an ancient caldera, and weave around thorny saguaros and jumping chollas. We had also started at the Yetman trail a few days before, when we hiked three high points in this park: Golden Gate Mountain, Little Cat Mountain and Bobcat Ridge. All four peaks could be summited in one long day.
Golden Gate Mountain's southeast slopes and jumping cholla.
Fred and Scott near Yetman trailhead under the north cliffs of Golden Gate Mountain
Reach the saddle between Golden Gate Mountain and Bren Peak at 0.4 miles from Yetman trailhead, an excellent place to get a perspective on three high points: Bobcat Ridge, Little Cat Mountain and Cat Mountain. A textured green carpet sweeps down valley and up the slopes of these brooding, rugged mountains. The only thing that distracts from this scene is the housing development in the valley to the west.
This pleasant view makes it difficult to imagine the sudden event of a magma chamber spewing the searing ash that formed this ancient caldera landscape. Tucson Mountain Chaos is the term given by geologists to the valley rocks that underlie the Cat Mountain Tuff, the compacted ash that forms these peaks. There is no definite answer to the thousands-feet thickness of this Cretaceous-age tuff. Were these rocks below the Cat Mountain Tuff rafted from deeper levels by the rising magma? Or, was this rock caused by a landslide in a caldera that had accumulated the tuff? To make the geologic puzzle even more complicated, spreading of the Earth during Basin and Range faulting makes the geologist's task of identifying the age relationship of the rocks more difficult.
Yetman Trail heads to three summits from left to right: Bobcat Ridge, Cat Mountain in middle horizon with Little Cat in front of it.
At 1.6 miles, Yetman intersects with Sarasota Trail. Bobcat Ridge is gained by going left and staying on Yetman Trail. For Cat Mountain, turn sharp right (south) onto Sarasota. In 1.4 miles, Explorer Trail intersects with Sarasota. You can hike on either trail to get to Cat Mountain. On our approach, we took Explorer Trail which wraps around the base of Little Cat Mountain for 0.8 miles to meet up again with Sarasota and also Starr Pass Trail.
The worn-out "You are Here" red dot marks the intersection of Sarasota and Explorer Trails. Our route: Explorer (pink) trail to pass under the north flank of Cat Mountain.
Arizona Barrel Cactus
Cat Mountain from Explorer Trail on its north side. We went up low saddle to the left of the summit block to gain lower ridge.
From our vantage point on the Explorer trail, we could see the gentler rise of Cat Mountain's east ridge. The three-trail intersection (Starr Pass, Explorer and Sarasota) is well-marked as are other intersections in this well-cared-for park. We continued on the Explorer trail for 0.6 miles until we saw a manageable route to the ridge, leaving it earlier than the standard cairned route (1.0 miles past 3-way junction), making our own path. A sea of detached teddy bear cholla branches, those little mobile yellow ovals armored with extremely sharp spines made us pick our footsteps carefully. However, I wasn't careful enough; one jumped up and stuck my pant leg to my calf. I remembered a hike many years ago when we used a metal comb to remove a cholla piece from a dog's leg. Scott and Fred somehow got the prickly thing off me and we resumed our cross-country hike with no serious injury except for a few red spots on my skin.
The day grew colder and cloudier. The broken dark red and tan rocks deposited on the slopes from the tuff cliffs above crunched under our boots. The occasional cactus spine scraped against our packs and in some cases grabbed on.
Three-way intersection. From here, exit Explorer Trail for more difficult ascent up Cat Mountain's northwest ridge. "Standard" and less difficult route leaves Explorer 1.0 mile after this intersection.
"Teddy Bear Cholla"
After getting off Explorer, we looked for the best way up. Rocks formed a natural staircase. Four or five Coues Whitetail deer perched far above on steep cliffs stopped to watch us, curious at three humans stumbling through the cacti. The ridge walk was straightforward and it felt good to follow its natural route and rhythm, using hands when needed. We came upon cairns marking the final ascent to the summit and a complete change of view of the open sky and the sprawl of Tucson far below us. There's just one Class 3 crack with mild exposure to navigate, with just enough ledges to place feet and hands. Frequent rock cairns mark an obvious path.
Picking our way to Cat Mountain's east ridge.
Saguaro and cholla garden below last summit approach
Scott ascending the last part of ridge climb
Sweet cactus garden before final ascent.
Fred on the summit of Cat Mountain
Golden Gate Mountain on the right; Yetman Trail goes through the saddle to its right.
Every ridge scramble, every summit has its own unique personality. The scramble up Cat Mountain's east ridge is challenging yet not scary, exposed but safe, with the right amount of rocks and cactus gardens making it aesthetically friendly. You're never bored with looking at saguaros and chollas because with each one, there is a different size or form. This summit has one very unusual feature - a plastic white boulder that houses a radio repeater. Looking at Cat Mountain from Tucson area, you would not suspect the spacious flat areas on its summit. A steady cold wind cut short our time lounging on the top, but we got a good look at Golden Gate Mountain to the northwest and the steep drop-off to the south.
As we walked down, the clouds closed again, the temperature dropped, and the wind chilled. We hiked back via Sarasota Trail at the three-way intersection. We added another summit to our "three friends who like to hike" resume', and more stories for reminiscing. This will go down in the books as one of our more mellow hikes together. Never stop climbing mountains!
Scott and Fred
Looking at Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson and Rincon Mountains on right horizon.
Fred and Sue on Cat!
Parting shot of Cat Mountain from Sarasota Trail.
Our GPS tracks to Cat Mountain from Yetman Trailhead
Red line is our Class 2 ascent route; blue line is cairned trail and our descent.
Elevation profile over entire 11.5-mile hike.
With a second try, we made it to the lonesome summit of Elephant Head in the sparsely traveled Santa Rita Mountains, south of Tucson.
Related: Tucson Mountains Tour: Golden Gate Mountain, Bobcat Ridge, and Little Cat Mountain
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Elephant Head Peak summit - Santa Rita Mountains
"Mountains complement desert as desert complements city, as wilderness complements and completes civilization."
- Edward Abbey - from Desert Solitaire
On our first attempt at summiting Elephant Head Peak, a huge winter storm was blowing into southern Arizona, so by the time we reached the saddle just below the exposed ridge to the summit, we staggered against a roaring wind bent on toppling us over. We had to go back down. The storm produced a thick white blanket over the tops of the Santa Catalina and Rincon Mountain ranges overlooking Tucson. Six days later we reached Elephant Head summit on a warm, calm and sunny day, but the Santa Rita Mountain range behind us still held large patches of snow.
The almost ghostly figure of bare Elephant Head Peak stands out in stark contrast against the base of the dark brown and green Santa Rita Mountains in the Santa Cruz Valley near the southern Arizona border. The Cretaceous-age Elephant Head formed much later than the Triassic-age Mt. Wrightson rocks at the higher elevations of these mountains.
Elephant Head Peak, 5, 641' in Mt. Wrightson Wilderness in the northwest Santa Rita Mountains
First attempt: bracing against the wind on saddle beneath Elephant Head Peak, 5,641'.
On the way to the bottom of Chino Canyon looking at Elephant Head Peak. Hike to saddle on the right following cairns.
This hike packs in a wide variety of plants, views and terrain for its relatively short distance and manageable elevation gain. Begin by crossing the stream in Agua Caliente Canyon to walk through knee-high bunch grasses, then pass by the intersection for Little Elephant Head (Peak 5,139'). Catch the first glimpse of Elephant Head Peak on the horizon. Magenta and red fruits of huge Santa Rita prickly pear cacti dot the sides of the trail. Tall rock walls that support an old mining road still stand looking down Chino Canyon. Suddenly, around a corner, an enormous view of the pinkish-tan hulk of Elephant Head Peak overlooks deep Chino Canyon, its rounded rocks and southern cliffs dotted with green shrubs and a few trees. A steep drop with occasional Arizona Rainbow cacti growing in moss brings you to a soothing waterfall. The final ridge climb is the funnest part of the hike, as it requires using old oak tree branches and plenty of rock hand-holds. The rock affords great traction as the ridge drops on both sides for a huge view of all the major ranges to the north, including Baboquivari Peak, the native Tohono O'odham peoples' most sacred place. A close-up to the east of the rugged Santa Rita Mountains provides a beautiful backdrop.
One mile into the hike, intersect with mining road built in the early 1900's and an old Santa Rita prickly pear.
Cairn marking cross-country trail that crosses Chino Canyon to ascend to saddle to the right (southeast) of Elephant Head Peak.
Chino Canyon at creek crossing
This elevation is too high and cool for saguaros to grow. This hike travels through the transition between desert grassland and oak grassland biomes of Arizona's Sky Island region. The ocotillo "forests" are remarkable and so are the mature Santa Rita Prickly Pears; they tolerate the cooler winters. Their pads can turn purple during the winter.
So many things make this a repeat-hike in the future: solitude, desert wilderness, route-finding, fun Class 2-3 climbing, and views. Plans: Elephant Head Peak plus Little Elephant Head (Peak 5,149').
On Elephant Head's east ridge looking at the final climb: trail goes around just to the right side of ridge.
Yep! This is the trail! See the cairns......
Summit of Elephant Head Peak - Santa Rita Mountains - Mt. Wrightson highest peak.
Near the summit looking down the east ridge to saddle (top of image) where trail ascends.
Santa Rita Prickly Pear
Devils's Cashbox - limestone butte south of Elephant Head Peak
Ocotillo and Santa Rita Prickly Pear
Our GPS tracks from Trail #930 Trailhead (south) to Elephant Head Peak (north) Contour intervals = 40'.
Profile for ascent: 3.4 miles with 2,000' net elevation gain
An Archipelago in a Cordilleran Gap - The Sky Islands of Arizona and Sonora. Brusca, R., Moore, W.
Ganesha: Hindu Diety. Doniger, W. Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ganesha
Geologic Map of the Mt. Wrightson Quadrangle. https://ngmdb.usgs.gov/Prodesc/proddesc_9405.htm
Mesozoic Stratigraphy of the Santa Rita Mountains, Southeast of Tucson, Arizona. Drewes, H. 1971. https://pubs.usgs.gov/pp/0658c/report.pdf
Plutonic Rocks of the Santa Rita Mountains, Southeast of Tucson, Arizona. Drewes, H. 1976. Geological Survey Professional Paper 915. https://pubs.usgs.gov/pp/0915/report.pdf
Quantrell Mine Trail. Coronado National Forest. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service.
Summit three scenic high points in the "Tucson Mountain Chaos" using a combination of established trails and off-trail climbs through exquisite Lower Sonoran desert ecosystem.
Saguaros at Golden Gate Mountain summit
Golden Gate Mountain Summit, 4,288 feet- located on the right side of trail.
Yetman Trailhead and Golden Gate Mountain
It's not every day you can hike through valleys with rocks formally called "Tucson Mountain Chaos" and climb mountains made of compacted ash spewed from a huge volcanic eruption that created a 12-mile wide caldera whose floor collapsed onto an emptied magma chamber. At least this seems to be the current theory of the geologically complex Tucson Mountain Park. Geologists still debate and puzzle over the formation of this area. If you do this hike that I describe here, you will travel on the caldera floor through a beautiful Sonoran desert ecosystem.
On this yearly Tucson visit, Fred and I were looking for different peaks in the area to summit. Not that we are tired of peaks in the Santa Catalinas and Rincon Mountains. A winter storm had dumped a lot of snow at elevations above 5,000 feet, so we opted for a warmer experience instead. Tucson Mountain Park is managed by Pima County. Its great website has an interactive map and lists features and activities in this 20,000-acre park that is "one of the largest natural resource areas owned and managed by a local government in the U.S." Outdoor activities range from picnicking to hiking, mountain bike riding and wildlife viewing. On Cat Mountain (a few days after this hike), we were lucky to see five grey Coues whitetail deer, atop steep and rocky rust-colored cliffs.
I love celebrating holidays on the trail. There is a certain fellowship that occurs with greetings of "Merry Christmas" or "Happy New Year!" On this Christmas morning, the chill wind stung our faces, but it wasn't long before we felt warmth from the winter sun.
The north walls of Golden Gate Mountain, the first summit of our Tucson Mountain Park tour
Golden Gate Mountain
At the Yetman trailhead, we set out to discover a new area with hike directions from Earthline. At the saddle between Golden Gate Mountain and Bren's Benchmark, 0.4 miles from the trailhead, we oriented ourselves and looked southeast to mountain summits, not yet knowing which ones we would be climbing. We took a right 0.1 miles past the saddle at the cairned trail that gains the Golden Gate through a break between cliffs, and began our climb to Golden Gate Mountain, our highest summit at 4,288 feet (see photo below).
The golden color of the rocks perhaps gave this peak its name. Cat Mountain Tuff, a thick layer of consolidated ash, makes up the bulk of these peaks.
Tucson Mountain Chaos is the term given by geologists to the rocks that underlie the Cat Mountain Tuff, seen in the valleys. There is no definite answer to the thousands-feet thickness of this Cretaceous-age tuff. Were these rocks below the Cat Mountain Tuff rafted from deeper levels by the rising magma? Or, was this rock caused by a landslide in a caldera that had accumulated the tuff? Of course, when you throw in the geometry of faulting that occurred later when Basin and Range was spreading, it makes the geologist's task of identifying the age relationship of the rocks more difficult.
Dodging teddy bear chollas and barrel cactus spines, we marveled at a rare cristate saguaro thrusting up from a steep, south-facing slope under orange cliffs. Theories for the abnormal crest growth range from genetic mutations to lightning strikes. The trail threads between welded tuff towers and tops out, weaves to the left following cairns to the summit. Tucson spreads below, mountain ranges surround on the horizon. Below us, a white cloud moved across the valley and swept over us, briefly covering the peak with fog that created a rare, softly illuminated desert scene. Light rain produced vivid oranges, yellows and greens. Return to Yetman Trail via the same path.
Cristate saguaro on left. Bren Benchmark across valley.
Scenes from the summit of Golden Gate Mountain, Tucson Mountain Park
View of Golden Gate Mountain from Yetman Trail (looking west).
Peak 3,380' on Bobcat Ridge
From return to Yetman trail, hike down-valley 1.15 miles to the intersection with the Sarasota Trail. Stay on Yetman to the left (east) for 0.2 miles to arrive at a flat saddle. Bobcat Ridge trail (not marked with signs but obvious) takes off to the right (southwest). The views of Tucson open up as you near the top, Peak 3,380'. It is a relaxed summit with beautiful vegetation, a favorite local hiker destination. From this summit, the steep northern walls of Little Cat Mountain comes into clear view; there's a lot of descending before the climb. To its left (southeast), the dark, enormous hulk that is Cat Mountain will have to be summited another day. Total mileage = 4.3 miles.
Bobcat Ridge near Peak 3,380
From Bobcat Ridge looking northwest to saddle between Golden Gate Mountain (left) and Bren's Benchmark (right).
The Yetman Trail traverses the saddle.
Bobcat Ridge Trail leading away from Peak 3,380 toward Little Cat Mountain behind saguaros. Cat Mountain on the left.
Little Cat Mountain
From Peak 3,380, continue southeast on Bobcat Ridge Trail 0.7 miles to intersection with Explorer Trail; total mileage = 5.0 miles. Turn left (southeast) to climb to saddle in a short distance. At top of saddle, at arrow sign for Explorer Trail, hike up to saddle of Little Cat Mountain to the right (south). Fewer cairns than those of Golden Gate mark this off-trail approach which climbs a quick 400' to the summit, passing a relatively flat grassy area once the trail tops the saddle. From this summit, look to your left; an outrageous view of dark orange and black volcanic Cat Mountain appears as you stand on a cliff overlooking Tucson. The lowering sun and long shadows made this scene even more dramatic.
We returned via our ascent to Explorer trail (signs with pink arrow), then made a loop around base of Bobcat Ridge by following Sarasota Trail (signs with maroon arrow), then finally on Yetman Trail to trailhead. Total distance: 9.25 miles. We vowed to climb Cat Mountain, then returned to its summit a few days later with our friend Scott, to celebrate the New Year and plan for hikes together in the beautiful southwestern deserts.
Saddle near summit of Little Cat Mountain - faint trails ascend from this saddle between Bobcat Ridge and Little Cat on Explorer Trail
View of Cat Mountain from summit of Little Cat Mountain
Cat Mountain on the left (we did that peak a few days later)
Little Cat is behind the saguaro
Scott and Fred on summit of Cat Mountain (a few days later) looking north to Golden Gate Mountain and the cliffs of Little Cat Mountain (between them).
Jumping cholla and Cat Mountain
Our GPS tracks - click on map for larger image
Trails in southeastern Tucson Mountain Park
click on map for larger image
Lipman, P.W. 1994. Tucson Mountains Caldera: A Cretaceous Ash Flow Caldera in Southern Arizona. USGS Research on Mineral Resources 1994: Part B, Guidebook for Field Trips. U.S. Geological Survey.
Tucson Mountains Geology: Complex and Controversial.
Lipman, P.W. Geologic Map of the Tucson Mountains Caldera, Southern Arizona.
Tucson Mountain Chaos. Arizona State Geology: Blog of the State Geologist of Arizona. Retrieved from internet. http://arizonageology.blogspot.com/2009/04/tucson-mountain-chaos.html
From doorstep to summit in just a few hours, this hike close to Boise offers a quiet Ponderosa pine forest, a good climb and great views of Boise National Forest.
Final approach to Bald Mountain's (aka Poorman) summit; Little Anderson watershed to the left and drainage into Poorman Creek to the right. Nice exposures of Idaho batholith granite. Elevation - 5,134 feet.
One of Idaho's greatest assets is the ability to find forest solitude in a short amount of time. After an hour's drive north from Boise, we started our walk on the Station Creek Trail in the Boise National Forest's 2.5 million acres, weaving through a Ponderosa pine forest to a ridge with a view of Bald Mountain. The summit feels grander than its relatively low elevation would suggest. It stands high above Little Anderson Creek to the north, and Poorman Creek to the south, with views of snow-dusted Salmon River Mountains to the northeast. Everything is good on this adventure - beautiful drive, challenging grade on a relatively short distance with great views.
"Poorman" is engraved on Bald Mountain's summit benchmark, a triangulation station established by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1933. The History of the Boise National Forest - 1905-1976, an informative document, covers many subjects from the area's Native Americans, to the creation and administration of the Boise National Forest, its resources and its settlement. The Sawtooth Forest Reserve was created in 1905 by President Theodore Roosevelt. A combination of the west portion of this reserve and the 1.5-million acre Payette Forest Reserve created the Boise National Forest July 1, 1908. Idaho is one of the top states that has a large percentage of publicly-owned lands - 62% of it under federal jurisdiction of BLM and Forest Service. This does not include state-owned land.
The Payette River was named after Francois Payette, a French-Canadian Hudson Bay Company fur trapper who explored southwestern Idaho. Bald Mountain is tucked in between the main waterways of North Fork and South Fork of Payette River.
The stately Ponderosa pine is easy to recognize because of its orange-brown bark arranged in large vertical plates. In the spring, the tree's sap produces a vanilla scent. The needles are 5-10 inches long and grow in clusters of three.
Access the Station Creek trailhead just off the Banks-Lowman Highway, right across from Garden City Ranger Station and heliport, past Mile 12 and Boise National Forest sign. The trail treks north as it follows Station Creek, crosses it at 0.8 miles, then climbs the ridge that separates Station Creek and Poorman Creek. At mile 2.6, this ridge tops out at Point 4,772 with bare-topped Bald Mountain in full view.
Single track over combination of pine needles and gravel on ridge between Station Creek and Poorman Creek leading to Point 4,772.
View of Bald Mountain from ridge
From point 4,772, hike 1.2 miles east/southeast to Bald Mountain's summit past some exposed granite outcrops. The trail becomes less defined as it traverses across the top of the watershed for Little Anderson Creek, then through a tall shady stand of Ponderosa pines. The trail then climbs the steep, open and grassy western slope to Bald Mountain's granite summit surrounded by the fall hues of red, yellow and orange senescent buckwheat and lomatium flowers.
Bald Mountain stands above Garden Valley to the west and deep South Fork of the Payette River to the south and the snow-dusted Salmon River Mountains to the north. For a peak close to home, it feels and looks like wilderness - a quick nature fix.
An iron stand bolted into cement on the summit looks like it might have supported something, or is merely a marker. I was unable to find information on this and the origin of the word "Poorman", although it could be in reference to previous mining activity.
Many Ponderosa pine trunks are blackened from the 18,000-acre West Anderson fire that occurred due to a lightning strike in August of 1986. Four firefighters from New Mexico died when their truck tumbled down a dry creek bed near Crouch as they were driving from their fire camp. Map of Boise National Forest fire history.
In the spring, this trail is bright with wildflowers, but autumn produces muted colors and textures, just as beautiful. There are two loops that can be hiked instead of summiting Bald Mountain (Stueby's Outdoor Journal).
Poorman triangulation marker on Bald Mountain's summit placed in 1933.
From the summit - view of Garden Valley to the west
Descending just off summit - I Love Idaho!
Our GPS tracks from Station Creek Trailhead to Bald Mountain Summit
click on map for larger image
Boise National Forest Large Fire History, 1980-2018 (Map). https://www.idahofireinfo.blm.gov › southwest › documents › maps › BOF...
Smith, E.M. 1986. History of the Boise National Forest, 1905-1976. Idaho State Historical Society.
Our History. Garden Valley Chamber of Commerce website.
Ponderosa pine. US Forest Service.
A "grudge peak" no more, we summited Norton Peak this time in the Smokys, a mountain range that has less visitors and more solitude than its illustrious neighbor to the north - the Sawtooth Mountains.
Related: Miner Lake - Smoky Mountains, Idaho
Norton Peak is a triangulation station for the Geodetic Survey; this wooden triangle-shaped tower with "10,336" engraved on it could have been placed on the summit to signify this fact. The brass disc marker was placed in 1967 (see below).
Our GPS tracks from Miner Lake to switchbacks up to saddle overlooking Norton Lakes to the right, to Norton Peak summit along ridge
more maps below
Norton Peak became somewhat of a "grudge peak" after a failed attempt to summit it two years ago when a September storm left heavy snow and we got only as far as Miner Lake. Even without snow, the trail was reportedly faint, so we decided not to continue on to the summit not knowing where it was in 1-2 feet of snow. The contrast of fresh snow surrounding a green lake and thickly layering late summer's green vegetation was memorable (Miner Lake post).
Norton Peak, the third highest point in Idaho's Smoky Mountains is a great hike for so many reasons: there's a potential of seeing mountain goats, there are few people on the trails, its meadows and streams are beautiful, its summits are challenging Class 2 scrambles, and you have the opportunity to celebrate in Ketchum afterward with great food, drink, and fun. The best of both worlds - that's why we love Ketchum. Across the valley to the northeast you get a great perspective of the entire Boulder Mountain range and emerald lakes. Both sides of the ridge as you approach the summit drop down steeply, so there is a feeling of walking on top of the range.
Perhaps the Smokys are over-shadowed by the more famous and extolled Sawtooth Mountains just to their north, and as a result, there are less visitors. I was pleasantly surprised at their beauty and solitude. We have seen mountain bikers and horse-riders on this trail, as well as motorbike riders on Trail #134 to Prairie Lakes, so it is an area that is enjoyed by various modes of transportation. Trail #135 to Miner Lake prohibits motor vehicles.
The Sawtooth National Recreation Area was created in 1972 by Congress as a result of national protests over the development of a proposed molybdenum mine with roads and an open pit at the base of Castle Peak, the highest in the White Cloud Mountains. The law established the SNRA, covering 756,000 acres and banned mining. Norton Peak and Prairie Creek trailhead are near the southern border of the SNRA.
Trailhead (7,500') to Miner Lake (8,776')
After spending the night in Wood River Campground, north of Ketchum, we drove to the Prairie Creek trailhead, happy that we had a clear day ahead of us. The morning was crisp as we made our way through a frosted and shaded forest - temperature 37 degrees. The first 2.3 miles on Trail #134 is a level hike along Prairie Creek through shade, except for a large meadow where steep eastern talus slopes caused by faulting are revealed. Prairie creek riffles over rocks making small waterfalls, even in September. Take the less-traveled Trail #135 to Miner Lake at the intersection. It will soon come to Prairie Creek with a wide crossing under large firs and pines.
Hikers, bikers, horse riders, and motorcycle riders enjoy this area of the Smoky Mountains
Intersection of Trail #134 to Prairie Lakes and Trail #135 to Miner Lake
Prairie Creek crossing on Trail #135 to Miner Lake just after intersection with Prairie Creek Trail #134, 2.3 miles into hike
After crossing Prairie creek at 7,640' elevation, climb 1.8 miles to Miner Lake at 8,780', making a 1,140' gain. The trail crosses over the creek running through Miner Canyon, then climbs up to overlook the deep canyon far below to the east with at least one waterfall. A few steep pitches up this part, then the trail crosses the point where an open meadow meets with the mouth of the canyon, and it emerges from the trees for the first view of Norton Peak to the southeast.
It was here that our walk in the snow two years ago became unforgettably beautiful. Steep, gray talus slopes tumble down a U-shaped valley. Firs and pines tower as you head south toward Miner Lake. A few small crossings over the creek draining Miner Lake, a silent and pine-needle padded walk on level ground past some well-kept campsites, and you are at the edge of a steep-walled green lake. What a difference 1,140 feet of elevation can make!
A photo below of our Miner Lake trip in the snow two years ago....
After Prairie Creek crossing, heading up Miner Canyon
Miner Lake and Norton Peak on horizon
Miner Lake - Smoky Mountains, Idaho
Walking through the shaded forest, a small bright light ahead slowly becomes more prominent, and as you emerge from the shade to the open shore, one by one the features of this beautiful lake come into focus. Dense stands of fir from the ridge overlooking the lake curve down to water's edge, interspersed with the raw, bare rock and talus slopes of the Idaho batholith. Bleached tree trunks lie horizontally, surrounded by reflections. But it's the jade green color that is so striking. On this morning, the lake is perfectly still, with nothing to disturb its glassy surface.
Miner Lake to Norton Peak
Return to Trail #135 on the east side of the lake to follow tree blazes marking the trail and traverse steeply through switchbacks of alternating tree stands and rocks. We reached the saddle, coming out of the shade of Miner Lake's cirque wall to full sunlight and a view of Norton Lakes on the other side to the southeast. From the saddle, take a left off Trail #135 (north/northwest), and head up a narrow, but well-defined trail to Norton Peak's south ridge. Trail #135 continues over the saddle and descends to Norton Lakes and ultimately to the Baker Creek trailhead. Although I had read that this was one of the best places in Idaho to see mountain goats, we saw none. We saw three other people on the summit that had hiked up from Norton Lakes.
Tree blazes mark trail
After the climb up from the saddle to the ridge along a defined trail, Class 2 scramble along ridge to Norton Peak
A defined trail leads to the "sawtooth" rocks where there is mild-moderate exposure on the ridge. A three-foot tall wooden structure with "10,336" carved on it lies on its side at the summit, along with the peak register. The most striking view is that of the Boulder Mountains to the northeast, where a long hike will take you to the interesting remnants of the Golden Glow mine and the Boulder Historic Site, where galena ore (AKA lead sulfide) was mined.
Supposedly the Smokys got their name from frequent forest fire smoke in the region.
On the summit, we had time to sign the register, identify the surrounding mountain ranges, and celebrate; Norton was no longer a grudge peak! I spotted an interesting rock between the saddle and the ridge that looked like limestone. After research of the rock layers in the Smokys, I thought the rock was a sandy limestone of the Wood River Formation of Paleozoic sedimentary rocks. This was confirmed by a geologist at the Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology. This rock exhibits calcite crystals (Geology and Mining History of Idaho's Smoky Mountains).
On the way down, we got a good look at Norton Lakes on the other side of the saddle. The next hike to Norton Peak will be via these lakes and Baker Creek trailhead. So much to explore, so little time!
We celebrated in Ketchum with a juicy rib-eye, a whiskey sour (for me) and a Manhattan (for Fred). Life is good here in Idaho. I think I will stay awhile.
Trail on ridge is defined
View of Miner Lake and western Smoky Mountains from Norton Peak summit
Norton Peak is a triangulation station as noted by the triangle on this geodetic brass disc. There are three reference markers that have arrows engraved on them on other high points that point back to this station. They are used for map-making.
Boulder Mountain range and Castle Peak in the White Cloud Mountains (furthest left peak on horizon) behind Fred.
Norton Lakes on other side of saddle from Miner Lake. Trail #135 treks over the saddle, connecting these lakes
Descending toward saddle
L'arbre est tres magnifique!
Tracks from trailhead (north) to Norton Peak; hike distance = 5.8 miles to summit
Miner Lake lower right, switchbacks to saddle, then north on ridge to the summit (Top of image is east).
GPS tracks from trailhead to Norton Peak
Click on map for larger view
Wutz, Katherine. 2010. In Late 1800's, Mining was King: Remnants of Silver Boom dot the Wood River Valley. Idaho Mountain Express. (Internet).
USDA Forest Service - Sawtooth National Recreation Area
Structural and Stratigraphic Transect of South-Central Idaho: A Field Guide to the Lost River, White Knob, Pioneer, Boulder, and Smoky Mountains. citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.731.8163&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Additional references on Geology and Mining History of Idaho's Smoky Mountains page.
Hike cross-country from Alpine Lake and Upper Redfish Lakes to one of the best views in the Sawtooth Wilderness. The rewards are solitude and Idaho beauty.
Related: Sawtooth Mountain Wilderness: Upper Redfish Lakes Cross-Country Hike (2017).
Alpine Peak: 9,861' - Sawtooth Wilderness: Never Stop Climbing Mountains
On Reward Peak's north ridge looking east to Lake Kathryn. Redfish Lake in the distance.
From Reward Peak's summit
6:30 a.m. - Alpine Lake
The day in central Idaho's beautiful Sawtooth Mountains is unusually cool and dry for August. After taking the motorboat shuttle across the long, deep blue Redfish Lake, you disembark at the Redfish Inlet Transfer Camp underneath the towering Grand Mogul, an intimidating peak that signals you are now approaching wilderness. You hoist your backpack and begin the hike to Alpine Lake. Your pack isn't too heavy and you hike along waterfalls through a glacier-cut valley with towering rock cathedrals under an azure sky. At Alpine Lake, you find the best camping spot with plenty of room, with no one else around, and giant flat rocks on the shore on which to sit. The air is fresh and there's no mosquitos. You are lulled to sleep that night with the mountain silence and the late quacks of two ducks on the lake. You wake in the deep night to see the inside of your tent lit up and peer outside to the most amazing sight: peaks brightly illuminated, glowing from a full moonrise with crystal-clear stars above.
The next morning, you hike off-trail, navigating straight up to the ridge overlooking the lake on soil and pine needles still damp with morning dew. You walk up a challenging rock-filled gulley only to descend to emerald lakes below, and then up another rock and snow-filled gulley to one of the most incredible views you have ever seen - you blink a few times to make sure you are really there. A sunny and windless 10,000-foot summit, with no threat of thunderstorms. Lounge on the rocks - eat lunch, take photos, read the summit register. Serrated ridges, deep bottomless canyons, and sapphire-blue Lake Kathryn drop below your feet. You take your time to return to camp, meandering through bright green wildflower-filled meadows and on granite over a stream murmuring somewhere deep underneath. You lie on shaded glacier-smoothed granite for a short nap. You see no one else the whole day. That night you sleep deeply in the fragrant forest.
I once heard someone say, "It's not material things that matter, it's the experiences you have that matter." The scenario described above was actually the experience Fred and I had last month in the paradise that is the Sawtooth Wilderness. We summited Reward Peak during a glorious 3-day backpacking trip.
In 1927, Arval Anderson, surveying for the USGS found a note on the summit dated in 1925 which offered the finder a $25 reward for returning the note.
Entry point (8,760 feet elevation) from ridge above Alpine Lake's southeast side into gulley. The saddle at top of gulley overlooks Upper Redfish Lakes with Reward Peak on the horizon.
Alpine Lake (8,330') to Upper Redfish Lakes (8,660')
This part of the hike climbs the steep gulley seen from the south end of Alpine Lake, then descends through forest to two Upper Redfish Lakes divided by a a granite strip with rocks showing glacial striations and chatter marks, and a few sweet camp sites. From the southeast shore of Alpine Lake, hike south 450 feet up to ridge to follow it to the gulley entrance at about 8,760 feet. The gulley is steep with stable rock at bottom and loose rock and scree middle-to-top. From the ridge saddle, Reward Peak can be seen to the southwest on the horizon. Point 9337 sits just above the east side of the gulley.
Ascending gulley from Alpine Lake to ridge overlooking Upper Redfish Lakes and Reward Peak on horizon
Fred (lower left) nearing saddle at top of gulley from Alpine Lake, below.
Redfish Lake and moraine seen in distance upper right.
From saddle on ridge separating Alpine Lake drainage from Upper Redfish Lakes drainage looking north to Alpine Lake.
From saddle after first gulley climb; looking south to Reward Peak on horizon right side of largest tree in photo. Walk up gulley with a few snow patches to its summit. Upper Redfish Lakes in basin below.
Once you complete the steep and tedious climb out of the gulley from Alpine Lake, and descend into the basin that contains Upper Redfish Lakes, it feels like true wilderness with negligible signs of human impact. The first two lakes are visible below. A narrow trail follows the wide granite outcropping situated between two lakes. The morning colors of blues, yellows and greens were vivid on the lake as we filtered water. The land is pristine, the large smooth white rocks still cool from the night before. Due south of the second Upper Redfish Lake is Lake Kathryn, considered the third Upper Redfish Lake, situated on the other side of the cirque's ridge. Lake Kathryn is a beautiful lake, deep blue with a small island in the middle.
Lake Kathryn is named after Kathryn Mills, according to Iowa State University's archives of the Vandervelde Family Papers. This fact leads me to consider whether Kathryn Mills was associated with the Iowa Mountaineers, a group important to the Sawtooth Mountains' climbing history. This group led mountain ascents all over the world from 1940 until 1996. The Iowa Mountaineers claimed first-time ascents of 18 peaks in the Sawtooth Mountains in 1940's, including Warbonnet Peak in 1947, a challenging sheer-wall spire where all routes to the top are Class 5 climbing. Lake Kathryn is located ~ 5 miles southeast of Warbonnet Peak, and at the base of Reward Peak.
Three glacial landforms in granite: Glacial polish, striations and chatter marks
As the glacier moves downstream, the boulders and coarse gravel trapped under the glacier abrade and chip bedrock
Chatter marks are crescent-shaped and oriented at right angles to glacial movement. Striations are parallel to glacial movement.
Morning at second Upper Redfish Lake
Upper Redfish Lakes to Reward Peak
From the south end of middle Upper Redfish Lake, hike west for a short distance to the large ridge that contains Packrat Peak, and then south to enter into the wide rock-filled drainage that goes directly to Reward Peak, a pyramid-shaped peak at top of drainage. We hiked west into a beautiful forest with intermittent meadows and wildflowers, across and along the creek with bubbling small falls stepping down toward the Upper Redfish Lakes.
Large granite rocks are stable throughout the drainage ascent, with brief snow patches to walk through, or around. We got lucky with the cooler-than-usual August temperatures. We hiked up to Reward's northeast ridge to look over the other side to Kathryn Lake. Large granite boulders dominate the last 40 feet to the summit, requiring using hands to maneuver around them. Paths lead through the scree and talus toward Lake Kathryn. Climb a small rock chute to find yourself on a surprisingly wide and flat summit. The view is expansive everywhere you look. Walk west of the summit's register and USGS marker - but not too far! The mountain drops off in a towering cliff below your feet, and when you look down, you cannot see its sheer walls. Lake Kathryn looks like a smooth lapis lazuli gemstone embedded in rough granite.
It feels like the top of the Sawtooth Mountains here, with distant serrated dark peaks lining a 360- degree horizon; however Thompson Peak, the highest Sawtooth peak to the north is almost 700 feet higher. Packrat Lake sits in a deep basin to the north. The view is so spectacular I think of Lucy Jane Bledsoe's quote from her book, The Ice Cave:
Beautiful meadows and streams between Upper Redfish Lakes and drainage to Reward Peak
Our route from middle Upper Redfish Lake (lower left) to summit of Reward Peak
From the lake, hike west toward long ridge that contains Packrat Peak, then south up wide gulley
Lake Kathryn middle left in photo
Drainage to Reward Peak, furthest peak on horizon
After a break upon reaching top of Reward's north ridge - step through large boulders last 30 - 40 feet to summit
Lake Kathryn from Reward Peak's north ridge
Reward Peak summit - 10, 074 feet looking north
Packrat Lake at left; summit register under large flat boulder
Packrat Lake and Packrat Peak above it upper right in photo
The descent is not too difficult - just a lot of picking through boulders until you reach the forest and meadows surrounding Upper Redfish Lakes. Not in a rush to get back to camp, we took a long break sitting in the soft meadow grass as we listened to the melodic stream. Mellowed and relaxed, we took another break on the large polished granite outcrops that separate the Upper Redfish Lakes.
When climbing steeply out of Upper Redfish Lakes basin, the saddle and gulley overlooking Alpine Lake is toward the right (northeast), just left of the furthest point to the right on the ridge as you climb - Point 9337. From below, it is difficult to get bearings because you can't see the top. Once on the saddle, the lowest point on the ridge above, the gulley down to Alpine Lake is steep and tedious, rocks slide as you step down, and the large boulders at the bottom take some navigation unless you can circumvent these and stay higher on the gulley slope. We heard a pika chirping its alarm as we clumsily made our way down.
The gulley ends in a beautiful meadow, where we hiked steeply down, back to camp. The two ducks on the lake quacked and paddled toward each other as dusk settled in. We were in our sleeping bags before twilight. The glow in the tent awoke me again, I checked the mountains above the lake. They weren't as spectacularly lit as the previous night; the moon not as high yet, but still a memorable sight. Commit the scene to memory. Never stop climbing mountains.
Parting shot of first Upper Redfish Lake with wide drainage that leads to Reward Peak, behind the closest peak in photo
Descending gulley back to Alpine Lake
Elevation profile from top of gulley on ridge separating Alpine Lake and Upper Redfish Lakes to Reward Peak summit and back down, then up again to top of gulley. Each vertical line represents 0.5 miles. Red horizontal line interval = 250 feet of elevation.
Lopez, Tom. Idaho: A Climbing Guide - Climbs, Scrambles and Hikes. 2000. The Mountaineers Books.
Vandervelde Family Papers. Iowa State University.
Summit Alpine Peak in Idaho's gorgeous Sawtooth Wilderness for a stunning view of dozens of Sawtooth peaks, Mount Regan's steep north face, and beautiful Sawtooth Lake at your feet.
Related: Sawtooth Wilderness: Upper Redfish Lake Cross Country Hike
Goat Mountain: 11,913': Pioneer Mountains, Idaho
Alpine Peak (right - elevation 9,861') rises 2,000 feet above Alpine Lake
Val taking a break at Sawtooth Lake - looking across to Mount Regan's north face
"You Should Never Stop Climbing Mountains", Andy Rooney proclaimed in one of his commentaries from the television show 60 minutes. Many years ago, my sister sent me a written copy of this excerpt along with photos of my hiking adventures neatly arranged in two connected frames. I still have it displayed along with other old hiking photos. In this segment, Rooney describes how he climbed Pilot Knob Mountain behind his cottage on Lake George in New York 4 or 5 times each summer during his childhood, and later climbed it with his kids. One day, he came across old photos of he and his kids on top of Pilot Knob, and it occurred to him that he had stopped climbing mountains, just like he had stopped doing "...a half a dozen things." He tells a few stories of some of his memories on this mountain and then sums up his commentary with "I may never climb Pilot Knob again. I never should have stopped."
A few weeks ago, Val, Fred, John and I took Rooney's advice to climb another mountain together: Alpine Peak summit in the gorgeous Sawtooth Wilderness in the heart of Idaho. We four had done a phenomenal hike to Goat Mountain in Idaho's Pioneer Mountains last autumn. Fred and I had summited Alpine Peak 6 years ago, so we knew where to get off the trail that treks along Sawtooth Lake's east side for the 1,400-foot climb to the summit. We have been hiking this trail over the past 19 years. It's so beautiful that many others have discovered it and for a weekday it was busier than ever. However, not many ventured past Sawtooth Lake, and no one else climbed Alpine Peak that day.
My sister gave me this written copy of Andy Rooney's excerpt from 60 Minutes years ago.
The first part of the trail is a pleasant and easy climb along Iron Creek with its gentle melodic waterfalls through pines, firs and green understory. The tread is soft and dusty and the forest fragrant. Near the intersection with the trail to Alpine Lake, Alpine Peak rises 2,000 feet over the lake's cirque to the south. As the trail switch-backs out of the forest, views open, becoming more stunning with each step. To the northeast, a perfectly U-shaped thickly forested valley carved by glaciers from the Little Ice Age extends below. After reaching Sawtooth Lake, the real feel for this terrain and its breathtaking views become apparent with the steep and rocky Class 2-3 climb to the summit.
Mile 0 to Mile 3.5 at intersection of trail to Alpine Lake
8:15 a.m: We obtained our Sawtooth Wilderness permit at the trailhead kiosk. It was a bit early for John, but Val, Fred and I were excited about the hike and ready to go. This section gains 1,200 feet, crossing over Iron Creek as it approaches Alpine Lake, a perfect mirror of the clouds above. On the way to Alpine Lake turnoff, pass two trail intersections. An old, classic wooden trail sign, splitting through the middle, indicates the way to Stanley Lake. An intersection before that indicates Trail #528 to Marshall Lakes (this trail goes to Goat Lake, an excellent hike). Crossing over the creek before the switchbacks up to Alpine Lake must be interesting in the late spring with the increased run-off of that cold, crystal clear water.
Iron Creek Trailhead
Fred and Val at intersection of Trail #640 to Sawtooth Lake and Trail #528 to Stanley Lake
Mile 3.5 to Mile 4.5 at Sawtooth Lake's outlet (northeast side)
Although the trail signs indicate Sawtooth Lake is over 5 miles from Iron Creek Trailhead, my GPS read 4.5 miles. The trail gains 530 feet in about one mile between the intersection of Alpine Lake's spur trail and the first view of scenic Sawtooth Lake. The views of Alpine Peak improve until you work your way around the ridge that contains it, and then it becomes hidden while standing at Sawtooth Lake. Passing the lake's outlet log jam, the trail traverses through huge white granite boulders. This is a wonderful place to eat lunch - on an elevated bank looking across the bright blue water to Mount Regan with its formidable north-facing vertical wall. Though all around there is a riot of bright colors: red, purple, yellow wildflowers, fresh granite edges, and sparkling water, everything in is harmony, and it has a calming effect. John hides a water bottle among boulders; Fred bets he won't find it again. John is fully awake now and impatient to end our break and get back on the trail.
First view of Sawtooth Lake ~ 4.5 miles from trailhead
Starting out on 0.9-mile trek along Sawtooth Lake's east side to its end - August 2019
Compare the snow level on Mt. Regan with identical photo below taken in 2013.
Sawtooth Lake and Mt. Regan July 2013 - less snow this year!
Near beginning of 1,400-foot ascent to Alpine Peak
Walk to the end of Sawtooth Lake (above) and head straight up.
Mile 4.5 (Sawtooth Lake's outlet) to Alpine Peak Summit
The easy part is over and we focus on the tough part of the day - getting to the summit. Best to have a topo map to find the easiest way up, although Alpine Peak is one of the least technically challenging Sawtooth summits. From Sawtooth Lake, walk the trail along the east side of the lake, initially making a few switchbacks to rise above the lake. Walk 0.9 miles to the lake's end, then start climbing off-trail for 0.75 miles to Alpine Peak (see our GPS tracks below), up any one of the gullies to ridge. After reaching ridge, hike along it north to summit. On our way up, we left the trail a bit too early, which made the climb steeper, but also more interesting. Gaining 1,400 feet in 0.8 miles means heart-pounding steep, and grasping for tree branches was necessary at times. John went up a rocky gulley directly under the peak. Fred, Val and I slowly picked our way to the saddle just west of the summit then stepped through a stable boulder/talus field, grasping onto rock outcrops and angling toward the summit. Underneath me I could see Val and the lake grow smaller as I climbed. We could see the summit high above us and all the broken rock we had to navigate before getting there. We met victoriously with John, already at the top. From the summit, the view of the Sawtooth Mountain Range's many sharp-toothed peaks, a close-up of Mount Regan and the town of Stanley with specks for buildings is tremendous. Sawtooth Lake is a sapphire oval far below us. We hunted for it, but could not find the peak register.
Alpine Peak's summit register in 2013; we didn't find it in 2019
The summit becomes visible half-way up the climb from Sawtooth Lake
The upper track is our ascent, the lower track our descent
Ascending Alpine Peak from Sawtooth Lake - 1,400' gain in 0.75-0.8 miles
Fred on the way up Alpine Peak
On the ascent from Sawtooth Lake - Mt. Regan
Val making her way up Alpine Peak's northwest ridge
Val reaching summit!
Fred, John, Val at Alpine Peak Summit - 1,400 feet above Sawtooth Lake
View southeast toward Williams, Merritt and Thompson Peaks
Western moss heather
Cassiope mertensiana subsp. gracilis
Matrix-supported conglomerate seen on the ascent
Heading down toward Sawtooth Lake
Dark purple clouds with rain sheets underneath had gathered during our summit celebration. When we heard distant thunder, we decided to get down. Although lightening was just over the ridge, we were spared the storm. We hiked south along the ridge for a short distance and then aimed for the south end of Sawtooth Lake. This way treks over alternating tree islands and boulder/talus fields, and it's fun to "skate" down through the scree. Again, John descended by his own route, through more rock, it seemed. We found him at the bottom on the trail, a bit scraped up and bleeding from a fall. But John is tough with a lot of experience with falling (he and Val are skydivers), so we resumed our hike along Sawtooth Lake, chattering happily. Before heading away from Sawtooth Lake, we cooled our feet in splashing crystal clear outlet creek. Walking down the trail with the wide valley spread at our feet, we passed uphill hikers, on their way to that extraordinary lake. But what we four had just seen, hiking above and beyond, few people get to witness. "What should our next summit be?" I asked. Maybe in the future the mountains I climb will have less rise and distance and the summit easier to obtain. As long as I am able, I will never stop climbing mountains. I bet we four will continue to climb them as long as we can.
By the way, we eventually found John's water bottle.
"Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you're climbing it."
- Andy Rooney
Great way to head up to the summit - from end of lake, head up to saddle on the horizon, then hang a left (north) on the ridge to summit.
Sawtooth Lake's outlet creek
U-shaped valley cut by Pleistocene glacier
Hike from Iron Creek trailhead to Alpine Peak
click on above map for larger view
Special thanks to Cecilia Lynn Kinter, PhD, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Boise, Idaho for identifying Cassiope mertensiana.
Share the summit of Scotchman Peak with mountain goats and possibly a "Friend of Scotchman Peak Wilderness."
Oreamnos americanus near Scotchman Peak, Cabinet Mountains
Rock near summit is siltite (altered siltstone or mudstone) and argyllite (lithified muds) - sedimentary in origin
Each summer reminds me that Idaho is an extraordinary place with so much beauty to witness, so many peaks to hike, so many clear streams to walk in. And wildlife; on Scotchman Peak in North Idaho's Kaniksu National Forest. we saw a family of mountain goats including two kids in their rugged and steep habitat. This steep hike ascending about 1,000 feet every mile begins in tall pines with an understory filled with lilies and bear grass, has beautiful views of Lake Pend Oreille, the largest Idaho lake and fifth deepest in the nation, and ends in the scattered shale and rugged views of the Cabinet Mountains and remote Yaak country in northwestern Montana.
After hiking a little over a mile through towering trees, views open to look upon expansive Lake Pend Oreille as the trail passes through a huge meadow gaining the ridge. Just when you thought you saw the best view of the lake, another turn of the switchback offers a better one.
As expected, because of the concern and history of human and mountain goat encounters, a large yellow sign at the entrance to the open talus slopes indicates you are entering mountain goat habitat, with a rock-strewn false summit in view. As if to welcome, two goats skirted us on our entry into the open slopes. Once over the false summit, Scotchman Peak comes into view as rugged canyons drop below, at the end of the steep and layered rock ridge. More goats appeared, but kept their distance.
A volunteer "greeter" from Friends of Scotchman Peak Wilderness, an organization with the goal of saving this wilderness for future generations, greeted us as we ascended the easily accessible peak. This organization has been working on getting this area designated as wilderness; voters from Bonner County in which this area resides voted against such a designation. Although the volunteer was pleasant, her "educating" us on consideration of the mountain goats was unnecessary: the signs at trailhead and mid-mountain are adequate. We go to summits to be awed, to revel in the peace and beauty that not many get to see, not to have someone tell us how to behave on a mountain top. Trust the summit seeker, they will learn from the signs and behave accordingly.
Mountain goats are in the family Bovidae, which also includes antelope and cattle. Across the summit, on a tall precipice were a nanny and her two kids. She quickly gathered them and moved on as we approached the summit. The view is memorable, with the huge, deep blue Lake Pend Oreille in its Missoula Flood-scoured valley to the west, and to glacial-cut and jagged peaks to the north. The combination of the lake, goats and rows of mountain ranges make this an extraordinary hike.
We continued on the ridge past Scotchman, but hiking became precarious as the ridge narrowed and drop-offs became intimidating. On our return to the trailhead, we saw a fair number of people coming up clearly working hard on the steep ascent, and clearly happy to be in that special place. One more Idaho summit climbed and the feeling that we are some of the luckiest people on this Earth to be able to explore this beautiful state.
Lake Pend Oreille - west of Scotchman Peak
Sandpoint on north shore, Clark Fork on east shore.
Largest Idaho lake and fifth deepest in the nation.
First mile of trail to Scotchman Peak through dry forest gains ridge for ever-increasing views of Lake Pend Oreille
Sego Lilly - Calochortus nuttallii
The bulbous roots were ground by Native Americans into a starchy meal.
Mormon pioneers also used this plant as a source of food.
The hike is steep in parts!
Upon entering the talus slopes of mountain goat habitat - we were greeted shortly after this sign by two goats
Heading toward false summit - Scotchman Peak and incredible 360-degree view seen at the top of this
Scotchman Peak summit - 7,009 feet
Looking southwest toward the Coeure D' Alene Forest
Billy watching over his two kids and waiting for them to catch up
May be Rocky Ledge Penstemon - Penstemon ellipticus
Near the summit of Scotchman Peak - Lake Pend Oreille to the west
Sue and Fred - another great adventure for the books - Life is Good!
Montana Cabinet Mountains on horizon
On the way down: parting shot of this beautiful forest
Elevation profile: Almost a 4,000-foot gain including recovering from lost elevation on the way up, over 3.7 miles
Trail climbs to ridge and stays on it to the summit.
Geologic Map of the Scotchman Peak Quadrangle, Bonner County, Idaho
USDA - Idaho Panhandle National Forests - Sego Lily. https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/ipnf/learning/?cid=fsm9_019206
On this exceptional 18-mile round-trip hike, experience remarkable biological diversity beginning in the saguaros and desert scrub, ending in the evergreen oaks and alligator juniper of the pine-oak woodlands. The reward is an immense view of mountain ranges in southern Arizona.
Tanque Verde Peak - Saguaro National Park East - Rincon Mountain District
Biome - "A large community of plants and animals that occupies a distinct region. A complex biotic community characterized by distinctive plant and animal species and maintained under the climatic conditions of the region."
Tanque Verde Ridge in background
If I had to pick only one word that best describes the essence of the hike to Tanque Verde Peak in the Saguaro Wilderness, I would choose "diversity". This nine-mile portion of the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail that begins at the Javelina trailhead in Saguaro National Park east of Tucson and ends 4,000 feet higher at Tanque Verde's summit treks through four biotic communities, each containing its characteristic plant and animal species. These "life zones" -Sonoran desertscrub, semi-desert grassland, Madrean evergreen woodland, and temperate forest overlap, so that prickly pear cactus grows alongside bunch grasses in transition zones.
An evening of April thunderstorms and light rain the previous night had created a chill and freshness to the morning air. Fred and I had hiked this trail 6.9 miles to Juniper Basin the year before. This year, we were determined to hike the full nine miles to the peak.
The trail, initially hard and rocky, winds through stately saguaros, barrel cactus and prickly pear cacti filled to the brim with new flower buds (in April), straightens and gains elevation through tall bunchgrasses, bear grass, and finally oak trees. Leaving the desert scrub behind, the trail rises and falls through an ever-increasing amount of oaks. It goes through lovely Juniper Flat, through the cool shade of Ponderosa and Pinyon pines along with Alligator juniper toward the summit of Tanque Verde Peak where the tread is soft with accumulated pine needles. Grasping the rough and weathered granite on the last few feet of the summit block, you hoist yourself up a huge boulder to see the dark, immense summit of Rincon Mountain on the south ridge and the breathtaking view of southern Arizona's mountain ranges.
The only bad part is the sore feet after this 18-mile hike; however, a small price to pay for this unique experience.
Tanque Verde, or "green tank" refers to the green algae present in a large tank of water used for stock in the 1800's. It is now the name given to the valley east of Tucson that is bordered by the Santa Catalina Mountains to the north and the Rincon Mountains to the east. The Pima Indians lived there in the 1600's, and Tanque Verde Ranch was established in the 1800's.
Biomes of Sonoran Desert Network Parks
Symbols courtesy of the Integration and Application Network, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (ian.umces.edu/symbols/).
-Taken from Sonoran Desert Inventory and Monitoring Network - National Park Service
Sonoran Desertscrub (a.k.a. Thornscrub)
This hike begins at the Javelina picnic area in East Saguaro National Park - elevation 3,100 feet, in the creosote-scented Sonoran desertscrub biome. A great biome because plants are tough yet beautiful at the same time. Tough because plants have devised strategies to help them survive, such as thorns as a physical defense against predators, and hair on leaves to shield the relentless sun. Thorns and bristles act to shade and insulate certain crucial parts of cacti. Thorny saguaros dominate this community, along with cacti of various forms, such as the flower bud-studded prickly pear. Bright colors of wildflowers in spring line the path: coral/red claret cup flowers of the hedgehog cactus, yellow prickly pear flowers, pink fairyduster, bright orange ocotillo, and peach-colored globemallow flowers. Mesquite and Palo Verde trees are present in the Sonoran desertscrub biome which is intermediate between the desert and tropical forest biomes. The cheerful yellow flowers of Encelia farinosa, or brittlebush add bursts of color among the red-brown rocks and green cacti.
After the trail register, the trail begins to climb, with sweeping views of Tucson basin. Before emerging out of the desertscrub biome into grassland, at about two miles, the trail provides unobstructed views of the mountain ranges west and south of Tucson. From here, the trail stays on the wide ridge, rounding hills at some intervals, or heading straight up and then down, causing mild losses in elevation. It gains 700 feet in the 1.4 miles after the trail register. Just after 4,000 feet elevation, saguaros become more scarce, and grass more prominent, as it transitions into semi-desert grassland ecosystem.
Trail head sign at Javalina Picnic area - Saguaro National Park East
9 miles and 4 biomes ahead of us!
Ocotillo and prickly pear in Sonoran desertsrub biome
Brittlebush - Encelia farinosa
Scolopendra heros - giant desert centipede (we saw one of these on our way back)
- taken from Wikipedia
Near Javelina picnic area - Saguaro National Park East
Desertscrub (recently named Thornscrub) biome in Sonoran desert about 3,000 - 4,000 feet elevation
Green lynx spider on prickly pear blossom
Prickly Pear Cactus with buds on leaves in April
Saguaro near Bridal Wreath Falls with holes probably made from nesting cactus wrens, Arizona's state bird
On trail system north of Tanque Verde Ridge in Saguaro NP
As the trail climbs just past 4,000 feet, a noticeable change in vegetation occurs: saguaros become scarce as the ridge is dominated by ever-increasing fields of bunchgrasses, oak and juniper. Calming, muted and soft neutral grey/greens replace bright primary colors of the lively, unrestrained desertscrub. Sotol, creosote and agave mix with a diverse array of grasses. As the trail gradually climbs, junipers become more prevalent. Tanque Verde Peak is still six miles away and not visible. The manzanita and oak species are prevalent in the oak savannah community as the trail ascends, transitioning into pine/oak woodland.
Transition between Sonoran desertscrub and semi-desert grasslands
Oaks begin to appear in semi-desert grassland biome
Santa Catalina Mountains, north of Tucson on horizon
Madrean Evergreen/Pine/Oak Woodland
At about four miles, at mid-elevation that is between the desertscrub and the temperate forest biomes, the trail ascends and descends through ever-increasing oaks. At 5.9 miles, the trail drops to make its long entrance into Juniper Basin Campground, crossing beautiful Box Canyon with rock cairns to guide you through stretches of rock floors. At 5,940 feet elevation, Juniper Basin Campground is an airy and spacious place with towering Pinyon pines and oaks and my favorite - the alligator juniper with its scaly square-patterned bark. There's an outhouse and food box for overnight campers.
Evergreen oaks such as Emory oak and Arizona white oak along with Mexican pinyon pine dominate this biome, named after its origin in the Sierra Madre mountain range that runs through Mexico and along the Gulf of California. Understory perennial grasses rustle, adding to the peace of this place.
The elevation gain to Juniper Basin Campground is 2,840 feet in 6.9 miles. Tanque Verde Peak is another 2.1 miles and 1,100 feet in gain. Such a long, arduous adventure; it's tempting to turn back and call it good, but the additional effort to get to the summit is worth it. We summon our motivation and resume our quest not knowing at this time how we would quickly forget our tired legs once on Tanque Verde summit, and how the forest and view would exceed our expectations.
Signs indicate the trail continues northeastward from Juniper Basin. Finally, Tanque Verde Peak comes into view, but seems far away. Orange blazes on trees occasionally mark the trail, easy to follow.
Oak in Madrean Evergreen Woodland biome - near Juniper Basin Campground - 6,000 feet
"Madrean" is the word taken from the Sierra Madre Mountain range in Mexico
Huge alligator juniper (Juniperus deppeana) along trail between Juniper Basin and Tanque Verde Peak.
The checkerboard-patterned bark is distinctive in this large evergreen which is used for fenceposts.
Yucca on the left and alligator juniper share space in the Madrean Evergreen Woodland biome
A unique characteristic of the Sonoran temperate forest biome, officially beginning at around 6,000 feet elevation, is the cohabitation of lower-elevation desert plants, such as the yucca with spruces, pines, firs and maples. Species diversity reigns, although seemingly not to the degree of the desertscrub biome. Temperate forests are very cold-hardy and confined to cooler sites above the Madrean evergreen woodland.
We catch glimpses of Tanque Verde Peak as we climb on a well-traveled path through the shade, scent and rough texture of this forest. Emerging out of the dense forest into an open wide ridge, Tanque Verde's many columnar rocks and crevices comes into sharp view at about 6,500 feet. The trail weaves around large boulders and manzanita: the metal summit sign is seen to the east at about 8.7 miles. Reach an old signed intersection that points the way to Cow Head Saddle which is another 2.5 miles on the ridge; continue straight ahead to Tanque Verde. Somehow I forget my tired legs when we reach the summit, where the spectacular scene doesn't reveal itself until you scale a looming boulder that stands in your way, a short climb that feels like the final test for this summit conquer.
Forest opens near summit of Tanque Verde in temperate forest biome
Old sign near trail intersection with hike to Cow Head Saddle continuing on Tanque Verde Ridge.
100 yards from the summit!
The view is spectacular. It takes a few seconds to fully comprehend how high this peak rises above the surrounding desert floor and the layers of mountain ranges visible. Mexico is to the south, the Santa Rita and Galiuro Mountain ranges to the southeast. The Santa Catalina Mountains thrust up rocky prominences to the northwest. Rincon Peak is just across the valley to the east, its massive hulk in the shadow of clouds.
We relish the view and accomplishment and the wonder and beauty that the Sonoran desert brings. The wind is brisk and cool, but by the time we get down to the desertscrub and walk through the saguaro stands, seven miles away, it will be warmer, even with the sun setting. There are about four or five hills to climb on the long walk out, scaled with a bit more determination than on the way in. Glad we are getting back at sunset, for above the golden Tanque Verde Ridge slowly becoming covered by shadows, a nearly full moon is rising.
Tucson Basin to the southwest from summit of Tanque Verde Peak - 7,047 feet
Rincon Peak southeast of Tanque Verde Peak in eastern Rincon Mountains - also a great hike!
Fred and Sue - 7,047 feet - if you've got the endurance (and plenty of water), we recommend this hike!
Nine miles done and nine more to go!
Close to Javelina trailhead, Saguaro National Park East
Getting back to trailhead at moonrise - ocotillos in foreground
Always a Frost gelato after a Tucson hike
Tanque Verde Ridge Trail (in red) from trailhead at Javelina picnic area in Saguaro NP East to Tanque Verde Peak
click on map for larger image
Buckley, Steve, ed. 2011. Common Plants of Saguaro National Park
Levengood, Betty. Tucson Hiking Guide. 2012. West Wind Press, Portland, Oregon.
Natural Resources Monitoring at Saguaro National Park. https://www.nps.gov/im/sodn/sagu.htm
Sonoran Desert Network Ecosystems. https://www.nps.gov/im/sodn/ecosystems.htm#CP_JUMP_5423053
USGS - Southwest Biological Science Center. 2006. Vascular Plant and Vertebrate Inventory of Saguaro National Park, Rincon Mountain District rincon_vegetation.pdf.
Tanque Verde Ranch website, https://www.tanqueverderanch.com/
U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Saguaro. Geology of the Rincon Mountains. https://www.nps.gov/sagu/planyourvisit/upload/Geology%20of%20the%20Rincon%20Mountains.pdf.
Hike through beautiful Upper Sonoran chaparral ecosystem to a distinguished Tucson landmark with steep rock chutes in the Santa Catalina Mountains.
Thimble Peak with penstemon and native thistle
Pusch Ridge Wilderness - Santa Catalina Mountains - Tucson
Thimble Peak (second peak from the right), a prominent landmark seen from Sabino Canyon Trail (far left) and Phoneline Trail (faint, winding trail on slope under ridge). We hiked to Thimble Peak from the opposite direction and approached it from "behind".
Final approach to Thimble Peak on the section that turns off of Bear Canyon Trail
Elevation profile from 0.4 miles from trail head to peak.
Bear Canyon to the left (southeast), Sabino Canyon to the right (northwest), Blacketts Ridge upper right.
Full GPS tracks map below
On a warm and lush April day in Tucson, Scott, Fred and I hit the trail to Thimble Peak with two main goals: summit the peak via a climbing class 4 vertical crack, and leave upon it a rock that we had found on Pinto Mountain's summit in Joshua Tree four months earlier. The rock, painted with a cartoon image of a cat, belongs to the Jamestown Kind Rocks Project, whose goal is to "promote random acts of kindness to unsuspecting people by painting and dropping inspirational rocks or some other cool way to bring kindness." Scott had found it in Pinto's summit register box and kept it. Now it was time to pass on the kindness.
"Lush" and Tucson don't normally go together in the same sentence, but as I stood at four different high-points overlooking the Tucson basin a few weeks ago, a carpet of forest green spread below. Tucson received above average rainfall this past winter and spring, and now the wildflowers were robust and plentiful, bursting with buds and flowers. All of the space atop each prickly pear cactus leaf pad was filled to maximum capacity with new flower buds. This ramble through juniper and oak was colored with the purples, pinks, reds, and oranges of penstemon, globe mallow, thistle, and pink fairy duster.
Signs at Gordon Hirabayashi trailhead. This hike initially follows the Molino Basin Trail #11 to the Sycamore Trail #39 which is part of the Arizona Trail.
From the Gordon Hirabayashi Trailhead we hiked west and quickly came to our first intersection with Soldier Canyon Trail #53 and the remains of the Tucson Federal Prison Camp that housed Japanese Americans during WWII that built the Catalina Highway (Sky Island Scenic Byway). In the next few miles, we saw the remains of structures: foundations and rock towers in Sycamore Canyon that may have been used to hoist pipes for the water supply to the camp from Sycamore Reservoir below.
From the intersection, the sandy and wide trail to Shreve Saddle is pleasant with a subtle beauty, with just the right mix of bunch grasses, oaks, yucca, manzanita and juniper - the Upper Sonoran Life Zone that includes oak woodland and chaparral.
The top of Shreve Saddle seems to hang on the horizon; as the trail reaches it, an expansive view westward of beautiful Sycamore Canyon and ridges and peaks of the Sabino Canyon area opens up. A sign for Sycamore Reservoir Trail #39 indicates the trail descends Sycamore Canyon on the left (south) side. At this point the trail enters the Pusch Ridge Wilderness; it feels like wilderness except for a few prisoner-constructed cemented rock towers. Further down the trail, a bedrock grinding mortar sits on a high, smooth boulder next to the trail, evidence of ancient peoples' production of mesquite and palo verde seed pods and other plants. These represent an important food resource for prehistoric people, and also sites for social interaction.
The descent from Shreve Saddle to Sycamore Reservoir is one mile through a perfect balance of views, beautiful chaparral vegetation, and occasional sparks of color from wildflowers as it gently lulls you to Sycamore Creek. It's great to descend, but the knowledge that you will have to make up for this pleasure on the way back– in this case, a 600- foot climb out of the canyon after a summit hike is an added challenge. Luckily, we had drifting clouds that created an ever-changing landscape of shadows and light on the mountains ahead.
A large rock cairn sits near the sign at the bottom of Sycamore Canyon. For a short side trip, turn left and check out the remains of Sycamore Reservoir and the impressive rock dam wall. To continue onto the trail to Thimble, turn right (northwest) at the sign and rock cairn (as you face the reservoir) and walk through the shade of towering trees and along the banks of the creek toward the northwest. The trail is marked by rock cairns. From this intersection, it’s a 0.6-mile walk along the north side of Sycamore Creek to a large rock cairn marking the “v” intersection where a well-marked trail that goes to the left short-cuts onto Bear Canyon Trail. Take the left. Our boots didn’t get wet as we crossed low-water Sycamore Creek at this intersection. The creek bottom is boulder-strewn, broad and dry.
This was a great place for lunch, so the three of us sat in the shade of an oak and took a break. Great time to compare what snacks we brought - Scott usually has the more interesting ones, like salmon jerky or a Trader Joe's salad.
From here, the trail climbs steadily, another 0.6 miles to meet up with the popular Bear Canyon Tail through pretty country of oak and Manzanita and tall stands of fuschia and purple penstemon (in April). A huge green racer skimmed across the trail in front of me and slithered its way up a tree. From the flanks of a an eroded hill, Fred pointed across the arroyo to a huge stand of purple penstemon, looking more like a shrub than a perennial forb. At the "t" intersection, turn left (south) onto Bear Canyon Trail.
Once on Bear Canyon Trail, climb up along a gentle grade 0.2 miles to Thimble Saddle at 4,800 feet, turn a corner and finally, the unmistakable shape of Thimble Peak comes into view, 3.7 miles from the trailhead. It looks like, well, a thimble on a long rocky ridge thrust up between two deep canyons. Thimble Flat and the grassy and rocky ascent to the base of its summit can be seen from Bear Canyon Trail. A pile of branches in April 2019 marked the junction of the spur trail to Thimble Peak and Bear Canyon Trail, its purpose to steer Bear Canyon hikers away from the Thimble Peak trail. From the saddle, descend to Thimble Flat and turn right onto the Thimble spur trail right before the Bear Canyon Trail descends steeply into the canyon.
Delights abound on this 1.2-mile trail to the base of Thimble. Sharp and toothy yucca leaves contrast with soft, billowy bunch grasses. The light, chunky spires of Thimble Peak seem small compared to the immense dark walls of Bear Canyon and the towering Gibbon Mountain to the east. The trail has just the right steepness as it passes through grass and boulders, and is thin but easy to follow with cairns to mark the way. Reach the base of Thimble at ~ 5.2 miles. Another 110 vertical feet to climb to top of Thimble.
Last approach to the base through grassland, yucca and Arizona Oak
Did we make it to the top?
Once at the base, walk 70 or so feet to the right (west) to the easily-recognizable cleft with a large boulder imbedded close to the bottom on the north side of Thimble. This is the route to the highest point that includes a Class 4 pitch, according to sources I read. Scott climbed the lower spires of Thimble, its cleft route to the left (east) of the main Thimble approach. He looked across to the highest point and saw the chain ladder that was placed there recently. I found the main rock chute too intimidating from the start; was able to start climbing the second chute, but I didn’t top out. What I would have seen had I made it to the top is, "the full-circle, ridgetop view from Thimble is spectacular...Pusch Ridge, the Santa Catalina Mountains, Tucson, endless sky islands. They are all about. It is heart-rattling to look west, right down the remarkable (and ultra familiar) ridgeline over which Thimble Peak presides: Saddleback, Blacketts, the desert floor,“ according to the blog post from Earthline: The American West. Still, this hike was worth seeing the dramatic perspective of canyons and peaks and the Tucson basin even if I didn't get to the very top. Impressive Rattlesnake Peak which lies to the west is another goal that will have to wait until our next Tucson visit. So, no one in our party made it to the highest part of the summit - but that's o.k.
Final Class 4 climb to the western-most and highest summit of Thimble at 5,323 feet. As of April 2019, there is a chain ladder placed at the top where there is a sheer 10-foot wall that otherwise requires a rope.
Jamestown Kind Rock we found on Pinto Mountain and now placed on Thimble Peak
We hadn't forgotten about the Jamestown Kind Rock painted with a white cat wearing a pink bow. Scott placed it carefully on a rock shelf under a protective overhang, tilting it up so the next Thimble climber would see it. Not only is it a gesture to remind us how important "kindness" is, it also represents the enduring friendship that we three hikers - Scott, Fred and I have. We had found it together four months earlier on Pinto Mountain in Joshua Tree, now together we were placing it on another mountain in hopes that the next discoverer(s) would do the same. I wonder where it is now!
We retraced our steps back as the sky was darkening, climbing out of Sycamore Canyon bottom 600 feet up to Shreve Saddle. I tried to find the grinding mortar again, but didn’t. We returned to the Hirabayashi trailhead as rain drops pelted. That night we celebrated with a delicious home-made chicken curry and spring roll dinner with friends as some initial lightning and then a steady rain descended upon Tucson for most of the night. The next morning, clouds hung midway up the Rincon Mountain range as we looked at our goal for that day arising above the clouds – Tanque Verde Peak. Stay tuned for the blog post about the trip to that fabulous summit. We made it to the top of that one!
Foliated gneiss - Rocks are beautiful!!
Opuntia - Prickly Pear Cactus
This one was huge!
Google Earth image of trail from Gordon Hirayabashi trailhead to Thimble Peak, due west via Sycamore Canyon. Tucson basin upper left in image.
Geology and History
Bezy, John. 2004. A Guide to the Geology of Sabino Canyon and the Catalina Highway. Arizona Geological Survey. http://repository.azgs.az.gov/sites/default/files/dlio/files/nid1526/dte-17_sabino_canyon-red.pdf
Dickinson, William R. 1992. Geologic Map of Catalina Core Complex and San Pedro Trough. Arizona Geological Survey, Contributed Map CM-92-C.
Kreutz, Doug. 2011. Ancient Grinding Holes Offer Hard Clues to Past. Arizona Daily Star. https://tucson.com/news/local/ancient-grinding-holes-offer-hard-clues-to-past/article_14cbc931-f23c-5aba-9101-779322043849.html
LocalWiki: Tucson. Catalina Federal Honor Camp. Taken from internet 5/9/19.
Richard, S.M., Reynolds, S.J., Spencer, J.E., and Pearthree, P.A. Geologic Map of Arizona. 2000. Arizona Geologic Survey, Map 35.
Sabino Canyon: Our Desert Oasis - Through Our Parents Eyes. Taken from the internet 5/2019.
Takami, David. 2/17/99. HistoryLink.org Essay 2070 - Hirabayashi, Gordon K. (1918-2012). Taken from internet 5/9/19.
About this blog
Exploration documentaries – "explorumentaries" list trip stats and highlights of each hike or bike ride, often with some interesting history or geology. Years ago, I wrote these for friends and family to let them know what my husband, Fred and I were up to on weekends, and also to showcase the incredible land of the west. I hope to hear about your adventures!
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