The Mountains of Arizona •
Saddle Mountain & North Peak • San Carlos Indian Reservation
• Santa Teresa Mountains
• Pinal County

Saddle Mountain, San Carlos Nation
Saddle Mountain and its mini me as viewed from the Reservation boundary gate
Saddle Mountain, San Carlos Nation
Saddle Mountain as we start the hike
Saddle Mountain, San Carlos Nation
The cholla was thick, none shall pass
Saddle Mountain, San Carlos Nation
On the upper ridge now, summit ahead
Saddle Mountain, San Carlos Nation
The summit of Saddle Mountain
Saddle Mountain, San Carlos Nation
East view
Saddle Mountain, San Carlos Nation
Northwest view, the town of Hayden and its towering smelter
Saddle Mountain, San Carlos Nation
Benchmark, its two references, and an etching in a rock
Saddle Mountain, San Carlos Nation
The North Peak
Saddle Mountain, San Carlos Nation
Cliff on the slope to the North Peak
Saddle Mountain, San Carlos Nation
Summit is close
Saddle Mountain, San Carlos Nation
Saddle Mountain's summit as viewed from the North Peak
Saddle Mountain, San Carlos Nation
Summit rocks, North Peak
Saddle Mountain, San Carlos Nation
The North Peak as we descend in a slightly-brushy drainage
Saddle Mountain, San Carlos Nation
This is the long ridge we followed up and partway down to and from the main summit
Saddle Mountain, San Carlos Nation
Little purpletons bloom amid the cholla
Saddle Mountain, San Carlos Nation
The peak as we exit, surrounded by cholla

All images

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The Arizona
Mountains Gazetteer

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Date: March 18, 2023 • Elevation: 4,240 feet (Main), 4,005 feet (North) • Prominence: 1,080 feet (Main), 325 feet (North) • Distance: 5 miles • Time: 4 hours, 30 minutes • Gain: 1,740 feet total • Conditions: Sunny, then cloudier with a breeze • Teammate: Matthias Stender • Prog rock bands played: Kraan, Picchio Dal Pozzo, Mahogany Frog

ArizonaMainAZ P1KPBLoJUSGS BM Datasheet

This Saddle Mountain rises about seven miles southeast of the towns of Hayden and Winkelman, where Gila County and Pinal County border one another along the Gila River. Like all the other Saddle Mountains that are so named because they look like saddles, this one really does look like a saddle, maybe the best "Saddle" Mountain in the state. The highpoint is the southern of the two peaks and has a shade over 1,000 feet of prominence. Between it and the lower northern peak ("Saddlehorn"?) is a well-defined circular dip between the two. Tall west-facing cliffs come off both peaks, while on their back sides, the slopes are long and generally gentle, making an ascent theoretically easy.

Matthias suggested this peak. Its elevation, 4,240 feet, is about right for this time of year when it starts to warm in the lower deserts but is mild and pleasant in the mid-elevations (e.g. 4,000 to 7,000 feet). We met at the Wal-Mart on Signal Butte Road in east Mesa. He then drove us to the Winkelman area. We went south on highway AZ-77 a couple miles to Road 300. In the distance was Saddle Mountain, the only big peak in its immediate area. The day was sunny and clear with a breeze.

We followed Road 300 in. At first, it stays low and locals apparently use the area to dump large items and construction debris. The road then starts to gain elevation and wiggle with the lay of the land. It's a decent road, a little rutted down low due to recent rains, and rocky in spots but mostly the smaller rocks, nothing massive that would need a Jeep. At about the three-mile point, we came to a gate on the boundary of the San Carlos Nation. This road is apparently an easement through the Reservation as it bends south and eventually exits the Rez before ending on the plateaus overlooking the Aravaipa Canyon wilderness.

We followed the road more uphill. A couple more miles, there's a Y-split, where a right goes downhill toward an old ranch. Then, about a mile later, the main road makes a sharp right-ward bend. It is here that a lesser track branches left (northeast). Saddle Mountain's big mass is right there, about a mile away on a straight line. This secondary road is pretty rough, so we parked in a scant clearing. We were easily close enough so that this would not be a long hike. It was about 8:30 a.m. when we rolled in. It was chilly, with a steady breeze. It was barely uncomfortable.

We started hiking, following the road downhill into Rattlesnake Basin, losing about 250 feet to bottom out in this basin, where an old stock tank sits (Rattlesnake Tank). All the while, big Saddle Mountain rises high, looking enticing. We could easily see how the slopes play out and plot a route upward.

The crux of the whole climb is finding the right spot to leave the track and start up the slopes toward the top. Almost immediately, we encountered cholla, the tall kind that grow about 3 feet to over 7 feet tall. They clump thickly together with their bulby arms intermingling to where there is no way anyone could get through it. It would not be possible to get low and crawl through it, and there's no room to "sidle" by them. Border wall my ass. A patch of this cholla a hundred feet deep would stop an army.

We had to do a lot of zigging and zagging, very carefully squeezing past spots where there were openings. It was slow going. Somehow, neither of us got bit. As we gained elevation, the cholla grew less dense, now replaced by thickets of prickly pear cactus and a lot of other general common brush such as creosote and palo verde, and a lot of grass. The slope was rocky, but not too bad. However, the rocks were loose and easily rolled out from underneath.

Then we heard some snorting and noise in the brush about 30 feet ahead. A javelina got up and slowly jogged past us, stopping and "looking" at us. We were not sure if he was going to come after us. We clapped and banged our sticks and hollered, and it moved on, but not very fast. Then another one popped up, and a third one, and so on. I think there were 6 total. They didn't run off fast (they rarely do), but usually javelina do run away, but these guys did not. They'd look at us and motion their pig-like snouts at us. We were probably downwind from them so they couldn't smell us, their eyesight is essentially useless, and maybe they were unsure what clapping, hollering and banging sticks meant. And I scared up a snake too. But this was not a rattler, probably a whipsnake. It moved quickly, much faster than a rattler does.

Once past the brush and critters, we were now on the main ridge which trends southeast to northwest, with Rattlesnake Tank at its base. Looking up, the slope looked very friendly. There were no cliffs or obvious barriers. We hiked carefully upward, the worst being some loose rock and thickets of brush. We were soon above its lip and now on the high ridge, the summit not far ahead with a lovely slope leading to it.

We topped out, a one-way hike of about 75 minutes. The summit was very pretty. The big cliffs dropped below us, and we had fine views in all directions. We found the register, being the first to sign in since late 2019. Not many people come here, just the usual crowd. We found the benchmark and its two reference marks. One nearby rock had some initials etched onto it, with a "71" below (see image at left). Me, I'm pretty sure it's from 1871. One, it took time to etch in those initials and it was done neatly. Two, the person put periods after each letter, which to us would seem like unnecessary extra work. Three, the "7" had a little serif on it, another hint (to me) that this was not done by someone from 1971. I've seen similar neat etching on one other summit which lead me to suspect it was someone from the 1800s. I think I'd make a fine rock-etching foresic technician.

We stayed up top about twenty minutes. There were good sitting rocks. To the east were the big peaks such as Turnbull, Stanley Butte, Pinnacle Ridge and Mount Graham. To the north was the Dripping Springs Range. To the northwest were the towns of Hayden and Winkelman. Hayden has a thousand-foot smelter (1,001 feet, says Wikipedia), the tallest free-standing structure in the state. The breeze had picked up now and more clouds had developed. There were also a lot of bees up here. We looked over at the north peak. At first, I was ambivalent about it, but it was close, it was a nice-looking peak and I knew I'd never ever come this way again.

We started walking down the slope toward the saddle between the Saddles. It was steep with one soft cliff band, and plenty of brush, but it went well. Going up the other side, we angled right a little to avoid another cliff, got above it and walked to the top of the North Peak. There was no register here, but there was a cairn. Views were the same as we just had on Saddle Mountain, except, of course, we could now see Saddle Mountain from this angle. We didn't spend that much time here, but were glad to tag it. It was worth the extra effort.

Now for the descent back. There was no reason to re-ascend Saddle Mountain. Instead, we stayed on the long soft ridge that emanates of the North peak, dropping into the drainage that splits the two peaks, then onto the east slopes of the main peak. We were essentially sidehilling around the main peak, circling around to place ourselves on the ridge we had been on earlier in the day. This went well, including a couple gully crossings that went well once we found a way into and out of them. Brush was thick but open, the cactus not too thick here.

Once on the main ridge we wanted, we followed it downward toward Rattlesnake Tank. The cholla closed in again, but being higher up, we could see ways through it. Then when the cholla lightened, we encountered prickly pear, then a thicket of palo verde. On the upside, the flowers were blooming, adding some color. Lower down now, the last "thicket" was through creosote, which was welcome. We were soon to the tank and off the slopes. The tank looks unused, as does a small corral nearby.

We started walking the track back toward Matthias' vehicle. I guess I let my guard down because suddenly I took a hard spill to the right, a rock rolling under me causing me to fall to the side. I was headed right toward a barrel cactus! Somehow I missed it, but my right arm and wrist took the brunt of the fall. Both were bloodied and my wrist hurt like heck for a few hours and even swelled. I thought I may have busted it, but within a day, it felt a lot better, probably just a deep bruise. My head came within inches of hitting that cactus. I am surprised I didn't hit it. What a way to end the hike.

We were back to the vehicle a little after 1 p.m., a four-and-a-half-hour hike, covering five miles. The total gain, as I figure it, was over 1,700 feet: From near the tank at 3,100 feet, it was 1,140 feet to Saddle Mountain summit, a 345-foot gain to the North Peak, and a 250-foot gain from the tank back to the car.

We got changed and started the drive out, which went fine, there being no traffic into Superior, then a little on the US-60 heading west, then stop-and-go, mainly stopped, as we neared the Renaissance Fair which is along US-60 about five miles south of Apache Junction. There were a lot of cars. This is not the first time we've got caught up in the Renaissance Fair. I guess it runs for a month and we could see a huge lot of cars. Do people really get that into the Renaissance? I've never been to the fair and have no plans to.

We got back to the Wal-Mart where I transferred my stuff into my car. We shook hands and went our separate ways. I picked up a sub at a nearby shop then headed home myself.

(c) 2023 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. WHA