With many sunny, bright, crystal blue skies and warm day time temperatures in the 60’s and 70’s, winters here in the beautiful state of Arizona are absolutely gorgeous and the dream of many. Along with its near perfect weather conditions, winters in Arizona are also ideal for getting out and exploring all the beautiful and spectacular desert mountain scenery and canyons right within a stone’s throw distance from the Phoenix metropolitan area. As one of my all time favorite places to explore during the winter months, towering high above the city, out over to its eastern side, one of the largest mountain ranges, and in my opinion, one of the most beautiful and gorgeous, are the Superstition Mountains, located just 50 miles from the Phoenix area.
First designated a federal wilderness area in 1964, the Superstition Wilderness makes up about 160,000 acres, ranging in elevation from 2000 feet, in its western region, all the way on up to 6000 feet, in its eastern region. The lower western region of the Superstition Wilderness is extremely rugged, but also highly scenic desert territory with its many magnificent rock formations, amazing hoo doos, narrow rock canyons and steep vertical cliffs. With an extensive network system of inter-connecting trails, and easy access to its 4 main trail heads, Peralta, First Water, Canyon Lake and Tortilla Flat, the western Superstitions, particularly in the winter months are by far the most popular and also most heavily visited area for hiking, back packing, canyoneering and rock climbing, ranging from class 2 all the way up to technical rock climbing.
If you’d love to get out to visit the Superstitions and you’re looking for a great idea for a hike, and if you’re more of an advanced hiker, are in relatively good physical condition, and are ready for more of challenge, an incredible canyon hike that’s a little less traveled for being in the western supes, offering interesting ancient Hohokam Indian petroglyphs, then further on a real boulder hopping, bushwacking, canyoneering adventure packed with gorgeous scenery, and stunning panoramic mountain top views, then I’d highly recommend that you check out hiking Hieroglyphic Canyon to Superstition Peak, in the western Superstition Wilderness, Gold Canyon Ranch, Arizona.
It was a clear, brisk, New Year’s Eve morning that I met up with a local hiking club called the TLC Hiking Club, led and organized by Eric Kinneman, at a designated meet up location in Gold Canyon Ranch located on US. 60 on the far east end of town. After gathering up our group members by 7:15am, we set out together for the Hieroglphic Canyon trail head. It was quite a “zig zag” route but basically to reach the trail head you’ll want to head east on US 60 until you come to Kings Ranch Road, turn left for 1.6 miles, then when you come to Baseline Road, turn right for.3 miles, then make a left onto Mohican Road for.3 miles, then another left onto Valley View Drive for.3 miles which turns into White Tail Road, then finally make a right onto Cloud View Ave for about ½ mile until you reach the large parking area and trail head for the Hieroglyphic Canyon Trail and also the Lost Goldmine Trail, which they commonly share together in the beginning. Once everyone had arrived having successfully navigated it to the trailhead, by 7:30am, we had packed up, geared up and were ready to start our day’s trip and what would soon be our greatest hiking and canyoneering adventure of the year!
As most trail descriptions accurately describe, the Hieroglyphic Trail actually begins at the Lost Goldmine Trailhead but after a short ways, the Lost Goldmine Trail veers off to the right and you’ll want to stay left for the Hieroglyphic Trail. With the sun quickly beginning to rise by this time, looking up from the rocky desert trail, the views of the reddish tainted Superstition Mountains before us with the sun’s early morning rays glimmering upon them were absolutely beautiful!
With Eric leading the front half of the group and well out of sight by now, the rest of us continued to follow the rocky but level Hieroglyphic Trail, rated an “easy” trail, crossing the Superstition Wilderness boundary and through the beautiful desert mountain scenery for about 1.5 miles, roughly about an hour or so, until we reached the edge of Hieroglyphic Canyon and arrived upon a large, open rock area with a few small pools and etched into the smooth rock walls were many petroglyphs created by ancient Hohokam Indians, who lived in this region, circa 800 A.D. Wow! It is said that although there’s been some vandalism through the years, these petroglyphs are still some of the best and most extensive collection you’ll come across. Although I’ve seen many petrogyphs before, I really was quite astounded that there were so many and so vividly etched and well preserved. What an amazing sight!
From the petroglyphs and on into the upper reaches of Hieroglyphic Canyon, the journey now becomes a difficult and strenuous rated hike, with no clearly defined trail, and mostly all boulder hopping, and bushwacking, with class 3 climbing in some spots and a lot of class 3 and class 4 bushwacking, which is also combined with a scramble and climb of over 1700 feet to reach the top of the Superstition Ridgeline and then if that’s not enough, there’s another.7 mile of scrambling and climbing with another 700 feet or so to the summit of Superstition Peak. Eric strongly advised us that up from the petroglyphs, this was definitely a very difficult and strenuous, roughly about a 1.6-1.8 mile hike, with many hikers having returned saying that it’s even harder than Flat Iron! So before deciding to take this one on you must really assess your abilities and experience level first, then be aware that depending on how fast of a hiker you are and if you enjoy taking a lot of pictures along the way like my friends & I do, you must also manage your time well in order to make it back and out of the canyon before sunset. However, if more of an easier hike is what you’re looking for, then you could opt to just take the Hieroglyphic Trail up to the petroglyphs, for about 3 mile round trip, and still have a really nice and enjoyable day’s hike.
After arriving at the petroglyphs and taking a short break to get some really great pictures, we said good bye to our good friends, Dan, Karen and Katrina, as well as a few others who were just hiking it up to the petroglyphs that day and where the Hieroglyphic Trail officially ended. I turned to head in the direction of the canyon and quickly ran into the wash hopping over the rocks and boulders to catch up with the rest of my friends as well as the rest of the group where we now began our journey and canyoneering adventure into Hieroglyphic Canyon and on up to the Superstition Ridgeline and Peak!
Having caught up with my good friends and fellow TLC Hikers, Bob and Scuji as well as another fellow TLC hiker and a great gal, Shauna, and with no clear trail in front of us, we quickly began the long boulder hopping, bushwacking venture heading up into the canyon along the Hieroglyphic Stream, but staying down in the wash on the canyon’s floor pushing through thick brush and trees, and past thorny shrubs and bushes, hopping from one huge boulder to another, and in a few spots scrambling and climbing straight up vertical walls. At the same time, I was trying to take as many photos as I could get because when you took a moment to look up, the canyon’s scenery and surrounding landscape, with all the interestingly sharp edged rock formations along the top, were absolutely amazing and gorgeous!
It was roughly about mid-morning and about halfway through the canyon, that we received confirmation from Eric by radio that he had already reached the top of the Ridgeline. We let him know where we were located and he advised us to continue to stay down in the wash until we had arrived at what he said was a “dry waterfall” located at the far end of the canyon. From there his directions were to hang a left at the dry waterfall, then a sharp right and follow the trail and the hand built rock cairns up to the top of the ridgeline. I conveyed the directions back to the group and we pressed on, still trying to get as many pictures Scott Ryan as we possibly could but also staying aware of and conscious of our time so as not to fall too far behind. However, we all felt that the scenery was just so incredibly beautiful, you couldn’t help but stop to get another great shot!
At this time, having also joined up with our good friend and fellow TLC Hiker, Jennifer, we finally had reached the end of the canyon where we veered left of the dry waterfall, then hung a right and saw where the trail to the Ridgeline began. And in my opinion, here’s when the adventure really began because up to this point it was mostly boulder hopping and bushwacking along the bottom of the canyon. However, once you arrive at the end of the canyon and the dry waterfall to start heading for the Ridgeline, it’s a straight up climb and scramble on a faint and narrow cliff trail, up a total of about 1700 feet with only occasional cairns to help guide you along the way until you finally reach the top of the ridgeline and a whopping 4043 feet in elevation. Wow! There were many moments when it was downright scary, especially when you looked back behind you, but whatever fear you have is quickly replaced by sheer excitement because the higher you got, the more stunning and spectacular the views became of the canyon and valley below you and wow, it was really incredible!
By 11:30am, and after getting stabbed in the legs by numerous cacti along the steep ascent, we finally made it to the top of the Ridgeline. It was then that I finally stopped to really take a look back at where we had come from, how far we had come and also where we had made it to now with all the amazing views all around. Wow, it was unbelievable! I quickly called to Eric to let him know we had made it safely to the Ridgeline and by this time he along with a small group of TLC members had already ventured on and were now at the summit of Superstition Peak. I could clearly see all their arms waving at us too in the not so far off distance. Meanwhile those of us at the Ridgeline rested, had lunch and thoroughly enjoyed our time together taking lot’s of great photos of all the spectacular and gorgeous scenery not only of Hieroglyphic Canyon to the south of us, where we had come, but also the stunning and amazing views to the north of the Superstition Wilderness with Four Peaks way off in the background. Wow! It was absolutely breathtaking!
After about a ½ hour or so break at the top of Ridgeline, we were now ready to begin the next part of our New Year’s Eve hiking adventure, the trek and climb over to the top of Superstition Peak! I really felt though that the roughly.7 mile journey and 700 foot ascent up to Superstition Peak from the Ridgeline was not really all that difficult compared to what we had just experienced and if you’ve made it this far, it is definitely well worth the extra time and effort to go on and make it to the summit of Superstition Peak. While en route from leaving the Ridgeline saddle area we finally caught up with Eric and the rest of TLC members who were already on their return from the summit. We enjoyed a few short minutes of conversation then quickly had to say good bye and while Eric led the 1st half of the group back down to the trail head, we continued on the roughly ½ mile trek and gorgeous journey climbing and scrambling to reach first one saddle area, then on from there to follow the trail along the northern side and come around and on up to reach another saddle area, which basically rested at the base of the peak, then finally on from there, the last 200 feet or so, the final push to the summit. Wow, we did it!
Only about an hour’s journey later, by 12:30pm, and we had made it to the top of Superstition Peak, topping out at an elevation of 5057 feet! I had thought the views from the Ridgeline were absolutely gorgeous, but I was truly stunned and amazed at just how much more spectacular and incredible the scenery and views were from the top of Superstition Peak, the highest peak in all the Superstition Wilderness! Wow, absolutely breathtaking! Combined with all the giant hoo doo’s and rock formations there at the top, it was really an amazing experience, beyond belief really, and like being in a different world. I don’t think there will ever be any words to truly express the level of excitement and exhilaration that you feel after having successfully climbed to the top of mountain peak summit. It’s truly an exhilarating and incredible experience, you will never forget!
After a short break at the summit, spending some time taking a lot of great pictures and video of all the breathtaking panoramic scenery, we were so excited and really enjoying our new “accomplishment”, but after taking the last group photo shot, we decided it was time to get going again if we were to make it back down and out of the canyon before nightfall. So by 1:30pm, we began the long, trek and journey back down from Superstition Peak to return to the top of the Ridgeline, then the adventurous climb back down 1700 feet from the Ridgeline, trying to follow the faint trail and rock cairns placed along the route, to order to drop into the canyon’s floor again on course for the long boulder hopping, bushwacking, and in some places, climbing and scrambling through the wash until hours later, roughly by 4:30pm, we had finally reached the petroglyphs again.
Continuing from the petroglyphs now on the Hieroglyphic Trail, it was an easy 1.5 miles trek back to the trailhead and parking lot. And at exactly 5:30pm, we finally made it out of the canyon and with only minor cuts, scrapes and injuries but plenty of sore muscles and shot out knees. Literally the last ones out of the canyon that day, we finished out the hike just in time for sunset and according to our GPS, round trip, it was a total of 8.3 miles, with a 2993 feet elevation gain and a total hiking time of 10.0 hours, a little longer than the average hiking time but that included our lunch, rest breaks and the many photo ops we took along the way.
In all, really a great day for a really phenomenal hike as it was a clear, sunny gorgeous day with the temps in the low-mid 70’s, couldn’t have hoped or asked for anything better for a long and challenging hike like this was. A really great hiking adventure that was once again very well researched, carefully planned, and also very well advised by Eric Kinnemenan of the TLC Hiking Club. This was definitely the longest as well as the toughest hike I’ve ever done and we all agreed, this hike was much harder than Flat Iron when you combine the trek to the Ridgeline and Peak with the long, boulder hopping, bushwacking journey through Hieroglyphic Canyon. But wow, what an incredible day and a great adventure! Absolutely the perfect way to finish out the year too! So if you’re ready for a real boulder hopping, bushwacking, canyoneering adventure that’s got it all from ancient Indian petroglyphs to gorgeous scenery, and stunning panoramic mountain top views, then I definitely say go check out hiking Hieroglyphic Canyon to the Superstition Peak, in the western Superstition Wilderness, for a truly amazing experience you won’t soon forget!
Laura K. Halik is a writer and published author with over 20 years experience of outdoors travel throughout the state of Arizona and the western region. She is passionate for nature, the outdoors, travel and adventure. Laura enjoys hiking, canyoneering, white water rafting, kayaking, scuba diving, snorkeling, writing, and photography. She is also a co-hiking leader and organizer in a hiking and outdoors adventure club for advanced and experienced hikers.