First of 28 nights on the road – this one at a KOA in Bernalillo, New Mexico. I love this KOA because right next door sits a small brew pub with some pretty good beers. All KOAs should be equipped this way.
Next stop the Superstitions in Arizona where we will continue our search for the legendary Lost Dutchman mine.
As a travel journalist, it’s been a long time since I went on a pure “vacation,” and this feels good. Over the past 21 years, I’ve been to the Superstitions five or six times for a story. I’ve slept in my truck on the edge of nowhere and delayed dinners long past dark just to get sunset shots. I’ve spent hours hunting down experts and conducting interviews. I’ve taken hours of tape recorded notes and more notes.
Not this trip!
We spent the morning walking around the campground. This afternoon, I sat near the picnic table and shot shots of these food-sharing Gila woodpeckers atop an old saguaro. Then it was off for a guided sunset hike during which I took nary a note. (Okay, I did take a few dozen photos, but hey, that’s what I do for fun anyway.)
Tomorrow we’ll drive to the First Water Trailhead where we’ll hike into the wilderness, following much of the same route taken by Julia Thomas, the first of the Dutch hunters. If we don’t find the lost mine, we’ll head back to the trailer for beer and some old vine zin before steaks.
For those not familiar with the legend of the Lost Dutchman Mine, let me fill you in. Back in the 1870s, Jacob Waltz claimed to have found a fabulous ledge of gold in the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix. Since he was German, I can only assume his “Dutchman” moniker came from some misguided love of Heineken beer. The “Lost” part is evident to anyone who has tried to follow one of those maps to his mine.
From the clues he gave on his deathbed in 1891, his treasure trove is supposedly located somewhere in the vicinity of Weaver’s Needle, a towering monolith of rock, which I assume was named for the ‘50s folk group that once featured Pete Seeger. Unfortunately, at age 81, he apparently forgot some of the details describing exactly how the mine could be found and where he put his mule keys. People have been searching for both ever since.
Using the reasoning powers I perfected while studying French at the University of Arizona, I figure that the Dutchman was probably a bit of an egotist and thus wouldn’t locate his mine on someone else’s trail. So today, on our first attempt to locate his diggings, we naturally followed “Dutchman’s Trail” from the First Water Trailhead. Other than a mother from Michigan hiking with her two daughters, we had the path to ourselves.
We hiked to the lofty summit of Parker Pass from which we had a great view of Weaver’s Needle. We did not however, find anything golden other than petals on scores of cactus blossoms. I can only assume the Michigan mother and her offspring carted the real gold out.
Those young girls looked awfully happy to be heading back towards their car.
Today was macro-day. Dianne and I grabbed tripods, put on our macro lenses and spent four hours this morning doing nothing but photographing closeups of desert plants, some of which had a little animal life thrown in.
My first hike into the Superstition Mountains came when I was about 9 years old. It was my first ever hike, so naturally, I wore my Roy Rogers cowboy boots.
A friend of my dad’s invited us to join him on a trek into an area known as the Massacre Grounds where, according to the legend, a group of Mexican miners were ambushed by Apache warriors. Supposedly, human bones and bags of gold ore were later discovered in the area lending credence to the tale.
I’ve logged countless miles in these desert mountains since then, but never once have I ever returned to the site of that first hike. Yesterday, Dianne and I hiked to the Massacre Grounds from our campsite at Lost Dutchman State Park.
I don’t remember much from that first hiking trip but I do remember a few major details. The highlights included looking up at four caves carved into a vertical cliff face and wondering what treasures might be found in their depths if one could somehow reach them. I also remember a more accessible shallow cave that we stopped at along the trail. Dianne and I visited that same cave on our hike. It’s apparently shrunk over the years.
I also remember a few low-lights from that initial hiking trip. The gnats, as I remember, were in-your-face horrible, and rather than carrying water bottles in a day pack as we do today, I lugged a John Wayne-style canteen slung around my neck with a painfully thin strap.
And then there were those awful boots. I soon realized why Roy was seldom seen walking.
Since we became A-frame trailer travelers two years ago, we’ve camped in state parks in Colorado, Utah, Nevada and now Arizona, and I’ve got to say, Arizona’s Lost Dutchman is one of the nicest and best values.
Unlike Colorado, the camping fee covers the daily admission. In our home state we have to buy a daily (or annual) pass to the parks in addition to the daily camping fee.
In Arizona, we can reserve a site 365 days before arrival, not just six months in advance. We already have our reservations in for March 2016 at Catalina State Park near Tucson. And the reservation fee is only $5 per reservation, not $10 as is common elsewhere.
Hot showers are free here – no dropping quarters into a slot and hoping the water doesn’t shut off before the hair is rinsed. And the showers are clean, have soap trays and there are shower curtains in the stalls to keep dry clothes from becoming wet.
They actually have hand soap in the bathrooms, and paper towels instead of cold-blowing hand dryers.
And best of all, not once has a ranger complained of us having a tire touching the grass. Of course, in this piece of desert, there is no grass.
Yesterday became an example of a bad day gone good. We originally planned to hike a 12-mile loop around Weaver’s Needle, the iconic symbol of the Superstitions. At our incredibly advanced ages and decrepit physical condition, that would have been an all-day affair. Unfortunately, we got too late a start to safely pull it off.
Instead, we hiked up the Peralta Trail to the top of Fremont Saddle. There, standing before us lay Weaver’s Needle in all its monolithic glory. After snapping a few photos in the ugly, flat light of midday, we considered our options.
We could continue down into East Boulder Canyon, hope to find the unsigned Weaver’s Needle Crosscut Trail and follow it around to trails that would ultimately take us back to the car. We could follow the scenic but short Cave Trail down a ridge to the Bluff Springs Trail and back to the trailhead parking lot. Or we could simply return the way we came.
We chose a fourth option. We would wait for decent light.
In the shade of the only piñon tree in the entire zip code, we sat and waited. And waited. Five hours after we got there, my shadow finally stretched longer than I am tall. That’s when we shot sellable photos. Staying later would have been even better, but we still had a two-hour return hike back to the car. Here in buzz-worm country we did not want to hike in the dark.
And what a glorious hike down it was. The setting sun painted the hills at canyon’s end into glowing shades of Bronco orange. And while we did see an Arizona cardinal on a paloverde limb, no Arizona diamondback was heard or seen.
Some t-shirts are earned. Back in my youth I ran a dozen marathons, 26.2 mile after agonizing mile, just to get a stinkin’ t-shirt. I’ve climbed to 7,000 meters in the Pamir’s and hiked rim-to-rim and back again in the Grand Canyon for the right to wear celebratory t-shirts.
But that was back in my brain-muddled youth. You’d think that I would have gotten over that by now.
Near the summit of Superstition Mountain, a chunk of rock juts out from the cliffs like the prow of a ship. It’s called the Flatiron, and a trail from our campground leads up to the summit. It’s three miles up with a climb of 2,680 vertical feet, which would make it an easy 14er by our home state standards. And even though the young ranger (who also serves on the area search and rescue team) strongly tried to dissuade us old geezers from even attempting the hike, we figured it would be no problem for this pair of Colorado climbing vets.
And it would have been no problem if we’d stayed on the correct route. The first two+ miles of the hike leads up a broad trail that even Grandma could follow. The challenging part comes in the last half-mile where the route climbs a gully straight up to a saddle near the summit. And straight up it is. It’s literally Class 3, hand-over-hand scrambling for 1,500+ vertical feet, all the way from the basin to the top.
Years ago, someone marked the route with blue dots painted on the rocks, using much the same system the National Park Service uses on the Keyhole route up Longs Peak. Unfortunately, the Forest Service thinks that having a dot-painted route for people to follow is inappropriate in a wilderness area, so they’ve done their best to obliterate the trail-markings.
At one point, the gully looks like it dead-ended, and a prominent trail started up the hillside. We took that route.
Bad decision. Instead of hand-over-hand scrambling up solid rock, we found ourselves clawing up talus slopes and scree-filled gullies where the pebbles acted like ball bearings. Very Colorado like, but very slow going. Three hours after departing camp, we finally made the summit of the Flatiron. After an hour of ogling the spectacular view, we departed. This time we took the correct route.
Three hours, two beers and a shower later, we headed down to the park’s visitor center. There on display was a t-shirt proudly stating “I Hiked the Flatiron.” Dorky, yes, but the proceeds, we were assured, go to help fund the park’s volunteer program.
This mourning dove couple was busy building their nest in the saguaro next to our campsite. The male repeatedly flies down to the bird version of Home Depot, selects an appropriate twig and brings it up to his mate who places it in the nest to her liking.