Drought, Fire & Floods in Famed Desert Mountains
Nano warned me to stay out of the Superstition Mountains.
As we traveled along Highway 60 towards Miami, she pointed out the red-walled mountains along our route. Having lived 50 years in this small Arizona mining burg, my grandmother was well-informed on local legends.
“They say 100 men have died there,” Nano intoned. “Some were killed by renegade Indians or poisoned by alkaline springs. Some just disappeared and never returned.”
I could hardly wait to visit.
Now 50 years and multiple visits later, I realized I could be the very next victim of the Superstitions. We had just committed the ultimate desert hiking blunder: arriving at camp short of water, assuming a spring would be running. It wasn’t.
In a very dry winter 2016, we had arrived late afternoon at Angel Basin, a favored campsite on many blogs/websites four miles down Rogers Canyon from the Rogers Trough Trailhead and about 30 miles into our loop trip through the Superstition Wilderness.
Using GPS, David led us on a brushy hike up Angel Canyon to locate the spring. Dry! I ranged up Rogers Canyon half a mile in the dimming light of a December evening while David went downstream. Many campsites but not a single pool. We met at our dropped packs. We agreed to dry camp and head down canyon the next morning in hopes that one of the springs shown on map had water. Between us, we had about 1.5 liters of water.
Water—usually too much—has set the tone for most of our 14 backpacking trips in the arid desert Superstition Wilderness; most occurred in December in the winter rain season.
Our first visit in 1978 was part of a Christmas trip to the Southwest to see my family and escape Oregon rain—or so we thought.
We hiked sandy washes below rock pinnacles under bluebird skies and warm sun; enjoyed trails designed for stock that wound over passes; passed Garden Valley, Music Mountain, La Barge Box and Red Tanks; and saw just one group. The only negatives: spaghetti cow trails in Boulder Canyon and cow pies near Charlebois Spring.
Then winter rain hit. We fled rising water in La Barge Wash over Peter’s Mesa, skirted a raging torrent in Tortilla Wash, and hiked a jeep road and State Route 88 back to our vehicle.
In December 1992, (in the Superstitions after another family visit), we awoke in Boulder Canyon with sleeping bags bloated from water seeping in the tent floor. We hiked out in driving rain past side canyon waterfalls and dried out bags at a laundromat.
No water in December was just not on my radar for the Superstitions.
Superstition Wilderness is a winter favorite that we have visited 14 times for backpack trips since 1978; it’s a large wilderness with about 180 miles of trail. Although this low elevation wilderness (2000 feet to 6,265 feet) is best visited in winter or early spring and can be very dry, most of our trips have been wet. Many were in December; before the year 2000, this month was almost always rainy. March is the latest spring month we have visited.
This post covers three visits. Our maps always order from latest visit backward but narrative for this post begins with a 2016 westside loop, the only time we encountered dry conditions, then a disastrous 2017 trail jog on Peralta Trail. The rest of visit narrative covers eastside “recon” trips in December 2019 and March 2020 after the 124,000-acre Woodbury Fire.
Woodbury Fire in 2019 was the most dramatic of changes observed over 40 years: although the black had washed off, eroded trails and muddy high-water creeks were issues of postfire trips. In past years, we saw cattle eventually replaced by crowds where trails were good. The large Woodbury Fire may be indirect result of climate change and vegetation changes due to past grazing.
Postfire backpacking presents new challenges since fire burned all but the far westside of the wilderness. Damaged trails, high waters and poor information on road closures impeded our most recent eastside visit and attempts to view Reavis Falls during unprecedented high flow. It was even harder to gather information since many offices were closed due to COVID19 restrictions at the time of this hike. Many hiking guides and posts have been written on this area, but should be updated to be useful.
March 2020 eastside visit included a partial loop from Tule Trailhead taking a wash to Campaign Creek and up via Reavis Gap (Campaign Creek high water nixed plan to hike entire creek trail), an overnight out-and-back on Reavis Trail to the Reavis Falls route, and return on Arizona and Tule Trails. A second attempt to visit the falls from Reavis Trailhead was thwarted due to road closure and trail damage; we got to Reavis Creek but did not see the falls!
December 2019 eastside visit was mostly in unburned area from Haunted Canyon except for our day hike up West Pinto Creek—wide, muddy and unusable for drinking—and Campaign Creek trail contouring up a ridge from Oak Flat, which was mildly eroded but encroached by re-sprouting acacia.
December 2016 westside visit before the fire covered much territory from our many previous hikes and went from dry to cold wet conditions after a big storm moved in near end of trip.
Visit statistics for three recent trips: 20 days, 176 miles at 1.9 miles per hour with 425 feet average elevation change per mile.
Go to map below for more more detailed information for each trip on trailheads, daily routes, mileages, elevation changes and photos. (Click on white box in upper right corner to expand map and show legend with NAVIGATION INSTRUCTIONS.)
Unique wilderness full of legendsThe Superstition Mountain lands were designated Primitive Area in 1937 and wilderness in 1964. They encompass 160,000 acres of Sonoran Desert, riparian canyons, oak-juniper woodlands, high-elevation pine, and interesting rock formations from volcanic processes.
Used lightly by early cliff dwellers and Apaches, the Superstitions attracted miners in the 19th and 20th centuries, then cattle ranchers selling beef to miners. Reavis Ranch had a vegetable garden and orchard. (Reavis’ gravesite is on the Arizona Trail [AZT] north of Rogers Trough Trailhead.) Springs and trails bear names of other stockmen. The popular Dutchman Trail was inspired by a German (“Dutch”) immigrant who claimed to have found gold. The “Lost Dutchman’s Mine” search has inspired many books and maps.
With elevations from 2000 to 5000 feet, the Superstitions often boast high temperatures and dry conditions and are best visited in winter or spring for cool weather and adequate water.
Superstition changes over the decadesWe often visited the area for Christmas break over the years and saw many changes: few people in the 1970s; in the 1980s, vandalism threatened parking at remote trailheads. Cattle numbers were reduced, but the vast trails network became less pleasant as thorny desert scrub encroached lesser-used areas, maybe because of reduced grazing after heavy use for many years. In the late 1990s the area became a favorite day or weekend visit for users from Peralta and First Water trailheads near Mesa. Stock (horse) overuse reduced some trails into rocky rubble; campers, not cattle, trashed areas near springs. The overwhelmed Tonto National Forest had difficulty maintaining trails in the 1990s and early 2000s, although recently has made progress with adopt-a-trail groups and Arizona Trail (AZT) volunteers.
We lived on the East Coast many years and were not aware of impacts of climate change in the West—and an overall drought in Arizona. Our post-millennial Superstitions hikes—facilitated by air travel from Washington DC and rental cars in Phoenix—happened to hit the area after unusual fall rains.
In 2008, family dropped us off at Tortilla Ranch and we hiked as far as Rogers Canyon—where we turned back because it was full of water and impossible to hike.
In 2013, a dry year in the Southwest was suddenly changed by heavy rains and snow in November—on our visit to the Superstitions found we deep pools in Red Tanks, usually dry, above La Barge Canyon.
2016: Dry Night in Angel BasinAfter our vain search for water up bone dry Rogers Canyon (which was under two feet of water in 2008!) we set up the tent. We each ate a power bar, took a swig of water, and went to bed. Next morning, we got up at daylight, breakfasting on power bars and sips of water. Map showed five springs enroute to Reavis Ranch where Reavis Creek usually was running, but we were not sure of anything.
David kept dropping off trail into the wash, looking for potholes. He found one which we drained to pump a liter of water.
Two miles down canyon, David spotted a pool or mirage from the trail; after a brief trek back up the wash from trail crossing, we found a beautiful deep-water hole appropriately named “Hole Spring.” Our brush with mortality was over! I enjoyed cooked breakfast and bath.
All the other springs were dry on the climb up to Reavis Saddle—Frog Tank, Cimarron, Plow Saddle, Willow—although we did not look for pools. We found pools on Reavis Creek and camped among large juniper, live oak, sycamore and maybe Arizona Cypress.
That night a storm moved in.
A little rain changed everything. We broke camp in rain, hiked along Reavis Valley in rain gear with periodic showers, then a cold cloudy afternoon hiking over divide, down to Rogers Canyon junction and up to Rogers Trough trailhead. We met weekend backpackers heading up to Reavis. We hiked up the Pinto Creek trail to Rogers Trough on a breezy sunny hillside to set up camp and dry out. The trough was dry but a cut pipe from the spring was running above it.
Clouds indicated more rain for the evening. David securely staked the tent and we dug trenches around it. I hiked to West Pinto Divide and hurried down as thick clouds rolled in.
The storm almost let us finish dinner before it arrived in a fury with high winds, driving rain, and thunder and lightning. Around midnight David had to don rain gear to “rescue” our backpacks, tossed around by gale. My boots, tucked under the fly, were soaked in driving rain. I wondered about the campers at Reavis, 1400 feet higher.
The rest of the trip was cold and windy; but we found every spring with ample pools; only the washes were dry. David filled up at every waterhole—just in case.
2017: Slick rock disaster on popular PeraltaWe rarely used the popular trailheads but made an exception in March 2017—to my downfall. I was jogging down Peralta Trail from Fremont Saddle. I slowed to turn on a switchback and braced my foot against a rock. Slick and polished from thousands of boots, the rock was like black ice. I fell and broke my arm. Will probably never return to that popular trailhead!
2019 & 2020: Fire and floods in badly burned wildernessOur most recent visits in 2019 and 2020 toured a landscape suddenly marred by the area’s first megafire. But water—unseasonal rains—still may have been the culprit.
Started in late June 2019 by human ignition on the south wilderness boundary, the Woodbury Fire burned 96,000 acres, all of the wilderness except the popular westside trails near Mesa. (Although that area burned in the Sawtooth and Superstition fires of summer 2020).
Heavy rains in October 2018 and January-February 2019 created a bright, mostly non-native, grass carpet in range country. Red brome (possibly planted for earlier cattle use) dried out in late spring and carried the wildfire to the crest of the mountains, burning most of the pinyon juniper and pine. Then a late September storm brought extensive floods and washed-out SR 88 between Tortilla Flat and Lake Roosevelt. (Most is still closed as of 2022.)
We did a brief visit to east side of Superstitions in December 2019 to “check out” the burn area, hiking the unburned Haunted Canyon and then into the fire zone on sandy shallow West Pinto Creek (formerly a cool shady rocky stream) and a couple miles up the Campaign Trail, in fair shape but eroding and rapidly encroached by thorny vegetation.
Our last and longer visit to eastside Superstitions in March 2020 was nice weather but soggy hiking. We were discouraged by multiple crossings of high, muddy Campaign Creek. A tantalizing green meadow high on the hillside above the creek was non-native invasive wild oats, a common sight throughout our trip.
When the canyon narrowed and crossings deepened, we abandoned our plans to loop via this trail and Fire Line to Reavis Ranch. Instead, we hiked up Reavis Gap Trail and caught the AZT—a boggy track over a ridge and down to the ranch site. But we did not get to camp in the beautiful green pasture under the oaks—Reavis Creek was running high and fast, and we hesitated to cross it in the dark. Instead, we camped in remnant oak on mucky clay.
The next day we crossed lowered creek. I wanted to visit Reavis Falls (downstream from the ranch, reached by a steep route off the Reavis Trail [an old road]). With the high water it had to be stupendous. However, the burned road with numerous washouts was so slow-going, we had to turn back right where the falls route took off—to get back to camp before dark.
We finished our loop (down AZT and side trail back to our vehicle). But I wanted to see Reavis Falls. We agreed to hike in from beginning of Reavis Trail on the Apache Trail (SR 88). We were told that the road was open to the Reavis turnoff. It wasn’t. We parked at road closure and followed GPS up a steep wash to Reavis Trailhead, cutting off 5+ extra road miles. But it took an hour and the road through burn was slow in places, as was the steep 3-mile route to the falls. We got to Reavis Creek—still almost a mile short of the falls and with just enough daylight left to get back to Lime Mountain where we left our packs for camp.
The creek was running high. David thinks we would not have made it up the steep narrow canyon to see the falls—unless we did a lot of wading.
(Click upper right box above map to “view larger map” to see legend including NAVIGATION INSTRUCTIONS; expand/contract legend by clicking right arrow down/up)