Anniversary Narrows (Lake Mead National Recreation Area, NV)

Anniversary Narrows, Muddy Mountains Wilderness, February 2023

Anniversary Narrows is Nevada’s best answer to the challenge laid down by neighboring Utah: give us your best, most picturesque slot canyon. Better yet, extend the slot for more than 1/3 mile, place the trailhead less than an hour’s drive from the state’s largest metropolis (Las Vegas), and offer options for different approach routes for some variety. Up to the challenge? Sure enough, the beautifully-twisting Anniversary Narrows—highly textured and gleaming with color—more than fits the bill. The slot is an approximately 2.5-mile walk from Lakeshore Road in the northern half of Lake Mead National Recreation Area, park typically better-known for its boating than hiking. The hike passes out of the park, skirting an active mine, and enters Muddy Mountain Wilderness, itself a scenic but relatively sparsely-visited, 48,000-acre tract of wildlands. The approach features colorful cliffs and open vistas, but it is all about the destination on this hike: a rewarding, 1/3-mile narrows that thins to as small as 4-5 feet. (Note: This hike is sometimes called Lovell Wash, named for the drainage in which the narrows sit.)

Map of Anniversary Narrows, Lake Mead National Recreation Area and Muddy Wilderness Recreation Area; created using

The hike

The area north of Lake Mead is perhaps known best for two things: its vibrant, colorful valleys and canyons…and borax mining. The latter has seemingly posed an access problem in the past, as the route to Anniversary Narrows cuts through a thin section of private property. As of early 2023, however, this did not appear to be an issue, with no visible signage or fencing hindering movement from the trailhead to the narrows.

Although the narrows are outside the park, the Anniversary Narrows Trailhead is situated well within the boundaries of Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The main trailhead is less than an hour’s drive from Las Vegas and is situated just off Northshore Road (Route 167), about 12.7 miles east of the junction with E. Lake Mead Road (location here). Look for a brown sign marked “Calville Wash North,” on the north side of the road, just as the highway crosses over the namesake drainage. Follow the wide track as it turns to dirt, and park in the small lot just above the banks of the (usually) dry wash.

Now, for the adventurous off-road type, there is an option to cut off much of the hike by continuing on the 4×4 track down into the wash and up and out the other side. In fact, one could, in theory, follow the rugged Anniversary Mine Road for nearly two miles, right to the descent into Lovell Wash. But this is really only an option for jeep owners; as attractive as shaving off all but two miles of the nearly six-mile hike may sound, you don’t want to be that guy who gets stuck. Tows are expensive, and cell service is fleeting to nonexistent in this part of the desert. Fortunately, there is a deterrent right at the start to help you make the choice: just past the parking lot along Calville Wash, the sandy track drops precipitously at such an incline that it wards away most without four-wheel drive from trying their luck. Most of you will probably feel the same: as a consolation, the approach route isn’t so bad as a walk, and the extended loop offers the option of taking an alternative route (via Lovell Wash) on the way back (considerably more scenic than Anniversary Mine Road anyway).

And so, after parking at the 2WD lot and packing your daypack, prepare yourself for nearly six miles of relatively easy—though almost entirely sun-exposed—hiking. (Note: Like most hikes in the Las Vegas, doing this hike in summer is not at all recommended.) Begin by descending the road down to the wash bottom, at this point quite wide. The narrows are situated in nearby Lovell Wash, not this one, and there is not much to write home about Calville Wash.

Your time in the wash, however, will be short: after treading up the drainage (northeast) for 1/10 mile, head left on the rocky track heading left (northwest). Though unmarked, this is Anniversary Mine Road, the primary access route to the narrows and vicinity.

Minor drainage along the Anniversary Mine Road

Follow the road as it traces a sandy tributary, which courses through shallow hills. Cross the wash at 3/10 mile, then climb up and out into the open, now along a partly-asphalted track with views to the Muddy Mountains. The base layer here is the Lovell Wash Member, mostly a mix of orange- or chalk-colored limestone and sandstone, but there are streaks in the area of other types, including basalt, volcanic tuff, and plutonic rock. The Gale Hills give way to the higher Muddy Mountains, with the highest peaks out of view to the north.

Looking ahead to the Muddy Mountains

From here Anniversary Mine Road descends mildly to cross the wash again at ¾ mile. Stay right at the wash, then cut left on the better-asphalted track that mounts the bank. Ascending a modest ridgeline, the route comes to a sign for the Ore Car Mine: perhaps surprisingly, rock collecting is allowed—even encouraged—in this area, as long as it is not at commercial scale.

There is a junction here, and hikers should stay left; although this track appears less well-established, it is undoubtedly the shorter option. The ridgeline here offers views westward to Lovell Wash, notable for its multi-colored hues and streaks of basalt. Stay on the northwesterly course to another unmarked junction at 1.5 miles; stay left and begin a descent into Lovell Wash. Drop about 50-75 feet in elevation, coming to a point where the gravel road crosses the wash. (Note: This is roughly where visitors with four-wheel-drive vehicles can park to begin the hike.) By now, you have travelled around 1.8 miles.

Heading up Lovell Wash

From here, the scenery improves considerably. Bearing right, the drainage cuts through a narrower section with cream, peach, and orange-colored walls. The sides of the canyon exhibit considerable uplift, while chalky, striated terraces protrude at one point through the sandy wash bottom.

Protruding slickrock in Lovell Wash

With the walls rising more than a hundred feet high, the canyon rounds a sharp, left-hand bend, with a small, human-made hole ahead—a clear old ore tunnel. Here the pastel colors are on full display, with streaks of gold becoming more prominent.

Rounding a corner with an old borax mine tunnel
Another colorful bend

Round the bend and enter another, this one treading right, below a beautifully-streaked wall with a sharp peak. Now bending northeast, the canyon suddenly straightens out: more than a quarter-mile ahead, in the distance, the wide watercourse appears to narrow suddenly, with the onward route not entirely clear from this vantage point. This is Anniversary Narrows ahead.

Approaching the narrows of Lovell Wash

Follow the wash, staying straight as an arrow, for ¼ mile, looking back at the rainbow colors of the north-facing wall. Soon the route comes to Anniversary Narrows, where the drainage thins suddenly and beautifully into a stunning, striated passage.

Entering Anniversary Narrows

After an initial twist, the route through the narrows comes to a set of a potholes and a picturesque bowl, a particularly scenic feature and perhaps the most iconic spot in Anniversary Narrows. This feels like the elaborate entry, or atrium, to the narrows.

Approaching the bowl-shaped feature

Initially, the canyon walls are narrow but still more than eight feet apart, but soon the drainage thins to a true slot—hikers can touch both sides with outstretched arms. The twisting walls grow higher, with centuries upon centuries of erosion cutting a passageway through the pancaked sandstone.

Looking back down the twisting passage
Continuing through the initial narrows

After several minutes of easy walking, the onward route comes to a large boulder choke, which is relatively easily surmounted. From here the canyon briefly looks like it will open up, but it quickly thins again to a slot, this one harboring a minor, 4-foot obstacle. A steel pipe, perhaps intentionally left here for assistance, helps hikers mount the minor dryfall.

Approaching a boulder jam (can be bypassed on left, or straight on)
Colorful slot

The narrows continue beyond, with the walls seemingly split into two sections: a lower, narrow slot, and a wider top, separated by a bulky shelf. Thereafter the narrows resemble more of a “V,” thin at the bottom but a wider aperture above. Here there a couple more 2- to 3-foot obstacles, easily surmounted.

Peach-colored narrows
A particularly colorful section

At points, the sinuous slot gleams a bright orange or peach, with streaks and crossbedding that add texture to the canyon walls. At last, after about 1/3 mile in the narrows, the canyon finally opens up again. Lovell Wash continues upstream into the Muddy Mountains, but the slot section ends here. This makes for a sensible turnaround point. (Note: Some will choose to venture on, summiting one or two of the nearby peaks, a much more challenging hike with no official trail.)

Nearing the end of the narrows
A final look at the narrows

Once ready, head back through the narrows of Lovell Wash, admiring arguably Nevada’s best non-technical slot. Make your way back across the straightaway and around the colorful bend with the mine tunnels dating to the 1920s, returning to the spot where Anniversary Mine Road comes down to meet the wash bottom. One can head back up the road to return to the trailhead, but a more scenic alternative that fashions a small loop is to stay in Lovell Wash, following it back to Northshore Road.

This route takes hikers downstream through an area that is only mildly scenic at first but soon entertains with a multitude of colors, including one section where the clay turns a greenish, almost turquoise, hue. Farther down, the wash edges an outcrop of reddish Aztec Sandstone and passes one short section where iron oxides and chloride have produced deep pink and gold colors.

Pastel colors in Lovell Wash
Near the end of the Lovell Wash walk

It is a roughly 1.6-mile walk from Anniversary Mine Road to Northshore Road via Lovell Wash. Climb up to the road, and carefully follow the left shoulder for about ¼ mile to return to the parking area at Calville Wash. This ends a 5.8-mile stem-and-loop hike, one of the most dazzling day hikes in the Lake Mead and Las Vegas area.

Posted in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Moderate Hikes, Nevada | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Goldstrike Canyon Trail (Lake Mead National Recreation Area, NV)

Goldstrike Canyon Hot Springs, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, February 2023

Most visitors flock to Lake Mead National Recreation Area—straddling the ArizonaNevada border, a short drive from Las Vegas—for water-related activities on the United States’ largest reservoir by volume. However, adventure-seekers of the land-bound sort are also treated to a fair amount of challenging and rewarding hikes, especially in the Black Canyon area between Lake Mead and the smaller Lake Mohave. This rugged landscape south of Hoover Dam was carved by the Colorado River and its many tributaries, some of which harbor surprising secrets, including waterfalls, narrow slots, and natural hot springs, best visited in the winter/spring months.

One excellent hike, highlighted in a previous post, is the difficult, 5.75-mile White Rock Canyon – Arizona Hot Spring Canyon Trail Loop. Another, just across the Colorado on the Nevada side, is Goldstrike Canyon, which has become quite a popular destination due to its proximity to Las Vegas and numerous, well-kept hot spring pools. The 5.2-mile out-and-back trek passes through scenic narrows and through several boulder chokes, passing at least four distinct soak pools before ending at a landing along the chilly Colorado River. Despite its popularity, this is not an easy hike: ropes are installed throughout the hike to help visitors negotiate the canyon’s many drops and pouroffs, but the hike requires extensive scrambling, some modest climbing skills, and likely some teamwork to complete. (Note: The trail is closed May 15-September 30 each year due to extreme heat, and the route should not be tried when it is raining due to flash flood threats. The hot springs are open for soaking, but avoid putting your head under due to the risk of Naegleria fowleri, or “brain-eating amoeba.”)

Map of the Goldstrike Canyon Trail, Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Note that the number of rope assists is off a bit (I counted nine, not seven) – see below for more.

The hike

Goldstrike Canyon is one of many branches of the main Black Canyon and is located on the Nevada side of Lake Mead National Recreation Area, between the park’s main Visitor Center and the famed Hoover Fam. Take the exit for Goldstrike Canyon Road off of Interstate 11/U.S. Route 93, passing through a roundabout and parking in a marked parking lot off to the right. As with all popular hikes in the Las Vegas area, getting here early or hiking on a weekday is a must to avoid overcrowding; the parking lot frequently fills by mid-morning on busy weekends.

Not so long ago, one used to be able to drive partway down the canyon – but this is not the case anymore. Instead, after parking, walk partway back up Goldstrike Canyon Road, toward the interstate, and quickly turn right at the signed trailhead, where there is a large information sign with a map and information about the strenuous hike ahead. (Note: The total distance is listed here as 2.6 miles one-way. Many GPS systems are likely to say it is a lot more—and it will feel like a lot more—but note that this is largely because most location services are unable to reliably track you once you’re deep in the narrow canyon. The lack of an accurate reading leads to pinging back and forth that adds considerably to the listed mileage on your GPS even if you have barely moved at all. Also: one drawback of the map at the kiosk is that the number of rope assists is not quite correct—the map shows seven, but we easily counted nine on the total journey. Not all of the ropes are required, as will be noted below, but don’t necessarily peg your distance to the seven ropes noted at the trailhead.)

From the Goldstrike Canyon Trailhead, head eastward down the drainage, which begins as a wide and sandy wash. A massive retaining wall dominates the slope to the left, with the whizz of vehicles audible from the interstate above. Like much of the hike, there is little shade in this portion, but the walking starts out easy and obstacle-free—lulling hikers into a false sense of security that will be rudely interrupted within an hour’s time down-canyon.

Make your way down into the wash, then continue straight as the canyon starts to take form. Unlike most narrow gorges in southern Utah, the rock layers in this portion of the Lake Mead area are primarily volcanic, including pluton, dacite, and volcanic tuff.

After about 3/10 mile of walking, hikers reach a constructed barrier that used to mark the old trailhead, back when vehicles were allowed partway down the wash. Continue down the narrowing wash, rounding a left-hand bend and coming into view of an impressively high overpass. Just as the wash approaches the highway bridge, it darts right, thinning further and entering thicker brush.

Approaching the overpass in Goldstrike Canyon

Boulders begin to accumulate at a higher frequency thereafter, although at this stage, a half-mile into the hike, there are no serious obstacles. After twisting and turning for another quarter mile, the canyon veers nearly due south, toward an impressive wall of black-and-white speckled plutonic rock. As you get closer, a bit of fiery red begins to appear, and the canyon veers eastward again, toward the Colorado.

Heading down Goldstrike Canyon at around the 3/4 mile point

Now having travelled more than a mile, Goldstrike Canyon thins further, and the wash rounds a set of sinuous bends with beautiful views of multihued walls. Catclaw acacias also begin to dot the wash.

The first narrows section in Goldstrike Canyon
Pretty narrows in the middle portion of Goldstrike Canyon

After routing through an initial set of narrows, there is a split in the drainage, with a minor side canyon heading up to the right. Stay left, then come to the first significant obstacle of the hike: the once-gentle canyon suddenly drops a level, down a precipitous pouroff that is not easily downclimbed. Instead of taking it head on, take a marked detour off to the left, scrambling up and over a steep but negotiable flank, then return to the wash bottom below the dryfall. (Note: Unfortunately, the boulder jam here is partly graffitied, a problem that gets worse as the canyon continues.)

Beyond the pouroff and boulder choke, hikers encounter a second set of narrows, this one more impressive than the first. Wayfaring continues to be relatively straightforward, and the narrows open up briefly to a spot with a little natural arch visible up to the left. The narrows return thereafter, and there is a view ahead to a much more open area with a set of distant power lines.

Thin narrows in Goldstrike Canyon
Streaked walls of the narrows
Narrows in Goldstrike Canyon

This is where, all of a sudden, hikers are greeted by Rope #1, the first of several assisted downclimbs that are required to reach the hot springs and the river. Time for the fun part. Were it not for the large and immensely-helpful steps carved into the rock face, this would be a rather awkward and difficult descent—but with the manmade staircase the downclimb becomes relatively straightforward. Nonetheless, the rope remains handy for balance.

Beyond Rope #1, the canyon opens up considerably, with side drainages coming in from left and right. Pass under the power lines and make your way toward the next narrow section, where one will encounter Rope #2—a newly-installed assist that is curious because it is rather unnecessary. The pouroff itself is quite steep, smooth, and slippery, but there is an obvious and straightforward bypass, where no rope is needed, on the left. Those seeking to test their climbing skills, however, can tackle the rope slide for an additional—if superfluous—challenge.

It is a short walk from here, amid the jumble of fallen rocks, to Rope #3 (Rope #2 on the trailhead map), which—in contrast the second—is quite necessary for negotiating the narrow pouroff. Be sure to keep tension in the rope as you drop down a thin passage to skirt a double chockstone.

This obstacle is soon followed by Rope #4 (Rope #3 on the trailhead map), a shorter, 7- to 8-foot drop between two boulder faces. From here there are signs of human construction, with a couple obvious retaining walls a couple feet high. Rope #5 is not far beyond but is also not necessary and can be bypassed on the left.

Occasional arrows advise hikers to take the path of least resistance

Just below, there is a seep that produces hot water, not enough to form a pool, but the trickling water and mild smell of Sulphur leads visitors down to the first of four hot springs pools—Upper Goldstrike Hot Springs, to be precise. This set of pools is tucked away amid the boulders on the right, with the most visible basin very shallow, but the depth (and heat) grows as one wanders farther in behind the blocky boulders. If you have to skip one of the hot springs, however, this is it—more impressive pools lie beyond. Yet if you are concerned about time or weariness, this is a worthy turnaround point for a roughly 4.2-mile out-and-back hike.

Continuing downstream, a pleasant flat section quickly gives way to another mass boulder choke. There is a short but very helpful rope here at one point—Rope #6—after which hikers engage in a “choose your own adventure” of sorts, with multiple options for tackling the various boulder jams. Rope #7 is also not needed and easily skirted on the right, but Rope #8 is useful and notable for paralleling a trickle of falling water that squeezes under the chockstones on the right. Here there is also a very small pool, with the water disappearing under the rock beyond.

Descending Rope #8

Finally, Rope #9 also skirts a moist section, making the descent trickier due to the presence of slippery boulders at the base of the rope assist. This is arguably the most challenging of all the downclimbs—and probably also the hardest to ascend—due to the greasy base and awkwardly chunky rock that forms the bulk of the drop.

The challenging Rope #9

At last, the ropes section is done (until the return journey, of course), and hikers are rewarded with a look at the second hot springs on the right—this one rather small as well but fed by a pretty waterfall of around three to four feet. This (together with springs 3 and 4) is sometimes called Nevada Hot Springs and is usually reinforced with sandbags.

Second hot springs pool

From now on, flowing water is a fixture of the hike, and travellers seeking to save their dry boots for the return ascent may consider switching to water shoes or trying to avoid getting their boots wet. The stream can generally be bypassed on the left as the canyon opens up slightly and hikers pass the third hot springs pool. This is also a nice spot and the deepest pool encountered thus far.

Third hot springs pool
Descending toward the final hot springs
Colorado River within sight!

But the highlight of the hike is the fourth and final hot springs, by far the largest and most scenic, situated below a mossy channel and just above the Colorado River. The hot springs are fed by a gently-cascading waterfall and are more or less separated into four sections: a large entry pool that is lukewarm at best, a warmer secondary pool off to the left, a very small (and cool) pool at the base of the falls, and a final inset that is the warmest and nicest of the bunch. Here you can submerge much of your body as you sit comfortably on a rock below the surface, enjoying the balmy temperatures of the natural springs. (Note: This arrangement may be different after storms that flood the area, so be sure to check the latest conditions and be open to changes that may occur after February 2023, when I visited.)

Final hot springs from above
The best of Goldstrike Canyon Hot Springs

At this point, hikers can either choose to enjoy the hot springs (hope you brought your swimsuit!) or continue down to the end of the hike at the banks of the Colorado River. The river is a short walk of about 1/10 mile, although the flowing hot water can make some of the descents slippery. At last, the warm water of Goldstrike Canyon meets the chilly Colorado in Black Canyon just south of the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge. The Hoover Dam, itself a major tourist attraction, is situated beyond the bridge but just out of view from this spot. Across the river lies the eastern flank of Black Canyon and the state of Arizona.

The O’Callaghan/Tillman Bridge upstream
Downstream view at the Colorado River

Although the Colorado River is only 2.6 miles from the trailhead, the numerous fixed ropes and constant negotiation of boulder jams means it will likely take most hikers around 1.5-2 hours to reach this point.

If you haven’t already taken a dip, backtrack to the fourth and best hot springs pool to soak in the warm waters for a bit. Then prepare for the challenging return journey—which can also take a similar amount of time. It is considerably more difficult to climb up the fixed rope assists, and some teamwork may be necessary, especially for Rope #9 and perhaps #8, #4, and #3. Take it slow and steady, and methodically make your way back up the ropes and through the various boulder jams to return to the opening at 1.5 miles and, at last, the return of the easy section just beyond.

Bighorn sheep along the way back

Admire the narrows on the way back, and keep an eye out for wildlife: bighorn sheep are known to frequent the canyon, among others. After 5.2 miles, the hike ends back where it started—at the parking lot at the head of Goldstrike Canyon. All told, this feels like a much-of-the-day hike and is rated as strenuous. However, the hot springs and canyon narrows—in addition to the enduring allure of the Colorado River—make this a memorable hike, one of the most beloved in the Las Vegas area.

Posted in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada, Strenuous Hikes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Saratoga Gap – Ridge Trail Loop, including Castle Rock Falls (Castle Rock State Park, CA)

Saratoga Gap Trail, Castle Rock State Park, February 2023

Situated in the Santa Cruz Mountains just south of Silicon Valley in the South Bay, Castle Rock State Park is known primarily for its rock climbing—but the 34 miles of hiking trails are worthwhile as well. To avoid the tech bro crowd, visit on a weekday when the vibe is much more subdued, with quiet walks through forests of oak, bay, pine, and madrone; along high ridgelines and narrow creeks; and atop manzanita-lined ridgelines with views as far as Monterey Bay and the Santa Lucia Range. There are several 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-hour loop options; the below describes a 2-hour version that combines the Saratoga Gap, Interconnector, and Ridge Trails into a 3-mile jaunt that includes a waterfall, chunky Goat Rock, and terrific ridgetop vistas.

Map of Saratoga Gap – Ridge Trail Loop, Castle Rock State Park; created using

The hike

Castle Rock State Park spans more than 5,000 acres of mostly-wooded terrain in the upper San Lorenzo River watershed of the Santa Cruz Mountains, about a 20-minute drive from Saratoga, a suburb of San Jose, California. There are several trailheads, and many will start at the Main Entrance off Skyline Boulevard, but yours truly started from the Overflow Lot just south of the main parking area. On weekends, the latter might be the only option for latecomers; on weekdays, the lot is often closed, but there is (free) parking along the shoulder of Skyline Blvd (Route 35) (see map here).

From the overflow lot, there are at least three separate trails fanning out into the woods. Take the path in the center, next to the large trail map kiosk, which offers information on various hikes of all difficulties. The first stretch of the Saratoga Gap Trail follows a very minor ravine, reaching barely more than a trickle even in the wet season. Off to the right is a 25-foot behemoth known to climbers as “Cave Boulder”—aptly named given its many deep cavities. This is the first of many sandstone outcrops that hikers will encounter on the stem-and-loop.

Follow the well-treaded trail as it descends the woody gully and crosses two bridges, coming to a junction with the Castle Rock Trail after about 200 yards. Continuing right, the Saratoga Gap Trail sheds more elevation as it hugs the left bank of the streambed. After 1/3 mile, with a bridge on the right, the path splits again, this time as the Waterfall Connector Trail comes in from the right. Stay left—do not cross the bridge—as the initial ravine merges with a larger drainage: this is Kings Creek, a relatively prominent tributary of the San Lorenzo River.

In spring, the creek flows at a pretty good clip, with minor cascades culminating in the much-anticipated Castle Rock Falls. At ½ mile, cross another bridge, then approach another fork: this is the start of the loop portion of the hike. Head left first to reach the falls, continuing on the Saratoga Gap Trail, which takes the low ground (while the right fork begins the Ridge Trail on higher ground).

The Saratoga Gap Trail continues to drop as it keeps Kings Creek on its left, eventually putting a good deal of distance between the singletrack and the streambed. At 6/10-mile, hikers approach Castle Rock Falls from above, with a short spur heading left to a viewing platform. This birds-eye view makes it difficult to view the 70-foot waterfall in full, but the flow in springtime is good, making this one of the most popular destinations in the state park. (Note: There are some social trails leading to the base of the falls, but they are sketchy and unofficial.)

Looking down on Castle Rock Falls

The viewing platform also offers the hike’s first outward views to the skyline beyond, although they are largely obscured by tree cover. Vistas will improve considerably in the next half-mile.

Moss-laden walls along the Saratoga Gap Trail

Beyond the waterfall, the trail continues treading westward, rounding another ravine lined with blocky boulder jumbles. At last, at about 9/10 mile, the tall trees recede, replaced by scrubby chaparral and low manzanitas, allowing for wide vistas to the south and west. On clear days, one can see down across the San Lorenzo watershed to Monterey Bay, with the taller Santa Lucia Range rising beyond. Immediately across the wooded watershed, the ridge in the distance is Ben Lomond Mountain, rising to heights almost as high as Castle Ridge, on which one now stands.

Views into the San Lorenzo watershed from the Saratoga Gap Trail
Distant views to Monterey Bay and the Santa Lucia Range

The dramatic views get better as one continues on, rounding a bend below Goat Rock, with the hillside speckled with sandstone outcrops. The tread gets more challenging as occasionally these sandstone slabs protrude onto the trail, requiring some mild scrambling to surmount.

Looking westward toward Saddleback Ridge

The trail briefly returns to the thick woods again as it rounds to a bridge over another tributary ravine, this one feeding a very small stand of second-growth redwoods known as the Patrick Charles Allen Memorial Grove. Soon, however, the path returns back into the open, with additional views south and west.

Open look into the pine-studded valley

The Saratoga Gap Trail continues onward to the Castle Rock Trail Camp, another mile away, but hikers on this 3-mile loop will want to bear right on the Interconnector Trail at 1.4 miles. This relatively uninteresting track involves a short uphill, ending quickly at the wider and more heavily-trafficked Ridge Trail.

View from Emily Smith Observation Point along the Ridge Trail

Bear right on this track as it weaves through a black oak forest, quickly coming to another fork, where a short spur leads right to another nice viewpoint labeled the Emily Smith Observation Point. Check out the vista, which is arguably not as great as those on the Saratoga Gap Trail below, then return to the main trail and bear right. Soon hikers will pass a clutch of rocks where two touching, moss-laden boulders form a small archway that is worth a look. From here the Ridge Trail rises to a sign marking “Dan Seldow’s Fraggle Rock Grove,” one of many memorials named for local residents.

Archway along the Ridge Trail

Even as the Ridge Trail traverses the ridgetop, northward views are elusive throughout the 3-mile hike, with hikers proceeding right at the next junction at the 2-mile mark, bringing them back on the south side of Castle Ridge. The trail is now a thin singletrack again, skirting the south-facing flank in the direction of Goat Rock.

After a junction at 2.2 miles (with a dead-end trail heading right to another scenic overlook), the trail comes to the edge of Goat Rock, from this side a seemingly mild climb. (Note: It is a relatively easy and short Class 2+ scramble up the rock from this side.)

View of Goat Rock from below

But as the trail continues through a narrow gap and down a set of stairs, the full scale of Goat Rock comes into view: the speckled rock face extends 110 feet from top to bottom, with rock climbers seeking to scale it via upwards of 10 different routes. The rock, while not noticeably shaped like a goat head, is notable for its massive cavities, some of which have worn through the rock completely, creating small windows through to the other side.

Another expansive vista
Open views to the San Lorenzo watershed

The best viewing spot for Goat Rock is a protruding ledge at the junction of two trails, including one that heads right to the base of the rock face. The main trail, however, heads left, continuing downhill through a steeper boulder section that requires careful footing. Once down the natural staircase, the path engages two short ups-and-downs before levelling and approaching the main drainage canyon of Kings Creek.

Shady path back to the start of the loop

Soon the trail winds back to the start of the loop portion at the bridge over Kings Creek. Cross the bridge and bear left as the Saratoga Gap Trail climbs steadily uphill, returning along familiar territory for ½ mile. After passing the initial junctions with the Waterfall Connector and Castle Rock Trails, the track ends back at the Overflow Parking Area.

All told, this 3-mile hike is one of the easier in the park, although hiking boots and preparedness for some minor scrambling are a must.

Posted in California, Moderate Hikes, Santa Cruz Mountains | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Phantom Falls Loop (North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve, CA)

Phantoms View, Phantom Falls Loop, North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve, January 2023

Each year, for a brief period—after recent rains in winter and early spring—the usually dry and dreary landscape of northern California’s North Table Mountain comes alive with color, flowing streams, and stunning seasonal waterfalls. And these are no run-of-the-mill cascades: as the flattops give way to deep, basalt canyons, dozens of waterfalls—Phantom Falls (164’), Beatson Falls (104’), and Ravine Falls (76’) among them—drop steeply off the cliffs, producing a thunderous roar. Spring also brings a bounty of wildflowers, and the towering basalt walls—in some cases marked by columnar jointing—are a sight to behold in themselves.

Situated in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada near the town of Oroville, North Table Mountain Ecological Preserve has a limited official trail system but an extensive network of unofficial footpaths that crisscross the open pastures and hidden canyons. The most popular destination is Phantom Falls, probably the most impressive free-fall in the park, which can be combined with several other terrific waterfalls in the 7-mile Phantom Falls Loop, a moderately strenuous but diverse and highly scenic adventure. Of course, the fun is largely contingent on being here during the right time of year: summer is brutally hot and dry, with most of the streams completely parched by July or August. Plan to come after recent rains and when the hills are a vibrant green—and be prepared for semi-rugged hiking, including unaided stream crossings, rocky traverses, and patches of mud. A map is also essential, as the trails are unmaintained and sometimes disappear completely—especially after the initial foray to Phantom Falls. (Note: I recommend downloading the excellent map from the Chico Hiking Association here.)

Map of Phantom Falls Loop, North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve; created using

The hike

From the town of Oroville in California’s Central Valley, follow the paved but narrow Cherokee Road north, past the Thermalito Diversion Dam, up into the Table Mountain area. Much of North and South Table Mountain are fenced off as private property, but the California Department of Fish and Wildlife protects a 3,300-acre tract known as the North Table Mountain Ecological Preserve. Stay on Cherokee Road for around six miles; as in crests the largely flat mesa, look for a parking lot (with restrooms) off to the left. This is the primary trailhead for hiking in the park and the start/end location for the Phantom Falls Loop.

Even from the parking lot, the views are already stark. Beyond the verdant plateau, one can see across the Central Valley on a clear day to the Coast Range, including the 7,000-foot peak of Snow Mountain (often capped with its namesake fluff). And, of course, the terrain rises off to the east as well, into the northern portion of the mighty Sierra Nevada. In between lies a topography that resembles parts of Ireland or Scotland: rolling pastures, punctuated by streaks of basalt, the predominant igneous rock layer in the area.

Trailhead to Phantom Falls (1.9 mi.)

The route to Phantom Falls (following the Chico Hiking Association map) takes off westward from the parking area, setting out across a relatively level plateau. At first, the path is wide and well-worn, quickly traversing a seasonal stream. But the route soon begins to fade, generally heading northeast in the direction of a fenced boundary: make your way toward the fence corner that separates the preserve from private lands, staying on the right side.

Seasonal stream at North Table Mountain, with Central Valley, Coast Range, and Snow Mountain on horizon

Now, about 2/10 mile from the start, the onward route drops steadily into a sunny ravine carved by Campbell Creek. Cross the stream wherever convenient, but then resist the temptation to follow the fence-line (which most hikers do); instead, cut northeast across trailless terrain. This shortcut avoids unnecessarily steep ups and downs and, despite following no trail, remains manageable as long as one stays the course in a northeasterly direction. There are also occasional metal poles that could more or less act as route markers.

At 6/10 mile, come to an unnamed rivulet, a branch of Campbell Creek, and cross it. Then, minutes later, crest a minor ridge and descend to another tributary, this one featuring a small waterfall on the right. Here the route rejoins the well-trodden path used by the majority of hikers.

Even as some of the basalt is now exposed in small outcrops, it remains hard to believe at this point that the largely level terrain will eventually give way to deep canyons and hundred-foot waterfalls. But, at 8/10 mile, there is a trail sign that assures one that there are indeed waterfalls ahead, with the route to Ravine and Phantom Falls heading right.

Route approaching Ravine Falls area

Stay right, starting the loop portion of the hike, continuing on the ruddy track that passes a smattering of oaks on the left. Edge northward toward a new ravine, the largest seen thus far. What begins as a modest hollow quickly turns into a warren of basalt-lined gullies. Approaching the rim of a canyon known simply as “The Ravine,” hikers get their first look at the area waterfalls. In the foreground, a modest rivulet turns into the suddenly powerful Ravine Falls (76’), viewed here from above, and—in the distance—one can see a portion of the shorter Ravine Twin Falls (20’ and 46’).

Ravine Twin Falls from a distance

Now thoroughly enticed by the sight of the waterfalls, hikers should continue as the route narrows to a thin singletrack and drops westward into the deep drainage. After a switchback, hikers reach the first solid shade of the hike, where oaks and bay laurel are interspersed with lichen-soaked outcrops, including some up-close exemplars of columnar jointing.

Follow the sounds of falling water until the trail bottoms out at the crossing of Ravine Creek. Turn right and see Ravine Falls, a worthy destination in its own right. Here the stream falls 76 feet in a single drop, flooding a small pool in the shady gully. (Note: This is technically Upper Ravine Falls—the lower falls will be encountered later—and certainly the more impressive of the two.)

Yours truly at Ravine Falls

Some hikers will turn around here, content after a 1.3-mile walk. But most will continue on to Phantom Falls, which is more than twice the height of Ravine Falls. The onward trail crosses to the north side of Ravine Creek and then climbs a set of switchbacks to return to the open sun, leaving the drainage behind (for now). Come to a fence with a small crack in it—despite the appearance of being the end of the road, the trail actually continues past the gate, rising up through a grassy gap.

Now with expansive vistas again to the Central Valley and Coast Range, the trail to Phantom Falls continues north and west, skirting a mild hillside between The Ravine and the much-larger Coal Canyon. The latter is the largest incision into North Table Mountain and has the most impressive, multi-hued basalt cliffs, near-vertical for more than 100-200 feet. The basalt is the product of lava flows occurring 30-40 million years ago; uplift and then erosion led to the creation of the deep canyon.

Coal Canyon

Follow the trail as it comes to the first views of Coal Canyon and splits—stay right at the signed junction, continuing toward Phantom Falls. Before the big prize comes a smaller one—Little Phantom Falls (124’)—which, if you’re careful along the cliff’s edge—can be viewed just as hikers traverse a small creekbed about a minute or two north of the junction. (Note: A better view, from a distance, can be found a little later.)

Top of Little Phantom Falls

Even with the preview of Coal Canyon, the dramatic vista just beyond Little Phantom Falls still packs a major surprise: suddenly the earth drops 200 feet, and the cliffs form a partly-shaded bowl, punctuated by the stunning display of Phantom Falls (a.k.a. Coal Canyon Falls). Even from a distance, the falls are impressive: they drop 164 feet in a single chute, with the pool obscured by trees. Behind the falls lies a shady cave and overhang. The combination of the falls with the multicolor basalt cliffs makes this spot—known as Phantom Viewone of the most picturesque spots in Butte County.

Phantom Falls
Phantom Falls and Coal Canyon from Phantom View
Coal Canyon views

Curious hikers can venture past this viewpoint to the top of the falls—and some very ambitious hikers who are willing to swing way around to the north side of Coal Canyon and descend a dicey chute can reach the base of the cataract. But most will content themselves with admiring the falls from afar at Phantom View before moving on to the remainder of the loop.

Phantom Falls to Beatson Falls (2.2 mi.)

For those just doing the Phantom Falls out-and-back, this is the end of the road: turn around and return the way you came, retracing your steps past Ravine Falls and back over the open pastures to the trailhead. But what’s the fun in an out-and-back when a loop option is available?

To continue the Phantom Falls Loop, make your way back to the nearest signed junction, this time heading right in the direction of Little Ravine Falls. Briefly leave the trail and head right on a thin trace leading back to the canyon edge, where hikers come to a second viewpoint, this one a two-for-one deal: in addition to Phantom Falls, visitors can now also see the bulk of Little Phantom Falls. The two drops—164 feet and 124 feet, respectively—can be captured in a single frame. This vista is known as Phantoms View and is another popular lunch spot for loop hikers.

Phantom Falls and Little Phantom Falls from Phantoms View

After this point, the crowds thin considerably, and the route generally becomes fainter and less well-trodden. Making your way back to the westbound track, however, the onward route is occasionally marked and relatively easy to follow, following a smattering of oaks set back slightly from the canyon rim. At 2.4 miles, come to a cut in a fence and a small oak grove, with a sign marking the trail continuation.

Distant view of Phantom Falls

Soon the path begins a steady descent, back into The Ravine, a capillary of the main Coal Canyon artery. Follow the toyon-studded north flank of the drainage until the path runs through an old stile—with no fence—and eventually comes out into the open at a spot just above Lower Ravine Falls. Here the gently-flowing stream suddenly drops a level, plunging 40 feet into a rockbound pool, with broader Coal Canyon unfolding beyond. While not as striking as Ravine or Phantom Falls, this smaller waterfall is an impressive feature nonetheless.

Little Ravine Falls

Crossing Ravine Creek above the falls can be tricky, especially at high water. But there are a few spots, backtracking a bit from where the trail crosses the stream, where rock-hopping is possible. Thereafter, look for the unmarked but evident singletrack as it climbs back into the woods. The faint trail switchbacks up a brushy slope—sometimes with downed branches that must be negotiated—and rises to a stile through a barbed-wire fence.

Beyond, the path crests a sunny gap, and the terrain is suddenly flat and devoid of vegetation. The trail follows these flattops, featuring unobstructed views across the Central Valley, for around the next mile.

Back up on the top of the plateau

Traversing the flattops, however, can be tricky, as the trail is hard to distinguish. At the start, the route more or less heads south-southwest on a grassy line between fields of small, basalt rock. Quite often, the area is also marked by cowpies—with the culprits, loving the spring weather, never too far out of sight. (Note: In contrast with the cattle in the Bay Area, which seem very used to hikers, these cows are a bit skittish and a little judgmental—staring down hikers with a confused or faintly menacing look before often running around.)

At 3.5 miles, cross a minor drainage, then rise up to a right-leaning bend, heading toward a reservoir called Western Pond, on private property just beyond the preserve. The trail does not approach the banks of the lake but does encounter the fence-line, where there is another trail sign indicating that it is a mere 0.3 miles to Beatson Falls.

Heading toward Western Pond
Across the basalt flats, with Sutter Buttes on the horizon

From here, however, the route gets even fainter, at points virtually non-existent. Here some map-reading and general sense of direction is a must. Generally, head straight for 50-75 yards until you reach a cattle watering hole, then take a hard right, following a faint cattle trail. Bearing west, Western Pond comes back into view, but the route keeps well south of it. Just after the pond becomes visible again, begin to cut south, across unmarked terrain, bearing generally in the direction of Sutter Buttes, an island of mountains in the heart of the Central Valley in the distance.

Beatson Falls

Soon some semblance of a trail returns, and a sign for Beatson Falls is your cue to start looking for the 104-foot waterfall. Head partway downhill into Beatson Hollow, which at this stage is a dramatic canyon with impressively sheer walls. Soon one can see the waterfall nearly in full, dropping through a narrow flume before fanning out into a wider spray. Like Phantom Falls, Beatson is generally viewed from a distance—but the vantage point is dramatic nonetheless.

Beatson Falls an the broader hollow
Looking down the canyon at Beatson Hollow

Beatson Falls to Trailhead (3.2 mi.)

By this point, hikers have been at it for about 4.1 miles, but a little more than three miles remain. This final stretch is not as overtly dramatic as what has been seen thus far, but it has a subtle beauty: gently-flowing creeks weave through shallow gullies pockmarked by oaks and willows.\

As the eastbound trail pushes past Beatson Falls, it passes above and below basalt outcrops, eventually dropping to a spot where an unmarked tributary meets Campbell Creek, the main sculptor of Beatson Hollow. Follow the creek for 1/10 mile to Beatson Ford, where a sign reveals that the route back to the parking area continues left. (Note: A longer route continues right, across the ford, to Crevice Falls and the so-called “Ladder Falls Loop.”)

Trail beyond Beatson Falls

The next section is peaceful as the path keeps close to the creek before setting out across grassy slopes, crossing a tributary at 5.3 miles. Then the path rises to an open field that continues for a long while, still in Beatson Hollow as it seems to open up. Traverse a pair of shorter, seasonal streams where mud tends to accumulate, then follow the trail as it bends northward, following the Campbell Creek drainage toward its headwaters.

Mild walking in Beatson Hollow

Soon the hollow will split again, and hikers might be able to make out Hollow Falls in the influent off to the east. But the track continues up the westernmost branch heading almost due north. Come to a fence, with private property beyond, at about six miles. Bear left, never crossing the fence but climbing steadily out of the hollow. Eventually the path encounters a willow thicket that can pose some temporary obstacles, and the route twice crosses the thin stream.

Shady path in Beatson Hollow

Back on the left side, look for a rivulet that branches off from the main creek to the right. Less than 100 yards up this narrow side stream lies the modest but pretty Little Hollow Falls, a mossy chute that is worth a quick look.

Little Hollow Falls

Back on the main trail, the incline steepens, and hikers are faced with a choice of a steeper but shorter ascent up and out of the canyon to the left, or a longer but easier track heading straight. Both culminate back on the flattops of North Table Mountain, leaving Beatson Hollow behind.

Soon you will find the initial junction where the loop portion began—hours ago. Bear right, retreading familiar territory as the path drops to the branch of Campbell Creek with the very minor waterfall. After this, follow the cross-country route described earlier, or continue on the longer and harder path that skirts the fence line. Back at the initial fence corner, find the final track heading back, southeast across the open pasture, back to the trailhead. This marks the end of the 7.3-mile stem-and-loop journey.

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Coronado Peak Trail (Coronado National Monument, AZ)

Coronado Peak Trail, Coronado National Memorial, November 2022

Gaining 300 feet in elevation, the Coronado Peak Trail tackles a summit at the southern end of Arizona’s Huachuca Mountains, one of many “sky islands” in the area. Named for famed Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, this is the most-visited peak in Coronado National Memorial, offering views of Montezuma Canyon, the San Rafael Valley, and Sonora, Mexico. The climb is short but steep, mostly comprising stone steps in full sun exposure, ending at a shaded viewing platform after 4/10 mile. Hikers can combine this out-and-back with a longer jaunt on the Joe’s Canyon and/or Yaqui Ridge Trails—and Coronado Peak is a prominent landmark near the southern terminus of the 800-mile Arizona Trail, which begins just below the mountain.

Map of the Coronado Peak Trail, Coronado National Memorial

The hike

Coronado National Memorial celebrates the 1540-42 Coronado Expedition, which set out from Spanish-run Mexico in search of a fabled “Golden City” of Cibola. The Spanish party passed through this area in mid-1540 before reaching a series of Hopi and ancestral Puebloan villages in present-day Arizona and New Mexico.

Today, the relatively small park abuts the U.S.-Mexico border and includes a small section of the Huachuca Mountains, one of the larger ranges in the area. Most visitors will enter the memorial from the east (via Sierra Vista or Bisbee), following East Montezuma Canyon Road to the Visitor center and end of the pavement, after which the road continues as a slow but 2-wheel-drive gravel track. Ascend to Montezuma Pass, where there is a relatively large parking area with sweeping views. To the north lies the ridge leading to Miller Peak (9,470’), the highest point in the range. To the east, one can see down Montezuma Canyon to the Visitor Center and vast San Pedro Valley, bisected by the border wall separating the United States and Mexico. To the west, the long flats of the San Rafael Valley eventually give way to the Patagonia Mountains, concealing the border town of Nogales beyond.

View east into Montezuma Canyon

The southward view is blocked by a ridgeline and the summit of Coronado Peak, giving visitors an incentive to tackle the 8/10-mile round-trip hike. From the parking area, look for a signed trail heading south, past an initial sign with a trail map. The route begins like it ends: with a series of stone steps, ascending the grassy hillside.

Look for pinyon, juniper, white oak, and yuccas as the Coronado Peak Trail passes a communications tower on the right and rises to a bench and junction. The Joe’s Canyon Trail heads left, while the path to the summit bears right; follow the latter, rising again, with improved views back to Miller Peak and the Huachucas.

Bench with westward views to San Rafael Valley
View back north to Montezuma Pass and Miller Peak

Soon the trail swings back and forth between east- and west-facing sides of the main ridge, with open vistas nearly throughout. Catch your breath at various interpretive waysides, then continue south toward the summit.

Montezuma Canyon view
Nearing the top

The final push involves much wider switchbacks and stone staircases, finally culminating at the golden summit, where there is a shade ramada and benches facing southeast. Here the landscape south to Sonora opens up, with views extending as far as Sierra de la Mariquita and the northern ranges of the Sierra Madre Occidental.

Westward views from the summit
Southwest, across the border wall, to Mexico

Two interpretive signs at the ramada explain the Transatlantic Trade and the legacy of Coronado, whose expedition was deemed a failure but facilitated further Spanish conquest in what would later become the western United States.

Southerly look into Sonora, Mexico
East toward Bisbee and Douglas

When ready, return the way you came—or continue on the Joe’s Canyon Trail to the Yaqui Ridge Trail or as far east as the Visitor Center. Doing just the 8/10-mile out-and-back should occupy hikers for around 45 minutes to an hour, making this one of the shortest and easiest hikes in the park.

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Chiricahua Big Loop (Chiricahua National Monument, AZ)

Inspiration Point Trail, Chiricahua National Monument, November 2022

At first glance, the Chiricahua Mountains of southeast Arizona appear little different from the hundreds of other small ranges of the Basin and Range area, which spans from southern Oregon and Idaho down to Mexico: an abrupt north-south range rising from open, scrubby valleys, seemingly the same pattern of dry escarpments with the usual features of rocky peaks and some limited woodlands. But the Chiricahua range harbors a secret that sets it apart from the others: a hidden landscape of thousands of naturally-carved pinnacles composed of yellow-brown rhyolite tuff, evidence of ancient lava flows, uplift, and intense erosion. The result is a “wonderland of rocks” resembling a slightly more subdued version of Bryce Canyon—but spectacular in its own way. Like Bryce, there is an extensive trail network crisscrossing the landscape, with far and away the best option being the Chiricahua Big Loop, an 8.8-mile excursion that combines several trails in Chiricahua National Monument, included the famed “Heart of Rocks” area. The extensive scenery and bounty of spur trails easily make this challenging hike a most-of-the-day affair that visitors are unlikely to forget.

Map of Chiricahua Big Loop, Chiricahua National Monument; created using

The hike

Chiricahua National Monument spans 12,000 acres in the northern half of the Chiricahua Mountains, with the entrance situated about 35 miles southeast of Willcox, Arizona. The range is located along the boundary of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts and approximates the northern terminus of the lengthy Sierra Madre Mountains, located primary in neighboring Mexico. The Chiricahua Mountains—named for a group of Apache who once controlled the area—are one of many so-called “sky islands,” or mountain ranges that appear to rise from a surrounding desert “sea.”

As one approaches the Chiricahuas, however, visitors quickly realize that this is no usual mountain range. Rather, the opening of Bonita Canyon—which offers passage into the park—is lined with tall sides dotted with colorful rhyolite, a volcanic rock layer thought to have been deposited around 27 million years ago. The volcanic eruptions left behind a caldera, and the rhyolite tuff has since eroded into wild shapes, with the largely concentration situated at the heads of Bonita and Rhyolite Canyons.

Follow Bonita Canyon Drive—the main road through the park—for 7.5 miles, stopping at the Visitor Center along the way for a map and additional information. The scenery improves as the drive snakes through Bonita Canyon and then hugs an east-facing hillside with views to Cochise Head (8,113’), the highest peak in this northern part of the range. The East Whitetail Creek drainage leads south and east, out of the park, toward the next basin, which straddles the border of Arizona and New Mexico.

Bear right at the junction for Sugarloaf and Echo Canyon, then pull into the first parking area on the left: this is the Echo Canyon Trailhead, the staging point for several popular hikes in the park. (Note: The lot is relatively small, so arriving on a weekday or early in the morning on a weekend is wise to secure a spot.) While the wonderland of rhyolite is not visible from the parking area, the high hump of Sugarloaf Mountain (7,310’)—composed of volcanic dacite—dominates the vista to the northwest.

There are bathrooms at the trailhead, as well as a trail map and sign with suggestions for some shorter hikes—such as the 3.3-mile Echo Canyon Loop Trail—which will be mostly covered as part of the larger Chiricahua Big Loop.

Echo Canyon Trail to Upper Rhyolite Canyon Trail (1.5 miles)

The “Big Loop” begins with an easy and slightly downhill walk across a chalky highland in the scrubby chapparal and pinyon/juniper woodlands, coming quickly to an intersection with the Massai Point Trail. Stay right here, beginning the loop portion of the hike.

From here the Echo Canyon Trail climbs a short hillock with the first rhyolite outcrops coming into view off to the left. There is a partial view south at around 2/10 mile, but the real action comes about 175 yards later, when hikers get their first good look north into Echo Canyon, a tributary of Rhyolite Canyon that boasts some of the tallest rock pinnacles in the park. The canyon is set just below Sugarloaf Mountain, which is topped by a viewing gazebo, to the north.

Rhyolite spires of Echo Canyon below Sugarloaf Mountain

As the trail bounds from one side of the ridgeline to another, hikers soon get their first good views south into the Echo Park area, also boasting a large collection of hoodoos. Mushroom-shaped outcrops become more common alongside the trail, and the coloration and detail of the eroded formations becomes more pronounced as the hike proceeds.

At about ½ mile, the passage noticeably narrows as it squeezes between protruding outcrops, and a sign indicates that one has reached the Echo Canyon Grottoes, which resemble thin cave channels that can be accessed off to the right. Depending on the lighting, this area can make for some spectacular photos (resembling other similar landscapes featured on this blog).

Cavern-like passage in the Echo Canyon Grottoes

Beyond the grottoes, the Echo Canyon Trail cuts through a few more narrow passages, interspersed with excellent views north and south into the Wonderland of Rocks. One outcrop at about 2/3 mile makes for a nice lunch/snack spot facing north into Echo Canyon, where the rhyolite pillars take on a yellow and almost magenta hue.

Spires of Echo Canyon
Another look up Echo Canyon

Soon a more steady downhill begins, starting with a set of switchbacks where loose rock is aplenty—so go slow and be careful on this track, which is prone to causing ankle sprains. Pass through another thin notch, then continue down more switchbacks, shedding elevation quickly.

Rhyolite outcrops along the Echo Canyon Trail

At about 1.1 miles, hikers reach a sign for Echo Park. By now hikers are largely below the pinnacles, which rise dramatically in columns above.

Pinnacles along the descent into Echo Park
Formations above Echo Park

Cross the main Echo Canyon drainage at 1.2 miles, then follow the now-relatively level trail as it hugs the southern flank. Views open up to the broader Rhyolite Canyon, which connects this area with Bonita Canyon and the Visitor Center area. Lining the canyon, especially on the north, is a long line of rhyolite pinnacles.

Looking up at the pinnacles from Echo Park

At 1.4 miles, the Echo Canyon Trail winds around a left-hand turn, curving around to the north side of the main Rhyolite Canyon drainage, leaving Echo behind. This gorge harbors similar formations to the east.

Mouth of Echo Canyon as it empties into Rhyolite Canyon
Views into Upper Rhyolite Canyon

The trail continues for another 50 yards until it reaches an intersection with the Hailstone Trail and Upper Rhyolite Canyon Trail. Most hikers, doing the 3.3-mile Echo Canyon Loop, will stay left, but the adventurous and hearty explorers of the Big Loop will want to stay right on the Upper Rhyolite Canyon Trail.

Upper Rhyolite Canyon Trail to Sarah Deming Trail (1.0 miles)

The next section, more distant from the stone formations, has a distinctively different feel as it dips into a riparian woodland with more shade and fewer vistas. A steady downhill takes one eastward into Upper Rhyolite Canyon, then bends south and crosses the main wash at 1.75 miles. Follow the streambed on the right, now skirting the north-facing slope. Cross back over to the right side of the drainage at 1.9 miles, then back again minutes later. Repeat the crisscross three more times, ending up back on the right side of the canyon.

Looking back north from south side of Upper Rhyolite Canyon

After rounding a bend, the trail descends to clear the wash bottom a final time, then ascends, surprisingly steeply, to a point where the path rises again above the dense tree cover. Enjoy the extended vistas down-canyon, passing the mouth of Sarah Deming Canyon and coming to a junction again at 2.5 miles. This is the intersection with the Sarah Deming Trail, the next leg of the journey.

Sarah Deming Trail to Heart of Rocks Loop (1.5 miles)

The initial climb to the junction was just a preview of what is to come on the Sarah Deming Trail, by far the most difficult part of the loop. Here hikers will gain around 850 feet in elevation over the course of 1.5 miles, with the hardest part coming in the final ½ mile.

Like the other forks, Sarah Deming Canyon too is lined with rock formations, although the denser woodland cover blocks much of it from view for at least the first half of the climb. Edge eastward, then south, as the trail stays well above the canyon floor, climbing through a mix of deciduous and coniferous tree cover.

Climb steadily for nearly a mile before the path briefly levels and crosses to the east side of the drainage through Sarah Deming Canyon, initiating the final ½-mile ascent out of the canyon and into the Heart of Rocks area.

The incline steepens and vegetation lessens as hikers slog up the hill and are at least rewarded with better views as the ascent proceeds. The trail more or less makes for an easement in the rhyolite rim, some 300 feet above the canyon. Expect many stone steps in this section—a testament to decades of trail work and maintenance.

Climbing to the gap above Sarah Deming Canyon

At last, about four miles into the Big Loop, the incline eases and the Sarah Deming Trail ends at an intersection with the Big Balanced Rock Trail and the Heart of Rocks Loop. The latter is what makes the lengthy slog worthwhile, and constitutes a  “loop-within-a-loop” that occupies hikers for the next 8/10 mile.

Heart of Rocks Loop (0.8 miles)

Before heading onward, look right for a preview of Big Balanced Rock, an imposing, hourglass-shaped spire that is one of the most well-known formations in the park. Hikers will return to get a better look, but for now, bear left on the short connecting spur to the Heart of Rocks Loop.

Big Balanced Rock lurking beyond

The next section is actually downhill, clearing a dry drainage with plenty of shade and neat narrow passages. Look for a sign for the Heart of Rocks Loop heading left, however, after which the trail climbs again.

Proceed through a slender channel between rhyolite fins, then climb to a view of Pinnacle Balanced Rock—a smaller but also impressive version of Balanced Rock—on the left. Surely erosion will not let this precariously-balanced stone stay as it is for long…

Plump outcrops along the trail

After Pinnacle Balanced Rock, ascend through two thin slots and up to a view of a formation called Old Maid on the right. Now proceed downhill in the direction of Camel’s Head, a distinct hoodoo that remains visible throughout much of the loop.

After clearing another notch, the trail levels off, and spurs off to the left offer vista points overlooking Rhyolite Canyon and the vast valley to the northwest, with the Dos Cabezas, Winchester, Galiuro, and Pinaleño Mountains beyond. This is one of the best overlooks in the park.

Spectacular view from the Heart of Rocks Loop

Pass Thor’s Hammer on the right and slip through a notch with a small rock arch on the left, with additional options for views down Rhyolite Canyon beyond. Soon the trail makes a right turn and proceeds eastward, leaving the densest jungle of rocks behind but proceeding into another set of formations on the other side of an unnamed drainage.

View north to Echo Canyon and Cochise Head
Pinnacles galore in the Heart of Rocks

Follow the high shelf as it passes a view, through a narrow window, to a pair of formations humorously named Punch and Judy. There are also views north to Echo Canyon, Sugarloaf Mountain, and Cochise Head, with the highlands dotted with thousands of rhyolite pinnacles in between.

Punch and Judy along the Heart of Rocks Loop

There is one curiously-perched outcrop known as Duck on a Rock (although I missed it), as well as two tall slender pinnacles known as the Kissing Rocks—after which the trail heads southward to close the loop. Proceed downhill and find a west-east ravine that hikers will follow to the drainage that splits through the Heart of Rocks, reaching the initial junction that started the circuit at 4.7 miles.

Bear left, traversing familiar territory as one climbs back to the junction at the pass below Balanced Rock. This time head left, setting off east and leaving the Heart of Rocks behind.

Big Balanced Rock Trail and Inspiration Point Trail (2.0 miles)

Aside from Big Balanced Rock, which is visible off to the right immediately after the trail fork, the scenery in the subsequent section is more subdued, with the rhyolite formations eventually receding. After an open stretch of chapparal, the denser tree cover returns, and hikers generally follow a high ridgeline with occasional dips and bends.

Big Balanced Rock
Another look at Big Balanced Rock

The Big Balanced Rock Trail offers the loop’s best southward views, however, to the higher peaks of the central Chiricahuas—much of this landscape is protected as part of the Chiricahua Wilderness. There are also distant views to Cochise Head and the Dos Cabezas Mountains to the north.

Southward look across Chiricahua Mountains
Chiricahua tarantula along the trail

For the most part, this mostly-level section is an opportunity to gain time possibly lost while wandering the Heart of Rocks, with hikers allured by the prospect of seeing Inspiration Point, where the rhyolite wonderland of rocks returns in a spectacular, sweeping vista.

Big Balanced Rock Trail

At 5.75 miles, a mile from the Heart of Rocks Loop, come to the junction with the Inspiration Point Trail, a one-mile out-and-back that is well worth the extra effort. Head left on the mostly level track as it follows a ridgeline between Totem and Hunt Canyons, dotted with junipers, yuccas, cacti, and scrub.

Rhyolite Canyon from Inspiration Point
Totem Canyon and Rhyolite Canyon from Inspiration Point

While there are few views along the way, they come suddenly and astonishingly at the end of the ½-mile trail, where hikers can peer out from Inspiration Point to the myriad pinnacles below. The views north to Echo Canyon, Sugarloaf Mountain, and Cochise Head are retained, but perhaps the most dramatic is the look west into Totem Canyon, named for the high totem-pole-shaped spires that rise to form the canyon walls. Visitors can also see north and west across the valley toward Willcox and the Dragoon Mountains.

Totem Canyon
View north to Cochise Head

Inspiration Point, due to its remote location, is often not very crowded—indeed, I had it all to myself. But when you’re ready, continue back along the ½-mile trail to the junction with the Big Balanced Rock and Mushroom Rock Trails, heading left.

Panorama from Inspiration Point

Mushroom Rock Trail to Ed Riggs Trail (1.2 miles)

By now, hikers are likely to be rather tired and ready to wrap up the hike. But there is still about two miles remaining. The Mushroom Rock Trail leads east from the junction and descends into a shallow section of Hunt Canyon, a relatively featureless tributary of Rhyolite Canyon.

Clear the canyon drainage at 6.8 miles, then follow the east flank northward to a brief set of switchbacks, after which the trail closely hugs the canyon bottom. Trace Hunt Canyon to its end, now returning to Upper Rhyolite Canyon, where the rhyolite spires become more prominent again. The sole named feature in this area is Mushroom Rock, which rises high above the drainage off to the left and is pointed out by a small sign along the trail.

Looking back toward Inspiration Point and Totem Canyon

Continue along the Mushroom Rock Trail as it heads west and clears a drainage and boulder choke at around 7.8 miles. The views of the surrounding spires here are impressive, especially as one gets another look at Totem Canyon from its base. At 7.9 miles, the trail comes to a junction with the Hailstone and Ed Riggs Trails, both part of the shorter Echo Canyon Loop.

Ed Riggs Trail and Massai Point Trail to Echo Canyon Trailhead (0.9 miles)

The final mile is now upon you; make a right turn on the Ed Riggs Trail, which offers a much milder return to the trailhead than the nearby Echo Canyon Trail. Follow a side drainage north, back toward the rim at Massai Point, staying left as the side canyon forks shortly upstream from Rhyolite Canyon.

Spires of Rhyolite Canyon from the Ed Riggs Trail

Hikers are back in a position where they can get up-close looks at the rhyolite pillars, which take on a multitude of shapes, from plump outcrops to tall, slender spires. Continue to trace the path uphill, flirting several times with the (usually dry) drainage and cutting through gap below Massai Point.

After a brief level period, climb again to the junction of the Ed Riggs Trail and Massai Point Trail, bearing left toward Echo Canyon Trailhead. The final ¼ mile follows the Massai Point Trail within striking distance of Bonita Canyon Drive, with the sounds of traffic heard for the first time in hours.

A final uphill stretch leads back to the chalky ridgeline where the hike began—and the initial trail split. This time head right and follow the short path back to the trailhead, ending the 8.8-mile journey.

Final look at Sugarloaf Mountain

The Chiricahua Big Loop is a satisfying but relatively strenuous hike that should not be taken lightly: the elevation gain and loss is significant and the trail rocky and circuitous. Hikers should budget around 5-7 hours to complete the circuit, including stops to take in the beauty of the “wonderland of rocks” along the way.

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Fort Bowie Trail Loop (Fort Bowie National Historic Site, AZ)

Fort Bowie Trail Loop, Fort Bowie National Historic Site, November 2022

– Civil War Series –

At a time when most eyes were on the major battlefields of the Civil War out east, the Union Army was engaged in 1962 in a series of smaller skirmishes in the American Southwest with Confederate cavalry and an ongoing conflict with various bands of the native Apache. As Confederate forces made designs on New Mexico Territory, which included what would become Arizona, the U.S. Army sent a column of the 5th California Volunteers to head off the threat, but they were drawn into the wider Apache War in the Battle of Apache Pass (15-16 July 1862). As the contingent moved through the Chiricahua Mountains in southwest Arizona, they were ambushed by a group of native Americans led by Cochise (1805-1874), for whom present-day Cochise County is named. The battle, which ended in a defeat for the Chiricahua Apache, nonetheless prompted the Union Army to fortify the area, establishing Fort Bowie later that year.

Today, visitors can tour the remains of Fort Bowie and trace the steps of the Chiricahua Apache and California soldiers who engaged in the battle. But there is a catch: unlike nearly every other Civil War fort in the National Park Service, this one is only accessible by way of a 3-mile out-and-back—or slightly longer loop—hike from Apache Pass Road. Along the way, hikers will pass several historic ruins, a cemetery, and Apache Spring—the latter a key source of water for the Apache Indians and Union soldiers who occupied the area. The below description covers a roughly 4.4-mile stem-and-loop, including a short spur to the original fort site, a loop around the larger “second” fort, and an alternative return route via Overlook Ridge, which offers nice views to Siphon Canyon, Fort Bowie, Bowie Peak, and Apache Pass.

Map of Fort Bowie National Historic Site

The hike

Fort Bowie National Historic Site is situated in southwest Arizona, about 13 miles south of the town of Bowie on Interstate 10. Visits are often combined with trips to nearby Chiricahua National Monument. Reaching the Fort Bowie Trailhead requires traversing a usually well-graded gravel road that follows an easement between the Chiricahua and Dos Cabezas Mountains, cutting through a classic Sonoran Desert landscape before rising to a scrubby savanna with several seasonal drainages that support larger tree life.

Just east of the crest of the pass, look for a reasonably large parking area on the north side. Across to the south is the start of the Fort Bowie Trail, accompanied by a picnic gazebo, information boards, and a map of the park. Off in the distance to the southeast, one can see the hulking heights of Bowie Peak (6,982’) and the protruding head of Helen’s Dome (6,376’).

View toward Fort Bowie, Bowie Peak, and Helen’s Dome from the trailhead

The hike begins with a mild descent, dropping to clear the main drainage through Cutoff Canyon. Just beyond lies the stone foundation of an old mining cabin, built by a local prospector well after the closure of Fort Bowie in 1894. The builder, Jesse L. Millsap, was killed while digging a well in 1929 and is buried at nearby Bowie Cemetery, 15 miles to the north.

Remains of Millsap’s cabin

Stepping past the cabin ruins, the trail climbs back out into the open before dropping again to cross another drainage. After this comes a third, short wash traverse, after which the path rises to a golden, grassy, and sun-soaked plain. Looking back, one can see Government Peak (7,580’), one of the highest promontories in the Dos Cabezas Mountains. The windswept hillsides to the north are noticeably less vegetated than the landscape ahead to the east; this is in part due to the soil transitions of the area and presence of Apache Spring just below Fort Bowie.

Looking back toward Apache Pass and Government Peak

Head toward the spring and fort, coming to a sign for the Parke Camp Site at around ½ mile. A full eight years before the Battle of Apache Pass, U.S. Army Lieutenant John Parke led a surveying trip to this area, camping at this spot in March 1854. The objective was to identify a route through the mountains for a long-distance railroad line: Apache Pass, while passable, was far more tedious than the flats to the north, which Parke settled on as a better alternative a year later; by 1880, the railroad through Willcox and Bowie was complete.

Park Camp Site on the golden plain

The field on which you walk, however, was not just notable for hosting the Parke expedition. More famously, it was the locus of the 1861 “Bascom Affair”—the event that triggered years of hostilities between the U.S. Army and Cochise’s band of Chiricahua Apache. In January 1861, at nearby Sonoita Creek, a Tonto Apache group kidnapped the 12-year-old stepson of local rancher John Ward, prompting the army to send a contingent led by Lt. George Bascom to try to locate and recover the boy. False intelligence led Bascom to pin the blame for the kidnapping on Cochise, whom Bascom tracked to this location in February 1861. Here Bascom set up a meeting with the Chiricahua leader and attempted to imprison him and his family; Cochise, however, escaped, fleeing up and over the modest hill visible off to the left.

Bascom Affair interpretive wayside

An interpretive sign—located just past an ensuing trail junction—tells the story of this encounter, which triggered a series of tit-for-tat attacks. In the weeks following the initial incident, Cochise took several white Americans hostage, and Bascom’s party killed the Chiricahua in their custody. This set off decades of bad blood between the longtime natives and the encroaching settlers, prompting the U.S. Army to hastily construct Fort Bowie in late 1862.

The aforementioned trail fork marks the start of the loop portion of the hike. Head right first, passing the Bascom Affair sign on the left and beginning a counter-clockwise circuit around the valley. Soon hikers come to the Stage Station Ruin, once an active outpost used by soldiers and travelers on the Butterfield Trail, an overland stagecoach line used by commercial passengers and the U.S. Mail service for a brief period from 1858 until 1861. Take the short spur here to see the full stone ruins and read a second sign on the Bascom Affair.

Stage Station Ruin along the Butterfield Route

Less than a minute’s walk from Stage Station, the trail stays straight through a four-way junction with a hiking trail that follows the old Butterfield stagecoach line. (Note: This trail, however, was closed as of November 2022.) Just ahead, with a wider, sandy drainage shaping up to the left, hikers reach the neatly-fenced Post Cemetery, which was constructed before Fort Bowie but came to be the resting place for many who served there. The military personnel and their dependents who were buried at the cemetery were later moved, leaving only civilians behind. (Note: See a listing of all those identified who are interred at the cemetery here.)

Post Cemetery

The onward path continues by rounding the northeast corner of the cemetery and then crosses the wide wash. Despite being downstream from Apache Spring, this basin is dry for most of the year. Now on the north side of the drainage, the Fort Bowie Trail approaches a partly-rehabilitated ruin on the left: the contours of the Chiricahua Apache Indian Agency, once the office of U.S. Indian Agent Thomas Jeffords, who “governed” the Chiricahua Apache in the area from 1875 to 1876.

Moving on, the shade grows denser—welcome on a hot day—and the trail passes a small interpretive sign marking the site of the Battle of Apache Pass: it was here, along the Butterfield Road, that 96 California Volunteers were ambushed on 15 July 1862; the U.S. soldiers endured five casualties (two killed, three wounded) but were able to repulse the Apache in a counter-attack at the nearby spring.

Steps later, hikers come to a reconstructed representation of a thatched hut used by the local Chiricahua Apache. From here the trail crosses the streambed and enters a lovely, well shaded gully with taller trees. Flowing water means Apache Spring is near, and indeed hikers pass it minutes later: the site is protected by a stone retaining wall, seemingly kept up by the Park Service. The trail suddenly climbs a steep staircase to clear the spring and rises back into the open after the brief foray under the lovely tree canopy.

By now one can begin to make out parts of Fort Bowie ahead, as well as the official Visitor Center, open daily from 8:30am-4:00pm. But it’s worth first taking a minor detour, with a spur trail heading off to the right for 300 yards to the ruins of the O.G. Fort Bowie, a much smaller outpost that was built on a hill overlooking the spring and Siphon Canyon. Construction began less than two weeks after the Battle of Apache Pass, and the original fort was abandoned in favor of the new, larger installation constructed just to the east in 1868.

Views from First Fort Bowie

This spur trail is much thinner, with grasses encroaching onto the path, but the route is reasonably easy to follow—first past an initial ruin, then up a side gully, culminating with a short loop around the hilltop. The remains of the fort here are modest, but the views are excellent, with a clear look across the valley to Post Cemetery, Cutoff Canyon, and Government Peak. One also gets a good shot of Helen’s Dome, a granite knob frequented by local climbers.

Ruins of First Fort Bowie

After rounding the loop, return the way you came on the spur path, coming back to the main track. By now hikers have travelled around 1.8 miles, and a persistent climb brings hikers up to the plateau with the “new” Fort Bowie and the modern Visitor Center.

Howitzer at Visitor Center

Fort Bowie is notable for being one of the few (only?) places in the National Park Service system where one has to walk more than a mile to reach the main visitor center. And yet this perhaps part of the appeal – the lack of a visitor center means only prepared and determined visitors are likely to make the journey. On many days, hikers will have the Visitor Center to themselves – except for one or two hearty park rangers, of course, who, to be fair, tend to use the road (also open to vehicles with disabled placards) to access this point.

After exploring the Visitor Center and bookstore, head back outside toward Fort Bowie. Just past the howitzer cannon, head south on a wide, dirt track into “Second Fort Bowie,” which became the epicenter of local U.S. Army operations after construction in 1868. The fort was never attacked, but many of the soldiers sent out from here on patrols certainly were, as the famed Geronimo took up the fight against the encroaching settlers after Cochise died in 1972.

Ruins at Fort Bowie

The ruins of the fort are modest, with crumbled adobe and low, overgrown stone foundations. Among the stone ruins lie the officer quarters, trading post, and mess hall, scattered atop the plateau, with another gap in the mountains visible off to the east. Make a clockwise loop around the fort remains, including a short spur in the southeast corner that ends at the “new hospital.” The trading post—Sutler’s Store—offers the best views down to the valley from which you came, and each structure has a small interpretive sign offering a short historical description.

It is somewhat easy to stray from the rectangular loop around the fort, but the Visitor Center off to the north remains in view much of time, making navigation back to the start relatively straightforward. All told, the circuit and various spurs cover around a half-mile.

Adobe ruins at Second Fort Bowie

After exploring Fort Bowie, stop by the bathroom at the Visitor Center and then prepare for the return journey, with hikers having two options. The first is to return the way you came, past Apache Spring. The second and preferred choice, however, is to follow Overlook Ridge back to the start of the loop, offering a more strenuous but considerably more scenic return.

The climb up Overlook Ridge begins immediately behind the Visitor Center on the northwest side, with the thinner and rockier path ascending an ocotillo-dotted slope. The climb lasts around a quarter mile before easing, with hikers gaining grand views down to Fort Bowie and across the valley to Bowie Peak and Helen’s Dome.

Views down to Fort Bowie from Overlook Ridge

A stone marker with a short inscription tells the story of the closing of Fort Bowie, which was abandoned in 1894. By then the threat from the Chiricahua Indians had largely subsided, and the remaining native population was moved into reservations, marking the end of the so-called Apache Wars.

Enjoy the classic Sonoran landscape as one traverses Overlook Ridge, with yuccas and small cacti scattered among the ocotillos and brush. Reaching the summit at around 2.9 miles, there are excellent views north—down Siphon Canyon—and south and west, across the main valley.

Limestone ridgeline
Views down Siphon Canyon

About ¼ mile later, there is a short spur left that ends at a vista point and another explanation of the Battle of Apache Pass—this spot offers a bird’s eye view of the former battlefield. After returning to the main path, continue west as the trail descends the wavy limestone ridge to a series of additional overlooks. From here the descent steepens as the trail engages a set of switchbacks that brings hikers back down into Siphon Canyon.

Descent back toward the valley

Working back across the floodplain, come to a junction again with the Butterfield Trail, then make your way across the wide and sandy drainage. On the west side, the larger vegetation recedes, and hikers enter familiar territory, edging across the grassy plain encountered early in the hike.

Return to the open field

From here it is a short walk back to the start of the loop section, with more than 3.8 miles of walking (including all the spur trails mentioned) now behind you. Take a look back toward Fort Bowie and Bowie Peak, then proceed northward, retracing the initial ½-mile stretch to return to the trailhead at Apache Pass.

This historic hiking trail clocks in at around 4.4 miles—including the several spurs and circuit around the main fort complex—and is a pleasant half-day outing in a scenic corner of southern Arizona.

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Scenic – Packrat Trail Loop (Saguaro National Park, AZ)

Packrat Trail, Saguaro National Park, November 2022

Southern Arizona’s Saguaro National Park—split into two districts separated by the San Luis Valley—feels in some ways like a local park due to its proximity to Tucson, Arizona’s second-largest city. Taking off from this neighborhood or that, numerous hiking trails wander into the arid, desert landscape, exploring cactus-studded ravines and climbing craggy peaks. Short, one- to two-hour hike options abound, offering local residents the opportunity for an early, before-work walk or late evening jaunt. One such hike is the Scenic – Packrat Trail Loop, an hour-long meander in the northern reaches of Saguaro’s Tucson Mountain District. Its location, cut-off from the heart of the park, means that, even on weekends, it is relatively sparsely-visited by visitors and tourists—a quiet walk frequented mostly by Tucson locals.

Map of trail network in the area

The hike

The Scenic Trailhead is situated at the end of North Scenic Drive, which runs north-south through a residential section of Marana, Arizona into Saguaro National Park. Most of the drive is paved until the very end, when the road runs up to the park boundary and turns to gravel. Park in the small parking area and head south on the Scenic Trail, which runs through a gate and enters Saguaro.

One of the first things visitors will notice—in addition to the multitude of cacti—is the imposing headwall of Safford Peak (3,563’) (known locally as Sombrero Peak), one of the highest and most striking mountains in the Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro. The trail does not approach the peak but offers some of the area’s best views of the mountain, which comes in and out of view as the route continues.

Views of Safford Peak from the trailhead

The Scenic Trail is well-worn and well-marked, but it is quite rocky from the start and ascends steadily toward low gap between outcrops. Climbing around 100 feet in the first ¼ mile, the path ascends a set of switchbacks at around 2/10 mile, where hikers will find a large concentration of prickly pear cacti. (Note: Of course, the namesake saguaros are also mixed in, as well as the very common buckhorn cholla.)

Looking back down from the saddle toward Scenic Trailhead

At ¼ mile, hikers face the walk’s first junction. Heading either way is fine, but this description chooses to go left (clockwise) around the loop. By doing so, hikers pick up the Packrat Trail, another well-trodden path that ascends modestly to a higher notch and rewards hikers with expansive views of the San Luis Valley, with the northern suburbs of Tucson visible down below. As the trail levels off and wraps around to the south, there is a nice vista point where hikers can stop to take photos and admire the views before heading on.

Expansive views across Marana and the San Luis Valley

From here the Packrat Trail descends steadily, entering a scenic drainage basin featuring one of the area’s highest concentrations of jumping cholla, a beautiful and very spiky Sonoran cactus species. As the incline eases, hikers pass several clusters of these photogenic cacti before dropping to clear a modest (usually dry) arroyo. Just past the wash, come to another junction. Here hikers have another choice: heading right offers the quickest way to close the loop; heading left on the Passey Loop Trail allows for a mile-longer circuit.

Entering a forest of jumping (chain-fruit) cholla

Those strapped for time or seeking a walk under an hour should bear right, returning to the Scenic Trail as it traverses a ¼-mile stretch with limited elevation gain. Enjoy the wondrous Sonoran flora—replete with cacti, sagebrush, and palo verde trees—in addition to supreme views of the east side of Safford Peak, with a peek at part of Panther Peak (3,435’) beyond.

Look toward Safford Peak again

Stay on this track until a junction at 9/10 mile, at which point the Passey Loop Trail comes in again from the left. Bear right on the Scenic Trail, beginning a gradual ascent back toward the initial saddle. Cross the drainage again at 1.2 miles, then rise more steadily, returning to the top of the pass minutes later.

Iconic saguaro
Return to the gap

The views northward—to Rattlesnake Pass and beyond—return as the path crests the ridge and then descends again to the initial junction. Bear left here, retracing your steps for ¼ mile—down the switchbacks and out of the bowl-shaped gulch—returning to the parking area and North Scenic Drive. All told, this 1.65-mile walk is a relatively easy journey with some limited elevation gain, taking most around an hour to complete.

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Eagle Lake Trail (Desolation Wilderness, CA)

Eagle Lake Trail, Desolation Wilderness, August 2022

Nestled in a scenic drainage nearly 800 feet above Emerald Bay, the pristine Eagle Lake is one of the most popular day hike destinations in the Lake Tahoe area. Less than a mile’s walk into the Desolation Wilderness, the lake sits in a granite bowl surrounded by craggy peaks, a significant “bang for one’s buck” for visitors in search of a short but satisfying day hike. Starting at the Eagle Falls Picnic Area, across California State Route 89 from Emerald Bay State Park, the 0.9-mile one-way trek follows a narrow stream and minor cascade at Upper Eagle Falls before rising steadily along a well-worn but moderately-strenuous path to the shores of the spectacular lake.

Map of Eagle Lake Trail, Desolation Wilderness, Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit; created using

The hike

Start your hike at the parking area for Eagle Falls Picnic Area, situated just off Highway 89 in the southeast corner of the Lake Tahoe Basin, just outside Emerald Bay State Park. Before hiking, enjoy the views from the pull-off just above Lower Eagle Falls; the falls are difficult to see from this vantage point, but Emerald Bay is in full view: this scenic inlet, speckled with Fannette Island in the center, is one of the most intriguing and picturesque portions of Lake Tahoe.

Emerald Bay from near the trailhead

Walk from the roadside parking down into a broader parking area (where spots are more limited), following a wooded boardwalk to the main trailhead and Eagle Falls Picnic Area. Here there is a restroom and several information boards, with a well-established stone staircase inaugurating the Eagle Falls Trail, one of many thoroughfares into the national forest and Desolation Wilderness. Ascend the stairs to the start of the hike, bearing left—away from Lake Tahoe—and into a dense forest of pines and brush. (Note: Free day-use permits, which can be found at the trailhead, are required for entrance into Desolation Wilderness if not spending the night.)

Quickly one will find a sign and junction marking the start of the Eagle Trail Loop. Heading right leads to a modest viewpoint, but out-and-back hikers will want to simply stay left for quickest access to Eagle Lake.

Steps are a recurring feature of this walk, and hikers bearing left will encountere a healthy dose of them right away, climbing steadily as the path rises to an elevated position well above Eagle Creek. One can hear the stream before one sees it, and it is not until 1/10 mile that hikers first lay eyes on the creek. This is the unofficial base of Upper Eagle Falls, a cascading waterfall that squeezes through a narrow chute.

Looking down on Upper Eagle Falls from the bridge

The falls are better viewed as one continues onward, coming to a set of switchbacks and another meticulously-laid staircase that ends with a level viewpoint and bridge crossing. The man-made span is positioned right over the highest drop of the falls, with hikers looking down straight at the modest chute. Many visitors turn around here, but a good deal continue on to Eagle Lake.

Eagle Creek from Upper Eagle Falls Bridge

Now on the south side of the creek, the trail turns southward, then west, launching into another set of stairs. Traversing scree fields and fresh pine woodlands, the Eagle Falls Trail climbs perhaps 150 feet in elevation before levelling off briefly. Here the route crosses open granite slabs with views north to an unnamed crag that is part of broader Jakes Peak (9,187’).

Follow the cairns pointing the way across the slickrock, but be sure to glance back for a window view of Emerald Bay and Lake Tahoe, gleaming in pearly blue. From here the trail resumes its stairmaster, interrupted by occasional but very brief flats. The trail rounds a bulging hill but more or less follows the drainage of Eagle Creek.

View back toward Lake Tahoe
Eagle Falls Trail heading toward the lake

At about ¾ mile, pass a partly-obscured, moderately-sized cataract down to the right. Minutes later, come to a trail junction, with the Eagle Falls Trail continuing left, deeper into Desolation Wilderness, providing access to the Velma Lakes, Rockbound Valley, Crystal Range, and more. The route to Eagle Lake bears right, at first heading downhill but soon rising again to clear a granite crest. With the contours of the sub-alpine lake starting to come into view, the trail drops down a final stretch and ends at the banks of Eagle Creek and the mouth of Eagle Lake.

Eagle Lake

The lake, like many in the Sierra Nevada, is beautifully rimmed by pine-studded slopes and sharp granite walls, with higher peaks looming beyond. Views improve as one skirts the shores beyond the narrow inlet at the north end. Well-established social trails line the sides, leading to hidden camp spots (permit and reservation required!) and quieter nooks.

Eagle Lake from the north side of Eagle Creek
High crags above Eagle Lake

Take a moment to rest and reflect at the peaceful shores of the lake, but when ready, return the way you came, dropping back down the staircases to Upper Eagle Falls and the parking area. This 1.8-mile out-and-back is a moderately challenging walk but a manageable (and enormously popular) jaunt for most visitors seeking a satisfying 1- to 2-hour day hike.

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City of Rocks Loop (City of Rocks National Reserve, ID)

South Fork Trail, City of Rocks National Reserve, August 2022

Idaho’s City of Rocks National Reserveone of only two national reserves in the National Park system—protects a 14,000-acre tract that includes an extensive cluster of granitic formations known as the “Silent City of Rocks.” While the chalky white and grey spires are perhaps not as visually stunning as, say, the deep red rocks of southern Utah, it is easy to get lost in the enormity of this wonderland of granite, gneiss, schist, and quartzite, a rock climbers’ paradise and home to a robust hiking trail network. The 6.6-mile hike described below offers the “grand tour” of the main concentration of rocks in the center of this remote park, situated in the lonely Basin and Range of southern Idaho, near the Utah border. The strenuous City of Rocks Loop ascends to heights of over 7,200 feet, well above the playground of rocks, but then descends to the open plains below the granitic structures before rising again, passing several climbing pitches, back to the start.

Map of City of Rocks Loop, City of Rocks Natural Reserve; created using

The hike

City of Rocks National Reserve, one of six National Park Service units in Idaho, is certainly not one of the most easily-accessible. Approaching by way of the rough and washed-out road network to the west is highly ill-advised, and the approach from the south—from Utah—is slow and rugged via gravel roads of varying quality. The best approach is to take the paved but lonely Route 77 to Almo, Idaho, a tiny town with a visitor center and a few small shops situated in the Upper Raft River Valley. Then from here an unpaved but well-maintained track leads into the park.

It takes awhile for visitors heading west from Almo into the national reserve (not to be confused with nearby Castle Rocks State Park) to begin to make out the details of the rock formations, situated in a depression at the base of the Albion Mountains, a north-south range typical of the Basin and Range area. As with much of the Mountain West, the geologic story here is one of ancient faulting activity, followed by layering, uplift, and weathering. What is somewhat unique here is the significant range in age of the rock layers: here the 2.5-billion-year-old Green Creek Complex and the very “young” (28 m.y.a.) Almo pluton rest side by side.

The Almo pluton comprise the bulk of the rock formations, which start to come into focus as the unpaved City of Rocks Road enters the park, following the old trace of the California Trail, used by pioneers in the mid-19th century. As one can imagine, the cluster of jagged rocks represented both a considerable obstacle and spectacle for such travelers—emigrants left their mark at a series of trail registers, carving their names into the rock or painting them with axle grease.

Drivers pass Register Rock on the left at an intersection about 2.6 miles from the reserve entrance, where visitors seeking access to the heart of the park should stay right. From here the route climbs steadily amid the granitic landscape, passing the bulging Elephant Rock on the left and the start of a sprawling campground on the right. (Note: Camp sites, rather than being concentrated in one area, are instead interspersed among the rocks across a several-mile stretch.)

Pass the spurs for Window Arch (right), Bath Rock (left), and Parking Lot Rock (right), continuing up to a flat that appears to be near the western terminus of the rock formations. Here, just before rounding a sharp left-hand bend, park on the left at the Emery (or Emery Pass) Parking Area. The small lot is positioned at the base of a long plutonic fin called Bread Loaves (one of many creative names encountered on the hike).

Emery Picnic Area to North Fork Circle Creek Trail (1.6 miles)

And so begins the hike. Though a path leads west and south from the parking area into a shady scrubland at the base of the Bread Loaves, this is not the way; instead, exit the parking lot and cross City of Rocks Road, finding a large sign for the North Fork Circle Creek Trailhead.

Follow the dirt singletrack leading up a scrubby slope and into a low aspen grove, leaving the road and parking area behind. The shade is temporary as the path winds and bends up toward a pass, coming into the open with views ahead to the granitic formations. Skirt a dry wash on the right, then cross it at around 2/10 mile before tackling a sharp right-hand bend, rising through a patch of scraggly trees to the first of many, many junctions encountered on the hike.

This intersection is notable for being the start of the circuit portion of the City of Rocks Loop, which comprises the vast majority (6+ miles) of the hike. It is also remarkable for being positioned steps from a granitic bench with the hike’s first expansive views down into the valley, with a far-reaching look across the rock formations of the reserve. This is just the first of many overlooks, which improve as the hike continues.

Bear left to follow the loop in a clockwise direction—starting with the sagebrush heights while ending with a traverse of the densest pack of rock formations. Here hikers follow the North Fork Trail as it emerges out of the forest and through a grassy gap below a massive outcrop of grey rock stained with reddish iron streaks. The onward path bears north, treading up and down and traversing some slickrock as the views eastward start to improve.

Massive granite outcrop along the North Fork Trail
Initial views across the City of Rocks from North Fork Trail

Soon the uphill path rises to a higher gap on the right but does not pass through it; instead it leads into a series of switchbacks, climbing steadily to loftier heights. The City of Rocks unfolds in the valley below—a speckled landscape bounded to the north by Granite Peak (7,689’) and Steinfells Dome (7,359’), which will be touchstones for much of the hike. Hikers can also begin to see south—past the bulking mass in the foreground—to the Twin Sisters area, the other major rock concentration in the reserve.

Looking back at the high outcrops to the south
Expansive view over City of Rocks to Granite Peak and Steinfells Dome

At around 0.85 miles, the trail levels off, passing through a stand of aspens and approaching a sunny gap and a wooden fence. Although cows can often be seen grazing beyond, hikers are not leaving the park. Yet the landscape changes dramatically: after passing through a gate, the rock outcrops mostly disappear from view and give way instead to a largely featureless scrub, with the Albion Mountains rising higher beyond. The mostly tree-less ridge to the north leads up to Indian Grove, while the higher mountain to the right is Graham Peak (8,867’), the highest point in the park. Beyond is the vast expanse of Sawtooth National Forest.

Heading north toward Graham Peak and the northern Albion Mountains

Follow the open pasture into a slight downhill, paralleling a fence on the left, and stay straight at  an unmarked fork at 1.35 miles. Then come to a wider saddle, approaching the upper reaches of North Fork of Circle Creek and passing through some lightly wooded areas. At 1.5 miles, the singletrack trail begins to descend through another aspen stand and quickly reaches another junction. This time stay right, following the North Fork Circle Creek Trail.

North Fork Circle Creek Trail to Bumblie Trail via Striped Rock (2.6 miles)

As the onward route descends steadily into the North Fork drainage, the character of the hike changes considerably, with the open fields with long-reaching views quickly replaced by a more subdued walk through thicker woodlands. Descend to the initially dry drainage, then pass through a gate at 1.7 miles. After crossing the wash, the North Fork Circle Creek Trail passes North Fork Springs (which fills a small tub) on the right.

After another descent, the path briefly rises to a thin gap between high outcrops, then resumes the downhill tread. Even as the route temporarily moves well away from the main drainage, it is steadily descending into the watershed, which boasts much more diverse vegetation than the windswept west side of the Albion range.

Continue down a set of switchbacks, then cross to the west side of North Fork Circle Creek again and take a hard left at 2.75 miles, passing another outcrop on the right. The high unnamed outcrop to the east conceals a climbing area just beyond humorously called “Beef Jello.”

Drop down two switchbacks, then another pair, followed by a horseshoe bend that leads into a southward tread. Passing under a canopy of junipers and aspens, the trail then suddenly emerges out into the open at a wide scrubby flat. Cross the North Fork drainage once again and come to a junction with a spur marked “Beef Jello/Banana.”

Stay straight, continuing to follow the creek on the right as it deepens and gets wetter, supporting much denser and taller vegetation. Traversing open scrubland, there are views back to the upper amphitheater of rocks, as well as west to the prominent Stripe Rock, which has several popular climbing pitches.

Looking back at the upper reaches of City of Rocks

Just before a large gate at 3.6 miles, take a hard right on the Boxtop Trail. Pop over the drainage (with the water piped through a drain), then head uphill toward Stripe Rock. As the Boxtop Trail edges around to the south side of the massive outcrop, it cuts through a tighter passage and rounds a right-hand corner, revealing a playground of fins and knobs ahead.

Approaching Stripe Rock

Here the dusty path bears south and reaches a three-way junction, where hikers should continue right. Then, at another fork seconds later, visitors have a choice: either way—right or left—is a reasonable way to round out the loop, but heading right, via the Bumblie Trail, is perhaps preferable because it weaves through the granitic formations while the alternative largely edges around them.

Views of Granite Peak and Steinfells Dome

Taking the right fork, one of the first things hikers will notice is a prominent, solitary spire rising seemingly 50+ feet high. This is Lost Arrow Spire, an iconic thumb tackled regularly by rock climbers on various pitches. The trail seemingly heads straight for the pinnacle but then veers a little left, reaching another junction at 4.25 miles that marks the end of the hike’s second section.

Bumblie Trail to South Fork Trail (0.8 miles)

Stay right at this intersection, following the Bumblie (or Bumblie Wall) Trail westward into the fantasyland of rocks. Pass a spur leading to Lost Arrow and the No Start Wall on the right, staying straight as the path enters a more wooded area, climbing more steeply uphill with a drainage on the left: this is the Center Fork of Circle Creek. At 4.4 miles, traverse a short bridge over the wash, then cut southward, up and around a bulging outcrop that reveals itself to be the site of the “Lady J” pitches, a series of trads that appear comparatively easier to some of the surrounding climbing walls.

Lost Arrow Spire in the center

Pass Lady J on the right, then continue south on the Bumblie Trail to crest a higher hill. Pass through a gate, then follow a relatively granite-free saddle where the onward route becomes harder to follow. At one point, just as hikers start to get a further look south down to the South Fork drainage, the path appears to split, with a well-defined track continuing to skirt the ridgeline to the left and a less-trodden path bearing right, dropping down a minor ravine. Counterintuitively, the correct route is to stay right on the fainter path, as the deceptive alternative eventually sputters out amid a set of cliffs and ledges.

Bearing right, the Bumblie Trail sheds elevation as it heads for the South Fork of Circle Creek and another major climbing area. About ¼ mile from the confusing junction, pass the Bumblie Wall pitches on the left, then continue to a junction, marked by a trail sign indicating “Slabbage” (another goofy name for a climbing wall). Bear right here, passing through a notch that offers a shortcut to the South Fork Trail. This area is popular with climbers, on their way to nearby Slabbage, Bumblie, Transformer, or other pitches.

South Fork Trail to Emery Picnic Area (1.6 miles)

By now hikers are back in the thick of the City of Rocks, and the South Fork Trail (ak.a. South Fork Circle Creek Trail, or S.F.C.C.) cuts a winding passage through the heart of “the city,” gaining more than 600 feet in elevation en route back to the start of the loop. Bear right on the trail, quickly passing a spur on the right to the Slabbage pitches, in addition to a small natural arch that is worth the couple-dozen yard detour to view.

Natural arch near the Slabbage pitches

Continue on the S.F.C.C. Trail as it closely hugs the drainage, which now cuts a relatively deep trough. Stay straight at the fork, heading in the direction of “Parking Lot”—which is not a reference to a staging area for vehicles but rather another climbing area known as Parking Lot Rock. The onward trail stays on the right side of the South Fork (don’t cross the bridge at the fork), leading into a steep slope that is a wake-up call for hikers who have largely enjoyed mild inclines to this point.

The path eventually does cross over a short bridge, but this is merely a brief break before the resumption of a sustained, challenging ascent lasting around 1/3 mile. With the plutonic fins largely running north-south, the South Fork Trail parallels the mass outcrops, rising steadily. Cross another bridge at 5.6 miles, then approach a junction with another climbers’ route that leads to the “Drilling Fields” complex.

Looking back along the ascent toward Parking Lot Rock

Stay left on the S.F.C.C. Trail, then ascend in the direction of a high gap and narrowing passage. Pass a spur leading to the base of a massive, iron-streaked wall marked as “Redtail.” Continue uphill, then cross a short bridge and come to an unmarked junction in front of Parking Lot Rock. By now hikers have travelled around 5.7 miles.

Parking Lot Rock on the left

Head right at the junction, keeping Parking Lot Rock on the left as the South Fork Trail continues to climb higher, passing several unmarked spurs to Parking Lot Rock. Come to yet another junction after 1/10 mile, and stay right again. After a short downhill staircase, approach a subsequent fork and bear left, staying on the S.F.C.C. Trail and heading toward “Window Rock West.”

Follow the bulging pitches of Window Rock on the right as the trail comes right up to the cliff face, ascending a very steep but short section before cresting a shaded juniper-studded hump and dropping again. It’s a short walk to another junction, just beyond the northern reaches of Window Rock.

Head right, then left at the next turn seconds later, continuing northward. After passing the “Animal Cracker” routes on the right, the trail makes a final sustained climb, ascending a drainage with views back over the City of Rocks to Steinfells Dome and Smoky Mountain.

Final look back down the South Fork area

The ascent culminates with a slickrock section, and soon hikers come to a familiar spot: the initial overlook at the first of the hike’s many junctions, encountered more than six miles ago. Here hikers finish out the loop portion and should bear left, following the initial ¼ section back to the start. The mild path descends a set of bends, weaving in and out of low forest, before finally ending back at City of Rocks Road and the Emery Picnic Area. Cross the street to return to your car.

All told, the 6.6-mile up-and-down route is tiring and action-packed enough to feel like an all-day affair, although most hikers will be able to finish in 3.5-5 hours. Combine this hike with a visit to other sites in the park, such as Window Arch and Twin Sisters, or venture into nearby City of Rocks State Park for a different collection of granitic formations. The City of Rocks Loop is easily the most varied of the hikes in the park and a must-do for visitors with time and energy for a scenic adventure.

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