Mount Baldy • Highpoint: Apache County
• Range Highpoint: White Mountains
• Highpoint: Mount Baldy Wilderness
• Highpoint: Fort Apache Indian Reservation

Date Climbed
1. June 24, 2000
2. September 19, 2004

Elevation
11,403+ feet

Distance
14 miles

Time
7 hours

Gain
2,200 feet

Conditions
Pleasant and cloudy first time,
Clouds and rain the second time

Prominence
4,703+ feet

Click on the thumbnail to see a full-size version


The peaks are to the left in this photo taken during early-morning blustery conditions
 

Shot of the peak as we hiked in and crossed an open area
 

Beth crosses a rocky bald section
 

Wreckage of an old airplane
 

The final push to the top
 

Beth descends the peak in heavy fog

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The County Highpoints of Arizona

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Mount Baldy is the highest peak in the sprawling White Mountains of Eastern Arizona. It is the second-highest summit in the state, apart from those clumped near Humphreys Peak. Like Humphreys Peak, Mount Baldy is volcanic, but with an entirely different history. Whereas Humphreys was an old stratovolcano that blew itself up, leaving behind the current-day San Francsico Peaks, Mount Baldy is more broad than high, apparently built by repeated layering of volcanic flows over the eons. Despite its height and prominence (over 4,700 feet), the range is so broad that its stature seems to be lost amid the hundreds of foothills and volcanic mounds that surround the range.

The White Mountains dominate Eastern Arizona's topography. More snow falls here than in other parts of the state, and winter temperatures can drop to as low as -40 (C and F). The Little Colorado River headwaters start high on the slopes of Mount Baldy, with trails paralleling both main forks. The presumed summit, Baldy Peak (11,403 feet elevation) lies within the Fort Apache Indian Reservation and is strictly off-limits to the public. However, a ridge-point about 1200 feet to the north appears to be as high, if not higher than Baldy Peak. It has no stated elevation, and it is not as pointed as Baldy Peak. Hence, it gets ignored, although it is probably the highest actual point, and partially on public land (The Mount Baldy Wilderness).

Then a wrench gets thrown into the picture here. Older maps show the boundary of the Indian Reservation and of the Wilderness as running exactly along this northern ridge, which would allow for public access. Newer maps show the entire Wilderness shifted east, which moves its boundary with the Reservation off the ridge and onto its east slopes, putting this ridgepoint within the Reservation. I am convinced this is a map-rendering error. The older maps used the 1927 North American Datum, which was standard until the new WGS-84 datum was developed in the 1980s, and what is used almost universally on newer maps and in GPS systems. In Arizona, the two datums differ very little in the north-south direction, but shift about 300 feet toward the east. This "shift" of the Wilderness on the new maps looks to me like someone plotted NAD-27 coordinates in the WGS-84 datum. This is a plausible error given that most people have no idea what a datum is in the first place. Normally, I wouldn't get so technical, but this is an important distinction to be mentioned here because now, the northern ridgepoint is also "off limits" if one reads the newer maps literally.

So me, I was learning all of this way back in 2000 when I was contemplating hiking this peak as part of my Arizona County Highpoints challenge. In fact, if successful, I would complete the list of fifteen Arizona County Highpoints. I had the Mount Baldy Wilderness map and it showed the boundary of the Reservation and the Wilderness as being on the north ridge. By 2004, when I returned with Beth, this new map issue had come to light, and we were faced with the ethical question as to what to do, what resource is correct, what supercedes what, and so on. Read on, to see what I did in 2000 and what we did in 2004.

First Visit, June 2000: I was down to one remaining highpoint needed to complete the set of 15 Arizona county highpoints when I got my act together enough to plan a trip east to the Whites for a hike up Baldy. I left my home at 3 p.m. on Friday after work, driving to the Mount Baldy Wilderness Area via Globe and Show Low, and arriving around 7:30 in the evening. I hit a lot of rain from the monsoon storms around Show Low. The weather began clearing but when I arrived at the Winn campground, the roads were muddy and there were many puddles.

I awoke the next morning at 4 a.m. to clear skies and cool temperatures. I broke down camp, ate some food and drove to the West Baldy Trailhead. The nomenclature is a bit odd: the East Baldy Trailhead is south of the West Baldy Trail, but the names have to do with the fact the trails parallel the West and East forks of the Little Colorado River respectively, not so much their relative positions to one another.

I began my hike at 4:45 a.m. It's an 8-mile one-way hike to the summit along an excellent trail. The first mile actually loses about 200 feet of elevation, where it meets up with the old original trailhead. I spooked a herd of elk grazing in the small meadow, and they all took off into the trees except for one big guy who stared me down until I was about 100 feet from him. I clapped my hands and made "whoop" noises, and he finally joined his buddies in the trees. The next three miles are mostly level, paralleling the West Fork of the Little Colorado. The route alternates between open meadow and small stands of trees, and gains about 600 feet overall. I made excellent time on this part and had covered the first four miles in a shade more than an hour. The meadows grew larger and larger the farther in I walked. The scenery was lovely.

After 4 miles, the trail enters the forest for good. It begins a gradually steeper ascent for the next mile, then crosses a drainage. About the sixth mile, the route gains about 600 feet, coming to a small set of long (and in places, steep) switchbacks. These switchbacks get over some rocky cliffs and outcrops, and covers about a mile. The last mile is along a pleasant grade through the trees, before coming out to the main ridge just north of the summit, elevation 11,200 feet. The junction with the East Baldy Trail comes a few minutes before reaching the open ridge.

I was now about a quarter-mile north of the north summit. In 2000, it was perfectly legal to continue up-trail onto the northern ridge. So I proceeded upward, gained the last 200 feet and arrived on top at 8:00 a.m. The ridge is topped by a few large cairns, but is mostly bare of trees. Views in all directions were outstanding.

I got out my sight level and looked over at Baldy Peak. Without the level, Baldy Peak, with its pointier profile, looks higher, and without surrounding contextual clues, you'd swear it was about 10 feet higher. But it's not. I felt strongly that where I was, on the north ridge, was higher than Baldy Peak by about three feet. Then I had an ethical dilemma: do I run on over to Baldy Peak? I hiked down to the saddle spearating the two peaks. There is a sign there about the Reservation, but nothing said the peak was off limits. I decided my intentions were pure and in the spirit of scientific discovery, so I hustled up to its top and sighted back with my level to the north ridge and again felt the north ridge was higher. I did not stay more than a few moments. I descended back to the saddle, back on "legal" land.

I reascended the north ridge, then down again, starting the long trek out. I stopped in a meadow and had an early lunch, then marched out the remaining miles back to my truck, exiting at 11 a.m. I had not seen a single person all day, but then about half-way out, I saw lots of hikers. Most were day hikers but a few looked like they were going in far, possibly to the top.

I was pleased to be successful and happy to complete the county highpoints, which was an amusing project, one that I enjoyed very much. I drove home to Phoenix that afternoon, hitting lots of rain around Show Low.

Second Visit, September 2004: This would be Beth's first time ever to the White Mountains, our goal being the summit of Mount Baldy. We arrived to the Winn Campground in the dark, and I was able to erect the tent using my truck's headlights. Otherwise, the night was clear but completely dark. The elk bugled all night, their other-worldly bugling needing to be heard to be believed. The night was not without drama. I tripped over a rock and landed hard on the ground, thinking I'd broken my arm because it hurt so bad. I hadn't broken it, but I moaned anyway.

The night was kind of fitful. Neither of us slept well. Beth had forgotten some of her medications that could have negative effects if she missed a dose. The elk never shut up, and furthermore, a big wall of clouds had moved in, the edge of a gigantic hurricane that was breaking up over the southern tip of Baja California, over a thousand miles away. We were up well before dawn, and we discussed our options. The weather would be the biggest variable.

We decided to go for the hike, figuring we could turn back if things got bad. We started from the East Fork Trailhead and were on the trail at 7:20 a.m., the sky a deep gray, but still. Winds were light and it was humid, but not rainy or even drizzly. The first mile was level through open meadow. We met up with another hiker and his two big dogs. Soon, we entered into the forest and zig-zagged in and out of drainages before coming to a tight switchback. We walked up and stopped near some cliffs and spires, where we took our first break. I figured we'd covered slightly less than 2 miles in about 45 minutes.

We heard distant thunder. Obviously, this concerned us. But on the other hand, there was no rain, the clouds weren't really that low, and despite the appearances, things seemed to be stable. So we decided to hike another hour and see how things went. The trail gained moderately with a few level stretches through forest. In one area it crossed some rocky outcrops. Actually, we made good progress, and we stopped after another hour, having covered over 5 miles from the truck. The weather was holding steady. Just cool, cloudy and gray.

After our second break we made a decision to go for it. We were close, feeling good, and the weather was still more bark than bite. As we hiked the remaining two miles in an intermittent drizzle, we met a couple of hikers and a whole team of people on horseback. The thick forest helped keep us reasonably dry, but crossing some open areas we got wet in the steady rain. We finally came to the trail junction near the ridge, and hiked up the final grade to the north summit. Despite the feeling that it probably is higher than Baldy Peak to the south, Baldy sure looked higher, so we hiked to it, following the fine trail to its summit. We stayed briefly, but the fog rolled in thick so we descended and started our slog out. We took an extended break at the saddle between the summits.

The hike out went fast. The rain subsided and the clouds broke up, giving us sun for the last few miles back to the truck. After changing and resting, we drove out through Greer, then back to Show Low where we stayed at a hotel. We had a dinner at Licano's Mexican Lounge, and watched as the rain really came in heavy! The next day we drove back home, forced to make a 50-mile detour through Globe after mudslides wiped out part of the Beeline Highway between Payson and the Phoenix area.

Update: Highway AZ-273 is now paved to the trailheads (and beyond), and the East Fork trailhead is now paved too.

(c) 2000, 2006, 2012 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.