Superstition Benchmark • Range Highpoint: Superstition Mountains
• Pinal County


The summit is the point to the left of the cliffs, as seen from the trailhead in the morning sun
 

Walking up the old road. We ascended the canyon to the right
 

The high saddle
 

We're almost at this high saddle. Hoodoos start to become more abundant
 

From the high saddle, the summit is still a ways away
 

Now a little closer, but not much
 

Now much closer
 

And even more closer
 

And yet closer still
 

The final scramble to the top
 

We made it
 

Weaver's Needle looks so puny from here
 

Looking northwest at No Name Peak and the Flatiron area
 

Descending amid the hoodoos
 

Ridge route and giant cliffs facing south
 

Descending back to the cars
 

Parting shot as we drove out
 

Montage: A delicate cairn, interesting hoodoos, spring-fed pools, and a shot of the summit
 

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Date: January 30, 2016 • Elevation: 5,057 feet • Prominence: 1,807 feet • Distance: 8 miles • Time: 7 hours • Gain: 3,400 feet • Conditions: Blue skies, warm and breezy • Teammates: Scott Peavy & Matthias Stender

The Superstition Mountains rise to the east of the Phoenix suburbs, the range noted for its huge cliffs and incredible rock formations that include many thousands of spires and hoodoos. The highest point of the main mountain mass is Superstition Benchmark, elevation 5,057 feet. As viewed from the west, another peak, apparently called No Name Peak, has an elevation of 5,024 feet. Superstition Benchmark would be to the right, but set farther back, so it may appear lower.

The extent of the range seems to be up for debate. Most sources would consider Superstition Benchmark’s summit to be the range highpoint, and that is my opinion too. However, the Superstition Mountains apparently “officially” extend way to the east, and some sources consider Mound Mountain to be the range highpoint. Interestingly, Superstition Benchmark has higher prominence than Mound Mountain.

The Superstition Mountains are the closest “rugged” mountains to the Phoenix area. The trailheads are easy to access and you can be deep in the wilderness in a matter of a couple hours, rather than battling bad roads for hours on some other rugged range just to get started on a hike. The two most popular hiking areas are the First Water/Lost Dutchman Trailheads on the north, accessible off of state route AZ-88, or the Peralta Trailhead on the south, accessible via a dirt road off of US-60. There are other access points, too.

The easy access and extra ruggedness means that people get into trouble here all the time, and rescues are common. During my time with Central Arizona Mountain Rescue (1998-2004), we seemed to be called to the Supes about once a month. Usually a hiker got off route, and sometimes they got injured. I was here so often for rescues that I grew weary of the Supes and have not hiked there much by choice afterwards.

When I was there by choice, I usually hiked the Weaver’s Needle Lookout Trail to Fremont Saddle, where one has a close-up view of the imposing Weaver’s Needle, perhaps the range’s most famous spire. The hike itself gained about 1,200 feet and covered about 3 miles each way, and over the years, I think I hiked it seven or eight times. However, I have never scaled Weaver’s Needle. I have also hiked in from the Lost Dutchman side a few times, but never very far into the range. Beth and I have also hiked trails a little farther to the east, accessing them from near Canyon Lake.

My first “real” rescue with CAMRA was in late 1998, after I had graduated their boot camp and had become a full-fledged “field technician”. A hiker had busted an ankle high up on the slopes below the Flatiron, which is a small plateau-cliff on the westernmost edge of the range. I raced to the scene, got my stuff together, and was one of the first to be helicoptered to the site. We stabilized him and got him loaded into the helicopter, while we just hiked down. That was a great thrill.

Most callouts were for overdue hikers. They’d take a wrong turn somewhere and get off route. They were always found quickly. One other rescue was for a guy who had his leg impaled by an agave. That wasn’t so bad, but his lady-friend called it to 911 as a “bleed out”. Not only that, she berated us when we tried to help him. The guy was totally cool, probably a little embarrassed. He wasn’t bleeding out, and when we left, the Sheriff guys were pulling her aside. We heard later she was issued various citations for false reporting.

Anyway, long story short, I have hiked very little in the Superstitions over the 24 years I have lived here, and always easy half-day routes. I decided that for this winter, I would target this peak as one of my objectives. With me were my usual partners, Scott Peavy and Matthias Stender. I rode in with Scott, while Matthias met us at the trailhead. We arrived first, finding the small lot at the Carney Springs Trailhead nearly full. Matthias arrived a few minutes later, and we were walking on the trail by 8:15 a.m.

From the trailhead, the summit is visible as a pointed hump to the northwest. We’d be hiking to the ridge east of the peak, then a long traverse west to the summit. The initial half-mile is an old road that used to get as far as the wilderness boundary. We crossed the fence through a pedestrian stile, then continued on the beaten path through thick brush, often taller than ourselves.

We realized we were trending a little too far to the west, and had to cut through the brush to catch the trail we wanted. We didn’t recall seeing a junction earlier, so would have to wait until our exit to learn of our error. In any case, we were on the right path, entering into a canyon fronted by giant cliffs with sheer faces hundreds of feet high. Soon, the trail started to steepen and zig-zag through rock outcrops and brush barriers.

We came upon a group of about ten hikers, all of them Japanese, including one woman with her two small poodle dogs along. They mentioned being part of some club. While they rested, we passed them. The trail essentially goes straight uphill, barreling up many open rock sections. The footing was always good, but in many places, we had to use hands to hoist up and over small “steps”. There were cairns everywhere, some just a few feet apart. The trail is easy to follow, so the cairns seemed redundant. Some were artfully built.

We finally emerged onto a small saddle, having gained about a thousand vertical feet. I was having trouble getting into a rhythm and stopped often. Scott and Matthias were just a few yards ahead of me anyway. At the saddle, the trail drops about 50 feet, then gains about 700 feet, aiming for a higher saddle up on the main ridge crest.

The trail to this high saddle was a lot like before, which was straight up, very few switchbacks, and open rock. It was slightly looser in this section, but not too bad. Again, I went slow. Scott and Matthias were at the saddle about two minutes ahead of me. We took a break at the saddle, having gained about 1,600 feet in two miles over 90 minutes. It was a tiring hike, but the weather was marvelous, and up here, we had cooling breezes.

We could now see the summit, about two miles west, and surrounded by tall, narrow pillars of rock. In fact, in all directions, there were thousands of these fascinating rock outcrops. I now understand why people like to hike here.

The next hiking segment was more pleasant since we weren’t going straight up all the time. We stayed mostly level and even dropped elevation is a few places, staying on the trail as it curved with the contours of the mountain. There are other trails that veer off and the cairns helped, but not a whole lot. We still had to pay attention.

We dropped to a lowpoint where there was a running stream and small ponds of water. Past this, the trail gained elevation slowly, then suddenly, very steeply. We hiked up steep switchbacks to gain about 500 feet. The brush was thick but open. Occasionally, the trail would enter into a gully where there was seeping water and very thick foliage. Then, a few feet later, we’d be back in the open.

At one point we came to a junction where the main trail seemed to go straight and up, so we stayed on it, but realized we wanted the trail that went right and down slightly. Had we stayed on our first trail, we would have re-met the main trail anyway. There seemed to be a few of these braids along the way. We came to a saddle, then up a steeper slope to a small plateau, then up another steep slope over a small cliff band. We were very close to the summit area.

The trail entered a rocky gully, which wasn’t difficult to scale, but I whammed my knee into rock. I gave it a good scratch and bruise, but it seemed okay. It hurt like crazy for a few minutes. Once on top this gully, we were essentially below the spires surrounding the summit. Here, they are narrow and tall, about 20 or 30 feet high, and bunched tightly.

We followed the trail up into the spires, then around back, so to speak, now on open rock again. I had no sense how close we were to the top. Up ahead was a pile of rocks, but I did not assume these to be the summit. We left the last of the trail and were now on the rocks. The scrambling was easy down below. The route naturally constrains, and at one point, one can go left and across a diagonal ledge with exposure, or stay straight, shimmy over a rock, then up a narrow chute. I did the latter, and in moments, joined the others on the summit for a well-deserved rest.

We arrived on top a little before noon, a three-and-a-half hour hike covering four miles one way, and over 3,000 feet of gain when descents and regains are included. At over 5,000 feet elevation, it was chilly up here, along with a soft breeze. The views were superb, and we stayed up here nearly a half hour. We could see peaks everywhere. It was so clear we could barely make out Baboquivari Peak about 100 miles south of us.

The log book held a lot of names, and about 20 people had already signed in for today. We had not seen that many people on our way up, so some probably came from different trailheads. This is a very popular hike. There was a younger man at the top when we arrived, and soon, another guy showed up. Then three women. Looking below, we could see more groups of people.

Before things got too crowded, we started down. Going down those little exposed parts was minorly interesting. I tried the “face out” method, but in one spot had to turn in and use the rock holds to lower myself. That went well and soon, we were back onto the lower rocks where the trail picks up.

The hike out was long but easy. Back toward the high saddle, we somehow got onto a branch trail and were heading downhill, so we left the trail, hiked uphill a few feet and found the “right” trail. None of us remember seeing a junction or strategic cairn to signify this branch. Although the entire route was easy to follow and overly cairned, there still were a few spots where we needed to pay attention, and this was our only “error” of the day, albeit an easy one to correct.

We rested at the high saddle, then started down the steep slopes back to the cars. My knee was sore and slightly sensitive, so I had to be more careful where I stepped. But the steep downhill slope with no switchbacks meant that we dropped elevation fast. We were back to the cars a little after 3 p.m., a descent of three hours and a total round trip covering over seven hours.

On the lower trail, we were careful to observe where we got off route earlier in the day. The junction we wanted was lined with rocks and the trail we were on wasn’t that obvious. Had we stayed on the “better” trail lower down, we would have veered west toward Wave Rock, a popular destination. Evidently, people felt it necessary to add rocks to make it less clear which way one would need to go to stay on the summit route.

Scott’s GPS said we had hiked 8 miles round trip. It felt longer, like a mile each way, but looking at a map, it seemed correct. It felt longer likely to the steep tiring slopes. However, the hike was wonderful, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, and was happy to tag the summit. I will definitely be coming back to the Supes, after so many years of ignoring them.

As usual, my thanks to Scott and Matthias for the company.

(c) 2016 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.