Big Jim Trail

Big Jim Peak
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.

Big Jim Peak

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.

Big Jim PeakI 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.

Big Jim PeakThe 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.

Big Jim Peak

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.


Big Jim Peak

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…


Overton-GoJohn Trail Loop

Cave Creek Recreation Area Go John Trail

The Cave Creek Recreation Area (Now known as Cave Creek Regional Park) is nestled in the foothills of a small range just north of Phoenix, Arizona.  Located off of 32nd Street north of Carefree Highway, this area has a vast and colorful history.  The park and it’s trail system are an expansion of old mining trails from the 1870’s when Jasper and other minerals were mined from the hills around the park.  Some of the old mine sites are still visible even though many of them have been closed off for years for safety reasons.  The park includes 2,922-acres of beautiful, classic Sonoran Desert scenery and the new visitors center offers classes and lectures about the flora and fauna of the area.

Cave Creek Go John TrailMy all time favorite loop in the park is a combination of two different trails that intersect and create a 6.5-mile loop.  The Overton Trail heads out from the main parking lot at the visitors center and takes you west (clockwise) at a nice, gradual incline into the depths of the park.  The trail here is very well maintained and an easy walk.  This is a multi-use park and the trails see a fair share of bikers and horses so watch out for both.  As the trail crests the first rise you get a fantastic view of the western ridges in the distance and is absolutely fantastic for well timed sunset photos.  The trail wraps around the west side of the mountains that make up the heart of the park and allows you to climb up and around the back of the mountains where you leave all signs of civilization behind.  For a park that sits surrounded by residential developments, the back side of the park (north side) gives you the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere.

The Overton Trail tops out at a flat landing where a small bench has been erected for those needing a quick rest.  Shortly after the landing, the trail connects to the Go John Loop.  This secluded section of hiking winds down a very flat, easy section of trail that has seen a lot of maintenance over the years.  This section is usually where I work on some trail running and try to slam through it at a good pace because it’s not until you reach the bottom of the wash that the trail becomes interesting again. From the bottom of the wash the trail turns into a mixture of sand, loose rock, ragged exposed bedrock and everything in between.  The trail winds though the vegetation offering up-close and personal views of some of the Sonoran Deserts most famous wildlife.  Palo Verde Trees, Mesquite, Saguaros and Barrel Cactus highlight the trail.

Cave Creek Recreation AreaAs the trail climbs out of the wash there is a short section that some hikers find challenging and Mountain Bikers can practice their technical skills.  Once past this climb, the trail pretty much levels out and becomes a nice, easy hike to the east side of the range.  From the east side you get a glimpse through the valley to the town of Cave Creek and the residential properties that back right up to the park.  The trail meanders right along a barbed-wire fence the marks the eastern boundary of the wilderness area.  Watch for Mountain Bikers through this section as the trail is perfect for them to pick up speed.

The tail end of the trail is a slow, easy descent to the east parking lot.  Once back at the parking lot you can either walk road side back to the main lot at the visitor’s center or hike a section of trail that takes you through the middle of the developed part of the park.  There are tables and gazebo picnic areas, a kids playground, barbecue pits and public restrooms.  I have often done this loop and not seen anyone on the trail, but returned to find a very active park with kids playing families having lunch.

Cave Creek Regional Park offers overnight camping in designated areas and trail rides on horseback during part of the year.  Check with the ranger at the visitor’s center for rules and fees.  As with all of the Maricopa County Parks, there is a $6 per vehicle fee to enter the park for day use.  Annual Passes are available for $75.

Directions to the Park

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