Because it's there
Browns Peak has a better view. Humphreys is higher, Camelback more popular, and Oak Creek Canyon is...well, Oak Creek Canyon. But that said, I now consider the Flatiron the best hike I've done in Arizona. I had become drawn to the rugged and majestic range of mountains that were visible from near my home, and several months ago, I had hiked up to the basin; due to recovering from a broken ankle at the time, I had gone no farther. But on that day, I had promised myself: I will be back.
So it was now late December, the best hiking season in Arizona (at least for this cold-weather-loving northerner), the weather forecast was good, and my ankle was better. Home from college, I laid my plans to attempt this monster of a trail. The participants: myself, my 49-year-old mother, a veteran of a handful of hikes in the state, and my stepdad's son's girlfriend (Jill), who had youth on her side, but who had never really hiked anything like the Superstitions. Her boyfriend was dealing with a mysterious leg pain, so he opted to stay home.
"Murrrgh", I mumbled into my pillow as my alarm went off shortly before 8 AM, trying to go back to sleep. I had gone to bed only an hour before--pretty typical for my crazy hikes, actually--and I was quickly sinking back into an ocean of exhausted oblivion. It was nearly two hours later before I finally roused myself from bed, and then it was though a switch had flipped: I was ready. After my mom and Jill had finally gotten their stuff ready, we left our house in Chandler around 10 AM. Heading east on the 60, the Superstitions loomed ever larger overhead; the Four Peaks were covered in a dusting of snow.
We reached Lost Dutchman State Park at around 11 AM, where I was surprised to find the entry fee had apparently been reduced to $5 again! No complaints here...we were soon on our way, following the wide and flat Discovery Trail through the beautiful flora of the low Sonoran Desert. High, thin clouds hung over the spires of the Superstitions as we approached. Jill, in spite of the warnings I had given her about this trail, was rearing to go. Conditions--in the high forties and lightly breezy--were perfect.
Part of what makes the Siphon Draw route so perfect is that it starts out easy and flat, and gradually gets both steeper and more rugged as you go on, culminating in the notorious near-vertical stretch at the top of the trail; this weeds out less-experienced hikers as you go on. And although there are some rugged parts on the way into the canyon, it's not until the smooth rock basin that things get really tough.
We reached the basin to discover a dozen or so hikers meandering about, several rivulets of water running down the smooth walls, a few small, thin patches of ice, and a small waterfall cascading into a small pool. Some idiot kids were drinking right out of the water; we tried to warn them, but they ignored us. I guess somebody will be grunting on the bowl tonight...we made our way up the basin and into what was, for us, unexplored territory. We ascended to the right and discovered that the trail had actually gone left, but in this case the path we had chosen was actually easier and the crossover simple enough. We were surprised to find a pit bull with her owner a bit farther on--I couldn't possibly imagine how any dog could have gone that far, but apparently she was enjoying it!
We soon reached the saddle, dropped about 30', and then began the long, rocky, uphill slog to the top. Once we had rediscovered the trail in the floor of the canyon, the way was usually obvious. The blazes (white, baby blue, and sprayed-over gray) were of the sort that would be incredibly helpful your first time around, and a nuisance forever after. A bit past the saddle, we were amused to spot the "Dolly Parton" cacti (use your imagination). The further we traveled, the steeper it got, though it was not until the last few hundred feet that we had any really tricky spots.
The higher we climbed, the more snow we saw (though the most we ever saw was a partial light dusting). I found the composition of the snow unusual, since instead of the flakes I was used to, the snow was made up of fuzzy-looking spheres. At one point, my mother banged her knee pretty good, and we waited a few minutes while she grabbed some nearby ice to apply to her knee! As we neared the top, the trail became enclosed in short, shrubby trees again and steepened even more. At last, we reached the place I had worried about: that last vertical climb. As luck would have it, a few hikers were descending the stretch at the time, and they both mentioned that the paths up above were somewhat icy and informed us of the best way to climb up the obstacle at hand. It's up the right side, if you're wondering--the tree on the left is helpful too, but handholds are plentiful and the scramble is not quite as difficult as it looks.
Adventures at the top of the Supes
With my help, Jill and my mother successfully clambered up the vertical section, and we were finally on top! Well, sort of...we had reached the junction between the trails to the top of the Flatiron and the summit of Pt. 5024, and the ground was covered with ice. The trail over to the top of the Flatiron was obvious, and we gradually made our way up the sometimes-treacherous trail, making our way up the broad slope to the tip of the Flatiron. The views were...absolutely breathtaking. Downtown Phoenix, Arizona State University, Camelback, and even the distant White Tank Mountains and beyond were about as clear and smog-free as anyone is ever likely to see them (I could easily distinguish individual skyscrapers). To the north, Browns Peak proudly stood with a few remnants of snow, with Mazatzal Peak, the Bradshaws, and the Sierra Ancha being much more blatantly snowcapped. The Santa Catalinas and Pinalenos could be seen in the distance, and were probably snow-covered as well. Superstition Mountain stood regally at the far end of the ridge, and countless mountains whose names I did not know stretched off to the north, east, and south. It was probably about 40 degrees, wind chills right around freezing. We had made the top in about three and a half hours.
After some obligatory pictures, I ran off to try to nab Pt. 5024, dropping my pack at the trail junction. However, the way was not obvious, and after following a trail that skirted to the left of the summit block, I realized I was off track. I tried scrambling up the side of the summit area, but instead hit a false summit with hairy territory beyond. Being short on extra daylight to waste, I at last regretfully turned around and made my way back to the saddle. If I ever had come across the trail, it was now too icy to use.
Feet on the ground again
Well, we had made it to the top--now we just had to get down again! We were all a bit on the sore-kneed side already, and we had more than half a vertical mile to descend. We took it slow, painstakingly clambering down an endless parade of rocks. I tried lowering myself with my upper body, while my companions mostly slid down on their butts. After some 90 minutes, we at last neared the rock basin again, and this time, we followed the blazes down. This area was mostly smooth rock covered with The Enemy (gravel), and so the going was slow again. As we descended, I noticed an interesting effect: the rock spires, bathed in sun, were somehow reflecting in the rivulets of water in such a way that it looked like they were sprinkled with large flakes of gold! At the waterfall, we rested a bit (and my mother dropped her digital camera in the water--whoops!). It was not even 4:30 PM, and realizing that we would have no need to bust out flashlights, we could at last relax.
The last, relatively easy two miles back to the trailhead passed quickly and easily, and in the warm afternoon sunlight, cool breezes, and abundant blue sky, the journey could not have been more perfect. My mother and Jill pulled well ahead of me as I stopped to snap dozens of photos, taking advantage of a truly spectacular afternoon. At 5:10, exhausted and glad our hiking had come to an end, we arrived back at the car. We made the drive back to Chandler in good time, driving off into a typically breathtaking Arizona sunset.
The entire day of the hike, I had eaten one small chocolate pudding and had drank one liter of water. Though that was surprisingly all the water I ended up needing, it's a bit less surprising that I scarfed down ten pieces of pizza that night for dinner.
We WILL be back--and sooner than I expected! Assuming his leg will be better, Jill's boyfriend is planning to do the hike along with all of us...next weekend. I guess I'll be able to give Pt. 5024 another shot after all :)
***thanks for reading! I will try to post some more pictures in the next day or two***
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