Your Mission, if you chose to accept it…
Our intent was to hike the Superstition Ridge all the way from Siphon Draw to Superstition Peak and back in one shot. It is a decent hike which I have done before and I was itching to do the route again. The round trip route runs at about 13-14 miles round trip and the trail contains some of the most rugged stretches in the superstitions; there are several spots of good class 3 and 4 exposure along the way.
A Wet Hike
We hiked on a Tuesday; Sunday and Monday had brought quite a bit of rain to the Valley, even through late Monday afternoon. Tuesday turned out to be a perfect day for hiking, at least in the lower elevations; there was snow down to about 3500ft.
We got to the trailhead at about 8am. We found out later that we should have started earlier. The hike to the base of the mountain was flat and boring as usual as it is a simple slow-climbing grade up the alluvial plain. But once we reached the mouth of the valley, the rush of water could be heard from the wash to the south. The runoff from the last few days’ rain was pouring down the slopes in an ironic desert river. The sound was a welcome contrast to my past few ascents of spiced with nothing but heat and auditory monotony.
The slopes in the valley up to the basin were quite washed out by apparent torrents from the night before and were still damp if not still flowing with a slight trickle toward the main wash at the bottom. Most of the trail was still easily passable though some parts require carefully planned footwork due to the slippery surface of the wet, exposed rocks. Once we reached the basin, we were greeted by a slippery river flowing down the middle fed by the 20ft, now flowing waterfall cascading down the back left corner.
The last slope out of the basin was quite slick creating a slight challenge. Up to this point, the only real new obstacle was the water, but as soon as we hit the top of the basin, the water began to give way to ice. The creek was still flowing down the draw, but much of the surrounded rocks and gravel were icy. As we climbed higher, the flowing water traded places with snow tucked away in more sheltered areas.
About the time we climbed to the base of the flatiron, the flow of water had stopped completely; snow and ice covered the entire trail. By the immaculate blanket of snow, we could tell that we were the first ones up since the storm. We also had the privilege and responsibility to cut a solid, easy to follow path.
We reached the saddle to find an almost surreal sight: the entire top of the mountain was blanketed by snow and enveloped in a ubiquitous veil of fast moving clouds. The tip of the flatiron was almost completely hidden from view with the clouds only giving an occasional peek. I have been out on the flatiron before and am always awed by the incomparable view, but with the complete cloud cover, the 500ft drop was eerily veiled. A pebble thrown from the edge silently disappeared from sight. It was almost more breathtaking than one a perfectly clear day. The ground was covered with a few inches of snow and the air was a thick, grey mist; it was hard to believe that we were still in Arizona.
We began the hike back through the saddle and down the ridgeline to the east. Unfortunately the cloud cover masked the breathtaking valley to the south. We skirted the valley, comparable to Siphon Draw, crossing several well fed creeks along the way. One of the weirdest things that we saw was areas of thin ice with water flowing underneath. It looked like some strange organism contorting its way under glass.
By this time, the snow had been taking a toll on our boots. Being an Arizona boy, I own a pair of boots that are great for dry hikes; that’s all I ever do. But after a few hours of snow, we were both soaked up to the knees. As we continued along the ridge we descended and climbed some of the most interesting rock formations in the area. Strange blades and ribbons of rock had seemingly grown out of a steep rock basin and created a sinister 100+ foot drop off. Once again, the cloud cover added a strange beauty to the whole scene.
Typically, Superstition Peak is visible during the whole passage down the ridge giving a clear goal to press towards. But the peak refused to show itself until we were about to climb the last major peak on the ridge before our destination of Superstition Peak itself. I was able to snap a few quick shots of the peak as it briefly loomed out from the cloud cover, only to disappear again for the rest of the day.
We reached that last, unnamed peak at about 1pm and broke for lunch. As a side note, ham sandwiches made on onion bagels are rocket fuel! They are full of carbs and virtually impossible to smash. As we sat on the peak, the clouds from the south fought an endless battle with the clear skies from the north. The cooler air form the plains to the south were being pushed up north over the ridge line and continually forming more clouds. But the warm, drier air in the valleys to the north kept them at bay creating a weird grey wall of mist all the way alone the ridgeline. To the north was an uninhibited view of Four Peaks sleeping under a fresh, white blanket of snow; to the south the visibility was literally 30 feet or less.
After finishing a quick meal, we reluctantly continued down the ridge to the east. There are two small hills preceding the final saddle before the rigorous climb up Superstition Peak. We made it to the second of those to hills and had to make a decision to go on or turn back. We were pushing 1:30 and we still had to make the trek back through all the slippery snow and slush. Although we wanted to hit that final peak, the one that we still could not even see, we decided (by a game of rock-paper-scissors) that we should abort and head back.
The route back was a bit easier to travel because the trail was easier to see – we had already been through it once. The parts were we had lost sight of the cairns and therefore the trial were humorously obvious as we headed backwards. By about 3:15 we had made it back to the saddle above Siphon Draw. By this point our soaked feet were sore and loathed the idea of descending the snow and ice on the steep, rocky slope below. But we continued nevertheless. A few other people had apparently made it up and down while we were out on the ridge; there were several new sets of boot prints on the trail and the steep parts were packed down to become quite icy and slick.
But the time we reached the flowing water at the bottom, we were so completely soaked from the mud and snow and slush that we coyly walked straight through even the larger the pools of water. It made negotiating the freezing water so much less complex. The downhill was exhausting and the last bit of uphill exposure before the basin was a welcome, though short relief. The basin seemed a thousand times more slippery that on the way up and running it as usual was almost impossible.
The flat stretch out of the canyon was unbearably long and the parking lot seemed so much farther away that when we hiked in. When we were almost back, taking one last advantage of my wet boots, I took a little walk through that bird pond thing back by the campground. At 4:30 and a quarter mile later we were finally back at the car. What a day!
The Debrief: things to repeat or avoid
Hiking Superstition Ridge with snow is awesome if you have the chance. One of the things that I’m glad we did was to take the amount of food we did. A few bagel sandwiches and 10 or so little munchable granola bars for along the way was excellent. Another thing was we did was to take Powerade power dry in a bag. That way we could eat that dry chased with plain water from a camelback. It cuts down on taking extra bottle of liquid. Water is key, even in the cold; I took just short of three liters and used almost all of it. We also found that gloves are a must handle the cold rocks and snow on the portions of exposure. Waterproof would have been nice, they too were saturated by the end.
Dressing for moisture was something that we didn’t do. Water resistant boots and gloves would have been nice. Also, to do that hike all in one day with the snow, we should have started earlier and brought lights for the way out. But all in all, the trip was amazing. Definitely recommended!