Devil's Tale

A CITY GIRL’S GUIDE TO HIKING

Exploring the Superstitions . . . and loving it

I love the solitude, to get away from the daily routine and examine life from a different point of view.

By Mindy Lee

 

I remember the pain. Every muscle in my body ached and throbbed. Who knew hiking could be so tough?

The worst part? It was all my own doing. I chose to get up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday. I chose to put on my tennis shoes, pull back my hair, and attempt to be outdoorsy.

Even though I’ve lived in Arizona almost all my life, I’ve always resisted nature. It was always too hot to go exploring, so I stayed inside and ignored any attempt to appreciate wildlife. I’ve never even sunbathed. Women tell me how skin-savvy I am and how I’ll be wrinkle-free for life. Men wonder if I have a sense of adventure.


Photo by Amanda Lee MyersEruptions from now-extinct volcanoes gave birth to what we now know as the Superstition Mountains.

Into the wild

After grabbing my morning coffee, my friend Hope and I head east from Tempe to the Superstition Mountains. We aren’t looking for gold, as many cowboys did a century ago. Instead, we’re looking for the perfect hike to complement this fine October morning. We’re city girls determined to embrace nature and get a little dirt on our faces. If I happen to get a few wrinkles, then so be it.

Right before U.S. 60E merges into one lane, a couple of exits lead into Apache Junction. “AJ,” as it’s known locally, is a tiny town on the verge of becoming the next great suburban hotspot. But for now, it’ll take about two minutes to drive through town and get on State Route 88, the gateway to the Superstition Mountains.

The Superstitions have long been a favorite destination for avid hikers…and geologists. According to ASU geology professor Stephen Reynolds, people like to hike these mountains “because the volcanic rocks are really resistant to erosion, and they’re really colorful, which makes for really nice scenery. And the fact that it’s rugged kept people from building roads there.”

Yes, volcanic rocks. About 18.6 million years ago, Arizona was a primeval landscape of deserts and lazy rivers. One day, steam started rising from the ground. The pressure grew stronger and stronger until the ground broke open and massive amounts of lava started spewing into the air from a 30-mile-wide caldera volcano. (The crater of a volcano after an eruption is commonly referred to as a caldera, but what many people don’t know is that enormous volcanoes are also called calderas, as in this case.)

“When these kinds of volcanoes go off, they’re so big and so explosive. They’re like a thousand times more explosive than what Mount Saint Helens did in the ‘80s,” Reynolds said.

Over the next few million years, volcanic eruptions gave birth to what we now know as the Superstition Mountains. Fortunately, these volcanoes haven’t been active for several million years.


Photo by Amanda Lee MyersEven city girls can handle Parker Pass Trail, a relatively easy 4.6 miles round-trip.
Finding the wild

It’s easy to find a trail through these ancient rocks. I used Hike Arizona’s website, but there are several to choose from. I picked Parker Pass Trail. A relatively easy 4.6 miles round-trip, it was something we urban girls could handle.

I remember the silence. Strangely enough, it reminded me of music. I used to play the violin, and I’d rehearse in soundproof practice rooms in the music building. The perfect stillness would absorb me. The Superstitions had the same silence I’d once cherished all those years ago in the practice rooms, when I’d forget about my worries and let my fingers play the stress away.

Rays from the early morning sun illuminate the low hills at the foot of the Superstition’s serene yet ominous edifice. Green shrubs and jumping jack chollas co-exist in this dry environment. Rust-colored leaves are starting to fall from the thin trees scattered over the rocky landscape, revealing skeletons that won’t be dressed again until spring.

The only drawback to hiking is, well, hiking. You have to constantly watch where you walk. Parker Pass Trail is narrow and leads gradually uphill, so you have to be careful not to trip on rocks or snag your clothing on the occasional cactus. Or maybe it’s just a beginner’s thing.

Robert Chance doesn’t look down all the time. With his hiking stick, boots, and hat, he looks like an ad for REI. Chance, a businessman from Glendale, came out for an early morning hike and a stroll down memory lane.

“I used to come out here with my kids,” he said. Now that they’ve grown up and moved away, he enjoys the solitude of hiking alone.

Sergei Pilyugin made his way to Parker Pass via Arizona State University. Pilyugin, a math professor from Gainesville, Florida, visited ASU to present a lecture. He was promised an authentic Arizona hike by friend Hal Smith, an ASU math professor. “It was the only way to get him out [to Arizona],” Smith joked.

Smith has been hiking these mountains for more than 30 years. “I love the solitude, to get away from the daily routine and examine life from a different point of view,” he said.

He offers some words of advice. “Don’t go off the trail,” he said. “Always go with someone, and bring plenty of water. And bring a comb. It’s great for when you bump into a cactus. It’s the tool that you want if you get one of those [spines] stuck in your skin.


Photo by Amanda Lee MyersThe Superstitions have long been a favorite destination for avid hikers…and geologists.

The wild
According to various hiking logs I read on the Web, Parker Pass rates as a fairly easy trail. But the word “easy” can be deceiving. In some places, large rocks hem in the trail. In others, the path is relatively flat and easy to follow. If you sense you’re getting lost, look for footprints. As the trail gets steeper, take the time to catch your breath. (The total elevation gain for this trail is 437 feet.)

As Hope and I climb higher, sweat trickles down my hairline and into my ears. The sun is almost halfway to the top of the sky. I can feel the heat penetrate my cotton shirt and hit my sweltering skin. My heart is pumping so hard that the pounding reverberates in my eardrums. I can’t gulp water down fast enough. But the minute I realize we’re almost to the top, none of that matters.

Hope and I finally make it. We have climbed our Mount Everest.

With the Superstitions standing protectively to my left, I look west and see their sister mountains. There stand South Mountain, the McDowell Mountains, and San Tan Mountain, framing the Valley of the Sun, reminders of those long-ago volcanic eruptions.

My attempt to be outdoorsy is successful. My sweaty hair clings to the sides of my face. I feel gross, grimy, and very unladylike. My leg muscles are starting to ache, yet I know I’m going to be OK. The following days bring immeasurable amounts of muscle pain, but it’s worth it.

As I stand in awe, there’s that silence again. All I want to do is play my violin.



 

IF YOU GO
Parker Pass Trail, Superstition Mountains

Getting there
Take U.S. 60 east to Apache Junction, then turn left (north) onto State Route 88. Just past milepost 201 (after the Lost Dutchman State Park), turn right onto FS 78. Follow it 2.6 miles to the end, which is the First Water Trailhead.


Photo by Amanda Lee MyersIt takes about two hours round-trip to hike Parker Pass Trail in the Superstitions.

Fees
Parking $4 per car

Best time to go
November to March

Distance
4.6 miles round-trip (about 2 hours)

Accumulated elevation gain
437 feet. This measurement is more accurate than regular elevation gain, as it also calculates the ups and downs along the trail.

Difficulty
1.5 on a scale of 1-5 (easy to difficult). Good for the first-time hiker. Lots of scenic views. The trail is easy to follow, and it’s mostly flat with only a few short climbs.

Where to eat
Old Mining Camp Restaurant 480.982.3181 Located right off State Route 88 on the way back into Apache Junction. You can’t miss the big sign. Ponderosa pines from Payson were used to build the restaurant in 1961. The family-style meals are reminiscent of mining camp days, when big plates heaped with food were served buffet style. Customer favorites include sirloin steaks, roasted chicken, and barbeque ribs as well as coleslaw and mashed potato sides.

Mammoth Steakhouse and Saloon at Goldfield Ghost Town, 480.983.6402 You drive right past it on State Route 88 en route to the Parker Pass trailhead. This restaurant is a copy of the old Western saloons, complete with a large patio and full bar. Menu items include steaks, hot and cold sandwiches and a famous apple-dumpling-with-ice-cream dessert.

Miscellaneous
No water source or cell phone signal.

Websites with info on hiking trails
Hike Arizona
Arizona Hiking Trails
Arizona Wilderness
Active Arizona

Details
Tonto National Forest,
480.610.3300

 

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