This hike was specifically chosen to satisfy two main desires I had in selecting a hike. First, that there was a peak to summit. I had been toying with the idea of focusing on peakbagging in the mountains around Phoenix, and this was the first hike I specifically chose based on that goal. Second, it was a very obscure trail that has seen very little traffic. I really wanted to hike a trail in an area new to me on a trail that was not heavily used nor established. Big Jim Peak sits about 6 miles into a remote portion of desert called Hell’s Canyon Wilderness west of Lake Pleasant along Cottonwood Creek, north of the Phoenix Metro area.
Singer ‘Walkin’ Jim Stolz hiked more than 28,000 of trail before his death in 2010. Walkin’ Jim Loop is named for this intrepid outdoorsman, adventurer, singer and author. The trail was originally blazed by Bob Greg and named after Jim Stolz with the latter’s permission. Jim later accepted Bob’s invitation to hike the trail with him in 2010 shortly before his death.
I was planning on doing this hike with a small group, but as often happens, people slowly began to back out. When I finally accepted that I was going to be hiking alone, in an unknown wilderness area, I began to doubt the trip and almost backed out myself. I collected information, maps and researched the trail and the area. The morning of the hike, I came very close to cancelling. Then, ridiculous as it may sound, I thought of my dad…and the idea of backing away from a challenge because of ‘the unknown’ suddenly seemed unreasonable. So, I grabbed my gear and followed the directions to the trailhead.
There are old ranch roads that traverse this wilderness area. The whole area used to be cattle land and there are still some wild cattle loose in the area, as well as wild burros and a variety of other wildlife. The trail actually crosses some old homestead sites deep in the wilderness with partial fences, debris and artifacts littered about the clearings. The trail is fairly well worn in the beginning and crosses Cottonwood Creek a couple of times. As it takes you further into the desert, the signs of use diminish and the trail becomes more overgrown. It became clear to me a couple of miles in the that main use of the trail was by the local wildlife, not humans, and I was forced to stoop below branches and push through overgrown brush.
I had marked my route beforehand on a fairly detailed topo map, and was able to follow the trail easily despite it’s spotty and faint appearance. In places, the trail can disappear completely but is marked relatively well with cairns for those with a careful enough eye to catch them. There were portions of this trail where the only way to continue the route was to walk from cairn to cairn. The topo map was invaluable at times, and allowed me to triangulate my position and reorient myself.
The trail itself is a lot of fun. The terrain changes repeatedly, the trail wanders through dense Mesquite forests, crosses dry and wet creeks and washes, climbs up and over various rock formations covered with a variety of lichen and drop in and out of several small canyons. The trail is very remote, and one of the few places where I really noticed the silence. Desert silence is a strange thing, and unique. Occasionally, I could hear the motor of 4×4 vehicles in use on some of the old, abandoned ranch roads.
About 4 miles in, there is a sign marking the side trail to Big Jim Peak (peak 3465). The Peak dominates the horizon for a couple of miles prior to this intersection. The peak trail actually heads across the foothills of this small range and into a canyon just below the peak. From here it snakes up the canyon to a saddle between the peak and the rest of the ridge. The trail ends here.
Hiking to the peak is a trailblazing challenge, forcing you to make your own way through the scrub brush and grasses. There are some cairns along the way to help remind you that you are going in the right direction. I eventually crested the craggy rock that surrounds the peak, and was able to boulder hop to the highest point. With a little searching, I was able to find the hidden glass jar with the peak ledger in it. It had rained the previous week so the ledger was still slightly wet and I had trouble writing my name on the page. The last entry was from October of 2008. Though I’m sure there had been other visitors, the idea of being the first one on this summit in over 2 years was exciting.
I pulled off my pack and spent some time at the top watching eagles hunt along the cliffs below my position. I dug my lunch out of the pack and found a relatively flat rock to sit and enjoy my lunch. From the peak, I had a great view of Lake Pleasant to the East and the remaining desert wilderness to the west. It’s a fantastic vantage point and I was disappointed I had decided not to bring my good camera. I laid down on a boulder for a bit to enjoy the sun. When I decided to start down, I sat up and grabbed my gear and felt a sharp sting on the back of my thigh. The intricate, animated dance that followed had to have looked insane. luckily, I was alone and by the time I had stripped out of my pants the only evidence left of my visitor was the barb and venom sack still pulsating from the scorpion that got me. I had never been stung by a scorpion before, but living in Arizona, you know what the dangers are and I now had a sense of urgency to get back to civilization. I had no idea if I was allergic, or if my body would react weird to the sting and I was 6.5 miles from my truck.
The return hike was a little of a blur. Mostly just pushing hard to get back. I was running low on water, it had gotten warm out since I had started my hike and I was feeling fuzzy. I don’t know if it was lack of water, fatigue or the scorpion but the hike back was way harder than the hike in. When I finally got back to my truck, I felt relieved. I downed some Gatorade, loaded my gear and started the drive home.
I estimated the hike would be about 9.8 miles round-trip. However, when my GPS died at the peak it read close to 6.5 miles making the round-trip closer to 13 miles. I really would love to do this hike again when I can spend the night on Big Jim Peak and get some sunrise shots over Lake Pleasant before hiking back. Hopefully without a scorpion encounter…