I wouldn’t say I am new to backpacking, but I am definitely still a beginner. I have maybe 15 nights backpacking in the wilderness, that last of which was more than 10 years ago. The idea of backpacking light is also not new to me, but was little more than a GoLite Jam pack 50l and matching GoLite 20 Degree mummy bag, both of which I will be knocking the dust off to use on this trip. I have been slowly getting my gear together again over the past couple months and it was time to get out on a trip and test new knowledge and some new gear.
Dutchman Trail in the Superstitions Wilderness has been something that I have always wanted to complete. The views of the Weavers Needle from so many perspectives was such a pleasant way to to discover this Wilderness. It sits as the monument most recognized on western portion of the wilderness. Although we have not had much rain I knew based on a prior day hike a week before Christmas that there was plenty of water for myself and Bubbles. Bubbles is my 4 year old ChowChow/German Shepherd mix.
The route plan was to take the Dutchman Trail on a general heading of south east. We then would head west over a couple small passes via Bluff Springs > Terrapin Trail and lastly an unnamed trail to get on to Peralta trail heading North. That would take us back to Dutchman to loop back to the trail head. I was going to camp along Peralta Trail somewhere and knew we would be dry camping, so I planned to fill up on a capacity of 5l of water at Charlebois (Charley Boy) springs and haul it the remaining 6 to 7 miles to camp.
We were on the trail shortly after 8AM and service was lost immediately. The ground showed little evidence of the rain storms from the receding night, but the clouds remained interspersed in shades of gray. Currently, there was no space for the sun’s affection to warm the crisp southwest morning. The weather report was cloudy in the mid 50s with an afternoon clearing and an overnight low in mid 30s.
I started the trip with 3 liters. I figured this would be enough water if Bubbles and myself did not locate any other water until Charlebois Springs, 9 miles into the day’s journey. The Superstitions hold quite a bit of rain water in the rugged volcanic rocks and washes that don’t allow the water to seep into the ground. I could have probably gone with just a liter and purified every couple hours. A theme of hauling more water than needed on this trip, but better safe than sorry.
A few miles in you catch your first glimpse of Weavers Needle. a large Tuff of fused Volcanic ash, that has eroded over time leaving a spire that rises a 1000 feet above its surroundings. It can be seen from all over the western Superstitions.The clouds enshroud the peak increasing the mystique of this landmark. There are many stories of how its shadow guides the way to a gold vane or the Lost Dutchman’s gold mine. Many people have spent time and money trying to find that gold mine, all of which have failed, but always somewhere in all the stories is the Weavers Needle.
Winding through a well worn trail of hard packed, loose rocks and slick rock washes, we follow First Water Creek the first few miles. Occasionally the trail becomes a half tubular chalky white slickrock that, I thought, must resemble a waterslide in the rain. After getting a couple miles in, I let Bubbles off her leash. She stays close and moves through the terrain with ease, staying on trail but darting from shrub to shrub inquiring to every rustle or smell that crosses the bow of her nose in the easy breeze. Other than birds, wildlife is at a minimum. The trail clearly has its fair share of animals that use it based on the different forms of scat and droppings on the trail. The trails are used for horseback also and there is fresh manure on the ground, but I am not sure it is not the wild horse that are also found in this area that have left it.
This time of year the desert is green. The previous night’s rain has filled the air with the fresh smell of desert vegetation. Saguaro cacti seem to have a dominant place everywhere you look. Chollas look almost like soft cotton from a distance, but as you approach it becomes clear why they have the name jumping cactus. My past Lab had a run in once with cholla and I had to use a rain coat bunched up to remove them. Never again do I head out into the desert without a pair of tweezers and plastic hair comb. The prickly pears, barrel cacti and ocotillo intersperse among the small shrubs. Mesquite and PaloVerde provide bits of shade on warmer sunny days.
Stopping for a moment at the trail turnoff for Peralta Trail I take in the surroundings. The rock formations are unique and continue to remind me of rocks you see underwater while diving along the Islands and Coast of California. We then begin to traverse Black Top Mesa ‘s lower SW slopes with a series of two long switchbacks lined with beautiful Cholla waiting to jump out with a painful surprise. On the first switch back you look back down the wash we just came from and get a clear view of Palomino mountains peak. Bubbles moves are agile and purposeful, making sure to avoid the cholla and prickly pear that sit with outreached arms. As we switch back the other direction and begin wrapping around too Black Top Mesa’s NE slope, the trail descends into an unnamed wash heading N for roughly a mile. The trail and wash itself has volcanic rock formations that you pass through and around.
The wash empties into LaBarge Creek and you begin heading SE. A few oaks now dot the creek surviving in shadier spots of LaBarge Canyon. The trail passes in and out of shrub and oak canopies on the S side of the creek. The creek has not run this year and except where slick rock lines the base of the creek holding pools of rainwater it is dry.
Before you get to Charlebois Spring you pass through an open area with 5 to 10 spots to camp. The ground is soft and devoid of cactus and rocks. This would be a great spot to spend the night, but it is just before noon and it is only our planned spot to pause for lunch. What’s for lunch you ask? For Bubbles, about a half cup of food. I ate some Ranch Cashews mixed with Chili and Cilantro lime peanuts from Sprouts with some beef jerky.
At Charlebois Springs I filter and top off on 5 liters of water to haul for dry camping that night. Tossing it over my shoulders the additional two liters of water is felt immediately. My pack is now at around 25 lbs but still not bad with 5 liters of water. I open a cliff bar and begin to snack as we head back on trail.
LaBarge Creek begins to head more directly S at this point and the Dutchman trail follows. The trail ascends and descends along the eastern and western sides of the creak. The sun is occasionally able to break through the clouds and feel nice against my bare arms. Haha, winters in the Southwest. It is too warm to hike in a fleece, so just out here with my short sleeve base layer. As we leave LaBarge Creek for the last time heading SW we rise up onto a small bluff with an amazing view of Peter’s Mesa and Music Mountain off to the NE. We run into a man that has set up camp for the evening with his German Shepherd. He kneels in front of the tent patting his pup’s head to calm the dog. We pass pleasantries and continue on.
Eventually the terrain flattens out into a meadow of tall grass and dispersed cactus that edges the creek before leaving Dutchman trail to begin W on Bluff Springs Trail. Bluff Springs mountains sits to the North of the trail. The first .5 mile of trail is very very gradual ascent with great views in every direction. Bluff Springs is riddled with large holey boulders and slick rock lining mostly dry wash but in some spots water persists. I Could have saved my shoulders from hauling the additional water, but I have not been out here enough yet to know where to find water. At this point I am reminded of what was the Achilles heel of the GoLite Jam pack. The top of the shoulder straps are sewn ridiculously narrow and tend to squeeze your trap muscles as the load increases. Heading up a short and gradual incline we reach Bluff Saddle before joining Terrapin Trail and gently continuing to ascend with the terrain.
We edge through this small wash of intersecting rolling landscape lined with shale and flatrock. The occasional cairn keeps you on path before beginning up the first of two short steep passes. It starts gradually, as we soon get our first views of the eastern side of Weavers Needle, but soon becomes a steep , heavy breather the last 100 yards.
The trail keeps you on fairly solid ground without having to boulder over any rocks. Loose shale and hard pack is lined with boulders sitting precariously waiting for the right dance moves from mother earth to toss it down.
Upon reaching the top, we get the first views of the southern edge of Peralta canyon. A massive boulder forest of rock spires shoot into the sky creating a formidable wall as a bit of sun peaks thru.
As I look back down the pass where I had come, boulders randomly laid out in front of me, some teeter waiting to fall, others firmly planted where they are. The agave and yucca’s sprout from small cracks between them, as the crescendo of the sun breaking through the clouds and shining down on the mountains to the east completes the masterpiece.
Looking forward, the path quickly descends into a small valley, at times so steep that I have to crouch and put my hands down to safely descend, the pox of volcanic rocks are rough and cold to the touch. We carefully make our way down into the valley on the eastern side of Weavers Needle. In the center we leave Terrapin trail and join an unnamed pass we have to take to get over to Peralta trail. It is littered with huge boulders and the trail is not recognizable from where we sit.
Ascending this last quarter mile is difficult and my legs are dust. My arms, which have had little use today, I realize, are hugely coming into play to keep balanced and out of trouble. Bubbles is handling the short hops up and down boulders confidently and without reserve, as we meander through the boulder and slickrock trail. In spots the rock is slanted and covered with a light layer of chalky eroded rock that your feet slowly slip with the sound of sandpaper moving across. It’s tough going and the air is entering and exiting the lungs freely and in heavy capacity. Just before reaching the top of the saddle you get a small slice of a view of the Southern frame of the Weavers Needle. I scramble up the last few boulders to the top where one lone limbless Saguaro leans slightly over to greet us. One last look back to the east before descending the equally rugged terrain back down to intersect with Peralta Canyon trail.
The body blows of walking the past 15 miles begins to soften my legs at this point, as we slowly make our way back down the boulder field. Crouching to slide over boulders is becoming more labored and I need to remind myself to stay focused on good decision making and not speed. It is close to 4pm and we have more than enough time to find camp once we are back on the Peralta Canyon trail. Multiple times I slide down a boulder and turn to help Bubbles, only to see her make her way down with ease. I can see the Peralta Canyon trail ahead and a lone hiker heading back to the trailhead for the evening. The sun winds its day down in the SE sky slowly making its way to the curtain of mountains. The lower section is heavy with shrubbery and I make a wrong turn, taking me down to a deadend of cat’s claw and prickly pear. I pull out my map and assess where I am in relation to Weavers Needle and the wash. I am on the wrong side of a steep run off. Well BISCUITS. I turn around and head back up about 75 yards to where I catch the trail on the opposite side of the wash. The last part of the unnamed trail is well traveled from this point.I find a couple campsites in a small gully that I pass up before reaching Peralta trail.
From here we head North and begin to look for an appropriate spot to camp for the night. We quickly find a spot within a 100 yards of walking down the trail, but I want something a bit less exposed from the wind that can come up Peralta Canyon. We make our way another mile or so down trail to spot where the canyon does a zig zag around a small bluff in the canyon wall. We found a great spot to camp for the night with good protection from the wind of the canyon and a nice easy hill to hike up to watch the sunset.
I pull my pack off and quickly feel a bit of moisture and chill on my back from the sweat. I place an extra layer on to go with my wool shirt and hoodie and slip my fingerless wool gloves on. I get Bubbles bowl out and give her some water. She finishes a half liter and lays down to take a nap while I start to set up camp. I drink some water and snack on some more cashews and nuts while setting up. The ground is hard and rocky as it always is in the desert but I find good ground to stake out the tent walls, but the ridge-lines I run out of space and just use a couple 30 lb boulders to hold them in place. Only using a tyvek ground sheet I tie it in place and unpack my bed. I layout Bubbles bed next. She uses an ⅛ inch Gossamer pad that I bundle up next to my bag and pack. When we go to sleep I lay my fleece over her for extra warmth.
Before stepping back outside I wiggle into my long johns and dry socks. Outside the sun is now behind the mountains but the Weavers Needle gets hit by some of the last rays of sunlight. I put my shoes back on and hike up the 40 foot or so boulder pile to watch the sunset. Bubbles hears me move from camp and begins to follow me. We watch colors change like only they do in the Southwest before we wander back down to camp to make dinner.
I turn on a podcast, pull out my 20 year old jetboil and fire it up to start boiling my water, before I get food for Bubble. Bubbles sees me dig into her bag and begins to salivate for dinner. I have her sit and give her a bit of love before releasing to eat. At this point, I go to grab my food “Backcountry Pantry Pad Thai”, it dawns on me that I have forgotten any form of eating utensil. Uhh, well, a couple sticks it is. I headed over to the closest tree which happened to be a mesquite and pulled off what looked to be two straight enough branches to be used as eating devices. I pulled out my knife and got to work cleaning up the sticks to something I can eat with. The water begins to boil before the sticks are ready. So, I pause and pour the water in the pouch of food. Using the only completed stick I stir it around a bit before closing the pouch up and going back to whittling.
By the time I sit down and eat it’s approaching 6pm and the final purples of light begin to fade to black. I find a comfortable spot to sit with a break from the wind to eat. Dinner was dinner, I think I got the mixture wrong and it was a bit watery, but when you are tired and hungry it still hits the spot. Bubbles at this point is on complete alert to every sound and noise she hears as she sits to my left at all times. After I finished dinner I reignited my jetboil to make some coffee and enjoy the stars and darkness. Off to my south I see the flames of a fire on what must be the Fremont Saddle about 2 miles away. At around 7 we retire to our bed. Not before one more fault to end the night. I thought it would be a great idea to bring Bubble’s bowl of water in the tent, just in case she wanted a sip during the night. I promptly then proceeded to spill it all over the tyvek sheet, Bubbles pad and a bit on my sleeping bag. I act quickly like cat, just kidding, probably more like a spastic child, and flip the pad and shockingly most of the water out of the tent. I guess I am glad I went with just the tarp and tyvek instead of the inner net for this trip. I dry out the floor and pad the best I can with my dirty socks and lay back down and get comfortable.
Bubbles takes a few minutes to relax and get comfortable in her bed, while I attempt to listen to the end of a podcast, but at some point I turn it off and fall asleep. My new pillow was not nearly large enough and I had to use my fanny pack filled with a “Nano” to prop it high enough to support my head. Sleeping in the wilderness is something you have to get used to. At home I listen to the white noise of the fan, when we camp in a trailer the sounds are muffled by the thin walls. Here, in this place, while I sleep soundly, I still unconsciously hear life outside. The wind thru the brush, the squeaks of mice and at around 11 the sound of what sounds like a snort of some type. Maybe a javelina. Bubbles hears it and jumps to a sitting position and then begins to press her nose under the tarp walls for a better sniff. I calmly have her come back and sit in her bed and we both silently listen before falling back asleep. Inside my bag I stay cozy with the overnight lows in the mid 30s. Bubbles pumped warmth on the bag all night covered in my fleece and the cubby created with my bag and pack.
Rustling to life around 4am, I spend a bit of time stretching my back in my bag. Bubbles hears this and quickly comes to attention ready to leave this capsule. At around 430 I get dressed and let Bubbles out to relieve herself and sniff around. The air is crisp and continues to get a bit colder as the sun works to stretch its arms over the eastern horizon. The cold air feels distant with the comfort of my wool t-shirt, alpha and grid hoodies. I boil some water and make some coffee while doing intermittent stretching and star gazing in the early morning. I put my headlamp on and toss a cliff bar and nutrigrain bar in a fanny pack to eat on the way out. I feed Bubbles and point her to the water as I take down camp.
I toss my pack over my shoulders and by shortly after 5 we are winding through the trail in the dark. Off my right shoulder I look high on the slopes of the Weavers Needles and see another early riser’s headlamp moving about. I pause and wonder what it must have been to stay up there. Maybe next time. We make good time, Bubbles and I take turns in the lead cautiously moving North towards the Dutchman Trail, only occasionally making small mistakes and losing the trail. The trail stays pretty flat before descending in a small valley where in the red light of my headlamp a few campsites can be made out. The Weavers Needle seems to always be in view as I look back to watch the sun slowly light the horizon. Some time before I reach the Dutchman Trail, I turn off my lamp and use the morning light to guide my way.
We reach the Dutchman trail and Bubbles perks up because she now recognizes where we are and leads us the rest of the way out. We passed a few folks still in their tents between Boulder Canyon and Black Mesa trails. As the Sun rises behind me in the east it hits me in such a way that it casts my shadow down the trails 100s of feet and spooks a white tail deer. At first I think it is someone running but soon realize that could not be possible. It stays on the trail and goes behind some brush before diving down into First Water Creek wash and up the other side of the ravine. Bubbles the whole time had no idea what was going on.
Shortly, there after I pause to remove my Alpha hoodie and gloves and catch one more beautiful view of The Weavers Needle with sun shining over its shoulder. We turn around and click off the last few miles in silence, enjoying the sunny morning that yesterday was so cloudy.
Overall the trip went well. I had a couple mistakes along the way, but my gear worked and I had time to unplug from the distraction of today.
PS. I would have uploaded a few more photos but the resizing of images is a slow process