San Juan Mountains

San Juan Mountains
San Juan Mountains: Grenadier Range

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Phoenix Area Beauties

Every once in a while I have to take a break from the constant stream of vitriol and sarcasm that comes forth from my fingertips as I sit before my keyboard composing posts for this blog.  Even a Mad Welshman occasionally finds himself in a state of contentment.  In my case, those brief periods of contentment are often the by-product of some outdoor excursion to a beautiful place accompanied by close friends and the always cherished companionship of my wonderful and long-suffering spouse.  This past March I was able to spend a week in the Phoenix area.  While I was there I took advantage of the opportunity to do some hiking and climbing.  In particular I wanted to explore some of the very easy summits that are in the Valley of the Sun and the small mountain ranges immediately surrounding the valley.  Most of these summits have trails to the top and it is difficult to find solitude on them.  Nevertheless, at the right time of the year they are resplendent with flowers and a joy to experience on a warm spring day.  Today I would like to share some of those moments with you.
A long time friend and climbing partner came up from Tucson to join me for the longest hike of the week.  We ventured up Barry Goldwater Peak, in the White Tank Mountains on the extreme western border of Phoenix.  We had a warm day for the first week of March, in the low 90s,  but the brittle bush was out in full force as we worked our way up the Mesquite Canyon trail on our way to the summit, which we eventually managed to get to despite confusing the real summit for three other false summits along the way.  While hiking up the canyon I kept hearing a peculiar sounding bird, singing a song as if mocking me as I walked by, and I asked my friend about it.  To my surprise he informed me that it was not a bird at all.  He claimed it was a squirrel making the noise.  Since he is a pathological liar I did not believe him and made it a special point to spot the bird and show it to him before the end of the day.  I never did see the bird but here is a shot of the aforementioned brittle bush while looking down the trail we are working our way up:

Lookout Mountain is one of the infamous "Seven Summits" of the Phoenix valley.  Patterned after the Seven Summits of international mountaineering fame, hearty local mountaineers attempt to attain the summit of each during one long, all-day push.  Successful summiteers can claim the Seven Summits, although only those in the know are aware they never ventured outside the Valley of the Sun. This shot of Lookout Mountain was taken while heading up Shaw Butte, another of the seven, in the North Mountain Preserve.  After completing Shaw and North, I drove over to Lookout and made the short scamper to its summit.  I proudly claimed a Three Summit day: 

Before heading out into the North Mountain Preserve I visited the local visitor center, staffed by volunteers who are experts on the area.  Not knowing anything about the trail system I inquired about obtaining a map of the area.  The elderly man behind the counter produced a map, opened it up for me and strongly suggested a route that I could take that would be, "short, flat and easy."   Because I am gray, frail looking and extremely Welsh people constantly assume that I am incapable of doing anything that requires a high level of physical effort.  The route he suggested followed the valley floor for a mile or two and then came straight back.  I was interested in climbing to the summits of both Shaw Butte and North Peak before returning.  I thanked him for his advice and headed out.  After summiting and descending Shaw Butte via a looping route,  I arrived at the saddle between it and North Peak.  Just before starting up the trail to North Peak I saw a small memorial which I stopped to read.  I don't know why but this short memorial brought a tear to my eye as I read it.  In fact, it still does.  Maybe it will for you as well:

I dedicated one day to going north of Phoenix to the Cave Creek area.  There are several off-trail mountains in the area I was interested in either climbing or scouting out routes for.  Upon my arrival at the entrance to the Spur Cross Ranch I discovered I had to pay a trespass fee to gain entrance to the ranch where the peaks were located.  I was happy to do so.  While paying my fee I inquired about several of the mountains.  The couple manning the booth took one look at my frail, scrawny, excessively gray and ill-prepared appearance and strongly suggested I stick to the marked trails in the valley and assiduously avoid any of the "non-maintained" trails in the area.  They assured me that if I were to venture off trail I would be bitten by a rattlesnake and die.  I decided to ignore their advice and, as it turned out, I had an enjoyable scouting trip.  The photo below shows a veritable forest of saguaro cacti on the south slope of Elephant Mountain, a peak I plan on returning to climb in the future:

On the slopes of Elephant Mountain  I came across this superb example of teddy-bear cholla, perfectly illuminated by the morning sun.  Teddy-bear cholla are believed by some to be able to "jump" from their stalks and attack unknowing passers-by.  I have known golfers who would not go near their ball when it lodged near one of these out of fear of being attacked by the jumping cactus spines.  Needless to say I survived without any attacks being launched upon me:

One day I set out to explore the southern end of the McDowell range.  The McDowell range is a short, but majestic, range on the northeast boundary of Phoenix.  I find it disturbing that the McDowell range is so hard to access, despite its close proximity to Phoenix and the fact that it is also a mountain preserve.  For some reason that I do not understand the folks who have preserved the area do not allow off-trail hiking and there are only two trails which go to two of the dozen or so summits that are within the range.  Thompson Peak, which I had climbed years before, and Sunrise Peak are the only two legal peaks in the area.  How frustrating it all is.  Why folks would construct trails and not allow access to the summits is a mystery to me.  Regardless, the photo below shows the first part of the trail to Sunrise Peak.  Shortly before taking this photograph we came across a native lady who was hiking down the trail.  She took one look at my gray beard and overall frail appearance and warned us that there were "high winds at the saddle" ahead.  She suggested we might want to consider turning around.  We thanked her for her advice and went on.  We encountered moderate winds, which felt nice as they cooled the skin, at the saddle,  just as she promised.  We continued on to a picturesque summit with nice views of southern Phoenix:

Remember the mocking bird call I mentioned earlier?  Well I found the source.  The photo below was taken shortly after I heard the sound and immediately saw the culprit from which it came.  This was taken on the paved road that leads to the summit of North Peak.  Despite the fact that my buddy is still a pathological liar, he was telling the truth about this strange creature.  This rock squirrel emits a mocking, bird-like sound that you would never guess would be produced by a member of the Genus squirridae:

I leave you with another shot of Elephant Mountain.  I look forward to going back to climb it. It is the highpoint in the back left of this photo.  There is no trail to the top so, according to the locals, I might not make it back from the climb.  I managed to get up to the flat butte in the center of this picture on my scouting trip.  I include this photograph because it shows the eternal diligence of my government protectors.  They warned me about how where I was going was a "primitive route" and that I needed to "stay on designated trails" in order to avoid an almost certain death.  And given my frail condition it is likely I will not even reach the summit before expiring.  Nevertheless,  when I return to make a run at the peak I will thank them for the warning and proceed off-trail to the summit.  I will let you know if I make it:


  1. And if we don't hear from you? . . .

  2. Mr. Tumbleweed:
    Thank you for your comment. I think I saw you the day I was scouting Elephant Mountain. You went blowing by me like I was barely moving.
    I have never understood the folks who say, "At least he died doing what he enjoyed." So although I will no doubt enjoy my ascent of Elephant, if you do not hear from me afterwards it is probably best to assume that I was either bitten by a rattler and died a slow, painful death or else I was carried off by a bird of prey to some remote lair where I was slowly pecked to death. Either way I will no longer be a burden to the taxpayers.

  3. If so, then we will post a remembrance on a rock on a distant hilltop:
    "In Loving Remembrance of the Mad Welshman
    Last seen riding a Tumbleweed
    Across the mountaintops
    On his way to a better country
    That holds Welshman in high regard"

  4. Mr. Tumbleweed:
    Your stirring tribute made my day. I sense you might be Welsh yourself so I composed this little ditty about our common love of the mountains:
    "From the cwm to the fynydd, we shall always be found
    We are the dringwr and we wander around
    So if you come across us you should be a bit leery
    For our hearts have been captured by that place we call Eryri."