Chris Roams

Travel, Adventures, and Photography

Gold Fever

The first mountain range east of Phoenix is the Superstition Range. Supposedly hidden somewhere in the range is the legendary Lost Dutchman Gold Mine, a rich strike kept secret and protected by a German immigrant until he finally revealed its location on his death-bed. The lost mine has never been found, not for lack of attempts though, and the range has a reputation for killing the people who set off in search of it. A lone searcher disappeared in 2009 without a trace save for his abandoned campsite and the most recent casualties were a trio who set off into the wilderness during the brutal summer heat of July 2010, their presumed remains were found 6 months later.

The hardened core of an old volcano forms series of steep cliffs and topped with a sharp summit surrounded by a number of hoodoos on the western edge of the Superstitions, looming over the Phoenix suburb of Apache Junction. A flat-topped prow known as the Flatiron juts out just below the summit overlooking the valley below. Lost Dutchman State Park, named after the legendary gold mine, sits just at the base of the range which itself lies inside Tonto National Forest. A popular, wide, and gentle trail leaves the state park at the base of the mountain, crosses into the National Forest, and climbs up along the stream bed of Siphon Draw to a large stone basin hidden in the flank of the mountain where hikers can observe a waterfall if the weather has been wet enough (this year it has not been).

The waterfall isn't the only victim of the dry winter this year. During wet years the meadows east of Phoenix erupt into bloom during the spring with millions of vibrant flowers providing a sharp contrast to the usual drabness of the desert for a few short weeks before they wither away in the heat again. Besides a few cacti and meadows at higher elevations not much was happening this year. The drought that has plagued the west since 1999 may have taken a break last winter but appears to be back this year with a vengeance.

Above the basin the trail takes on a more sinister character, climbing over jumbled rocks and straight up cliff faces before spilling out onto the broad surface of the Flatiron 2,500 feet above the trailhead on the valley floor below. A quick look back at the unnamed peak, often referred to simply as Peak 5024 (its elevation), rising another 300 feet above the Flatiron and there appears to be a flag fluttering on top signaling that is is somehow accessible. A quarter-mile bushwhack among the hoodoos surrounding the summit contains the evidence that this range doesn't just kill hopeful gold prospectors: the remains of a World War II bomber lie scattered across the face of the mountain and a few of the hoodoos are charred black by burning fuel from a small plane crash just a few months ago. Finally upon reaching the summit a closer inspection of the "flag" reveals that someone has managed to attach a t-shirt a dozen feet up on the stalk of a lone century plant growing right on the edge of the summit.

Both the twisty gravel road along the reservoirs whose terminus I had found on the way into the Phoenix area and the 80 mile detour converge on Apache Junction. It's a new day and it's time to investigate the road less travelled, this particular one being known as the Apache Trail. The western end of the road is paved for a few miles as it leaves Apache Junction, eventually turning to gravel just past a place marked on the map as Tortilla Flat. Supposedly this place acquired its name from a crew of ranchers him the late 1800's who had forgotten to pick up supplies in town and only had flour to make tortillas to eat. There has been a small outpost of civilization here since at least the early 1900's when the reservoirs higher up in the mountains were being built: the former herd path was being developed into a road to haul construction supplies by a crew of Apaches and a depot was needed along the route. When the dams were completed the surrounding land was turned into a national forest to protect the reservoirs but Tortilla Flat remained behind, a small strip of wooden buildings that could easily be mistaken for something in a western movie if it weren't for the line of cars parked out front.

The road itself winds along a series of ridges, canyons, reservoirs, and dams before finally terminating in spectacular fashion by winding up the wall of the canyon just below the Theodore Roosevelt Dam and spilling out across the arch bridge spanning the 2 sides of the reservoir. After the dam's completion this became one of the early tourist roads in the country with one steep section winding section where drivers in early cars would challenge each other to achieve the fastest time up Fish Creek Hill before the advent of speed limits. In fact speed limits were originally put on this road to protect its other users (horses and mules) from the high speed automobiles. Today the road is heavily trafficked (at least by the standards of 22 mile long dirt roads) by visitors heading out to the marinas on the reservoirs spread out along its length.

The valleys that are now flooded by the reservoirs as well as the ridges around them were once inhabited by natives of what is now known as the Salado. The floors of the valleys were laced with irrigation systems to keep crops watered during the heat of summer while dwellings were built high up on the cliffs for protection, similar to but a bit more rudimentary than the more widely known cliff dwellings built by the Anasazi further to the north. Sheltered from weather by overhanging cliffs the structures have stood through the centuries remarkably well until they were rediscovered and subjected to tourism in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Many of the walls have disintegrated over the past century and are now propped up with steel beams bolted into the rock and have been supplemented with additional mortar to stabilize the stone.

Revisiting one dirt road for the day was not enough however, after consulting the map I discovered that the road I started up in order to catch the sunset continues all the way up the mountains to a number of old mines and then down the back of the ridge towards Phoenix. Like much of the west this area is open range and cattle can be found wandering around, one must be careful on blind corners and hills to avoid running headlong into a herd milling about in the road. Another reminder of the precarious nature of these roads came in the form of a wayward Jeep off the side of the road. The driver was descending the road and slipped around the corner, dropping a wheel over the steep edge. Once one wheel was over all of the driver's efforts to get back up on the roadway only served to draw him deeper down into the gully (fortunately right-side up). Without a winch on the Jeep a many-hour wait for wrecker was the only solution. According to the Forest Service ranger watching over the proceedings this is a regular occurrence on this particular corner and the wrecker operator tending to the Jeep confirmed that there were probably enough parts scattered across the bottom of the gully to construct an entirely new vehicle.

With the recovery operation taking up the width of the road and no way around there wasn't anything better to do than stay and watch. Due to the delay the sun was almost down by the time I got to where the road tops out along a ridge just below the Four Peaks which are often snow-capped (as they were this time of year) and also often visible from Phoenix. The tallest of the four, Browns Peak, is normally accessible by a hiking trail that leaves from the ridge but the main gully that accesses the summit is full of snow this time of year and would require mountaineering gear. The other 3 are only accessible by a brutal 10 mile bushwhack along the summit ridge, also probably nearly impossible in snow. With the sun going down the crest of the windswept ridge made a convenient spot to camp, the sunset and lights of Phoenix visible off to one side and the darkness of the reservoirs and mountain ranges off to the other.Superstition Moonrise - galleryFuzzy - galleryDesert Bloom - galleryLunch Spot - galleryFlatiron 360 - gallerySiphon Draw Trail - galleryCactus Flower - galleryCactus Flower - galleryThe Flatiron - gallerySuperstitions - galleryTortilla Flat - galleryFish Creek Hill - galleryDesert Bloom - galleryDesert Blooms - galleryDesert Blooms - galleryRoosevelt Dam - galleryRoosevelt Dam - galleryRoosevelt Lake Bridge - gallerySalado Cliff Dwellings - galleryCattle - galleryEl Oso Road - galleryFour Peaks - galleryDesert Sunset - gallery