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.
We put our own spin on Robert Frost's sentiments in his poem, "The Road Not Taken," and hiked a ridge less traveled to summit Lucky Peak in the Boise River Wildlife Management Area, and that made all the difference.
On Lucky Peak's (AKA Shaw Mountain) southeast ridge looking toward the northeast at Boise National Forest and
Lucky Peak Lake
View from snow-covered Lucky Peak summit (5,904') of Shafer Butte to the northwest
Route to Lucky Peak summit from Boise River Wildlife Management Area building on ID-21
We gain ridge just after intersection to the road to Adelmann Mine at 4,800 feet, a little less than 2/3 distance of hike,
climb on ridge 1,100 feet to summit.
Many years ago, when we lived in New Hampshire, Fred would read to me Robert Frost poems in front of an old fireplace, lit with crackling orange flames burning wood collected locally. New England winter nights were cold and damp and the thick forest outside our door mysterious, so the warmth was comforting as we settled in with pillows on a wide-planked wooden floor and The Poetry of Robert Frost, a thick volume with a cover photo of a low rock wall extending over a green field. Our favorite poems were "After Apple Picking" and "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening." The Robert Frost Farm, where Frost wrote his early poems was just 20 minutes away in Derry, New Hampshire. Through our explorations into the New Hampshire woods, we could directly experience the moods and scenes of Frost's poems.
Frost's most famous poem, "The Road Not Taken" is a testament to his choosing the unconventional road of writing poetry instead of farming; he put some effort into the latter career, but found passion and talent for the former. Farmers were expected to work hard and rise early but Frost seldom fit that expectation. He chose a different path, and grateful that he did, for we have his writings that reflect his deep connection to the nature and land of New England.
Unlike the extensive and deep, dark woods of New England, the summits near Boise are open; landmarks are easily seen to guide off-trail hiking. With a good topo map in hand, we have taken several ridges to the summit of Lucky Peak, making our own path to see what we can discover along the way.
In winter, we like to hike Lucky Peak using the southeast ridge approach that begins at the Boise River Wilderness Management Area building on Idaho Highway 21. Sometimes we are able to get to the summit - sometimes not because of weather. In February, a snowshoe hike that started with sparse snow flakes quickly developed into a snowstorm with limited visibility. The storm became worse as each minute passed, and by the time we got up to the intersection with the road to Adelmann Mine, breaking trail through 8 inches of snow, the visibility was about 60 feet. Instead of pressing on into this white void and deep snow to the summit, another 1,100-foot climb, we turned around to find our way back down, the snow working quickly to fill our snowshoe tracks. When hiking the ridge, we use Douglas Firs that are just to the right of the ridge as a landmark.
Fred at intersection of road leading from Boise River Wilderness Management Area buildings and trail to Adelmann Mine in February snowstorm
What a difference 5 weeks can make! We hiked the same route In March and summited Lucky Peak under blue skies without snowshoes on packed snow; it was as if none of the February storm had happened.
This ridge approach begins just after the mining apparatus up the hill from the Adelmann Mine junction (see previous post, Lucky Peak Hike - Winter Ascent). Before we get onto the ridge, we follow a dirt road from the WMA building to the junction. It's a direct (and therefore steeper) climb to the summit up the southeast ridge that intersects with Shaw Mountain Road. Spectacular views of Treasure Valley and the Owyhee Mountains to the south, the white-capped mountains of the Boise National Forest and the teal-colored and basalt-lined Lucky Peak Lake to the north make this ridge route more fun than continuing up road that leads up over the mine and through the north side of Lucky through the forest to the summit.
Boise River WMA on Idaho Highway 21, just past Highland Summit as you drive north from Boise
No snowfall at beginning of hike, but that quickly changed and got progressively worse
Structure on ridge between Black Hornet and Adelmann Mines, on last year's Lucky Peak winter hike
Shortly after this, we start climbing ridge to summit of Lucky Peak
Where we leave road to ascend ridge - this hike on a day with clearing storm
Rewards for climbing the ridge instead of the road abound. First of all, finding your own way is a challenge. The off-trail route for this hike is not difficult - you keep going up, but you don't want to waste too much time recovering from a loss in elevation. Also, you often see things that you wouldn't see following someone else's tracks. Thousands of elk tracks, making deep divots in the moist, squishy soil made our steep ascent to the ridge slow and bumpy, but once onto it, we found a faint human trail. The first wildflowers of the season were poking through last year's dead grasses - spots of bright green among thick faded brown mats. Up higher and onto the snow, our route intersected a wide elk trail - deep hoof prints heading down a steep ravine. Last year, we witnessed a huge herd of elk, led by one bull elk with enormous antlers traverse a large hillside to a ridge top while we approached Lucky Peak summit from a different ridge to the east. For a few moments, the bull elk's silhouette stood on the ridge against the sky, and then was gone.
Once, a large, fast-moving shadow floating over a gulch and then ascending a ridge caught my eye. In the azure blue sky a golden eagle slowly flapped its long wings, a dark and graceful presence moving effortlessly.
We intersected a trail of elk tracks on our March Lucky Peak summit hike
In March, we navigated over the snow easily, barely sinking but still making discernible prints on the surface as we climbed over three rises to meet with Shaw Mountain Road, a birdhouse at its intersection. The Douglas fir trees on the right side of the ridge have become familiar now, and there is one huge Doug fir that stands out from the rest, a sentinel that looks to the rugged snow-capped mountains of the Boise National Forest. The view from Lucky Peak summit is awe-inspiring: Shafer Butte and Bogus Basin Ski area to the northwest, and Boise is seen in the flat darkness of the Treasure Valley.
Douglas fir trees as guide to ascending southeast ridge to Lucky Peak
On southeast ridge to Lucky Peak looking north to Boise National Forest
Taking the ridge less traveled
Frost heaves, elk hoof divots and last season's dead bunch grasses contribute to uneven ground off-trail
One of the first forbs of the season
Sure, getting up to the proper ridge is pretty intense work usually. But once on top, the world drops on either side, and you follow the narrow land and wide sky up. After intersecting with Shaw Mountain Road, Lucky Peak's summit looms with its numerous antennas. A fun loop hike would be ascend the same ridge, and then descend Shaw Mountain Road to either East or West Highland Valley Road, necessitating a car shuttle.
We initially ascended the "wrong" ridge on our way to summit Pinto Mountain in Joshua Tree Wilderness a few months ago and found a large circle of rocks making me wonder who made this and why? Trekking through the gulch to this spot, we found a vibrant and lush green garden spilling with vines and bright red barrel cactus, out of place in the stark and barren brown Pinto Mountains. You find the most interesting things off the beaten path.
Many times we have hiked the standard Lucky Peak Trail to the south of the summit. It's great to meet people along the way, but hiking Lucky's "backside" is more rewarding because it feels remote in comparison, as if we have it to ourselves. It's a distinct feeling of fulfillment and a deeper connection to our local environment to walk the ridge less traveled; and as Robert Frost writes, "...that has made all the difference."
Last approach to Lucky Peak summit
Approaching Lucky Peak summit from southeast ridge
Treasure Valley from Lucky Peak's south ridge
You don't have to go far from home for adventure and beauty. These scenes are within a one-mile radius of my house.
"Wandering is an inexpensive ticket to another level of being..."
- Ann Zwinger, from The Nearsighted Naturalist
There's no place on Earth like the American West, where one can experience a wide variety of absolutely stunning places and adventures. The west has expansive spaces, solitude, jaw-dropping scenery - so spectacular, in fact, people come from all over the world to experience it. Hear the roar of Vernal Falls in May in Yosemite National Park, stand atop the narrow sandstone fin on Angel's Landing with Zion Canyon spread far below, or feel Virgin River's current against your legs in Zion's narrows with rock walls towering far above. The infinite Western Experiences list goes on.
The scenery doesn't have to be as dramatic as this, though, to be memorable. The sea of sagebrush extending to the dark, flat basalt plateaus of the Great Basin can seem monotone at first glance, but walk through it during spring wildflower season, smell it just after a rain, watch a herd of antelope run swiftly by, or watch the sage grouse lek mating ritual; suddenly this "monotonous" place becomes spectacular.
For a few days last autumn, I treated myself to wandering with my cameras. For me, it's a practice in meditation and like naturalist Ann Zwinger says, "another level of being." What a luxury it is, if you are a nature lover, to have the time to "see" the natural world around you, to follow where it beckons; a bird song, a path, colors, the dark spot under a bitterbrush, or a hill top scattered with bunches of bright yellow flowers of the balsamroot waving in the breeze.
Here are a few images from "my neck of the woods." I'm lucky to live where nature is so close. But beauty is close to most of us if we just take the time to see. A Boise foothills trailhead is within a mile of my house, as well as two farms where one can buy and learn about native plants. My only limitation for this adventure was that all images are captured within a one-mile radius of my house.
This post received a few comments from friends that I thought worthwhile to mention. One was that "Mother Earth is a gift." So true, and to me a gift I will always have. Also, some of the best images are captured "near home, where your familiarity can lead to shots that others would not see."
For more Boise photos, check out Gallery --> Boise.
Northwest Boise foothills on an autumn afternoon
First snowstorm of the season
Sunny but chilly ride through sagebrush
Artemisia tridentata in bloom
Gardening/Botany books at Draggin' Wing Farm
Two outdoor libraries within one mile of my house - this is a special place, indeed!
Earthly Delights Farm next to Draggin' Wing Farm
Sunset at Draggin' Wing Farm
Alpenglow lighting Draggin' Wing Farm
Textures and colors - native vegetation of the Boise foothills
Huge sagebrush just up the hill
I wonder how old it is.....
Horses' hoof prints, rabbit brush and clearing fog
Another incredible Boise sunset
On Haystack, we found sun and solitude off of the Art Smith Trail in the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, a spectacular view of Southern California's mountain ranges, and our old summit register entry from 2011.
Peninsular Bighorn Sheep near Art Smith Trail, Palm Desert, CA
Ovis canadensis nelsoni
Listed in 1998 as Endangered Species due to substantial population decline from disease, predation, habitat loss and human disturbance
Cross - country to Haystack
Directions to Art Smith Trailhead:
Travel south on CA State Route 74 (Palms to Pines Scenic Highway) from CA State Route 111 in Palm Desert 3.5 miles to long sandy parking area on right of road just as it starts to curve to the left to ascend switchbacks up hills to the south. The Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument Visitor Center is adjacent to parking, across SR 74.
Hike Directions: (Topo map of our route below)
Cross-country route off of Art Smith Trail to summit of Haystack Mountain
Yellow marker indicates point at which we left Art Smith and ascended wash
Elevation at this point = 2,237 feet; ~1,600 feet to summit from turn-off
Geology and History:
The trail to Haystack Mountain treks through quartz diorite, a coarse-grained intrusive rock with 5-20% quartz (diorite has <5% quartz). It has the classic speckled black and white texture and large grain size. Quartz diorite is often confused with granite because they look similar. Both are intrusive rocks with a phaneritic texture in which mineral grains are visible without magnification. Granite, however contains 20-60% quartz. Quartz grains are not usually visible with quartz diorite, but can definitely be seen in a granite. This rock unit is Cretaceous age (144 to 65 mya).
The efforts of Art Smith, a.k.a. "Trail Boss", a Desert Riders equestrian helped to establish the Desert Riders Trail Foundation, a non-profit trust for trail preservation and building. The Desert Riders equestrian club was initiated in 1931, has made 28 trails as of 2010, many of them follow ancient Cahuilla Indians' migratory hunting and gathering trails.
"Probably I was too young and venturesome to feel dismay, but I know now what Mama must have felt as she looked out upon that savage scene of sand and rock and sky locked in the pitiless grip of desert summer."
- Nina Paul Shumway, Your Desert and Mine, an account of her family's settlement and beginning of the date
industry in the Coachella Valley.
The past few times we have hiked the Art Smith Trail, we have seen Peninsular bighorn sheep in Dead Indian Canyon near the rust-colored metal sign that marks the Art Smith trailhead, not far from the parking lot. They were listed as a federally endangered species in 1998. This morning, the sun shone brightly on the deep-walled Dead Indian Canyon and a group of ewes with their lambs. This trail, just west of Palm Desert, links to trails leading into the Indian Canyons in Palm Springs.
The Coachella Valley is a special place for me and I carry memories of hiking all of its trails with dear friends that I will always keep in touch with. It's my "old stomping ground", or more aptly put, my old hiking ground. Living there in the 1980's and 1990's, we climbed, traversed, slid, sweat, laughed, got stuck with cactus spines, boulder-hopped, and celebrated our hikes and friendships. I am grateful I can still be able to hike these wonderful trails and when I do, all of the memories come back vividly. I met Fred on Mt. San Jacinto, and he automatically became a part of our hiking clan.
Not many people venture off Art Smith to climb Haystack Mountain. To our surprise, we found the same notepad in which we had made our 2011 entry in the summit register can! I guess the dry climate and the sparse number of Haystack Mountain visitors helped preserve this small note pad. It's a simple message: "12/21/11 - Fred, Sue and Scott - old friends who love to hike." We missed Scott this year, but were looking forward to hiking with him to Pinto Mountain in the next few days.
Walking on Art Smith Trail is a treat in itself, a meandering path with weathering rock piles, beavertail cactus and brittlebush blooming in the spring, and that satisfying crunch of gravel with each step. One can imagine Cahuilla Indians walking to water sources on the trail and equestrians from the Desert Riders on horseback winding through washes across the open desert. But to pick your own route cross country, dodging cholla cactus, sharp-toothed agave leaves and cat claw acacia shrubs, climbing up and sliding down boulders and dry waterfalls is the greatest satisfaction.
Art Smith Trail was busy due to the Christmas holiday. This trail treks through a possible plutonic synform (a downward-closing or concave fold of topography). Shimmering green California fan palms pop up occasionally to the left of the trail, and the valley patchwork of forest green golf courses sprawl to your right.
California fan palms
Haystack Mountain on the horizon as seen from near Art Smith Trail
Leave trail at ~ 3.4 miles and hike to highest point at far left of long ridge
Palm oasis in canyon on left
We left Art Smith at 3.4 miles from the trailhead at a wide wash and headed west-southwest across relatively flat, open low desert. From here, it was 1.3 miles to the summit. We encountered no major rock barriers, only a few very small waterfalls and sandy benches covered with rounded boulders. I was surprised to see a few small junipers; the land is generously dotted with hedgehog cacti with their inch-long needle-spines.
Wash ~ 3.4 miles in from Art Smith Trailhead at SR 74 in Palm Desert
Climb up flank of cone to ridge - follow ridge to summit, seen in this photo
Getting closer to the base - climb cone to ridge and follow to summit
"False summit" on the ridge
Hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus engelmannii) in foreground in front of cholla cactus
Arriving at the base of Haystack, we gained its sunny east ridge by hiking straight up the steep flank to the left of the mountain, occasionally grasping rocks. The ridge is a Class 2 scramble with at least one "false peak" on the way up; not a long hike and the view at the summit is nothing short of spectacular. It is here you realize the enormity of this beautiful Colorado Desert and its mountain ranges.
The controversial Dunn Road can be seen not far from the summit. It is a wide, sandy road that Mike Dunn carved out through the slopes of eastern Santa Rosa Mountains starting at Pinyon Flats in the 1960's and 70's. It traces around the contours of mountains, through what is now Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains NM to Cathedral City. Because Dunn bulldozed some of his road on federal land, the BLM put a gate across the road. But Dunn would just bulldoze it down, and the BLM would fix it. I remember, when I lived in the Coachella Valley in the 1980's, Dunn Road was used for recreational jeep tours. Now of course since it is entirely on national monument land, it is only accessible to non-motorized travel. There were also differing opinions about whether Dunn Road compromised the bighorn sheep habitat.
360 - degree view from Haystack Mountain summit
Summits include Mt. San Gorgonio, Mt. San Jacinto, Toro Peak, Martinez Mountain
Also Little San Bernardino Mountains and southern Joshua Tree NP
The summit view includes the highest points in the Santa Rosa Mountains: Martinez Mountain and Toro Peak, and also Mt. San Jacinto towering above Palm Springs. To the north lies Mt. San Gorgonio, the highest peak in Southern California, and the northeast the Little San Bernardino Mountains and the southern part of Joshua Tree National Monument. Ancient Lake Cahuilla filled the basin of the current Coachella Valley up until 500 years ago.
This area is rich in culture and history - from the hunting/gathering Cahuilla Indians to the first settlers of this arid land, to the history of the date palm industry - not to mention the dramatic and substantial geologic history. The San Andreas Fault courses through the Coachella Valley.
View from Haystack Mountain to the northwest
Mt. San Jacinto (closer range) and Mt. San Gorgonio, the highest summit in Southern California (on horizon with snow)
Our summit register entry from 12/21/2011:
"Fred, Sue and Scott - Old friends who love to hike"
Scott and Fred near Haystack Mountain summit - 12/2011
Palm Desert in background on valley floor, Southern Joshua Tree NP on horizon
I recommend returning by the same route unless you are open for more adventure and willing to negotiate the steeper and rockier terrain to the southeast. We did just that but also ended up in a thick and tangled palm oasis, the palm fronds clashing in the breeze. Briefly crossing the oasis, crunching through dead fronds, we found our way out by ascending a steep canyon wall. Out into the open again, we saw not far from us two mountain bikers on the Art Smith Trail. Back to civilization.
As we hike back along this very familiar trail, I picture a scene from 25 years ago - a faint image of a group of friends, walking in rhythm, boots crunching, happy voices laughing and talking, celebrating friendship and this great land.
I bet we find both of our summit register entries the next time we summit Haystack.
The Cahuilla Indians roasted the heart of the agave in pits on rocky drainages
Desert Fan Palm fronds
"Filifera" describes the white filaments between the segments of the frond
Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument
Fred and Sue on the way down - another beautiful hike in the desert!
Beginning of Art Smith at its intersection with California SR 74. Metal trail sign below. Wide wash is entry to Dead Indian Canyon
Topo map and our route and elevation profile to Haystack Mountain via Art Smith Trail and then traveling cross-country up east ridge
Click on image for .jpg of topo map
Bighorn Institute. 2019. Endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep.
Retrieved from https://www.bighorninstitute.org/endangered-peninsular-bighorn
Dibblee, T.W., and Minch, J.A., 2008 Geologic map of the Palm Desert and Coachella 15-minute quadrangles, Riverside County, California. Dibblee Geological Foundation.
Patten, Carolyn. "The Desert Riders." Palm Springs Life, October 1, 2010. Desert Publications, Inc.
Retrieved from https://www.palmspringslife.com/the-desert-riders/
Pearce, Al. "Dunn's Road Could be One of the Most Beautiful in Desert." Desert Sun, Volume 45, Number 214, 11 April 1972. In website: UCR Center for Bibliographical Studies and Research.
Retrieved from https://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=DS19720411.2.59&e=-------en--20--1--txt-txIN--------1
Schumann, W. 1993. Handbook of Rocks, Minerals and Gemstones. Harper-Collins Publishers and Houghton Mifflin Company.
Taylor, Joan. "The Dunn Road: A Checkered Past." Desert Report, 2007. Sierra Club publication.
Winter, John D. 2010. Principles of Igneous and Metamorphic Petrology, 2nd Ed. Pearson Education, Inc., New Jersey.
Our annual California desert peak hike with our friend Scott - this year to isolated and rugged Pinto Mountain in Joshua Tree Wilderness.
Pinto Mountain - eastern Joshua Tree National Park in the Pinto Mountain Range
From California I-10 East out of Indio, take Exit 168 into South Entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. Drive north 20 miles on Cottonwood Springs Road/Pinto Basin Road (past Joshua Tree Visitor Center) to Turkey Flats parking area and sign board on right side of road.
This hike treks through an array of different types of rock units ranging from Holocene cover (10,000 years ago to now) to
Proterozoic Era (up to 2.5 billion years ago). A geologist's dream. It passes through some of California's oldest rocks; these rocks also top Monument Mountain, across Pinto Basin to the southwest.
Trailhead and parking at Turkey Flats, 20 miles from Interstate 10 in Joshua Tree
Pinto Mountain on horizon
Topo map and elevation profile of hike to summit of Pinto Mountain, Joshua Tree NP.
The hike begins at Turkey Flats trailhead on Cottonwood Springs Road/Pinto Basin Road. The last half of this hike climbs 2,200 feet in 2.3 miles to summit elevation of 3,983 feet.
Our route across the alluvial fan at base of ridge; the trail travels on spine of ridge all the way to summit of Pinto Mountain in a north/northeast direction (looking at southwest-facing slopes)
Pinto Wash at base of fan
Some of our best and most memorable adventures have been on hikes to desert summits in Southern California with our friend Scott, a Desert Peaks Section hiking veteran. Last year we hiked Monument Mountain in Joshua Tree National Park. This year, drawn to Joshua Tree again, we stepped it up (literally) with a tougher hike to Pinto Mountain summit.
We parked at the Turkey Flats trailhead and signboard, a 20-mile drive into Joshua Tree National Park south entrance from California I-10. Scott had good directions for locating the ridge we would ascend: locate the summit at 32° then locate our ridge climb at 36°. Pretty straightforward direction and approach. We made a beeline toward the smaller ridge to the right of a large, shadowed canyon which is just to the right of Pinto Mountain summit (see directions, above). The flat 2.5 mile distance to the toe of the ridge accentuates the immensity of this sublime desert. A feeling of space and solitude.
To hike Pinto Mountain is to experience two distinctly different terrain types with very little transition in between: flat, soft and casual to steep and rocky. The last half climbs 2,000+ feet over rough and angular rocks and also requires route-finding, occasionally reaching for a handhold. The easy walk across Pinto Basin takes you through soft sand flats and beautifully rippled "dunes", through minor washes before crossing Pinto Wash. We saw a desert tortoise burrow near the dunes. I was surprised at the bright purple blooms of sand verbena vines draped across the sand dunes and an abundance of bright green vegetation in December. The fractured and curled "clayey" soils in Pinto Wash also give a clue to recent saturating rains. As you make the short descent off the dunes, stay just to the left (west) of a long low hill cut by a wash.
Desert Sand Verbena
Scott (left) and Fred heading out in morning to Pinto Mountain summit
The ridge to ascend is just to the left of Fred with the shadows to its left side
Sand dunes ~ halfway between Turkey Flats trailhead to base of Pinto Mountain
Shortly after crossing Pinto Wash, the hike ascends an ever-increasing amount of coarse gravel and boulders, the characteristic feature of alluvial fans where heavier rocks drop out early in its deposition and smaller rocks are deposited at the toe of the fan. We maneuver down through stream cuts and around rocks on the upper alluvial fan as we finally reach the bottom of our ridge. We missed the cairn indicating the start of the ridge trail on our way up and started the climb on the ridge spine, which was alright because we soon ran into the light-to-moderately tracked trail on the ridge. Don't be tempted to descend down the canyon on either side of the ridge - when in doubt, stay on top of the ridge. There are a few places along the 2.3-mile ridge hike where the trail bypasses a high point, however.
Pinto Wash just before base of alluvial fan
Clayey soil that has been recently saturated with water and then has dried and formed fractures into polygonal sections as well as "mud peels" caused by a fracture of clay parallel to its surface.
Approaching alluvial fan deposited from canyon on the left
Hike up ridge to the right of this canyon, and just to the right of Pinto, with vertical rocks and shadows to Pinto Mountain with its white quartzite slopes. Pinto Wash in foreground.
Beginning of ridge trail
Small cairn on the large rock on the right, faint trail in middle of photo heads to ridge
We started here at toe of ridge
The ridge walk was very windy, especially on the saddles. We took a lunch break on the lee side of a bump on the ridge to avoid being battered by the wind. From our spot we could see the alternating light and dark rock; although we couldn't see a trail, we could see our ridge to the top.
Rocks and Joshua trees define Joshua Tree National Park, but if you look closely, you will find among them smaller creatures and plants brightly colored in contrast to the neutral tones. Groups of red barrel cacti randomly dot the landscape, with mounds of curved red spines spectacularly lit by the sun. Scott pointed out a tiny round cactus with a bright red fruit and sharp white spines, sheltered by a "shelf" of equally sharp quartzite - a common fishhook cactus. There was a strange black caterpillar with bright yellow dots and stripes that went from crawling to a curled position as soon as I cast my shadow over it. The best match I could find for this caterpillar is the white-lined sphinx moth, AKA hummingbird moth that has a long proboscis to reach deep for nectar in penstemons, among other flowers.
No other place I'd rather be at that moment!
Rock with flat surface provides a "chair" to sit and rest
Pinto Mountain left (highest) summit
Alternating light and dark rocks correspond with varied rock units (see Geology, above)
Red barrel cactus
White-lined sphinx caterpillar
Common Fishhook cactus in quartzite
Nothing gets in the way of the expansive views of mountain ranges perched on the desert floor in every direction as you near the summit. It doesn't take long before you feel like you are standing far above the immense basin. Creosote bushes make tiny dots on the smooth floor below and washes braid toward the low point of Pinto Basin. The hike goes through several rock units.
Sharp and angular quartzite crunches and clinks under boots and becomes loose and steep as you near the summit. A few trails can be seen through the steep section where I had to hold onto fractured rocks; they all make their way up the ridge line. I looked down the trail to see that Scott had temporarily disappeared under the crags I was on, so I waited until he climbed and appeared again. Suddenly, the flat crown of the summit appears as you emerge from the steep rocks and take a short walk to the summit cairn. We took shelter from the persistent northwest wind at the lee side of the cairn, procured the metal box containing the summit register, and found a page to put our entry for 12/26/2018: "PEACE - from Sue, Scott and Fred - 3 friends who like to hike together".
Summit of Pinto Mountain, 3,983 feet looking northwest
Saguaro cactus sculpture from old wire present on top of the mountain
Scott, Sue and Fred on Pinto Mountain summit
Our summit register entry for 12-26-18
The entry above ours: "Christmas Eve/Dec/2018 - Happy Holidays everybody! We made it to the top". - Ecuador, USA, Argentina
Summit looking north
Together, another summit and memorable day in the beautiful American West!
U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey marker on Pinto used for triangulation station (main station) for land survey
The wind was cold and blowing steadily, so we stayed long enough to get our photos, revel in our accomplishment, and grab some food for the journey down. The bumpy ridge extended from our feet to the basin. The walk across the alluvial fan, then across Pinto Wash was a welcome change from the quad-burning descent down the last part of the ridge. This time we followed the trail all the way down and found a cairn marking the entry to the ridge.
In the late afternoon, the wind finally stopped blowing; we took another rest, lounging on the rocks and basking in the sun before our flat and long walk across the sand. Colors became more vibrant as we walked toward the sun lowering toward the hulk of mountains across the valley. The light yellow sand we walked in the morning was now a deep golden hue, and the sky above Pinto Mountain now held wispy light gray clouds, tinged with purple. I turned a few times to watch the light changes on Pinto; the white summit, where we had just been a few hours ago, was glowing. The next time I turned around, it was blue-gray in the dusk shadow. The temperature dropped as we walked across soft sand, avoiding burrows. Getting back to the parking lot and throwing off boots, a few cars drove up and people got out to snap a quick photo of Pinto. We got to be on top of that beautiful place today. We were the lucky ones - three friends who like to hike together.
"It is enough to know why I came here: to breathe in the solitude and the silence."
- Ann Zwinger, Wind in the Rock: The Canyonlands of Southeastern Utah
On the way down - Scott and Fred - descend ridge to the left with saddles in between high points
Late afternoon sun and deep red hues of barrel cactus
Not officially dunes, but an accumulation of blowing sand adjacent to mountain range
Pinto Mountain in late afternoon - "dunes" in foreground
Canaan Mountain, a towering plateau of Navajo Sandstone is a classic southern Utah adventure through red sand, forested canyons and over ancient sand dune slickrock. Located south of Zion National Park, it is wild and beautiful.
Ponderosa Pine and petrified sand dune on plateau below Canaan Mountain
"It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space."
- Edward Abbey
Driving Directions (from Hurricane, Utah)
Traveling east/southeast on Utah Highway 59, turn left (east) onto Utah Avenue (right before Subway restaurant in 2018) in Hildale. Continue on pavement for ~ 2 miles, then Utah Avenue curves left (north) and becomes Canyon Street. At 2.5 miles from highway 59, turn right onto Water Canyon Road (road becomes dirt). Travel ~ 1 mile to a sign on the right of the road that reads "Squirrel Canyon Trailhead". Trailhead parking is just ahead.
Our route up Squirrel Canyon to lower elevation of Canaan Mountain
We ascended to 6,900 feet; the summit is 7,363 feet
(note: profile illustrates trail starting at our highest point and descending back to trailhead)
Our route up Short Canyon to Squirrel Canyon to summit of Canaan Mountain at 6,900 feet. The highest elevation of the summit is to the left (west) at 7,363 feet
Beginning of trail at Squirrel Canyon Trailhead in foreground, red arrow points to trail that bears right around red bluff on left to go down into Short Creek in ~ 0.5 miles
Once in awhile, we spend more time than we would like just trying to find our trail. It happens to the best of adventurers. This costs precious time, especially when days are short and the hike to the summit is long. Fred and I briefly started in the wrong direction, then had to backtrack to the Squirrel Canyon trailhead. Another look at compass, map, and hike directions to re-orient, then we were on our way, paying close attention to which canyon we were hiking through. There are no signs or trail markers until the climb up Squirrel Canyon, as this a wilderness area (an advantage: not many people on the trail!) We would still make Canaan Mountain, but not the highest point on its summit which is a longer hike.
We stayed in Hurricane, Utah for Thanksgiving weekend in an old Zion NP ranger's cabin. Hiking in and near Zion National Park is a great way to celebrate the holidays. I have been hiking in Zion since the early 1990's. We avoided crowds this time by choosing hikes outside of the park. I was very impressed by the Canaan Mountain Wilderness because of its rugged beauty and all of the sandstone features throughout, and the fact that we basically had the place to ourselves. My kind of holiday!
Entrance into Short Creek
Entrance to Squirrel Canyon one mile upstream from this - hike along ATV road on right side of creek
We chose the Squirrel Canyon Trail instead of Water Canyon Trail, another approach to Canaan Mountain because we read that the hike goes through water in Water Canyon and the temps were only in the 30's and 40's. There must be neoprene boots for wading up streams. I plan on doing this hike again via the Water Canyon approach.
The hike starts by descending through deep orange sand, across a wash, and continues on the orange sand straight ahead. It rounds the red bluff to the left and then drops into Short Creek, ~ 0.5 miles from trailhead. There were a few people riding ATVs on the trails and washes; they looked like they were having fun. The steep canyon walls shaded Short Creek and its huge Cottonwood trees in the morning. This scene looked much different in the afternoon on the way back to the trailhead with the yellow leaves brightly glowing in the direct sunlight streaming through the canyon.
The brief walk up the creek before the trail scrambles up a small bank under a huge grove of Cottonwoods is beautiful. Sand ripples alternating red and black lie under shallow water reflecting the sky. The trail then follows a 4 WD road along the creek, passing by plenty of grey rabbitbrush shrubs whose flower heads glow a cream color in the sun. Patches of white sand are deposited on the bank above the stream, possibly sediment from the white Navajo Sandstone layer further upstream.
The entrance into Squirrel Canyon, about one mile upstream is obvious, as the ATV/hiking trail crosses Short Creek. A wide and relatively flat area at the entrance was covered with autumn leaves. The trail ascends Squirrel via the 4WD road and then a single track trail as the canyon narrows. Oak and maple trees surround and form an autumn canopy of red, brown and green, while green moss and maidenhair ferns dripped water seeping from vertical sandstone walls. The trail transitions from the soft tread of seasons of leaves to hard and angular slabs of sandstone to soft white sand as it emerges from the canyon then tops out on a beautiful plateau underneath The Beehive, an ancient sand dune. In a short distance from emerging, the canyon trail intersects with the Sawmill Trail with a pile of rocks marking this point. As we turned left at this point (west), I glanced back to make sure I wouldn't miss this intersection on the way down.
A somewhat ominous entrance into Squirrel Canyon
The Beehive, elevation 6,476 feet
Seen as Squirrel Canyon Trail opens up onto plateau above canyon
website for climbing The Beehive
Cairns mark route over sandstone while going up Squirrel Canyon
An excellent feature of this hike is that it gains enough elevation to walk through at least two geologic formations. The top of Canaan Mountain consists of the massive Navajo Sandstone which is also observed in the towering walls of Zion National Park. The hike appears to be starting in the red cliffs of the Kayenta Formation (mudstone) that lies below the Navajo Sandstone. The transition I noticed was in leaving the red sands and cliffs behind in Squirrel Canyon and ending up on the white rocks and white sand on the plateau above.
The upper walls of Canaan Mountain are the White Cliffs of Navajo Sandstone, and at the base are the Vermilion Cliffs which can be seen at the trailhead. These cliffs are widespread throughout southern Utah and Northern Arizona. At this location, they face southeast, and in the morning sun the walls are ablaze with intense orange, yellow and red (read more about geology of this area below).
The plateau above the canyon is a wondrous world of layered, cross-bedded, curving cream-colored and orange sandstone, with never-ending examples of eroded Navajo Sandstone features. Huge junipers make you wonder how old they are. Dark and light-striped hoo-doos, domes and platforms in all shapes and sizes are so plentiful - I wished that I was camping up there so I could spend more time looking. Ponderosa pine and juniper contrast against the frozen-in-time deeply angled and curving sand dune cross-beds. The spectacular dark and forested V-shape of the entrance into Water Canyon looms to the south. Time was getting short. We left Sawmill Trail and scrambled up ledges of slickrock to the highest point on the summit north of us, which is not the highest on Canaan Mountain. We found ourselves in yet another world of a flat-topped forested plateau with soft white sand. Only a few hours of daylight left - we had to get back.
Sawmill Trail required close attention because it was marked by cairns sparsely at best, requiring us to "hunt" for the trail sometimes. The trail alternated between soft sand and slickrock, steep in parts. Tire tread from a recent jeep was helpful to navigate the way. With each turn, rise and descent, there is almost an overload of beautiful, stark, weird, unusual sights along with the feeling of elevated space and expanse in every direction.
At this point on Sawmill Trail, the only marker for the trail was these scrapes in the slickrock. It rose steeply over the rocks on this rise
Sawmill Trail weaves in and out of soft sand and cross-bedded Navajo Sandstone
Sand of Sawmill Trail lower left hand corner. We hiked to the right, up to the top
At 6,500 feet with view of the Notch toward the south
Leaves found on Squirrel Canyon floor
Common trees of southern Utah canyons are Canyon Maple, Boxelder, Fremont Cottonwood, Gambel Oak, Shrub Oak.
Ponderosa Pine, Pinyon Pine, Gambel Oak, Manzanita, and Douglas Fir grow on slickrock.
Heading down Squirrel Canyon
Beautiful canyon with bright green moss, clear pools and waterfalls, thick canopy of oak and maple trees
We saw no one else in the canyon and on the slickrock plateau. It was easy to get sidetracked in Squirrel Canyon while getting almost hypnotized by watching oak leaves floating in clear pools that had ripples on the bottom. As we made our way back to the trailhead, on the ATV trail that runs along Short Creek, a large group of young backpackers were plodding towards us in the deep red sand, laughing and smiling, silhouetted by the late afternoon sun. Huge Cottonwoods, strong and rooted along the white-sand bank with leaves glowing yellow lined our way back down Short Creek. These had massive trunks - the vegetation in this area is so robust and healthy. I'm going back - I can see why the party of backpackers looked so joyous! Next time - Water Canyon!
Geology and History
The age of rocks on Canaan Mountain are Lower Jurassic (201 - 174 Ma). It is capped by 1,300-foot cliffs of Navajo Sandstone. The Kayenta Formation underlies the Navajo. The Kayenta is then underlain by the Moenave Formation. The base of the White Cliffs of Canaan Mountain is part of the greater extent of the Vermilion Cliffs, which extend over a large area of Utah and Arizona.
Key to stratigraphic units in above photo: Eroded Navajo Sandstone on cap of Canaan Mountain 1,200 feet thick; Canaan Mountain is ~ 2,000 feet higher than the plain (Jn). Kayenta Formation (Jk), Moenave Formation consisting of the Springdale Sandstone member (Jms), Whitmore Point and Dinosaur Canyon members (Jmwd). (From Geologic Map of the Smithsonian Butte Quadrangle, cited below).
Temps in the 20's at night at ~ 6,200 feet in late November
Sawmill Trail treks through sand and sandstone
Cairns mark first trail off of Sawmill Trail that treks to the lower reaches of Canaan Mountain summit
Pool in Squirrel Canyon
Along Short Creek
The sudden jaw-dropping, in-your-face view of the Grand Teton Mountain Range as you crest Table Mountain is worth the 4,000-foot gain - it's a view you will never forget.
View of the Grand Teton, Middle Teton, and South Teton from summit of Table Mountain, 11,106 feet
Trip Stats for North Teton (Huckleberry)/Face loop:
"There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games."
- Ernest Hemingway
North Teton Trail (Huckleberry Trail) from North Teton Trailhead to Table Mountain summit
click on map for full Topozone map
Jedediah Smith Wilderness boundary about 1 mile into hike on North Teton Trail #024
Fred and I hiked the amazing North Teton trail to its spectacular summit this past August, at the suggestion of a friend who found out we were going to the "Idaho side of the Tetons". We didn't want to see the crowds of people in Grand Teton National Park, so we hiked out of Driggs, Idaho.
At the end of Teton Canyon Road, 10.5 miles from downtown Driggs, Idaho there are two trailheads. The trail from the North Teton trailhead (North Teton trail, AKA Huckleberry trail) goes to Table Mountain, and the trail from the South Teton trailhead goes to Alaska Basin (another stunning hike where we saw a moose). The Face trail is accessed between these two trailheads. Some hikers ascend via the Face Trail; it is a more direct but steeper, unmaintained route to Table Mountain. We descended via Face Trail but I would not do that again because it is very steep with loose rocks and shallow switchbacks, and my toes got really sore pushing against the front of my boots!
If you want to avoid Face Trail, you can do an out-and-back hike on North Teton Trail for a total of 13 miles.
This hike gets more spectacular with nearly every step. As with most summit hikes, it starts out in thick forest canopy, hiking along North Fork Teton Creek. Multi-colored blankets of wildflowers among bright green grasses and shrubs covered the lower slopes of the U-shaped glacially-carved valley we walked through. Peaks towered above us as tall limestone cliffs seemed to surround, dominating much of the horizon. There had to be a break in those walls to get us on top of the ridge overlooking the valley we had ascended.
Face Trail trailhead located between North Teton and South Teton trailheads at the end of Teton Canyon Road
North Teton Trail (Huckleberry Trail) goes along North Fork Teton Creek
North Teton Trail (Huckleberry Trail) - Jedediah Smith Wilderness
North Teton Trail leaves the North Fork Teton Creek at 8,400 feet, then heads southward through the steep basin and toward a break in the cliffs. The trail then switch-backs to the ridge, climbing ~ 1,500 feet through basin and up switchbacks in about 1.5 miles. The ridge is at 9,900 feet. Table Mountain looks like an altar facing the immense and looming Grand Teton. After the steep ascent from basin to ridge, the trail takes a turn southeastward with its sights straight toward the summit, passing very close to the cliff edge for one last view of the magnificent basin just ascended. Just 1,200 more vertical feet to climb to the summit!
One of the switchbacks that climbs out of basin in a southwestward direction to top-off at ridge (~ 9,900 feet) and nearby intersection with Face Trail
Table Mountain facing the Grand Teton as viewed from switchbacks out of basin
Along North Teton Trail (AKA Huckleberry Trail) on ridge near intersection with Face Trail ~ 10,000 feet
After climbing out of the basin onto the ridge, the trail heads straight toward the summit, surrounded by wildflowers the entire way until the summit block. Table Mountain looms ahead and it seems to take forever for it to get closer. The juxtaposition of the tips of the Grand Teton and Mt. Owen rising behind the low, broad and grounded bench of Table Mountain is a rare sight. This is a great example of Earth's awesome forces; a relatively "young" fault (Buck Mountain Fault) raising old rocks higher than newer rocks in such a dramatic manner. After passing through pines and purple lupines, the trail suddenly opens up to a vast and high open meadow dotted with swaying white bistorts (my favorite wildflower). We saw people the size of small dots on the final incline to the summit. With legs burning, we made our way up this incline to the cool, breezy summit scrambling through a cut in the sharp rocks. A few more steps along the flat summit, and then WOW! It's that sudden "high" you feel on a peak when the earth quickly drops below you as you stand on a precipice (2,300-foot drop in this case), and the world opens up to make you feel like a speck in the middle of it. But this is no "ordinary" summit because you come face to face with the enormity of the Tetons, making you feel even smaller. The Grand is so close you can see its ledges and walls. You have worked to claim your lofty space, but you gaze at a space loftier than the small patch of Earth on which you stand.
Looking down from summit at the final approach to Table Mountain with Roaring Creek and Alaska Basin Trail to the left of ridge (southwest)
Hiking through a sea of American bistort (Bistorta bistortoides) and purple aster on the final stretch to Table Mountain
Sue on summit of Table Mountain, 11,106 feet with Grand Teton and Mt. Owen in background
Summit of Table Mountain
Peaks left to right: Mt. Owen, Grand Teton, Middle Teton
Fellow hikers lingered at the summit. We savored the experience, too, and then saw weather coming in from the southwest. We decided to get off the exposed rock, and on our way down, a lightning storm raged over another ridge. We took the Face Trail # 029 at the intersection with North Teton Trail which saved us time and mileage. Face Trail starts out with gentle decline and ends with a quadricep workout down the very steep pitch with loose rocks. At the end of this trail, a metal sign reads "Face Trail 029 - Very Steep - Not Recommended". Next time, I would go up Face Trail and down North Teton Trail. Or skip Face Trail altogether.
The next day, we hiked 5 miles up Alaska Basin Trail with millions of wildflowers - Heaven on Earth!
Intersection of North Teton Trail with Face Trail ~ 1.5 miles from summit
Face Trail is ~ 2.6 miles shorter on the way down but much steeper!
Spectacular adventure with beautiful scenery throughout, this is a tough hike/scramble to the second highest mountain in the rugged Pioneers with a breathtaking view and steep drop-offs at your feet.
Goat Mountain - 11,913 feet - second highest peak in the Pioneer Mountain Range near Ketchum, Idaho
Our route (in blue) and elevation/mileage profile for Goat Mountain, Pioneer mountain range, Idaho
Elevation range: from 7, 105 feet to 11, 900 feet in 7.7 miles
"The love of mountains is best."
- inscription carved in Greek, found on a summit rock in the Alps by a Swiss adventurer in 1558.
When our friends John and Val asked us to climb Goat Mountain with them, we seized the opportunity. Fred and I usually do these adventures by ourselves, so it was that much more fun to be with fellow climbing enthusiasts, especially since they had been to Goat before, so we could be able to cover the 7.7 miles to the summit expediently.
Ask anyone who has hiked and climbed in the heart of the Pioneer Mountain Range, and you may see their countenance change to a look of knowing bliss and reverence as they tell you about its sheer beauty and wildness. Granite crags, spires and domes hang raw and exposed over glaciated basins dotted with car-sized boulders and wildflowers in meadow grasses. Hike to Pioneer Cabin, built high on a bench at 9,400 feet and get a spectacular view of the main Pioneer crest to the east. The following photo of Pioneer Cabin was taken a few years ago, and now I can say that I have walked up that wide valley to the top of Goat Mountain, the peak situated on the left horizon in this photo.
Pioneer Cabin (elevation 9,400 feet), built in 1937 looks to the east at Duncan Ridge, Handwerk Peak and Goat Mountain
The southern route to Goat Mountain ascends the wide basin seen in this photo
North Fork Hyndman Creek
The weather forecast said it was to rain in the afternoon. John, Val, Fred and I started on the trail under blue skies and found ourselves pummeled by frigid winds and ice pellets when we got to the summit of Goat Mountain. Not a fun time to take photos, however it adds excitement to the trip and knowing that not many people get to experience the sudden advancing of fall and winter in mid-September at nearly 12,000 feet on a precipice. We got down the main crest pretty quickly.
The first 3 miles of this hike treks along the west side of North Fork Hyndman Creek with its colorful quartzite boulders and crystal clear water to an intersection with the trail that leads to Pioneer Cabin at 8,200 feet. Continue straight into the valley ahead, walking over branches placed across the trail to steer Pioneer Cabin hikers to the trail that takes off to the left. The pointy, fang-like Handwerk Peak appears as you walk through a sagebrush and bunchgrass valley to a crossing of the North Fork Hyndman Creek, another 0.6 miles past the intersection. Then, climb through the white cliffs, through an obvious gulley that separates the cliffs to a shelf above. Stay to the left (west) of the creek whose water sources from the unnamed basin between Handwerk Peak and Duncan Ridge. Our party accessed this basin two different ways: Val, Fred and I hiked the west side of the creek to near the base of Handwerk Peak. John crossed the creek earlier and ended up waiting for us further up this grass-filled basin south of Handwerk.
Intersection with Pioneer Cabin Trail (to the left). Keep going straight over branches to valley ahead
Named after Ted Handwerk, who served in Italy during WWII
John in lead walking north toward the base of Handwerk Peak on its south side
Route goes through the white cliffs just above John in the photo and turns northwest, staying to the west of drainage
We crossed the narrow stream at the bottom of the basin and walked through tall bunch grasses at first, and then short grass as we neared the cirque wall at the end of the basin. Aim for Florian's Nudl, a fin-shaped dome on the ridge above the cirque. Goat Mountain is the prominence to the left on the ridgeline.
The walk through this basin is a sensory experience of contrasts. Native, aromatic grasses are soft and quiet underfoot, like a huge gold carpet while the cold, ragged mess of walls and boulders looms ahead, sweeping down both sides in a U-shaped curve, typical morphology of glaciation. At the end, you run out of grass, except for a few patches distributed among the boulders. We went straight up the steep boulder wall in front of us, and came down the more circuitous route that contains more grassy areas to the right side (east) in the cirque. A huge boulder with a white "X" across its face lies at the entrance to the boulder field. Next time I do this climb, I will find this boulder and go up to the right; this route descending seemed longer but less steep. It's hands-on boulder climbing either way.
Basin between Handwerk Peak and Duncan Ridge
Head toward Florian's Nudl, the fin-shaped dome toward the center of the ridge
Heading towards Florian's Nudl
Goat Mountain on far left of horizon
Our route up boulder field at end of basin to Goat Mountain
On the hike down, we made a wide curve to the right in this photo: more distance but less steep
The boulder-hopping was stable; rarely did I step onto a "tippy" rock. John practically ran up the rocks, while the three of us followed, grasping onto the granite and grass to hoist up. During the long climb, the skies became darker, and when we finally reached the top, we were assaulted by stinging ice crystals and a brisk, frigid wind. What timing! Snap a few photos, look at the squalls of rain around us, try to maintain our balance on the top of a narrow Pioneer Range ridge with 1,000-foot drops on both sides. Celebrate the breathtaking (literally!) 360-degree scene; commit to memory. And then get down. Goat Mountain has a double peak - we didn't get to the second (north) prominence which is slightly higher.
Florian's Nudl - Use this landmark for direction when climbing from basin below
Named after Florian Haemmerle, an original instructor of the Alpine Touring School and the original curator of the Pioneer Cabin
Fred near top of Goat Mountain
John heading down shelf above boulder field
Florian's Nudl above him
Looking down upon the basin we ascended, between Handwerk Peak and Duncan Ridge toward the southwest
John went down the direct steep face. Fred, Val, and I hiked toward the east side of the cirque. Descending down a gully near a sheer wall, we heard water rushing under rocks and I suddenly saw something white. A mountain goat stood calmly watching us at the bottom. We stopped and stared at each other. It posed for us a few minutes, then slowly ambled toward the rock wall. It looked like it was growing its winter coat. We joked that the goat was taking note of humans' relative incoordination while traversing rocks. We had seen mountain goat hair in the tundra grasses on the way up the mountain.
We met up with John at the bottom of the boulder field. A refreshing, cool rain onto the bunch grasses made a clean, earthy scented air, which I breathed in deeply. Tall grey walls rose on either side. Occasional large boulders sat solitary and we took a short break on the lee side of a large one. Probably dropped out of the receding glacier. We resumed descending the basin and when I turned back to see the cirque and the ridge, curtains of rain covered most of the view. In our chatting, we didn't pay attention to staying close to the stream drainage and got too far to the west, so we took some extra time route-finding, thrashing through brush, navigating more boulders, and crossing streams to get back to the trail.
A gentle rain cooled us the last two miles of the hike. In the cloud-covered dusk, we saw two bow hunters emerge from the woods in camouflage. The sky on the horizon was clearing. We raised a toast to our awesome 11-hour day with the excellent beer at the Power House in Hailey. We celebrated getting to the summit together in a spectacular mountain range where we saw no one else on the trail. We celebrated the fact that we are lucky to be able to see things that most people don't, and that our bodies are able to take us there.
Boulder with white "X" at beginning of climb out of basin
Sue and Val at the top!
Walking down toward basin towards east side of cirque
Appearance of the Mountain Goat. Website by the British Columbia Mountain Goat Society, copyright Smithers BC Canada.
A Brief History - Pioneer Cabin.
Digital Geology of Idaho - Idaho Basement Rocks - Idaho State University.
Lopez, Tom. 2000. Idaho - A Climbing Guide: Climbs, Scrambles and Hikes. The Mountaineers Books, Seattle, WA.
Metamorphic Core Complexes - Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology.
Hike the remote cross-country route of the last mule U.S. mail delivery in the Phipps Death Hollow Wilderness Study Area through slickrock sandstone and sagebrush flats
Descending into Death Hollow from northern route of Old Boulder Mail Trail Cross Country Route
"If ever monuments are erected to unsung heroes, probably the tallest should be for those who brought the mail."
- Nethella Woolsey, Escalante historian
Northern section of Old Boulder Mail Trail Cross Country Route travels southwest from trailhead near Boulder Landing Strip to Death Hollow. This trail descends to Sand Creek, climbs to Slickrock Saddle, then descends again to Death Hollow.
It was the vivid colors in Death Hollow that I remember most when Fred and I hiked the Boulder Mail Trail 18 years ago. Bright blue skies, red rounded rocks, orange and yellow cut walls, verdant willows: the whole scene reminded me of the hues on the art class color wheel. We saw only two other people on the trail that day - two guys swimming and splashing joyfully under steep walls. So extraordinarily different this hollow was from other streams I had hiked before whose colors, albeit beautiful, are usually various shades of brown, grey and green. Here, in the middle of an immense sandstone sea, we had color combinations only the desert can produce.
On a very warm day in June this year, Fred and I hiked this trail again. The sandstone wall of Death Hollow as the Boulder Mail Trail enters it from the north is bright yellow and grey. I wondered if that rock surface could really be that colorful, and checked the colors of vegetation in the images I was taking. Maybe it was a reflection of the sun? Sandstones can be yellow due to dissolving of calcium carbonate, a common cementing material. The grey vertical stripes looked like weathering stains to me.
Death Hollow where Boulder Mail Trail enters from the north
These days, the Boulder Mail Trail trailhead is generously marked. The first 1.5 miles trek steadily down a bench through a pinyon/juniper/sagebrush forest. Views suddenly open up as the trail drops down into sandstone hills and gulches of the Sand Creek tributaries. Rock cairns mark the trail for the remaining trek to Death Hollow (and then on to Escalante), except for a few sandy stretches where the trail is marked initially by a cairn.
Boulder Mail Trail trailhead sign and register
Nearing transition from plateau to shallow Navajo Sandstone canyon. Look at that marvelous open country in the distance that we get to walk through!
The trail zig-zags through a sandy opening of a shelf of eroded orange sandstone layers and deposits you onto the immense slickrock. As you leave the plateau behind, two and even three cairns can be seen ahead, linking the trail to Sand Creek. So much to see in such a stark landscape: grey lichen, aged wood, sand pockets, and water-smoothed channels.
You never know what you may find on slickrock
At 2.7 miles, cross Sand Creek, flowing in mid-June. Walk on right (west) side of creek through willows for ~ 0.2 - 0.3 miles to cairns that climb out of creek bottom and briefly switchback over a knob. We had to backtrack here because we followed the creek too closely to the shore. The climb from Sand Creek to the highest point on Slickrock Saddle is ~ 500 feet. The initial climb out of the creek is steep, then alternates between less steep and steep rises (see profile chart, above), trekking around the northwest side of a large dome with hoodoos on top.
Telephone wire installed 108 years ago runs along the trail as it treks through long stretches of deep sand in a pinyon/juniper forest. This segment leads to the summit of Slickrock Saddle Bench at 6,600 feet and the first view of Death Hollow.
Telephone line installed in 1910 runs along trail - insulators attached to trees like this one above in a dead Ponderosa Pine
First view of Death Hollow from top of Slickrock Saddle Bench - last bit of sand hiking in foreground
As you make your way off Slickrock Saddle Bench, the shadowy chasm of Death Hollow becomes deeper and deeper; you know it's there, but it just won't reveal itself right away. It's tempting to stare in awe at this unique sight, but stay focused on the cairns, too, because the trail swings south and skirts around a knob at 6,617 feet, heading for the best way off the bench. Next, the trail switchbacks and treks in a northwest direction. The steepest part lies ahead, and you wonder how mules delivering mail in the early 1900's walked across this precarious descent. A passage from the book "Advised them to Call the Place Escalante" reads:
"To a reader sitting in a comfortable arm chair it is hard to describe the beauty of the Death Hollow Trail or the fear caused while sitting astride a horse trying to make its way safely over the rough terrain. It is said that horses' legs literally quivered as they gingerly picked their way down the trail."
- Jerry C. Roundy, Escalante resident and author of "Advised them to Call the Place Escalante"
This trail was known in the early 1900's as the Death Hollow Trail, and it was the shortest route between Boulder and Escalante. It was the fastest route if one was in a hurry, for the wagon road between the towns was a longer distance. Parts of this trail were "blasted out" in order for safe horse passage. Tales of cream cans and eggs being delivered via the Death Hollow Trail among other trail experiences are described in Jerry Roundy's book. The residents of Boulder and Escalante finally received the mail service they had been petitioning for in 1902 when the first government mail carrier's contract was given to an Escalante resident, who would deliver mail using the Death Hollow Trail twice per week.
I'm more aware of my balance on the steep slickrock; most of the texture of the rock enables my boots to grip well, but there are smoother patches to look out for. I imagine what it was like to lead horses and mules over this section. Did they slip? During the winter was there ice? What would this place look like with several inches of snow? Or under a full moon? I believe the Death Hollow Trail mail carriers were pretty tough, and they got to see some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.
Starting at ~ 5.25 miles, the well-marked trail switchbacks and descends 600 feet in 3/4 of a mile to the thick vegetation of the flowing creek in Death Hollow. Some moss-covered rocks were slippery to step onto. There's a sweet tent spot at the terminus, and from the paths seen on the treeless part of the shore on the descent, there are probably more tent spaces available.
This time we didn't hike down Death Hollow as we did 18 years ago, although the water would have cooled us off in the mid-80's temperature. Vegetation along water seemed thicker this time, but the colors and textures no less beautiful. The cool shade, chatter of water over rocks, sudden splash of colors and tall vertical walls in Death Hollow contrast with the bright and open, mostly shadeless trek across sandstone country.
After resting in the shade, we started the 6-mile hike back, looking forward to the largest elevation gain of the trip - 1,450 feet. On the way back, we took a break at Sand Creek, near huge rounded basalt boulders, probably from Boulder Mountain, whose basalt age is 6 - 16 Ma, and whose run-off streams provide water for Sand Creek.
There's always numerous adventures awaiting me, and seeing Fred walk across the slickrock is even more fulfilling than the hike, which is hard to beat. One of the best parts of life is the hope of future adventures in the beautiful American West. Next time - the entire Boulder Mail Trail!
Two days earlier, Fred and I hiked from Escalante to Mamie Creek along the Boulder Mail Trail (the southern portion). Although we didn't get all the way to Death Hollow, I feel that portion of the trail is even more gorgeous. We had the Phipps Death Hollow Wilderness all to ourselves that day, as we saw no one else. It's days like these that I will remember reverently - forever.
Below are some images of the portion of the Boulder Mail Trail Cross Country Route south of Death Hollow.
We ran into a retired biologist who took this photo of us after a detailed discussion of Fe+3, ferric iron in the rocks - very interesting to me, but Fred not so much!
Thank goodness for cairns!
Slickrock Saddle Bench
Basalt boulders near Sand Creek
Images from south portion of Boulder Mail Trail Cross Country Route - Escalante to Mamie Creek
Prickly pear near junction of Pine Creek and Old Boulder Mail Trail
Heading up to Antone Flat
South end of Boulder Mail Trail from Escalante trailhead
Trail goes to the left of large drainage and then treks to the right in this photo on the smooth portion at the base of plateau
Boggs, S. Jr. 2012. Principles of Sedimentology and Stratigraphy, Fifth Ed. Pearson Education, Inc.
Hackman, R.J., and Wyant, D.G., 1973, Geology, structure, and uranium deposits of the Escalante quadrangle, Utah and Arizona: U.S. Geological Survey, Miscellaneous Geologic Investigations Map I-744, scale 1:250,000.
Parry, W. T. 2016. Geology of Utah's Mountain, Peaks and Plateaus. Friesen Press, Victoria, B.C., Canada.
Roundy, J. C. 2000. "Advised them to Call the Place Escalante". Art City Publishing, Springville, Utah. 355 pp.
About this blog
– "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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