March 17, 2012

Cat Peaks Loop

Today is St. Patrick's Day and everyone is thinking about green landscapes, even here in the Sonoran Desert. Although we don't have lush green meadows, I'm here to tell you that this desert is home to over 2,000 plant species, and they are ALIVE right now in the springtime! Here is a sampling from my hike earlier this week around the Cat Peaks of Usery Mountain Park:

Hedgehog Cactus

To get to the Meridian Trailhead where this hike begins, go due north along Meridian Road in Apache Junction until the road ends at a small dirt parking lot. Meridian Road can be accessed from metro Phoenix, either from US60 east to the Signal Butte exit going north off the freeway (left) and then east (right) on Lost Dutchman Blvd and north (left) on Meridian Road, or from the 202 Red Mountain Freeway to the Brown Road exit (which becomes Lost Dutchman Blvd) and head east (left) off the freeway and north (left) on Meridian Road.

The trail starts at the northwest end of the Meridian Trailhead parking lot. From here, the goal is to cross over from the Tonto National Forest land to the Usery Mountain Park boundary. This section is the hardest route finding of the hike, but there is a clear (but unmarked) trail going down into and out of the ravine that will put you on the Pass Mountain trail. You can see the twin Cat Peaks southwest of the Meridian Trailhead so you will know that you want to keep veering to the left after the ravine and not make the mistake of going right and ending up on a 7-mile trek around Pass Mountain -- no no! I took a picture of the trail as it looks just a short distance from the Meridian Trailhead as it descends down into the ravine to cross over:

Once across the ravine, go left on the clear trail that you intersect with, and you will be on the Pass Mountain trail. Here's a park map to help you out:  Along the Pass Mountain trail, there is a fence on your left. When you get to the Cat Peaks, you will finally see some signage. There will be a break in the fence on your left, and you will be staring straight up at one of the Cat Peaks. You have a choice to go clockwise or counter-clockwise around these peaks. Either way is scenic -- we went clockwise this time, and then included the Cat Peaks Pass section so we could take in the views from the top. Wandering around these peaks looking for spring flowers isn't too much work because there are less than two miles of total trail mileage around and over them. After the peaks, we returned east along the Meridian Trail, and we turned north on Meridian Road to head back to the parking lot. Someone else clocked the hike for me with a GPS, and even with all of our wandering, we still came in at 4.4 miles of easy and beautiful spring hiking.

Length: 4.4 miles
Elevation gain: 300 feet
Time it took us: 2.2 hours
Dogs okay: yes
Fees: suggested $2 per hiker upon exit of the Meridian Trail at the self-pay station

March 3, 2012

Sutherland Trail

"Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go . . . "

I remember the exact moment along the Sutherland Trail when my daughter told me that was her hiking song. I laughed at that because we all have songs going through our heads to get us through something monotonous. I told her that we use, "Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin' alive, stayin' alive," for CPR compressions in the ER, and she thought that was hilarious.

Rarely do I pick a one-way, out and back trail to hike because I don't like the boredom of seeing the same terrain twice. The exception to this guideline is if there is a clear destination I'm trying to get to: such as, the view of Weaver's Needle on the crest of the Peralta Trail, the rock art at the end of the Hieroglyphics Trail, or the cave atop the Broadway Cave Trail. In the case of the Sutherland Trail in Catalina State Park, the clear destination was spring wildflowers. And WILD they are, if you go RIGHT NOW! Literally, hillsides of Mexican Gold Poppies with Lupines splashed in there for color.

From the trailhead parking lot, follow the signs that direct you left along the Sutherland Trail. Yes, the majority of people will be taking the Canyon Loop Trail -- I don't know why; I'm sure it's lovely, but if you're looking for wildflowers, then the Sutherland Trail is the one you want. You will be following a streambed, and, at times, crossing it. The trail splits off at a staircase, but you want to follow the clearly marked signs pointing you left along the Sutherland Trail and up a rock staircase. Shortly up these stairs, you will begin to see the wildflowers. We lingered a long  time in this area taking pictures like crazy by lying on the ground, posing on boulders, and annoying bees with close-ups.

While going up the second rock staircase, turn around to get shots of the flowers with Saguaros and Barrel Cacti in front. At the top of these second stairs, you have a choice to keep going along the Sutherland Trail, and other hikers did tell me that there were some more patches of flowers further along (the Sutherland Trail goes 10.6 miles up the side of Mt. Lemmon.) However, we were so enamored with this area of flowers that we elected to turn around at the top of the second staircase where there is an unmarked trail going hard-left off the Sutherland Trail (it forms a "V.") From here, you can do a loop around this heavily-flowered area to come back down the hill and reconnect with the Sutherland Trail to head back the way you came. In a sense, you are doing a counter-clockwise loop around the flower field. Cutting this hike off here at this point creates about 2.4 miles total of easy hiking that almost any flower-loving hiker can do. Hopefully, the blooms will keep up since it is still early in the season, but there's no telling so I'd go soon.

Length: 2.4 miles
Elevation gain: 200 feet
Time it took us: 2.5 hours with lots of photography
Dogs okay: yes
Fees: $7
Directions: The actual address to the park is: 11570 N. Oracle Rd. in Oro Valley. If at all possible, I highly recommend taking the Pinal Pioneer Parkway (Highway 79) to get to the park. From the far East Valley of metro Phoenix, this took me just over an hour and a half along this route. Along Hwy 79 past Florence, the wildflowers are absolutely gorgeous with Globe Mallows, Brittlebush, and Penstemons mixed in with the Poppies and Lupines, particularly between mile markers 105 and 106 and again between 112 and 113.



Rock Staircase


The Lost Dutchman (I guess)


Plan B: This photo was taken along Picture Rocks Road in Saguaro National Park where the blooms are just starting.