Ridge – Panorama – Bluffs Trail Loop (Andrew Molera State Park, CA)

Panorama Trail, Andrew Molera State Park, March 2022

Traversing a scrubby escarpment above the Pacific Ocean, the Ridge – Panorama – Bluffs Trail is a pleasant 8-mile jaunt in the Big Sur area and one of the best hikes in Andrew Molera State Park. Don’t be fooled by the gads of visitors at the parking area: most are headed for the Molera Ranch House or the beach at Molera Point. The majority of the walk spans more rugged terrain that thins the crowds and opens up the fantastic views: up the coast to Point Sur and across the Big Sur River Valley to the Santa Lucia Mountains. The loop twice offers beach access (along short spur trails) and combines a diversity of flora, including a small patch of redwoods.

Map of Ridge – Panorama – Bluffs Trail Loop, Andrew Molera State Park; created using alltrails.com

The hike

Most trips to Andrew Molera State Park—situated about 25 miles south of Monterey, California—begin at the Creamery Meadow Trailhead, where there is an entrance station and a large gravel parking area. Park here, make your way back past the entrance station, then take a hard right, passing under a white gateway. Follow the wide track, passing the pasture land of Molera Ranch on the left (this field is a favorite of ground squirrels!). At the first right, take the route heading down to the banks of the Big Sur River.

Crossing the Big Sur River

Here there is a footbridge that is only in place in summer; at all other times, hikers will have to ford the chilly but relatively still waters—expect at least ankle- to shin-high levels; there is no way to avoid wet feet here. This is the only river crossing on the hike, however (although one has to do it twice), and the onward trail returns quickly to dry, sunny flats along the northern edge of Pfeiffer Ridge.

Bear right at the fork just past the ford, then follow the Creamery Meadow Trail for about ¾ mile, passing some open patches on the right astride what is largely a rather dull connector path. Things get more interesting after a junction at about 9/10 mile, where hikers should bear left, climbing immediately on the Ridge Trail. The thick scrub fades as the path rises to a low gap and second fork with open views of Pfeiffer Ridge and the surroundings. This is the start of the loop portion of the hike.

Climbing the Ridge Trail, with Cabezo Prieto looming above

Bearing left to tackle the ridgeline first, follow the dirt track as it ascends through scrubby chaparral, steadily gaining height. Look back north for views of Molera Point and the primary beach, with a small cypress stand perched atop a windswept hill near the ocean. More and more of the coastline is revealed as the Ridge Trail rises further: eventually one can see to Point Sur and beyond.

View back toward Molera Point and Beach
Flat section of the Ridge Trail

After about ½ mile of continuous climbing, there is a brief flat that offers views of Pico Blanco (3,709’), a towering mountain that at first glance appears snow-capped—until, upon closer inspection, it is revealed to be a mix of limestone and marble. Pico Blanco is considered to be central to the origin story of the native Esselen people and later came to be mined for its limestone deposits. The peak is not one of the highest mountains in the Santa Lucia Range but perhaps one of the most iconic.

Pico Blanco

By now hikers have gained around 400 feet, but there is plenty more to go. The incline picks up again for about 1/3 mile, then levels and even descends briefly. As Mount Manuel and Cabezo Prieto dominate the skyline to the southeast, the vegetation around the path grows thicker; eventually even the pines, oaks, and bay trees return, with some berry-bearing toyon mixed in. After passing a junction with the (closed) Hidden Trail on the left, there is a gap off to the right with views down to the Pacific.

Brief descent on the Ridge Trail; Mount Manuel off to the left

As the trail heads uphill again, madrones, bays, and oaks make for nice tree cover. After a junction with the South Boundary Trail, at about 2.9 miles, the route passes through a modest redwood grove—not one of the most impressive in the area but pleasant enough. After staying relatively level for around ¼ mile, the Ridge Trail makes a final push, with vistas back north along the coast. At last, about 3.6 miles from the start, the Ridge Trail ends abruptly at a high point under the shade of a large cypress tree. This is a natural spot to stop for lunch or a snack, enjoying the views of the Pacific.

Views of the coast, with Point Sur in the distance

The Ridge Trail may end here, but the Panorama Trail picks up where it leaves off. Follow the steeply-descending path as it bears south and west, hugging the park boundary. At points hikers get elusive views south, down the Big Sur Coast—an area that is frequently socked in with fog.

Southward view along Big Sur Coast
Morning glory in bunches

Thereafter, the trail moves away from the boundary fence-line and drops steadily, down a winding singletrack in full view of the ocean. In spring, the bushes here are dazzling with morning glories. Dropping ever further, the Panorama Trail routs down to a hairpin turn, bears left, and then resumes the descent. The path eventually settles into a relative flat on a shelf below the high ridge but still well above the beach. This windswept area is largely devoid of tall trees.

Dropping down the Panorama Trail

Soon the trail drops to clear a ravine with a small stream, then rises to a junction, where a spur trail leads left and offers access to Molera Beach. Take this brief detour down to the ocean, or continue right, following what is now the Bluffs Trail. In contrast with the Panorama Trail, this path is largely level, passing multihued mounds on left and right, including a set of orange tufts immediately after the junction.

Bluffs Trail
Looking back south – one can see the big cypress on the ridge in the top left

Follow this enjoyable path in a northwesterly direction for 1.5 miles, then rise back to the initial junction, having now completed the loop section. This time bear left and follow the path down to the Creamery Meadow Trail, where hikers should head right. It’s an easy and level walk from here to the river crossing: yes, given the water stands between you and your car, fording again is mandatory. Once back across the Big Sur River, hang a left and walk 1/10 mile back to the entrance station and trailhead.

All told, this hike clocks in at just under eight miles and should take about 4-6 hours to complete.

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Pfeiffer Falls Trail (Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, CA)

Pfeiffer Falls, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, March 2022

More than 12 years after suffering significant damage in the 2008 Basin Complex Fire, the Pfeiffer Falls Trail in California’s Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park reopened for the first time in June 2021. The new and improved route—with its fresh boardwalks, staircases, and bridges—is an impressive feat of development, but it is of course the ancient, natural surroundings that make this short and moderately difficult hike memorable. Situated in a narrow canyon below Mount Manuel and the Santa Lucia Mountains, Pfeiffer Falls tumbles in several parallel chutes down a mossy wall, just above a grove of majestic, old-growth redwoods. Combine with the Valley View Trail to make this a 1.8-mile stem-and-loop.

Map of Pfeiffer Falls Trail, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park; created using alltrails.com

The hike

The newly-renovated Pfeiffer Falls Trail starts directly across from Big Sur Lodge in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. However, most visitors will be forced to park further afield: after driving past the lodge and paying the entrance fee, park in the first parking area on the right. This is Day Use Lot #1 and the common starting point for most hikes in the state park. Here you will find restrooms and information panels on the park’s several hiking trails.

The route to Pfeiffer Falls begins on the very mellow River Path, a wide track that begins on pavement before turning to gravel. Take the path westward as it passes the amphitheater (called the “Campfire Center”) on the right and then roughly parallels the Big Sur River, which one can hear—but not always see through the brush—on the left. This 16-mile meandering waterway is somewhat unusual in that it parallels—rather than running perpendicular to—the Pacific Ocean for part of its course down from the Santa Lucia Mountains.

Redwood Deck, outside Big Sur Lodge

Follow the River Path to a set of picnic tables and a fork, where hikers can head right—across Pfeiffer Big Sur Road—to the Nature Trail. Stay left, however, to get to Pfeiffer Falls, passing soon through the Redwood Deck, a snaking, wooden boardwalk at the base of a set of wonderful old-growth redwoods. These hearty trees are near the southernmost part of the species’ range and—though they do not grow nearly as tall as their cousins farther north—are thoroughly majestic specimens nonetheless.

Start of the Pfeiffer Falls Trail

After passing through the Redwood Deck, the trail approaches Big Sur Lodge on the left. Cross the road here—away from the lodge—where hikers will quickly find the start of the Pfeiffer Falls Trail. The route begins at a gentle incline and quickly encounters a junction. Stay right, weaving through a more modest redwood grove and up a set of stairs. One can get views of Pfeiffer Redwood Creek—flowing in winter and spring—off to the left.

Walking through the redwoods along the Pfeiffer Falls Trail

At 4/10 mile, the path abruptly empties out onto another road, with the official Pfeiffer Falls Trailhead (no parking though!) beyond. Here there is another information board and a bench or two. Head straight as the wide trail cuts through a denser redwood thicket. Soon enough hikers will find themselves at another marked junction: head right toward Pfeiffer Falls, leaving the Valley View Trail for the return route. (Note: Here the trail briefly leaves the state park and enters Los Padres National Forest.)

Trail fork

From here the trail rises more steeply, ascending staircases and skirting fern-lined hillsides as the canyon falls deeper off to the left. At 6/10 mile, hikers reach a long bridge (over a tributary creek), followed by a zig-zagging staircase that will leave some visitors huffing and puffing.

Dense thicket along the Pfeiffer Falls Trail

Thereafter, the Pfeiffer Falls Trail levels off considerably, making the remaining 2/10 mile to the falls relatively easy and enjoyable. The first look at Pfeiffer Falls comes at the upper overlook, a short spur that edges close to the base of the highest drop of the falls. After rains, the basin fills with water and the stream fans out in several chutes. Much of the season, however, the waterfall thins to a single veil on the far-left side of the wall.

From the upper overlook, continue down the trail as it drops to another point with a farther view of the falls but that picks up some of the cascading stream below. Then the trail drops another level to a small bridge over Pfeiffer Redwood Creek, which offers the final view of the falls.

By now hikers are on their way back via the Valley View Trail, an alternative route that rises up out of the canyon and into the scrubby chapparal and oak/bay woodlands. Ascend a tributary, then follow the zig-zagging switchbacks to loftier heights, with partial, obscured views of the Big Sur River valley.

Big Sur Valley from the Valley View Trail

At the hike’s one-mile mark, a spur trail heads off to the right—this path offers access to Valley View, an open vista. Weary or hurried hikers, however, can continue left, dropping back down into thicker forest. After quickly shedding about 300 feet, the Valley View Trail returns to Pfeiffer Redwood Creek and crosses it, followed quickly by the junction with the Pfeiffer Falls Trail. Bear right, retracing your steps back to the road crossing. Follow the trail continuation as it returns to thick redwoods and descends to Big Sur Lodge. Here, bear left on the River Path, heading back through the Redwood Deck and past the amphitheater to return to the trailhead.

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Point Lobos Loop (Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, CA)

Point Lobos Loop, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, March 2022

On area maps, at least in comparison to the much larger Monterey Peninsula to the north, Point Lobos appears as little more than a minor jut – a triangular peninsula between Carmel Bay and the rest of the central California coast to the south. But zooming in to this beloved headland reveals a different picture: multihued cliffs and aquamarine coves, crashing waves and serene tide pools, jagged bluffs and looming cypress trees. The diversity of landscapes—from sandstone slots to hidden beaches to thick forests—is nearly unparalleled, even for the spectacular Big Sur coast. A 4.6-mile loop walk around Point Lobos State Natural Reserve offers a flavor of this diversity, jam-packed with ocean vistas and opportunities for wildlife viewing. It’s no wonder that this place—at least when the weather holds—is very popular with visitors and locals alike.

Map of Point Lobos Loop, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve; created using alltrails.com

The hike

There are many options for hiking at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, with a bevy of trails crisscrossing the peninsula. And the multitude of parking areas offer many potential starting points for a comprehensive circuit around the reserve. But perhaps the most common point of departure is to begin at the park entrance—for several reasons. First, if arriving in late morning or later, it is highly likely that the various parking areas inside the reserve will be full, leaving visitors to have to park along the shoulder of Highway 1 (about seven miles south of central Monterey and 3-4 miles from Carmel). Second, parking outside the entrance means one avoids the entrance fee. Third, starting here—in the thick of the forest out of sight of the ocean—allows for some build-up to the most spectacular sights ahead.

From the Point Lobos Entrance Station, hikers can head north or south to complete the hike in a counterclockwise or clockwise direction, respectively. (Note: Yours truly did the latter—and thus the description follows the loop clockwise.) Bearing south, head left at the first junction (encountered immediately), then follow the South Plateau Trail as it winds up and around gentle slopes under a canopy of pines and oaks, some laced with Spanish moss. As the path rises and falls, a patch of thick poison oak and other shrubby plants separates the trail from the road, visible at times to the east.

Iris along South Plateau Trail

As the trail skirts Rat Hill (144’) on the left, it drops to a junction with the Pine Ridge Trail at 3/10 mile. Stay left, cross a short footbridge, and then proceed through a short boardwalk section. Pass a bench on the right at 6/10 mile, then head through an open brush area as the ocean draws nearer, dropping down a series of stairs to a set of two junctions. The first bears left and offers access to Gibson Beach, positioned in a moderately-sized cove with private property beyond. At the second junction, stay left, following the Bird Island Trail out to the end of a small peninsula.

Here the trail traverses a sturdy boardwalk overlooking Gibson Beach, with the Carmel Highlands area beyond. Steps later, the trail skirts a narrow inlet on the right; here the crashing waves carve deeper into the chalky, granodiorite cliffs. Just beyond, the trail ends with a short loop; heading left leads quickly to a wooden platform overlooking Bird Island, a milky-colored gathering spot for cormorants, seagulls, and other shoreline aviary species. The birds have an excellent view: in addition to the endless ocean beyond, one can also peer back to the south to catch sight of a large seaside natural arch.

Natural arch at Bird Island Overlook
Bird Island with cormorants

Curving in a clockwise direction around the loop, the trail offers northward views and a close look at China Cove, a spectacular turquoise and emerald green inlet with a small beach frequented by harbor seals. Here there is a single bench, which offers an opportunity to rest and take in one of the most colorful coves on the Big Sur coast.

China Cove

After the end of the loop, continue on the Bird Island Trail and bear left at the junction, edging around China Cove, revealing (at low tide) a small rock arch in the north-facing wall. Pass another bench with a view, then bear left and drop down a set of stairs, culminating at a very small parking lot (likely to fill up early in the morning).

Harbor seals at China Cove

Follow the left flank of the parking lot and then follow the sign for the South Shore Trail. Take this dirt route as it leaves the parking area and edges toward distinctive brown rocks—here the bedrock shifts from granodiorite to the Carmel Formation.

The trail quickly passes a spur to Hidden Beach on the left. This small sandy beach is reasonably popular with visitors. Pass a junction to another parking area on the right. Staying left, the route passes three orange cream-colored slots carved into the sandstone and conglomerate. These slots are off-limits but an intriguing sight that resembles the sandstone narrows of southern Utah.

Sandstone slot

Thereafter, the mild path passes a larger cove with an inaccessible gravel beach. Here the Mound Meadow Trail, which crosses over the Point Lobos Road, enters on the right. Stay left, coming up on Weston Beach on the left. Here the main attraction is the endless-entertaining tide pools, which are teeming with hermit crabs, snails, sea stars, sponges, violet-colored sea urchins, and other critters. It is easy to pass a half hour or hour here exploring the various pools and watching the waves ebb and flow in this low-lying area.

Tide pools at Weston Beach

Beyond Weston Beach, follow the onward path, paralleling the paved Point Lobos Road on the right. Cut through a small parking area, continue around a small cove, and then come to a larger, paved parking lot. Here the South Shore Trail continues northward, with a sign noting that one is now on the “Whale Trail”: look out to the blue ocean to see if you can spot any humpback or gray whales.

Inlet along the South Shore Trail

The subsequent section is one of the best parts of the hike. Here the Carmelo Formation is a vibrant orange, cut with streaks of gray and topped by multihued ice plant—an invasive but nonetheless beautiful species. After skirting another beautiful slot and Sand Hill Cove, the trail rises significantly for the first time, climbing a set of stairs to the headland. Stay left at the fork, ascending the Sand Hill Trail to a spot known as Sea Lion Point. Here one can peer down into the relatively broad Sea Lion Cove, another popular spot for seals and, of course, sea lions.

Sea Lion Cove

After rising to a high ridgeline, the trail cuts abruptly east, away from the coast. Bear left at the next fork and follow the Sea Lion Point Trail as it empties out to a popular parking area. By now hikers will have covered approximately 2.5 miles. Here there is a small information kiosk—sometimes staffed by a ranger—and some nice restrooms (with running water!).

From here, hikers can choose to head north on the North Shore Trail, but it’s worth taking a brief, one-mile detour on the Cypress Grove Loop. Past the restrooms, follow the wide path as it edges northwest toward the thickest concentration of cypress trees in Point Lobos—one of just two naturally-occurring Monterey cypress groves in the world. Follow the path as it enters Allan Memorial Grove and turns into another loop. Bear left, passing under a canopy of beautiful cypresses.

Rocks out at the end of Point Lobos

Some of the cypresses are noticeably struggling—muscled out by their larger and taller counterparts. Moreover, visitors may notice some trees laced with what appears to be a red fungus. This is in fact a form of algae called Trentepohlia, and despite its appearance, has no harmful effect on the cypresses. Both the trees and the algae thrive in the often foggy and misty landscape of this scenic headland, at the northwest corner of Point Lobos.

Peering out at the end of Point Lobos
Trentepohlia on the cypresses

Follow the loop trail up to an exposed point looking out over the ocean and a group of coastal islands. Follow the roped path as it edges north and then east, dropping to a point back in the thick cypress forest. Head left to explore a short spur, then continue east, eventually returning to the start of the circuit. From here, it is a short walk back to the parking area and restrooms.

Having completed the Cypress Grove Loop, next head left on the North Shore Trail, cutting across an open, brushy meadow. Stay right at the upcoming junction, then enter a denser thicket of trees. Climb a wooden staircase and stay left at the junction with the Whaler’s Knoll Trail. From here the path roughly follows the northern shore—mostly obscured—and then drops down a staircase to an open viewpoint with a short spur. Here one can see Guillemot Island, another popular destination for seabirds, and across Carmel Bay to Monterey Peninsula.

Viewpoint of Guillemot Island

Continue on the North Shore Trail as it bears south and edges around another small cove that is popular with harbor seals. Stay left as the Whaler’s Knoll Trail comes in again from the right, then stay east on the North Shore Trail as it gradually cuts around the broader Bluefish Cove.

Bluefish Cove

At a point around four miles into the hike, bear right on the Cabin Trail, descending gradually to the edge of the woods and spitting out at the Whaler’s Cabin. The cabin was not built by whalers at all—but rather Chinese fishermen who frequented the area in the 1850s. The cabin has a small museum and a volunteer docent.

From the museum, continue across Point Lobos Road and find the wide Granite Point Trail. Bear east as the path runs part of the length of Whalers Cove. About halfway along the beach, cross over a marshy tributary and then bear right on the Carmelo Meadow Trail. This final path leaves the shoreside and bears south for 3/10 mile, returning to the Entrance Station.

Mossy display

All told, this terrific loop hike clocks in at around 4.6 miles. For the most part, the difficulty is very mild; due to the length and a series of ups and downs on steep staircases, however, the route is listed as “Easy to Moderate.” Hikers can easily spend a whole day slowly meandering around Point Lobos, but it is possible to do this hike in as little as 2-2.5 hours.

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Carpenter Peak Trail (Roxborough State Park, CO)

Carpenter Peak, Roxborough State Park

The primary attraction of Roxborough State Park—situated at the edge of the Front Range to the southwest of Denver, Colorado—is a stunning collection of red-hued sandstone outcrops, rising from the earth at a roughly 60 degree angle and stretching for more than two miles north to south. Here the slanted fins and monoliths serve as one of the area’s best examples of the Fountain Formation (see also nearby Red Rocks Park), a sedimentary layer deposited more than 300 million years ago, punctuating the otherwise gray, brown, and yellow foothills of the Colorado Rockies. While visitors can get an up-close view of the tilted sandstone from the park’s Fountain Valley or South Rim Trails, perhaps the most rewarding view comes from the summit of Carpenter Peak (7,160 feet). From here the entire range of the stony fins can be admired from 1,000 feet above the valley, in addition to expansive views of the Front Range and the Denver metropolis. The hike to Carpenter Peak is a moderately challenging half-day hike and, barring recent ice and snowfall, is usually accessible year-round.

Map of Carpenter Peak Trail, Roxborough State Park; created using alltrails.com

The hike

Begin the hike from the Roxborough State Park Visitor Center, a short walk from the final parking area at the end of Roxborough Drive. (Note: There is a $10 vehicle fee per day to enter the park.) The sandstone outcrops of the Fountain Formation are visible immediately from the Visitor Center; here visitors are in the bowl of a small valley wedged between the fins and a sandstone and shale ridgeline called the Hogback, which forms the easternmost edge of the foothills. Mixed in are shades of orange and yellow rock comprising the Lyons sandstone, Lykins Formation, and Morrison shale. By the time hikers reach Carpenter Peak, they will have transitioned from the sedimentary bedrock to the igneous mountains, composed here of granite and gneiss.

Setting off toward Carpenter Peak

After situating oneself at the Visitor Center, bear west on the well-marked Willow Creek Trail, an oft-trodden track that quickly veers south and passes under a canopy of Gambel oaks. The relatively level trail reaches an open grassland after about 250 yards, offering a look east to a slanted cut in the Hogback through which Roxborough Drive travels. Thereafter the trail climbs mildly, interrupted by brief downhills, and reaches a junction at 0.45 miles. Leave the Willow Creek Loop behind, instead bearing right on the Carpenter Peak Trail, which hikers will follow all the way to the summit.

Bright colors of Roxborough State Park

After skirting a scrubby slope with more open views across the valley, hikers reach another fork at around the half-mile mark: stay right again as the South Rim Trail veers left. Cross an open grassland in the vicinity of ruddy sandstone monoliths and cross a gravel road, following the onward path up a short staircase. Stay right again at the intersection with a new path (as of 2021, it was hand-drawn on the Roxborough SP maps!) called the Bear Canyon Trail.

Ruddy formations from the road intersecting the trail

From here the ascent begins in earnest, with hikers having to mount occasionally steep steps as the landscape transitions from mixed grass prairie to scrubby hillslopes. After bearing southward, hikers reach a ridgetop with a short spur left to a magnificent viewpoint at 0.85 miles. From here one can admire the protruding sandstone outcrops to the north and south, with the striated Lyons sandstone and Hogback beyond.

Rising up the Carpenter Peak Trail

From the vista point, the Carpenter Peak Trail continues on a largely southward trajectory but does so through a series of bends and switchbacks that bring hikers higher and higher. At 1.25 miles, hikers skirt a pine-studded ravine and pass a bench on the left, after which the trail rises through an open section with the most expansive views yet. Beyond the Hogback, one can spot the skyscrapers of downtown Denver in the distance, as well as the blue waters of Chatfield Reservoir.

At about 1.5 miles, the ascending trail reaches its southernmost point, a sharp right-hand switchback that cuts back to the north before settling into a westward traverse. After reentering the shade of the conifers, the Carpenter Peak Trail intersects with the start of the Elk Valley Trail at 1.75 miles. Stay right, continuing uphill mildly as the trail hugs a north-facing slope.

Carpenter Peak ahead

At around two miles, the trail crests a ridgeline with low shrubs and the first good view of the Carpenter Peak summit, ahead to the north. Before reaching the peak, however, the trail must drop to clear a lengthy gully, descending to a pleasant flat section before turning northward again. As the trail ascends a modest incline, the trail passes two alternative summits off to the west—both in fact are higher than Carpenter Peak but not nearly as scenic.

After a lengthy approach, the trail finally reaches a junction at 3.1 miles, where hikers should follow a spur heading right to the summit. The final 1/10 mile ascends some stony steps and ends at a jumble of granite and gneiss outcrops—the summit of Carpenter Peak.

View west across Front Range

Peering out from the outcrops, hikers are rewarded with panoramic views—not just east and north to Denver and Roxborough but also westward across Waterton Canyon and toward Mount Evans. The landscape to the west is considerably more vegetated, with tall pines blanketing the hills, a contrast to the scrubby, windswept slope of the Front Range’s east side.

View south along Front Range from Carpenter Peak

After enjoying the views at the peak, return the way you came—or continue north from the spur junction to form a bonus circuit that combines the Powerline and Elk Valley Trails, adding about two miles to the round-trip. If taking the out-and-back, expect to spend 3-5 hours in total to complete this satisfying Front Range hike.

Sun setting on Roxborough and the Front Range of Colorado
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Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail (Joshua Tree National Park, CA)

Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail, Joshua Tree National Park, January 2022

Why settle for Twentynine Palms when you can see Fortynine? While the exact count is likely no longer quite right, Fortynine Palms Oasis is one of five desert fan palm oases in California’s Joshua Tree National Park. Here, secluded in a rugged canyon just south of the broad Yucca Valley, dozens of fan palms (Washingtonia filifera) have sprung up around a rare water source, offering tranquil shade in an otherwise dry, hot, and desolate environment. The moderately-difficult Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail edges a hilltop with outstanding views of Yucca Valley before plunging into the hidden canyon and ending at the oasis—a 3-mile out-and-back hike.

Map of Fortynine Palms Trail, Joshua Tree National Park; created using alltrails.com

The hike

The trail begins at the end of Fortynine Palms Canyon Road, a paved track leading just across the northern boundary of Joshua Tree National Park. Arrive early to beat the heat and get a spot in the rather small parking lot.

Start of Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail

There is one—and only one—hiking path taking off from the trailhead, and it is well-marked and obvious for most of the journey. The trail begins down a dusty track, entering the boulder-strewn hills that guard the northern frontier of Joshua Tree National Park. Look for all kinds of cacti—prickly pear, cholla, red barrel, and others—as the trail laces gradually south and eastward, steadily climbing to points overlooking Yucca Valley and the town of Twentynine Palms.

Overlooking Twentynine Palms in Yucca Valley

At about the half-mile mark, the trail finally crests a windy ridge with terrific views and the first look down into Fortynine Palms Canyon, which is fed by a minor spring that gives life to the oasis ahead. For now, the steep declivity shields the oasis from view, but the trail heads toward it by climbing a sunny hillside, with lots of red barrel cactus on the left.

Fortynine Palms Canyon

At 8/10 mile, the trail gives way to a steady downhill, with the path dropping to a low notch and then proceeding down to a side drainage. Follow the dry wash downstream for about 100 feet or so, then exit up to the right, rising to a point with the hike’s first views of the oasis ahead.

Fan palms at Fortynine Palms Oasis

From here the narrow route resumes its descent for a quarter mile, culminating at the edge of Fortynine Palms Oasis, the highlight and destination of the hike. Here the impressive trees rise dozens of feet, shedding dead palms and developing a furry underbelly, with the very highest revealing a tall and wily trunk. The trail officially ends at a spot past the first batch of palms but short of the main stand: being a sensitive ecological area, further travel is prohibited.

Overlooking the palms

But the views peering down at the main group of palms are impressive, as are the vistas down-canyon back toward Twentynine Palms. Hummingbirds frequent the area, as well as a variety of other avifauna, insects, and occasionally bighorn sheep. Soak in the serenity of this place before returning the way you came on the Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail. The return route requires rising around 350 feet to clear the ridgeline; reach the parking lot after about a 1.5- to 2-hour hike that includes one of the most impressive oases in Joshua Tree.

Fan palms at Fortynine Palms Oasis
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Rattlesnake Canyon (Joshua Tree National Park, CA)

Rattlesnake Canyon, Joshua Tree National Park, January 2022

Rattlesnake Canyon in southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park is a rough-and-tumble, off-trail route that is well-known and advertised in Joshua Tree guidebooks—although perhaps it should not be. Despite its short length—the entirety of Rattlesnake Canyon upstream from the trailhead is less than two miles—the canyon floor is full of obstacles, route-finding challenges, and plenty of opportunities for first-time hikers to find themselves in trouble. Rescues—due to disorientation, heat, or broken bones—are relatively common, and the canyon is somewhat of a headache for local rangers, who warn of the dangers of the off-trail hike. As one local park official noted in 2016 after rescuing three hikers, “these people did not realize how strenuous Rattlesnake Canyon is…It is important to evaluate the hike you’re going to take…Find out a little bit about it before you just take off.” Notwithstanding these words of caution, Rattlesnake Canyon is a beautiful and rewarding destination for those with proper preparation and experience. Here the sandy wash gives way to a narrow and rugged gulch carved into the undulating monzogranite of an area called the Wonderland of Rocks. Fabulous grottos and slender slots can be found within a half-mile of the start, with additional wonders beyond as the canyon cuts deep into the boulder-strewn wilderness.

(Note: In light of the hike’s hazards, I have mixed feelings about posting information on the route. However, the canyon is truly a gem of the park, is already well-known on the Internet, and has an official NPS trailhead with complete signage (which repeats the warnings), so I have elected to do so—but add several pointers and suggestions for completing the hike safely.)

Map of Rattlesnake Canyon hike, Joshua Tree National Park; created using alltrails.com

The hike

Rattlesnake Canyon is most often explored as an out-and-back hike beginning from the Rattlesnake Canyon Picnic Area, accessed by way of the Indian Cove Entrance in Joshua Tree National Park. After entering the park, follow Indian Cove Road toward the looming rocks, then stay left at three intersections in quick succession, following the road to its end (toward the picnic area, not the Indian Cove Campground). Here, amid the scrubby creosote bushes, the gravel road forms a loop; partway around the drive is a small parking area with a restroom and the trailhead sign.

Rattlesnake Canyon Trailhead

The warnings at the trailhead are many: hikers should not underestimate this unofficial, off-trail route, where route-finding is challenging, rock scrambling is required, and the heat of a summer day can be deadly. Plan to bring plenty of water—more than you think you need—as well as perhaps a GPS and, if you have them, climbing gloves. Inexperienced hikers should not try this hike (at least beyond the first 1/3 mile); there are plenty of other official hikes in the park that are not nearly as strenuous.

The trailhead is situated on a flat at the eastern fringe of a clutch of cream/orange-colored rock known as monzogranite, which makes up many of the most prominent landmarks in the northern part of the park. In the distance, behind the monzogranite, is a range of higher hillsides composed of older, darker Pinto gneiss, another igneous formation that rises to heights overlooking the Wonderland of Rocks below. The route skirts the gneiss layer but cuts firmly into the monzogranite just after the start.

From the trailhead, hikers will notice immediately that there is no signed and official path. Working your way southeast amid the creosote bush, however, a series of social trails generally empty into a broader wash; this is the main drainage through Rattlesnake Canyon, although it narrows significantly beyond the broad start.

Entering the monogranite in Rattlesnake Canyon; the canyon bears left ahead

Follow the main wash upstream (though it is likely to be dry), staying amid the cream- and orange-colored monzogranite (not the dark brown gneiss). Large boulders have tumbled into the wash, requiring hikers to do some minor scrambling to navigate them; remain in the wash as it cuts in a southwesterly direction.

Grotto and chockstone area

Follow the sandy drainage as it enters a dogleg left, following it around a bend to a point where onward progress in the wash is obstructed by a large chockstone and series of pools. From this pleasant grotto, the canyon rises abruptly into a narrow and undulating slot. Unless you are a premiere rock climber, continuing on will likely require deviating from the wash bottom for the first time on the hike, now about 1/3 mile from the trailhead.

The next section is the hardest section of the hike and requires very careful footing, navigation, and judgment. It is possible to bypass the slot on the right or left, either by edging along the slickrock slopes near to the slot or by swinging further afield amid the endless boulders. The former is more straightforward but can be harrowing for those wary of heights and exposure. Never does the hiker have to do anything extremely sketchy, but steady footing is required to avoid a 10- to 20-foot fall into the narrowing canyon below. The latter option—requiring navigating the tops of boulders for 1/10 mile—can be slow and seemingly never-ending but is generally safer. (Note: We opted for a route on the left side that hugged the slot at first but then rose up through a notch that required ducking under a chockstone and ascending to the boulder section. We rose too far amid the boulders, requiring some downclimbing once past the slot. On the return route, we opted for the straighter but hairier slickrock option.)

Peering out over Yucca Valley

Some hikers may choose neither option. This is probably the best choice for those who are inexperienced with Class 2+ scrambling, and turning around at the grotto still makes for a nice, short day hike. But adventurous travelers can continue further, bypassing the slot and eventually returning to the wash bottom after about 1/10 mile—and 200 feet in elevation in elevation gain. From here hikers can look back at the landscape to the north, including Yucca Valley and a series of Mojave Desert ranges beyond.

Wash bottom in Rattlesnake Canyon
Rattlesnake Canyon above the slot

Once back in the flat wash above the slot section, continue upstream, passing a series of small potholes and short pouroffs, relatively easily bypassed without leaving the streambed. After two pouroffs, the level, sandy wash splits into several threads, interrupted by brush and occasional cottonwoods. Soon enough, the massive boulders return—with some rising 20 to 30 feet above the wash bottom. The boulder jams form small cave-like passages, all of which are relatively easily traversed.

Cave-like section
Entering boulder complex

The second of two large boulder jams makes for a decent turnaround point for day hikers. Enjoy the serenity of this secluded canyon before turning back and returning the way you came. Be careful, of course, with the downclimb around the slot—descending can often be more harrowing and dangerous than ascending. Once back near the start, leave the wide drainage and follow one of the side paths to return to the trailhead.

Top of slot section

Of course, it is possible to continue further up Rattlesnake Canyon. It is even possible to follow a side drainage from here to reach a beautiful area called Willow Hole. But most will opt for exploring a little way up from the slot before turning around. Despite the short distance (we went around two miles round-trip), progress is slow and trying; allot around 3-4 hours out-and-back, allowing for sufficient time for route-finding, scrambling, and inevitably getting a little lost amid the imposing monzogranite.

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Cholla Cactus Garden Nature Trail (Joshua Tree National Park, CA)

Cholla Cactus Garden Nature Trail, Joshua Tree National Park, January 2022

Situated in the transition zone between the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, the Cholla Cactus Garden in southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park boasts one of the area’s most impressive stands of teddy bear cholla, a species of cactus known for its attractive look that belies a piercing clutch of pointed spines. Taking advantage of an ideal location and soil composition, thousands of chollas cluster in the western Pinto Basin, with easy access by way of Pinto Basin Road, which runs through the heart of the park. Stop off here for a quick walk on the ¼-mile Cholla Cactus Garden Nature Trail to admire the beautiful, showy cacti.

Map of Cholla Cactus Garden Nature Trail, Joshua Tree National Park; created using alltrails.com

The hike

The Cholla Cactus Garden is one of the few official roadside attractions along Pinto Basin Road between Cottonwood and the Park Boulevard in Joshua Tree National Park. This makes it a popular place for visitors to get out and stretch their legs. The ¼-mile boardwalk loop begins and ends at a moderately-sized parking area about 10 miles southeast of Park Boulevard, just after Wilson Canyon and a modest pass.

Start of Cholla Cactus Garden Trail

The loop is fine to do in either direction, although a park brochure suggests heading counter-clockwise, stopping at a series of numbered markers for more information on the cholla. (Note: However, these brochures were missing when I visited, and the dearth of waysides left much to be desired for those wanting to learn more about the intriguing chollas.) The path quickly enters a dense “forest” of the stunning chollas, defined by their thick, dense spikes that—from afar—give them a fuzzy appearance. Some of the cacti rise higher than five feet, with the golden spines giving way to a blackish-brown stem that stabilizes the plants in the frequent wind.

Teddy cholla cactus with Pinto Basin beyond

The boardwalk trail occasionally crosses small ditches and has a handful of minor turnoffs, but the entire walk is easy to follow and relatively level, accessible for wheelchair users. The surroundings are defined by the broad Pinto Basin, with the Pinto Mountains and Eagle Mountains in the distance to the east and Hexie Mountains closer to the southeast. Here the terrain transitions from the Mojave Desert to the Colorado, each boasting different plants found nowhere else (for example, Joshua trees grow almost exclusively in the Mojave Desert).

After completing the loop, return to your car and move on to some of the other nearby sights of Joshua Tree National Park.

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Flatiron via Siphon Draw Trail (Superstition Wilderness, AZ)

Flatiron and Siphon Draw, Superstition Wilderness, January 2022

Described as “one of the state’s top ten hikes to experience” and one of the “best hikes near Phoenix,” Flatiron in Arizona’s Superstition Wilderness offers an exceptionally scenic vista, but most hikers will remember it for its challenging and unique ascent: a seemingly endless scramble, including one 12-foot pitch that resembles true rock climbing. The very strenuous hike, gaining about 2,500 feet in just three miles, is certainly not for beginners and casual hikers. Nonetheless, Flatiron is a rather popular day hike, with visitors flocking to the colorful, striated knob that has become one of the most recognizable natural landmarks of the Phoenix area. The hike begins at Lost Dutchman State Park ($7-10 entrance fee) but ends deep in the Superstition Wilderness high above the sprawling metropolis.

Map of Flatiron via Siphon Draw Trail, Superstition Wilderness, Tonto National Forest; created using alltrails.com

The hike

The out-and-back to Flatiron begins and ends in Lost Dutchman State Park, a popular destination spanning 320 acres of the Sonoran Desert at the base of the Superstition Mountains, around 40 miles east of downtown Phoenix, Arizona. The Superstitions comprise an alluring range composed largely of rhyolitic tuff and breccia, with many sheer vertical faces that take on a beautiful reddish hue. The imposing mountains appear from Lost Dutchman to be a seemingly indomitable mass, towering high above the saguaro cactus forest below. Yet there is indeed at least one traversable route: a drainage called Siphon Draw, a (usually) dry arroyo, accessible from the northwest.

Siphon Draw Trailhead, Lost Dutchman State Park

To reach Siphon Draw, first drive into Lost Dutchman State Park, bear left at the first intersection past the entrance station, and follow the road to its end, where there is a moderately-sized parking lot at the Siphon Draw Trailhead. (Note: If this lot is full, park at the Saguaro Day Use Area, about 1/10 mile back toward the entrance.) Look for the modest sign on the south side of the lot for the start of the trail.

The first half mile of the walk is an easy stroll, beginning with a short stairstep descent to clear a wash, followed by another less than a minute later. Stay straight at the various junctions, dipping in and out of several more creek beds and passing a group of picnic tables and a coyote-shaped sundial on the left. All around, the ruddy soil is dotted with brush, palo verde, and several types of cacti, including prickly pear and the famous saguaro. At a point about 0.22 miles from the start, bear left as the Siphon Draw Trail edges around the large Main Campground at Lost Dutchman. Following the signs, the route weaves southeast and then abruptly crosses a paved track below the cabins at the camping area.

Stay on the track as it gradually leads away from the campground, reaching another junction at about ½ mile. Stay left, settling into a wide but rocky trail that heads to the eastern boundary of the park. After remaining straight at the junction at 6/10 mile, pass through a cattle guard, officially leaving Lost Dutchman State Park and entering Tonto National Forest.

Approaching the Superstition Mountains and Siphon Draw

The Siphon Draw Trail quickly passes a sign for the Superstition Wilderness (although hikers have not technically entered it yet) and then rises to a pair of junctions at around 8/10 mile. Stay right at the first and straight at the second, then begin a long, gravelly climb toward Siphon Draw. By now, the saguaros have largely given way to stubbly brush and grasses, and hikers can clearly make out the contours of Flatiron, the imposing, striated peak ahead.

Entering Superstition Wilderness

After the relatively easy tread to this point, it is easy to get lulled into a false sense of security: at the one-mile mark, hikers are technically already one third of the way there. But the remaining distance is exponentially harder, and the incline picks up steadily as hikers approach the official boundary of the Superstition Wilderness at around 1.4 miles. By now the trail has narrowed a bit and weaves in and out of some rock jumbles, with far-reaching vistas looking back to the west across the Phoenix area.

Approaching The Basin with Flatiron above

Generally staying to the left flank of Siphon Draw, the onward trail begins to scale sloping slickrock, awash with loose rock. Be careful when ascending this section. At about 1.75 miles, the route appears to split into several different paths, although all seemingly lead to the same place, continuing to stay on the left side of the draw. At 1.9 miles, the trail drops to clear the sandy drainage, flanked by acacia trees. Quickly thereafter, the onward path leads to a scenic, bowl-shaped pitch called The Basin.

The Basin in Siphon Draw

This picturesque spot, composed of slickrock and streaked with desert varnish on the right side. Having already gained 1,100 feet from the trailhead, many visitors will turn around at this point. But determined hikers can press on – bounding up the drainage, rounding a slight left-hand turn, and then rising to an even steeper pitch composed of natural stairsteps. Climb up to a set of two notches, each offering onward passage, with an onward look at Upper Siphon Draw and Flatiron.

From here, the Siphon Draw Trail does something not yet seen on the hike—it descends steeply and quickly, dropping to a point where the route empties into the drainage itself. Once down in the drainage again, about 9/10 mile of hiking remains—but the next section mounts more than 1,200 feet in elevation gain.

Upper Siphon Draw and Flatiron

The trail itself dissolves, giving way to a series of social paths. But don’t overthink it: the best option for the next 2/3 mile is to follow the drainage straight up the gut; many hikers make the mistake of following paths leading up the right side of the drainage—only to find themselves ledged out and having to backtrack. Heading upstream requires patience and careful footing, with the sandy drainage quickly turning to a seemingly endless rock scramble: up, over, and around chunk boulders and between thick brush. At one point about halfway up this section, there is temptation again to take one of the social trails leading right. Resist this temptation, instead cutting back and staying in the main drainage. For more than a half mile, it is a slow and methodical climb, with ever-widening views looking back toward the Phoenix suburbs.

View back toward Phoenix from Siphon Draw

At a point around 2.7 miles from the trailhead, the drainage narrows to a thin notch, and onward passage requires ascending a 12-foot, Class 3 pitch. This is easily the most challenging obstacle of the hike, and, it first glance, it can appear intimidating. But careful decision-making, use of handholds (and perhaps the tree on the left), and a little bit of arm strength lift hikers over the top.

The 12-foot pitch

Suddenly, after this pitch, the difficulty eases up significantly. Hikers can take a deep breath and enjoy the wide views, eyeing the surprisingly flat top to Flatiron off to the west. Ahead to the east is the pinnacle-studded Ironview Peak (5,024’), with Superstition Peak (5,057’)—not visible—beyond.

The final leg requires edging southwest, leading toward the scaly head of Flatiron, dotted with prickly pear cacti, agaves, yuccas, and chollas. Follow the main tread to the edge of the cliff, where the dropoff extends more than 1,000 feet to the vast valley below. Most hikers will huddle around the edge here, peering off west across the Phoenix metropolis, with the Goldfield and Usery Mountains off to the north and South Mountain, the Estrella Mountains, and White Tank Mountains in the distance to the west.

Looking down at Siphon Draw from Flatiron
Summit of Flatiron with Phoenix area beyond

But the best views are arguably to the southwest. Here the Superstition Mountains unfold in their full glory, with steep, imposing cliffs dropping to a tiered desert escarpment. The high ranges extend southward toward Tucson, headlined by the imposing Santa Catalina Mountains. Backtracking from the summit, hikers can find a nice spot overlooking this area that is virtually free of crowds; a sublime spot to stop for lunch and catch your breath after the brutal, 2,500-foot climb.

Superstition Mountains from Flatiron

When ready, return the way you came, descending Siphon Draw back to The Basin and Lost Dutchman State Park. The return route, with fatigue setting in, can be just as difficult as the ascent; take your time and use careful footing to descend the 12-foot pitch and the lengthy declivity back to the desert floor. The final mile through the cactus forest can feel hot and seemingly endless, but when the entire 6-mile round-trip is complete, hikers are rewarded with the bragging rights of having finished one of the toughest summit hikes in the Phoenix area.

Looking back at Flatiron and the Superstition Mountains
Superstition Mountains from Lost Dutchman State Park
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Bridal Wreath Falls & Little Wildhorse Tank Loop (Saguaro National Park, AZ)

Wildhorse Trail, Saguaro National Park, January 2022

Abutting the northwestern fringes of the Rincon Mountains, the Cactus Forest in Saguaro National Park’s eastern district boasts a rich diversity of plant life, including prickly pear, red barrel, and saguaro cacti and various cholla species. A network of hiking trails crisscrosses the desert ecosystem, while a subset of them climb partway up into the foothills, where visitors can encounter, at least in springtime, a surprising sight: flowing water. A modest stream tumbles around 25 feet into a lovely pool at Bridal Wreath Falls—a popular spot among Tucson locals—while a slight detour south leads to the even nicer Little Wildhorse Tank, where a seasonal flow spills in and out of a series of potholes etched in the metamorphic bedrock. Combining the two destinations, hikers can complete a satisfying 8-mile circuit that is moderately difficult with about 1,050 feet of elevation gain.

Map of Bridal Wreath Falls & Little Wildhorse Tank Loop, Saguaro National Park; created using alltrails.com

The hike

The circuit begins at the end of East Speedway Boulevard, a straightaway that leads eastward to the Rincon Mountain District from downtown Tucson, Arizona. There is no fee for entry to this part of Saguaro National Park, and the Douglas Spring Trailhead has a small parking lot that is nearly always full after mid-morning. Extra parking can be had along the shoulder to the west of the trailhead, which actually works out well given that the loop hike ends at the Wildhorse Trailhead, about 2/10 mile west of the Douglas Spring parking area.

Cactus Forest along the Douglas Spring Trail

Make your way to the start of the Douglas Spring Trail, which leaves from the crowded parking lot and enters the spectacular Cactus Forest, which is particularly dense in this area. In addition to lots of the park’s namesake saguaros, there are ribbons of prickly pear, mesquite, cholla, barrel cactus, and creosote. Follow the easy, level path for ¼ mile to the first junction, where the Garwood Trail bears south. Stay left, continuing east, down and up some brief sets of stone stairs, then descend to clear a sandy wash, crossing to the north side.

Saguaro cacti along Douglas Spring Trail

From here the path rises mildly to a second junction, this time with the Converse Trail. Stay left again, entering a section that rises into the foothills of the Rincon Mountains. A steady uphill incline brings hikers up to around 3,100 feet. After a brief flat, the ascent continues, climbing steeper stone steps, with expansive views across the broad valley to Tucson and the Santa Catalina Mountains. Ahead, the landscape is dominated by Tanque Verde Ridge, a long hogback that eventually connects with Mica Mountain (8,666’), the highest point in Saguaro National Park. (Note: Reaching Mica Mountain requires at least a 2-3 backcountry trip.)

Ascending into the foothills

Yuccas and ocotillos become more ubiquitous—and saguaros sparser—as the Douglas Spring Trail rises higher, reaching about 3,400 feet before a third junction. Although hikers will eventually find themselves on the Carrillo Trail en route to Little Wildhorse Tank, for now stay left on the Douglas Spring Trail toward Bridal Wreath Falls.

From the fork, drop down a grassy pitch to a blocky drainage that may hold water after recent rains. This nameless wash is nonetheless one of the most prominent in the area, and the trail will continue to follow it for another ¾ mile.

Along the Douglas Spring Trail, looking back toward Tucson

Once across the wash, ascend a staircase and parallel the drainage from high above, looking back across the valley to Tucson and beyond. The trail soon levels off and then crosses a side drainage flanked with brush. Continue to climb up to a sun-soaked plain. This area was once charred by the 1989 Chiva Fire, although it is hard to tell today as tufty grasses and brush have overtaken the flat once again.

Staircase along Douglas Spring Trail

At about 2.4 miles, stay left at the junction with the Three Tank Trail, which hikers will take later to reach Little Wildhorse Tank. Continuing on the Douglas Spring Trail, crisscross a minor drainage and then come to another fork around ¼ mile later. Here hikers should bear right at the four-way junction, taking the short Bridal Wreath Falls Trail as it descends through thicker brush. Cross the rocky drainage, fed by the waterfall, then climb along the north banks for a bit before the trail drops again, this time ending in the drainage itself. Use careful footing as you make your way upstream, quickly arriving at Bridal Wreath Falls.

Bridal Wreath Falls

Given that it usually has only a faint or nonexistent flow, the waterfall is no Niagara Falls, but the multihued cliff and clear pool makes the area a pleasant enough sight. A small beach and adjacent rocks offer places to stop for a snack and enjoy the shady glen, a relatively rare sight in the sun-soaked desert.

Bridal Wreath Falls

Most day hikers will turn around at this point and return the way they came to Douglas Spring Trail, which makes for about a 5.9-mile out-and-back. But why stop here? It is relatively easy to combine Bridal Wreath Falls with a visit to Little Wildhorse Tank, another popular attraction, in a loop hike that adds about two miles to the round-trip. To continue on this circuit, work your way back to the four-way junction, turn left, and then walk to the start of the Three Tank Trail. This pleasant and lesser-used path cuts southwest along the base of the Rincons, passing three seasonal tanks—two natural and one man-made—along the way.

Follow the Three Tank Trail as it drops to clear a drainage and then rises steadily toward a low ridge, passing the usually dry Aguila Tank on the right. At 3.9 miles, the trail rises to the hike’s highest point (about 3,800’), a saddle with fine views across the Santa Cruz Valley. In the distance, one can spot the Tucson Mountains, partly encompassed by the west unit of Saguaro National Park.

Santa Cruz Valley and Tucson from the Three Tank Trail

From here the Three Tank Trail begins a lengthy descent, with nice views much of the way. Cross a minor drainage at around 4.25 miles, then descend to a larger one, which forms an interesting canyon flanked in some area by relatively high, craggy walls. Hidden amid the brush is Mica Tank, down in the wash on your left; below the tank, the trail briefly enters the wash but then quickly exits off to the right. Now paralleling the wash below, the Three Tank Trail edges westward amid another large stand of saguaros, bypassing a series of pouroffs on the left.

Pouroffs below Mica Tank

Soon the Three Tanks Trail drops precipitously to a confluence of two drainages and a somewhat confusing intersection of hiking trails. Visible ahead is the large Steel Tank, a manmade water basin that is now deeply rusted, with several holes in the base. Here hikers heading for Little Wildhorse Tank will want to take a hard left, skirting around to the west side of the tank. Briefly follow the lesser drainage eastward, then follow the Carrillo Trail as it exits right. (Note: You should not have to descend to the main wash.)

Take the Carrillo Trail as it ascends to another low escarpment with views of the valley, then descend through the cactus forest to cross another wash and reach a four-way junction, this one about 5.7 miles into the hike. Here hikers will want to take a hard left on the Wildhorse Trail, a narrow track that leads to a beautiful set of tinajas.

Wash below Little Wildhorse Tank

Follow the trail as it approaches a grey- and red-hued wash, where puddles of water may be present. Cross the drainage and climb steeply up the other side as the trail narrows further. From here the undulating path passes high above some pretty pools, sometimes connected by thin streams of water. In the heat of summer, many of these pools will dry completely—but after recent rains they are filled with water and play host to desert frogs, turtles, and other species.

Tinaja below Little Wildhorse Tank

At last, the trail descends to a gravelly beach and Little Wildhorse Tank, a shady pool fed by rains and snowmelt from the seasonal stream. This pretty spot boasts a full-fledged riparian environment, a mini-oasis in the Sonoran Desert. Hikers can stop here for a snack and rest before continuing on to finish the loop.

Little Wildhorse Tank

Once ready, retrace your steps for 4/10 mile, returning to the four-way intersection. This time continue straight on the Wildhorse Trail, which hikers will follow all the way back to East Speedway Boulevard.

Looking out over the wash

At first, the path follows a drainage on the right, crosses it, rises for a brief period, then drops to clear a second small wash. Thereafter, ascend a stone staircase to a ridge overlooking the broad valley floor, then descend again, reaching the drainage followed earlier that contains the Mica and Steel Tanks.

Switchbacks along Wildhorse Trail

Just after crossing this wash again, there is another junction. Stay left as the Three Tank Trail comes in from the right, then follow the winding switchbacks, with views of the suddenly deep drainage on the left. The incline gradually eases as the Wildhorse Trail edges northward, reaching a junction with the Garwood Trail at about the 7-mile mark. Stay straight, then right at the subsequent fork with the Bajada View Trail.

Desert landscape along Wildhorse Trail

From here the widening track descends gradually to the broad, sandy, and confusing Bajada Wash. It is easy here to lose the onward trail amid the brushy islands, but general sense leads one to head down-stream (north) for about 1/10 mile, then up a well-worn path leading out of the wash to the right just as the arroyo enters a dogleg left.

Back out in the open basin, the Wildhorse Trail meanders through the Cactus Forest, passing junctions with the Creosote Trail (stay right) and Stock Bypass Trail (stay left). A final junction is reached just before the road, where hikers will want to bear right and walk the remaining steps back to the Wildhorse Trailhead and East Speedway Boulevard. It is a short walk from here to the Douglas Spring Trailhead, finishing off the 8-mile loop.

This moderately challenging hike will take most at least a half-day (between about 4-6 hours).

Posted in Arizona, Moderate Hikes, Saguaro National Park | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Wasson Peak Loop (Saguaro National Park, AZ)

King Canyon Trail, Saguaro National Park, January 2022

Wasson Peak (4,687′) is the highest point in the Tucson Mountains, a small range of cactus-dotted heights situated just west of Arizona’s second largest city. Reaching the summit is one of the more popular hikes in Saguaro National Park’s Tucson Mountain District, but the nearly 8-mile loop requires a bit of stamina and endurance as it climbs 1,800 feet through dry gullies and atop high ridgelines. The panoramic views are fantastic—some of the best in the area—but it is the impressive saguaro cacti that steal the show. These slow-growing titans are found naturally only in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona/California and northern Mexico, and the hike to Wasson Peak offers up-close views of some excellent specimens. Better yet, do the hike in the late afternoon as the setting sun casts beautiful light on the west-facing slopes of the Tucson Mountains. The following description details a clockwise loop to/from Wasson Peak that begins and ends at King Canyon Trailhead to the south.

Map of Wasson Peak Loop, Saguaro National Park; created using alltrails.com

The hike

Although 99% of the hike is within Saguaro National Park, the 7.7-mile circuit begins at the King Canyon Trailhead in neighboring Tucson Mountain Park. This Pima County park is perhaps most famous for the nearby Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Old Tucson Studies, but miles of hiking trails abound in this 20,000-acre tract. (Note: There is also a large campground—Gilbert Ray—that is a short drive from the trailhead.) The King Canyon Trailhead is one of the most popular starting points in the park, and the reasonably small parking lot can fill up quickly, even on weekdays. (Note: There is overflow parking across the street at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.)

At first glance, there appears to be only one route—the King Canyon Trail—leaving from the trailhead, but the path quickly splits into two. Head left on the Gould Mine Trail, dropping down to a sandy wash, the main drainage through King Canyon. Once down in the wash, take a left, heading downstream toward Kinney Road, then follow the singletrack path as it abruptly climbs up and out of the drainage to the west. Here hikers are at about 2,900 feet in elevation, with around 1,800 feet in climbing ahead.

Saguaros, ocotillos, and prickly pear cactus along the Gould Mine Trail

The Gould Mine Trail quickly rises to a low shelf that immediately boasts a diversity of plant life, including creosote bush, jumping cholla, prickly pear cactus, ocotillos, palo verde, and, of course, saguaros. Follow the dusty path as it cuts through a wire fence—officially entering Saguaro National Park—then ascends mildly and intermittently as the route edges northward, skirting another drainage that forms a modest canyon.

Gould Mine Trail, heading into the Tucson Mountains

Passing the so-called Red Hills off to the west, the Gould Mine Trail drops to clear the wash at about 2/3 mile but then continues to parallel it on the left. The incline steepens as hikers come within eyesight of what is left of Gould Mine, which was in operation from 1906 to 1954. Here the mine tailings have left the hillside streaked with bright, Martian-like hues of pink, orange, and silver, perched above a slope of mesquite, saguaros, and ocotillos.

Approaching Gould Mine
Gould Mine from below

After passing the mine on the left, the single-track merges with the Sendero Esperanza Trail, which effectively the bisects the ridgeline between Wasson Peak to the east and the Red Hills area and Hohokam Road to the west. Bear left and climb the path as it rises to the top of the mine, where hikers pass a stone structure and can peer down the barred-off shaft.

Views to Avra Valley from Sendero Esperanza Trail

Notice the teddy bear chollas as you continue up the Sendero Esperanza Trail, which gradually edges around two steep drainages with open views south and west across Avra Valley, with the Sierrita, Coyote, and Roskruge Mountains in the distance. Continue uphill as the trail passes an outcrop of deep brown, volcanic rock on the left and then rises to a high saddle at 2.1 miles. By now, hikers have gained about 650 feet, less than half of the total gain.

Views north to Panther and Safford Peaks from the saddle

The views from the ridgeline are terrific, with new vistas to the north offering a look across modest hills to imposing Panther Peak (3,435’) and Safford Peak (3,663’) in the northern reaches of the park. Beyond that is broad valley, serviced by the seasonal Santa Cruz River, that stretches northwest toward Phoenix. Off to the northwest, just outside the park boundaries, is the community of Picture Rocks.

One can also see east from here toward Wasson Peak, although the actual summit for now remains obscured. Bear right at the junction with the Hugh Norris Trail, following the path eastward as it climbs steadily, leveraging stone steps and occasional switchbacks to gain height. Yuccas become more prominent as the trail goes on, and a spur at around 2.6 miles leads to a nice overlook with views to the southeast—toward Gates Pass, Tower Peak (4,161’), Bushmaster Peak (4,140’), and the long tail of the Tucson Mountains.

Looking down the ridge to the west from the Hugh Norris Trail
View southeast from the Hugh Norris Trail

Soon enough the trail crests the ridge and switches to hugging the south-facing flank, with more exquisite views. After returning to the north side again briefly, the trail skirts Amole Peak (4,422’) on the left, briefly descends, and then rises to a high gap at about 3.6 miles.

Saguaro near its upper range (4,000′)
Looking back at Amole Peak from the 10-switchback section

Thereafter, hikers launch into arguably the toughest part of the hike, a 300-foot climb that comprises ten sun-soaked switchbacks, culminating at an even higher saddle with the first unobstructed views of downtown Tucson. Here one can see across the heavily-populated valley to the snow-capped Santa Catalina and Rincon Mountains. Also visible ahead is the hulking mass that is Wasson Peak, the main objective of the loop hike.

Wasson Peak and the Santa Cruz Valley

From the high pass, drop to a junction where the King Canyon Trail descends down to the right; the spur path to the summit continues left, briefly descending before rising a final time to a narrow ridgeline and then the protruding summit.

View southeast across the Tucson Mountains from Wasson Peak

The path wraps all the way around to the east side of the peak before doubling back to the west and reaching the top. Shade is at a premium on this scrubby summit, but the views are panoramic, stretching in the direction of Phoenix to the northwest and south toward the Mexico border.

View northward across the Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Park

The peak was named for John Wasson, who was once the editor of the Tucson Citizen and Surveyor General of the Arizona Territory in the 1870s-80s. He has been described as a “very capable journalist” but also a “stern opponent” of the Apache Indians.

Yours truly at the summit of Wasson Peak
Tucson Mountains from Wasson Peak

Once ready, make your way back down the spur trail, returning to the signed junction with the King Canyon Trail. Take a left here, dropping down two short switchbacks before settling into a longer straightaway that bears southwest, away from Wasson Peak. Descend another five switchbacks, with views due south returning at the left-hand bends.

Descending King Canyon Trail
Descending switchbacks along the King Canyon Trail

Drop to a stony ridgeline and descend another set of switchbacks, flirting with the lip of the ridge before the trail finally commits to descending down the south face toward King Canyon. At about 5.5 miles, the King Canyon Trail reaches an intersection with the Sweetwater Trail and an unnamed road that was visible during the descent from Wasson Peak. Bear right, continuing on the King Canyon Trail as it cuts to the southwest, roughly following an elevated hill between two arroyos. The steady descent is made less fun by the abundance of loose, crumbly rock.

At around 6.2 miles, cross a minor wash and then climb briefly to clear another cactus-lined knoll. Soon the King Canyon Trail drops to another, wider wash, where the onward route can be a little confusing. In general, follow the wash down-canyon for about a minute, then look for a wide, ascending path that rises up on the left. This leads to a wide and broad road that stays well above the canyon floor and offers the quickest access back to the trailhead.

Forest of saguaros above King Canyon

Follow this path for more than ¾ mile, shedding the remaining elevation before the trail finally reaches the initial fork with the Gould Mine Trail. From here it is a very short walk back to the parking area. All told, the round-trip loop clocks in at about 7.7 miles; hikers should budget about 4-6 hours for the moderately strenuous walk.

A final look back toward King Canyon and Wasson Peak
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