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An easy hike in Arizona's Superstition Mountains

The superstition mountains in central Arizona are the famed home of the Lost Dutchman Mine. The odds of any hiker stumbling across a fortune in gold is slightly higher than zero. Shockingly, the origin of the Lost Dutchman Mine legend came from a miner who died in poverty, and was carried on by a woman who drew maps to the location for money. Amazing how so much can come from so little.

A Saguaro cactus along the trail outlined by a southerly winter sun
Liane Ehrich
The Petroglyphs of Hieroglyphic Canyon in the Superstition Mountains
Liane Ehrich

The true legend of these mountains isn't gold, its the breathtaking beauty of stark buff colored cliffs rising into crystal colored skies. Many of the hundreds of miles of trail spiderwebbing all over these mountains are poorly signed, sometimes hard to follow and thoroughly unsafe from May to September. That being said, there are short spectacular jaunts that anyone with moderate trail-finding skills and pretty good balance can enjoy.

Probably one of the most rewarding short trails in the Superstitions is the The Hieroglyphic Trail. This short, 2.2 mile hike is (mis)named for the impressive array of petroglyphs that cover the rocks above some seasonal pools up the canyon from the trailhead. This trail is short, but like everything else in the Superstitions it's rugged. There's a bit of a climb at the beginning from the parking lot to the fork with the Lost Goldmine Trail.

Past the fork, the Hieroglyphic Trail travels up the right side of a canyon first on an old road and then on single track. The trail at first is very rocky, but easy to find.

As the trail rises the depth and scope of the Superstion Mountains becomes more apparent. The Superstitions, are a chain of mountains that form the bulk of the 160,000 acre Wilderness area that surrounds them. They formed through 29 million years of volcanic activity. The cliffs rising high above the trail were all once liquefied rock, now frozen and eroded into sometimes fantastic forms.

Pay attention to your feet on any hike in the Superstitions and you will find yourself walking on rhyolite, tuft, granites and basalts. Many of these rocks have formed towering sheer cliffs, and are of course responsible for the many 'needles' (tall, narrow buttes with largely vertical faces) that lend such an unreal beauty to this landscape, such as the famous Weaver's Needle.

In addition to the geology, the biology of the Superstions is some of the most fantastic Sonoran life you'll see this far north. The Superstitions are generally warmer than almost the whole desert area surrounding Tucson and the plants capable of growing there are in many cases, different than those that can grow in Tucson. The Superstitions also get more rain than Phoenix, and benefit form a variety of elevations, allowing them to display many plants you will not see in the flatlands surrounding Phoenix. The saguaros are so massive they seem to almost be different species than those in cooler Tucson and drier Phoenix, and they march in the thousands across this landscape.

The canyons too come as a surprise to most people to desert hiking, steep and rugged, many are filled with sycamores and fed with springs, creating narrow ribbons of water in a vast wilderness of sun faded rock.

As you proceed up the Heiroglyphic Trail, the canyon to your left becomes deeper and the walls begin to close in drawing you right up to the cliffs far faster than one would think possible in such a short span of distance and time.

The trail becomes narrower and at time braids around large saguaros, but it continues skirting the canyon. Keep an eye to your left for a flattish boulder with what looks like post holes worn into it (don't worry if you miss it on the way in, you'll definitely see it on the way back). These are mortar holes used by the Native Americans hundreds of years ago to grind corn and mesquite beans into flower.

Continue following the trail until it seems to dead end at a bunch of boulders. From here looking left you can see the breathtaking number of petroglyphs on the opposite wall of the canyon. From here scramble along the boulders to get closer to the petroglyphs. You will see pictures of the mountain sheep that still inhabit these mountains, and symbols whose meaning has been lost to time.

Follow the canyon upstream to see even more petroglyphs. Here you can sit on the cool granite next to the pools of water and just take in the stillness. Within twenty miles live five million people (on clear days downtown Phoenix is visible from the trail) and here you share the trail with almost no one. For more privacy avoid weekends.

The trail continues up and over the mountain behind you as you look at the petroglyphs. It is gnarly, steep and ends in a ten foot climb at the very top that is not at all safe for those with no climbing skills.

Of course, take only pictures leave only footprints applies doubly anytime ancient archaeological sites are mentioned. Even paper rubbings can damage these sites. Please leave them as you found them so that they can be enjoyed by generations far into the future.

Lastly, this is not a summer hike. These mountains heat up fast from an already balmy 100 degrees during most of the summer. People die here. Please be safe, enjoy the winter months and explore these mountains when a missed turn means an inconvenient few added miles, not a Medivac rescue.

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