[PHOTOGALLERY uniquename="galleria-azur"]Few mountain ranges are as steeped in lore, intrigue, and mystery as the Superstition Mountains, located just east of Phoenix, Arizona.
Today, the Superstition Wilderness Area encompasses 160,200 acres of the 4,489-square-mile Tonto National Forest. Trail riders are drawn to this rugged area to ride, camp, and photograph the mountains’ ruthless beauty.
Lost Gold Mine
Native Americans once made their home in the Superstition Mountains. Petroglyphs, pottery shards, and small cliff dwellings from as long ago as 800 A.D. are evidence of their past existence.
By the late 1800s, ranchers and miners were in the area. Ranchers supplied beef to the military and nearby towns, while miners searched for precious metals. Several mines are still in operation today.
The most famous mine in the Superstition Mountains was the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine. Legend has it that the Peralta family of Sonora, Mexico, developed several mines. These were later “rediscovered” by Jacob Waltz, an itinerant mine laborer and German immigrant.
Waltz later became known as The Dutchman, a common American term for a person from Germany; the term is derived from “Deutsch,” the German word for German.
Periodically, Waltz would pack a sack of gold and ride into the nearby mining town of Goldfield. After spending his gold nuggets on fun and supplies, he’d disappear into the mountains without a trace. A few months later, he’d reemerge with yet another sack of gold. Gold seekers tried to follow Waltz into the mountains, but he eluded them. People have been trying to find the Lost Dutchman’s gold mine for 100 years; many have died trying. A couple of years ago, three men went searching for the mine; all three perished in the mountains.
A great introductory ride into the Superstitions is the trail to Hackberry Spring and Garden Valley.
We rode out from our camp at King Stable. We rode with Ian and Colleen Hutcheon, and Chuck and Ann Martino. Ian and Colleen are avid Arizona trail riders. They also have a beautiful ranch in Canada and spend summers riding in the Canadian Rockies.
The first part of this route follows Jacob’s Crosscut Trail. This trail flows over gentle terrain, works through washes, and winds around a delightful variety of prickly, desert plant life. Looming on the south side of the trail are the Superstition Mountains.
For a more direct access to Hackberry and Garden Valley, drive to the First Water Trailhead, located 5.6 miles northeast of Apache Junction on State Route 88, between Mileposts 201 and 202. Turn right off Route 88, and drive 2.6 miles to the First Water Trailhead parking lot.
We rode from the northeast corner of the parking lot, into a ravine, and turned left onto a trail that curved uphill. At the top, we paused to give our horses a breather and take in the gorgeous scenery. Then we checked our cinches for the steep downhill portion of the trail.
We rode what’s called “the dragon’s backbone” down into a draw and directly into Hackberry Spring. This is a special place. Please don’t diminish its beauty with litter or toilet paper. Just leave hoofprints, and take memories.
The spring sits in a shady canyon with sheer, colorful cliffs rising a couple hundred feet on one side. There’s generally water at the base of the cliff. The canyon floor is carpeted with velvet-green grass and canopied with trees.
After a good rest, our Missouri Fox Trotter geldings, Cowboy and Nate, were ready to go. We rode past the spring and uphill to a fence opening. We worked our way up to Garden Valley.
The large, flat Garden Valley is filled with mesquite trees and chain fruit cholla. Hundreds of years ago, Native Americans lived and farmed here, using irrigation canals to water crops.
At the end of the valley is a large pile of rubble, all that remains of an ancient pueblo. A Phoenix newspaper report from 1893 described the pueblo as three stories high with a stone-paved courtyard in the center. We continued on down and out the valley to the First Water parking lot. We had an amazing day filled with natural beauty and long-ago history.
The Dutchman's Trail
On a crystalline mid-February morning, Jerry and Murielle Johnson and their two Missouri Fox Trotters, Scout and Tequilla, accompanied us on an approximate 10-mile Dutchman Trail/Black Mesa loop. Once again, we used the First Water Trailhead.
This is a beautiful, albeit rocky, ride in the Superstition Wilderness Area. There’s a great deal of brittle, volcanic rock, and the soil layer is thin.
We began our ride with plenty of water, packed lunches, and high spirits. It’s always fun to do a new ride; we hadn’t ridden this loop before.
In less than half a mile, we came to the boundary of the Superstition Wilderness Area, a desolate, ruthless, hauntingly beautiful expanse that has lured many hopeful dreamers to untimely deaths.
Trail names here remind us of the lost gold mystery. Did Jacob Waltz, the Dutchman, leave his cache of gold nearby?
Pondering that thought, we turned right onto the Dutchman’s Trail, a rocky, four-mile pull to Parker Pass. From the trailhead to the pass, we gained 900 feet in elevation and took in glorious scenery.
“You don’t just see it with your eyes, you feel it with your heart,” said Jerry, summing up our feelings of awe. We followed the trail down the pass and came to our next intersection, an open flat called Boulder Flat.
From here, we could easily see Weaver’s Needle, a prominent landmark. Folklore says that once a year the shadow of Weaver’s Needle crosses the site of the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine.
We enjoyed a picnic here while discussing a gruesome discovery that occurred years ago. About a half-mile away, a prospector named Adolf Ruth had a camp. One day, his skull was discovered near our lunch spot. No one knows exactly what happened to him.
After lunch, we turned left and headed up a steep, rocky hill that we followed for three miles. To our right, we could see the ride’s namesake, Black Mesa, a thin layer of black volcanic rock atop tan cliffs.
Although it hadn’t rained for months, Murielle noted that this ride wasn’t particularly dusty. We decided that was because the trails are mostly rock!
At the end of three miles, we reached another trail junction and turned left. In 1.5 miles, this connects with the Dutchman’s Trail, which leads right back to First Water Trailhead parking lot.
Lost Goldmine Trail
The Lost Goldmine Trail’s panoramic beauty springs from its proximity to the Superstition Mountains, the varied maze of cacti, and abundant wildflowers. Amarillo brittlebush dots the desert floor; fluffy, scarlet blossoms perch atop staghorn cactus like festive Easter hats.
To find the trailhead to the Lost Goldmine Trail, turn north off U.S. Route 60 onto King Ranch Rd., then drive a couple miles to the Hieroglyphic Trail parking lot. From the north end of this lot, you can ride the Lost Goldmine Trail east.
Here, we had the great pleasure of riding with Ron and Ruth Graham from Iowa, and Kathy Duvall from Utah. All possess excellent ;horsemanship, but Kathy is also a trick rope artist! She was patient enough to try to teach Kent a few rope tricks.
On the first several miles of this trail, we had a visual feast of mountains on our left, undulating flats on our right, and diverse plant life all around.
Nearing our turning point, Kathy suggested we check out a verdant copse of palo verdes and led the way.
Suddenly there was a loud “woof!” A large mass sprang out of the brush, scar-ing horses and riders alike. It was an enormous javelina, its face streaked with white bristles.
This ride can be made into a loop. Ron and Ruth showed us how by turning their horses across the valley to the right and heading to the first ridge a short distance away. A trail following this ridge heads in a southwesterly direction.
At the end of the ridge, we followed a trail to the right. In the distance, we could see a line of houses. At the end of the line was the parking lot we started from.
Shortly before we arrived at the parking lot, we spotted a Great Horned Owl asleep in a croft of a saguaro cactus. A perfect ending!
Coffee Flat Trail
Nine of us from King Stable met at the Peralta Trailhead located just a few miles east of the turnoff for the Lost Goldmine Trail. We were heading out on the Coffee Flat loop with Bucky and Sherry Smith in the lead. Not realizing they were in for a long, hot ride, our horses eagerly headed out of the parking lot and straight uphill.
We turned right on Dutchman’s Trail (#104) and rode the 2.6 miles to the Coffee Flat trail. Interesting rock formations towered nearby. As we rode along, Ed Welch, a rider from Missouri, would point out various creatures his imagination conjured up. Thanks to him, we “saw” a pig, Winnie the Poo, a bear, and, since it was nearing lunchtime, a donut!
Ralph Olephant, also from Missouri, uses every trail ride as an opportunity to train his horse. And he has some excellent horses.
We reached the Coffee Flat trail and turned right. After several miles, we came to a gate. We took a quick left and rode to a lonely windmill amid feathered greenery. This was our long-awaited lunch spot. During lunch, one fellow rider, Christine Kunz, regaled us with the story of Ed Welch’s misadventures with cholla cactus.
About a month prior to our visit, Ed’s 6-year-old Missouri Fox Trotter mare got a painful clump of cholla cactus stuck on her leg. She panicked, bucked, stomped, and whirled into more and more cholla. As soon as Ed saw a safe place to bail, he leaped off his horse, and the cacti-covered mare took off running.
Fortunately, a mile later, the frightened mare was caught. The silver lining of this prickly situation, according to Christine, was the kindness of good friends who spent countless hours plucking thorns from the patient mare.
Bucky showed us how to make this ride a loop by continuing a mile down the basin to a second gate and small road. We turned right on this road, then went through another gate and back to Coffee Flat Trail.
Bucky then led us to a mysterious boneyard, where we counted the bleached skeletal remains of 13 horses. We wondered how and why these horses died. After this sobering stop, we rejoined the Dutchman’s Trail. Soon after, the parking lot came into view.
The west end of the Superstitions is a mecca for horse-drawn-carriage enthusiasts. People from around the country bring their wagons and horses to use on local trails.
Byron and Lynette Scott of Washington gave Kent’s 85-year-old mother, Betty Shadduck, a memorable wagon ride. Betty held on as the wagon lurched through washes and jostled over hills.
Betty’s gleeful smile said it all as she watched stately saguaros and other desert flora scroll by, while the Superstition Mountains towered ahead.
As you ride in the Superstition Mountain Wilderness Area, be careful of its potential hazards. Here are some guidelines to help keep you and your horse stat safe.
· Stay oriented. Carry maps and a global-positioning system. Many trail junctions aren’t marked, and getting lost is easier than you might think. That helicopter above you is likely searching for lost hikers.
· Stay cool. Pack plenty of drinking water, and don’t overexert. Familiarize yourself with the symptoms and treatment of heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
· Watch for rattlesnakes. You may encounter rattlesnakes from March through October; give them a wide berth.
· Watch for flash floods. Flash floods happen quickly and can be deadly. Head to high ground immediately.
Kent and Charlene Krone combine their interest in photojournalism with a passion for horses. They’ve sold photographs to magazines, books, calendars, postcards, and video producers for more than 20 years. (For a sampling, visit www.superstock.com, and type “Kent and Charlene Krone” in the search box.) They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Tonto National Forest