Petroglyphs in Chalk Canyon…

I have a little hiking group on Facebook.  It’s just a group for local friends who have expressed an interest in hiking.  It allows me to post my plans for smaller hikes in case anyone wants to join me.  I still hike alone a lot.

I don’t think anyone but me has posted anything in that group in a very long time.  And even when I do post something, there really isn’t much engagement there.  I’m sure most of the people in the group don’t even remember joining.  But I’m trying to change that.  There is some new blood in the group, new people that I know are active and up for an adventure.  They are bringing a pulse back to the lifeless body of my little hiking group.

A few weeks ago, I met up with Heidi (@Bananabuzzbomb) while Katie and Niko (of @SimplyAdventure fame) were in Phoenix.  The four of us did a quick hike at South Mountain.  Later, Heidi showed a lot of interest in wanting to hike more so I figured I’d add her to the group and put something together.  Her interaction in the group has enticed others to pay attention.  So I posted a possible hike and got a small group together to go check out a trail north of town.

I had been wanting to explore further up Cave Creek north of Spur Cross for a long time.  It seemed like the perfect hike for a small group.  I picked a decent hike along the Creek with the potential for a nice payoff at the end with some petroglyphs and possible ruins.  The hike would end up being 8 or 9 miles round trip and have varying terrain and multiple water crossings.  A good moderate hike to get to know some new fellow hikers.

Sunrise light at Spur Cross

We got an early start on a cold morning just as the sun was coming up.  I may not have made it entirely clear from the beginning, but I had never hiked this trail before.  I was going off of a pretty decent map and a trail description found online.  I didn’t know if there would be trail markers or not, or how easy the trail would be to follow once we got out of Spur Cross Recreation Area.  There is an expectation, when hiking with the person who has suggested the trail, that they are leading the hike.  This dawned on me shortly after we got started and I felt the pressure of needing to know where we were, where we were going and how far we still needed to go.  Every time someone asked, “is this the trail?” or “do we cross the creek here?” I felt like I should not only know the answer but be confident about it.

Crossing Cave Creek at Spur Cross

I quickly made it very clear that we were all in the same boat, that I had never been on this trail before and was learning as we go just like everyone else.  I’m not sure if that made them feel any better or not, but I wasn’t going to have them following me into the desert with some false sense of security that I knew where I was going.  We took turns leading and route finding, making mistakes, backtracking a little and continuing to refer to the map.

A little scrambling along one of our false routes

At one point, we encountered a couple of older gentlemen out hiking the same trail and looking for the same petroglyphs.  They seemed to be having similar routing issues as us, but they had a GPS.  So we compared notes and I tried to compare his GPS location (his maps sucked) to my map.  This worked well until the next creek crossing and we lost our route again.  We had been looking for a turn, a side trail to take us up an adjacent canyon from the creek but couldn’t locate it.  The guys with the GPS were confident that they knew the way.  And here’s my next mistake…I followed themWE followed them.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s that most of the time the guys with the GPS really don’t know where they are.  Most of the people I’ve come across using GPS don’t even know how to relate their GPS position to where they are on an actual map.  I should have known better than to follow these guys and we missed our turn.  Once I realized this, I communicated that to the party and we all agreed it didn’t matter too much.  We’d just continue to follow the creek and, worst come to worst, we’d retrace our path along the creek to get back out.

Leaving Spur Cross onto an abandoned private ranch to look for the Petroglyphs

Missing our turn meant we missed a chance at the ruins.  But we could still find the Petroglyphs if we watched carefully.  Luckily, we spotted them quickly and were able to stop and take pictures and explore the area.  We found some great rock art along with several metates in the natural boulders.  The low lands around the creek would have served as the agricultural land for the Hohokam living on the hilltops in pit houses and rock structures around here about 800 years ago.

First sign of Petroglyphs

more Petroglyphs

More petroglyphs on a huge boulder

After the petroglyphs we made a half-assed attempt at climbing the rocky hill above the petroglyphs to make an attempt at finding any ruins but we were running out of time.  I know had a good hike and really enjoyed the trail.  I hope that my companions enjoyed it as well.  I know Heidi enjoyed it enough to sign up for another hike the following weekend on yet another trail I’d never been to and had no idea what we were in for.  But that’ll be another story…

This hike did teach me to be a little more prepared and to not take my role as planner lightly.  As the one planning the hike, I became the default leader and guide.  The expectation was that I would know the way and I didn’t.  This does make an argument about the virtues of scouting new trails before bringing others out.  But then that takes me back to hiking solo, which most people agree is not safe either.  I found the answer, at least in this case, was good communication as well as feeling out the mood of the group.  As soon as I felt tension or frustration in the group, we called it and headed out.

On the way back out we found the junction in the trail we had missed.  It was a really obvious junction with a sign and a map and everything (hell, it could have had red flashing neon arrows we still missed it).  I look forward to heading back out to the trails north of Cave Creek and exploring further…maybe as a solo scouting trip next time.

Old abandoned Spur Cross Corral

Chalk Canyon Petroglyphs Gallery…

Tom’s Thumb and the quest for the Ogre’s Den…

My most recent quest to the McDowell’s led me to the steep trail up the boulder-clad, granite mountainside, toward the fork that would take me either east to Goat Hill, Hog Heaven and the East End or west to Windgate Pass.  My destination lied just north of the well-traveled ridge-line path to Windgate Pass.  I would journey in the shadow of the Glass Dome, along the Gardner’s wall, skirting the massive granite promontory known as Tom’s Thumb on my way to The Rist…where I would seek out the Ogre’s Den.

I love creative landmark names and some of the best names on the planet come from river runners and rock climbers.  It just so happens that the granite-strewn north end of the McDowell Mountain Range in North Scottsdale is a climbers heaven.  The north slope of the range, where my trail would take me, is littered with massive chunks of granite rock.  Some are huge exposed monoliths like Tom’s Thumb, a 150ft geological feature that is easily recognizable from almost anywhere in the valley.  Others are piles of jumbled boulders that have collapsed on each other creating a virtual playground for rock climbers.

As I had agreed to drop off some friends to an afternoon of drinking in Scottsdale, I decided I would take advantage of the opportunity and hike the trail to Tom’s Thumb.  I have visited Tom’s Thumb before, many, many years ago when I was new to the valley and had no idea what this massive feature was.  I simple knew I had seen it many times when driving in north Scottsdale and was curious as to what it looked like up close.  Not knowing, or being aware, of any trail I simply parked my truck and climbed the mountainside to reach the huge granite feature.  That was nearly 15 years ago. Now, I know the valley and I know many of the trails and landmarks and I wanted to revisit this iconic destination again…on the official trail.

horses grazing along the access roadSo I drove down the unimproved, dirt road past private property, commercial sub-divisions and open grazing land to the base of the mountain.  The area is now part of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, and there are designated trails and official rules regarding the use of the area.  Due to some construction near-by, there is a temporary access parking area for Tom’s Thumb located at the end of 128th street (signs are posted to guide you).  The parking area would potentially hold about 10-12 vehicles but there is a smaller overflow parking area just before you get to the main one which I would guess holds about 4-6 vehicles.  Luckily, this trail is not very crowded and not often accessed from the north side.  Especially when you get to visit the trail mid-week, as I did.

The trail starts at the northwest corner of the main parking area.  There is a sign to mark the way and also warns to clean up after your pets (thank you very much).  It’s a relatively easy walk at first until the trail turns sharply south and begins the switchback up the mountain.  It’s not a long trail, but it does climb aggressively up.  There are some great little side trails to small lookouts that offer great vantage points to the north.  If you’re willing to wander off trail a little, the route offers some very unique and interesting boulders and rock formations.

The main trail to the ridge-line splits and heads east to larger rock formations and climbing areas while the western trail heads further into the preserve toward Tom’s Thumb, Windgate Pass and the Gateway Trails.  There is a sign along the main trail that tells you where to turn off to visit Tom’s Thumb and the Gardner’s Wall.  Tom’s Thumb is impressive, but unless you have your climbing gear with you and the experience to use it there’s not much to do there.  I stopped at a nice boulder pile just south of Tom’s Thumb and climbed around for a while practicing some basic bouldering skills.  As I played among the boulders, I had a visitor.  Considering I had only seen one other person, an older man walking his dog, on the trail that day I was surprised to have someone appear on the trail with me.  We crisscrossed each other’s paths a couple of times before the young woman asked if I’d been here before then asked,  “Do you know where the cave is?”

I did not know where the cave was…but I had heard about it.  The Ogre’s Den is a small cave located “just off the trail past Tom’s Thumb“, according to the hiking books.  The challenge had been offered and I accepted, we WOULD find the Ogre’s Den.  Armed with an impressively vague description and no real idea where to look or what to look for, we set out “past Tom’s Thumb” to look for the cave.  I admit that I wandered cluelessly across the ridge to nearly every pile of boulders that could possibly house a small cave.  The only other clue we had was that there was supposedly wall paintings and artwork in the Ogre’s Den and as we both searched we hoped it would be obvious once it revealed itself.

We decided quickly that we had searched too far from Tom’s Thumb and headed back, hiking around the south side of The Rist where, on a hunch, I followed a small game-trail up the south side of The Rist and stumbled upon a shallow hollow in the rock, with a well-worn floor and artwork painted on the rock walls.  I called my discovery down to my new companion who quickly scrambled up the path to join me in the Ogre’s Den.  We spent a few minutes exploring the small cave, finding a small shelf in the rock where past visitors have left offerings, presumably to the resident Ogre.  There is also a small decorative box next to a pile of spent ballpoint pens, with paper on which to scrawl your appeals to fickle Ogre.

Tom's Thumb monument

Tom’s Thumb…

I climbed out of the cave through a small crag above the offering shelf and found myself at the shoulder of the main trail through The Rist.  I had passed within feet of the Ogre’s Den and had never suspected it’s location was so close.  Laughing at my own inability to discover the feature we were after, we headed back the way we had come.  My new friend had parked at the same trailhead and I now had a trail companion on the return to my truck.  As much as I am a fan of solo-hiking, there is something fun about meeting a fellow hiker, sharing conversation and swapping stories.  Especially when you’ve just successfully completed a quest together!

Tom’s Thumb – McDowell Sonoran Preserve

Scottsdale, Arizona

Some trailhead parking. From Phoenix head east on 101 to Pima, north on Pima Road to Dynamite and east on Dynamite to 128th Street.  Head south on the unimproved dirt road following the signs to the parking lot trailhead.

Trail Length: 3 mile round-trip (without the extra wandering around)
Elevation Gain: 1,000 feet
Difficulty: Easy at the top, moderate to strenuous up the mountain
Open: Year-round.

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Camelback Mountain Summit via Cholla Trail…

East view from the Saddle near the Heli-Pad...

Camelback Mountain sits firmly in the middle of the Phoenix Metro area and is bordered by Phoenix, Scottsdale and Paradise Valley.  It’s central location and prominent shape make it incredibly enticing, attracting over 300,000 recreational visitors each year.  Located on the north side of Camelback Mountain is a shallow cave, or grotto, where the ancient Hohokams practiced religious rituals.  This fact, coupled with the mountain’s mystique have led some to refer to Camelback as the Sacred Mountain.  During the late 1800s, the federal government reserved Camelback Mountain for an Indian reservation.  By the 1940’s most of the land had fallen to private ownership. Gary Driggs, a local resident with a close association with the mountain, has fought to protect the mountain, successfully, since the early 1950’s.  The area has been off-limits to developers since the mid 1968, thanks to Driggs and the  Preservation of Camelback Mountain Foundation led by Barry Goldwater.  A ceremony was held in 1968 in honor of the mountain’s preservation and was attended by President Johnson (the First Lady was said to have hiked Cholla Trail in high heals).  The Phoenician, a world-famous resort built-in 1988, sits right at the south-eastern base of the mountain and it’s golf course wraps around to the north-east side near the trailhead.

Camelback’s accessibility is what makes it so dangerous.  Novice hikers, weekend warriors and clueless urbanites have all flocked, at one time or another, to the mountain in the middle of the city for an easy afternoon workout in the sun.  Many of them come unprepared.  Camelback is no walk in the park and for those who arrive with insufficient water, improper footwear and a lack of respect may find themselves on the evening news.  Every year, rescue crews respond to dozens of calls of stranded, injured or missing hikers at Camelback Mountain.  People think that because the trails are in the city that there is somehow less danger here.  In the summer of 2009, rescue crews were called out to Camelback over a dozen times in a single day, most related to dehydration.

climbing the "spine"...

Access to the Cholla Trail requires parking roadside on 64th Street just north of Camelback Road.  This area fills up quick throughout the year so plan to add an extra couple of miles to your overall hike.  The trailhead is located about a half-mile down Cholla Lane on the south side of the road.  The beginning of the trail actually wraps around part of the Phoenician’s golf course.  Then you start your climb, gradual at first, up rock steps and a narrow trail.  At peak season much of this trail can be crowded forcing people to stop along the narrow path to let oncoming traffic by.

yes, those are people on the summit...

Once the rocky trail crawls around to the first lookout, you are at the eastern-most point on the trail and it cuts back to the west towards the summit.  Watch your footing through this area because even though the trail is well-worn and not technical, there is plenty of loose rock and uneven ground to twist an unsuspecting ankle.  On much of this trail, a bad step could send you reeling down the mountain, other times it may just mean a bad fall into an angry cactus.  The climb is consistently uphill, though not steep at this point.  Not until you’ve reached the saddle, about halfway up, does the trail become technical.  From the saddle, route finding is accomplished by following old painted blue dots on the occasional rock.  Following the dots, you climb up the spine of the mountain.  “Spine” is a good description of this ridge-line since it’s mostly jagged, broken granite jutting into the sky like vertebrae.  This portion of the hike is especially dangerous and I’ve known many hikers who have turned back.  If you suffer from even a marginal fear of heights, the trail to the summit can be too much.

If you’ve never done the hike before, the summit sort of sneaks up on you.  You’ve made climb after climb thinking “this is it!” only to see more climbing before you.  Then all of a sudden, there you are…with everyone else!  The Echo Canyon Trail also reaches the summit (from the west side) and you often find yourself on a very busy, crowded, chat-filled rock wondering where all these wheezing, sweat-soaked people came from.  The crowd is usually pretty eclectic.  Being in the middle of the city, you’ll have people in business clothes, Yoga gear, shorts, jeans, bathing suits and, yes, even in their underwear.  All tired, sweaty and happy to have reached the top in one piece.

I usually sit at the top for at least a few minutes, check my time, maybe take a picture or two and just enjoy the view.  The summit offers some amazing 360 degree views of the Phoenix area.  Timing your hike to be able to see a sunrise, or sunset from the mountain is a must in my book.  Whenever you hike it though, be sure you come prepared, have respect for the dangers on this mountain and try to leave it just the way you found it.

Sunrise from Camelback Mountain...

 

Cholla Trail at Camelback Mountain.

No trailhead parking. Street parking limited at Invergordon and 64th Street. Hikers must walk up the south side of Cholla Lane. Cholla Trail is only recommended for experienced hikers and has steep, rocky sections with drop-offs on both sides of the trail.

Trail Length: 1.5 miles (from the trailhead)
Elevation Gain: 1,250 feet
Difficulty: Strenuous
Open:
Oct. 1 to April 30 th: 7:30 a.m-5: 30pm
May 1 to Sept 30 th: 5:30 am- 7:30 pm

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